Saturday, December 12, 2009

One last batch of training photos

"I can see you looking at our blog!"

Bobo, preparing for his Final Exam

"Put me in, Coach!"

Amelia and Bobo, waiting for graduation

The World Renowned
4 Paws for Ability
Training Staff


This is as good as it gets
when it comes to a
Freeman Family Portrait:


Friday, December 11, 2009

Training Day 10 & Graduation

I am exausted in every conceivable way.

On Day 10, we decided to opt out of tracking. With wind chills in the single digits, we rationalized that Amelia wouldn't take a single step outside on a day that cold, much less wander off. But really we were just wiped. Battling illness, fatigue, sleep depravation, and an awful diet for 10 straight days was really taking its toll. And Bobo was 12 for 12 in tracking, both indoors and out. (In fact, to my knowledge, every single tracking exercise for every single dog was successful.)

We worked on some more advanced techniques, like heeling without any leash, or getting the dog to sit or go down from a heel while you continue walking. In the afternoon we covered topics like traveling with your dog (airport security, bulkhead seating, doggy seat belts, etc.), introducing your dog to your home and other pets, bringing your dog to school, and other topics, along with a general Q&A.

Today was Test Day, which we did at the mall. In addition to observing general obedience tasks, they watched him deal with a variety of circumstances: having the dog sit while a shopping cart was pushed past. They dropped a metal bowl 10 feet behind him to see how he'd react. They had him go under the table and dropped a hot dog on the floor in front of him, they watched him interact with kids, they had someone step over him, they had someone hold the leash while I stepped out of view, they had me drop the leash on the floor, and they watched him load into the car safely (and probably several more that I'm not remembering). Bobo did great. He wasn't perfect, but perfection was not required.

From there it was back to 4 Paws to wait our turn to fill out paperwork, eat cake, take pictures, graduate, and go home.

I'll get one last batch of pictures up tomorrow. We're happily home and ready for some well earned rest. Tonight I need to sleep...

Well done, Bobo. And everyone at 4 Paws for Ability too!


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Training - Days 8 & 9

Lori & Owen are feeling much better, and nobody else in our family has come down with the bug so far, so that's good. We were worried about missing training time.

Yesterday morning was tracking again, and Bobo has definitely made the transition to tracking Amelia. For two days in a row, Amelia went out to hide with somebody else in the group (Tink on Monday and Mary on Tuesday) and both times Bobo still tracked her perfectly. And this morning he tracked her through rain and really strong winds without any trouble as well. Rain, snow, sleet, sunshine, it doesn't matter - he knows what he's doing and he's good at it.

Yesterday afternoon was spent talking about veterinary care while the dogs got to practice their "place" command. Place tells the dog to go to his designated mat (his "place") and stay there. They refer to it as "a crate without walls". The dog can get up, move around, sit, stand, chew on a toy, or whatever, as long as he keeps at least two paws on the mat at all times. And it's one of the few "distance" commands, where you can be in one place and the dog in another, and you tell him "place" and he goes to his place. This can be useful if you have visitors, in a school setting, or if you just need to make sure the dog is not in the way of some activity. He can have multiple mats (say upstairs & downstairs), but the mats should generally stay put.

We also went over the behavior disruption commands some more (nuzzle, lap, over, and kisses) and learned about how different families might want to use them. We're still working on figuring out how to incorporate these with Amelia effectively, and this will probably take some time. For one thing, they'll probably be more effective if/when Amelia starts to really show an interest in the dog. And that may take some time for her.

We learned a bit about how to adapt the various commands to our needs, or even invent new commands to some extent, as well as general tips for keeping the dogs on task, how and when to praise or correct, and lots of little nuances.

This afternoon it was back to the mall for more obedience practice and more indoor tracking. If you ask people who work with tracking dogs, they'll probably tell you that indoor tracking, such as in a store or a mall is just not possible. There are too many people, and the scents don't stick around very long on hard floors and surfaces - especially when you throw in the typical indoor ventilation systems that are drawing the scent up into a vent and redistributing it all over the store.

There are two reasons our dogs can do it though. The first is that they are at the search location immediately. No police officers have to be called, no dogs need to be transported. The dog is already exactly where it needs to be. And if it's just been a few minutes since the child wandered off, the skin cells won't even have settled out of the air yet. Instead of sniffing the ground, the dog will use air scenting. The skin cells will form a sort of "tunnel" of scent for the dog to track through.

The second reason is that our dogs have the children's smell memorized. They can ignore all the other people smells and cross tracks and just zero in on the scent of the person they spend every day with.

So we're in the home stretch now. And speaking of which, I think we're all looking forward to getting home....


