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....



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