Monday, December 7, 2009

Training - Days 6 & 7

Owen and Lori are both under the weather. Owen hasn't been sleeping well and definitely isn't himself. And we're all very tired. It's been hard to get a good night's sleep, seemingly for a different reason each night.

Yesterday we did another outdoor tracking exercise, and two department store tracks as well. Indoor tracking is a completely different animal from outside, for both technical and practical reasons. The dogs use "air scenting" only inside, rather than sniffing the ground. And obviously weaving through clothing racks with a dog in a crowded department store in December is not easy. Bobo scared the stuffing out of some poor lady in JC Penney's during one of the tracks.

We also got to try the "gentle leader" on Bobo, which is sort of like a halter on a horse. Bobo hates it, and looks very pathetic while wearing it (not to mention trying to rub and/or scratch it off), but he performed WAY better on heeling in the mall with it on. The difference was amazing. He has a tendency to want to be out in front, and would eventually end up out at the end of the leash if you'd let him. But with the gentle leader, he heels much better.

I took Edson home last night so he could get back to school today.

This morning we did another outdoor track (complete with snow!), though Lori & Owen went to an Urgent Care place while Amelia and I got help with the tracking from another family. (Thanks Tink!) Amelia didn't appreciate walkning off with a stranger to sit behind a tree on a cold snowy morning, but Bobo tracked her down as quick as he could. Bobo got his hot dogs and then Amelia went for some french fries. Owen just has a virus (as does Lori, most likely), with no sign of ear infection or anything. But he's pretty miserable, pathetic, and cranky.

This afternoon we worked on behavior disruption (including "touch," "nuzzle," "lap," "over," and "kiss") and a few tricks ("gimmie five," "high five," and "shake.") with more to come tomorrow.

That's all the typing I've got in me tonight. Lori's already in bed, and as soon as the kids let me, I'll be there too.

Just a couple photos from yesterday...

Amelia, waiting to be found

Bobo, finding his girl

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Training Day 5

We're through our fifth day - halfway done. There are no days off in service dog training, so we're working straight through the weekend. Tracking again today, only this time I got to hold the leash instead of the head trainer, and no trainers went with Lori and Amelia (and Owen) to the hiding place.

(Without going into too much detail, unlike some search & rescue dogs, our dogs are trained to track people they know. They know the 4 Paws staff and that's who they're trained to track initially. They'll go with our kids the first couple times we track, so the dogs can make the transition from tracking them to tracking our kids.)

Bobo's a great tracker. All the dogs are really. Other than the sprinting and the cold, tracking is one of the easiest things the dogs have to do.

We spent the afternoon discussing different tracking scenarios and challenges, and asking Jeremy a lot of questions. We also did a little tethering work, though without the kids attached yet. Just getting the dogs to practice with someone pulling on their tether. And we worked on a few other techniques, like getting the dogs to sit, lie down, or come to the heel position regardless of where we are in relation to the dogs (i.e. in front, behind, beside, a few feet away, etc.)

Tonight we took Bobo to Petsmart today for some practice. That was at least as tough as the mall for him, but in slightly different ways.

Tomorrow, more tracking - this time inside the mall!

Here are some photos from Days 4 & 5...

Bobo, ready for tracking

Owen, smiling at somebody
Bobo, watching people at the mall

Bobo, sleeping with Amelia
(that's her in the yellow, buried in pillows)

Amelia, Bobo, and Owen in the car
(Edson was back home for school)

Some dogs practicing "down" with various distractions
(That's Bobo in the foreground)

Bobo looking almost "official"
with his new red harness on

Friday, December 4, 2009

Training - Days 3 & 4

Now we're really getting into the thick of training. Let me see if I can catch up on 2 days worth of stuff. (No pictures this time...)

Thursday morning was our first search & rescue day. We were at the Greene County Fairgrounds, in a big open field. It was an overcast, cold, windy, damp morning.

The dogs were all visibly excited, because they knew it was tracking day. This was a tracking practice site, their Flexi leashes were out, their tracking collars were on, and they were more than ready. The 4 Paws crew works hard to really motivate these dogs for tracking, so they feel like this is the most fun, most exciting thing they could ever do.

Bobo tracked like a star and found Amelia in no time. (They're trained to run as fast as they can - or at least, as fast as YOU can...) He got lots of praise and hot dog treats at the end.

We learned a lot about how dogs track. Your body is constantly shedding skin cells. They float off your body and drift to the ground as you walk. If there's a breeze, they'll drift away from where you walk. They even rise from the top of your head as your body heat rises.

Jeremy told us dogs have about 25 times more olfactory receptors than humans - 125 million compared to just 5 million for us. A pure bloodhound can have as many as 220 million! In fact, dogs use smell as their primary sense, rather than vision like us. Their sense of smell is so keen that if they're following a trail backwards, they can tell within 10-15 yards. The scent is getting older instead of fresher. And they can track a child in a stroller or being carried. They can track in virtually any weather, and even if the trail is a couple days old. Fascinating stuff.

But what's interesting is that because of how it works, the dogs generally don't follow in the footsteps of the child they're tracking. They're often off to one side, depending on the wind direction. If there's a strong wind, the trail might be 20 or 30 feet away from where the child actually walked. The trail can shift around trees and buildings as the obstacles create eddies in the air currents or slow the wind down.

Bobo's first track went past a chain link fence. You could tell he wanted to get to the other side of the fence to get the strongest scent, and as soon as we got to the end of the fence, he shot over to pick up the strongest part of the trail.

For Bobo's second track on Friday morning, he actually went around the opposite side of some clumps of trees and brush from where Amelia walked. The wind carried the trail through & between the brush and around the other side.

We covered a number of other things besides tracking. We worked on distractions, like a bouncing ball or a treat placed right in front of the dog. We worked on "heel" some more, including with a shopping cart. We worked on the "under" command, which tells the dog to go under a table - useful for restaurants.

The thing we're all noticing is that the dogs all perform almost flawlessly for the trainers, but struggle with us. We have to earn their trust & respect, and we have to learn how to effectively reward the right behavior and correct the wrong behavior. And what better place to test that than the local mall?

Now I'm not a fan of malls in any case, and definitely not around the holidays. So bringing a special needs kid, an uncharacteristically cranky toddler, and a practicing service dog in was pretty stressful. We started at the food court: Crowded, full of people, food smells, and even dropped food. Armed with our new "under" command, we ate a quick lunch before doing some practice with "heel" in the crowd. Bobo was pretty distracted, and was struggling a bit. And not just crowds, but elevators, stairs, and bathrooms. Oh, and lots of curious people, a few odd reactions, and plenty of kids who want to pet the pretty doggies.

So Friday was an exhausting day: Tracking in the morning, the mall in the afternoon, and a very grumpy toddler all day. (Daddy at 8:00 this morning: "Hi Owen!" Owen: "NOOO!" ... and it went downhill from there.)

Then if that wasn't enough for one day, after training I dropped Lori off at the Laundromat and I drove back to Circleville with Amelia, Owen, and Bobo so we could pick up Edson who'd been staying at home with Grammy so he wouldn't miss too much school.) The hour drive there wasn't bad, but the drive back to Xenia was, well, nightmarish. Owen screamed and cried almost literally the whole way. Amelia managed to take off her shoes & socks, somehow pulled a Houdini and got unbuckled from her car seat, and took off her pants and her diaper before I could get pulled off the road to fix it. I don't think poor little Edson was very excited to see his siblings tonight.

But we had a very late dinner and a somewhat early bedtime, at least for this crew. Here's hoping Amelia doesn't have any late night shenanigans tonight because it's back to tracking first thing tomorrow morning....


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Training - Day 2

Another rough night of sleep for Amelia, and thefore me... and probably Bobo too.... On top of that, Owen might be coming down with something, so it may be a tough couple of weeks. But we're getting by ok so far.

Yesterday, the only command we really worked on was "sit". The idea was more to familiarize us with the mechanics of giving commands in general, and to for us to get used to the dogs and vice versa.

Today started with a long Q&A session. Pretty much everybody had questions after spending our first night with the dogs. The personalities of the dogs are definitely starting to come out too.

After that we moved on to a couple more commands - down, and heel. As someone who has been through obedience training with a dog when I was younger, I have to say that this was like a dream to me. All the hard work is already done. Once you get the dog's attention, they sit when you say sit, they lie down when you say down, and they stay put until they're released. ("Sit" and "down" both come with an implied "stay" with these dogs. You tell them "free" when they're allowed to get up and move around.)

Of course, every dog made mistakes or tested boundaries. Jeremy, the trainer, pointed out that at this point the dogs view us the way a 7th grader views a subsitute teacher. They are only going to obey consistently when we've gained their respect. But at least in our case, Bobo is a very willing worker. Once we get his attention and he realizes it's time to work, he does very well with his commands.

Tomorrow we start on tracking - outside in a cold drizzle, more than likely. That will defintely be our biggest challenge so far. But that's also one of the biggest reasons we're here, so we're looking forward to learning how that works.

A few photos from today...

"Treat? Treat? Treat? Treat?"

Amelia, inadvertently playing the role of
"Distraction" - a role she was born to play.

It's been a hard day's night,
and I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night,
I should be sleeping like a log