Sunday, April 14, 2013

Whorin' just as fast as I can ...

Uh oh. Her secret identity is peeking out.

On Friday night the magic worked.

As darkness and the temperature both fell over Butler County, as my AMRG teammates established a command post, searched a house, and started lining up reflex tasks, as the rolling pages started going out to SAR personnel in Western PA promising a raw and chilly night of searching for an 80-pound boy who loves the woods but does not appreciate its dangers and did not want to be found (just yet), The Ebil One solved everybody's problem for us.

I told the Pennsylvania State Police Trooper who walked with me (gamely in his duty shoes and bulky body armor through brambles and over creeks and mud and gaps in fences) that she had scent from the boy but not a trail, as we circled his house and cut for scent-sign in the nearby woods, that she was not committed to a trail yet. There was still plenty of the boy's scent coming from his house and yard. I told him that when she had none of his scent at all, that she would yell at me.

And as we spiraled further to the west, she yelled at me on cue. Profanely. She follows in her mother's pawprints: Make your handler look unaccountably good on deployments, and like a complete ass the rest of the time.

I'll take it. I will effing take it.

Meanwhile, Perfesser Chaos and Cole were searching the boy's house. Cole was performing the invaluable job of eliminating one of the highest probability areas.  Saying no is also magical. It's more important to be accurate than it is to come up with yes.

We cut north, went downhill, and she began to cruise up a trail to the north. I put the line back on her harness. She started hauling.

"I think we have something."

She crossed the road and starting dragging me along its side, heading northeast, nose down, tail flagging. She weighs less than forty pounds. Dragged me.


As we approached an intersection, her head popped up briefly, so high that her front feet left the ground slightly.

"That little head-pop -- did you see it?"


"We are either passing a scent pool where he paused or we are very close."

A minute later we reached an intersection.

"Hang back and be ready to stop traffic. She needs to work out all the options here, and the car traffic for the last three or four hours will have mixed up the picture."

She hauled me diagonally across the intersection, no checking and working out the options. Up over a dirt berm.  Tail-wagging now.  Smug tail-wagging.

In the gloom across a field, at the edge of the woods, something moving.

Someone moving.

"There's somebody over there!"

And that's how it went -- the way it goes in the half-hour teevee version of search and rescue and pretty much never in real life. Ending with a cold but safe child bundled in my down vest and being lectured by a police officer and, a bit later, his parents.

All that was missing was about 100 pounds of dog, ground-dragging ears, unfortunate canine body odor, and Foley artists adding dramatic baying in post-production.

Folks, "bloodhound" is a breed. "Trailing dog" is a job. The two sets overlap less than some people -- primarily those who sell oversized rheumy-eyed bloodhounds who aren't trained to trail and aren't the offspring of parents who are trained to trail -- want you to believe.

(Also, she crossed water without "losing the scent."  Twice, at least. Sorry, Hollywood. She is neither a Nazgul nor a sixth-grader)

So consider the injustice.

Many people are under the impression that search and rescue personnel get some sort of government support. After all, we only work at the behest of the police or another responsible government agency. We are on call 24 hours a day.  (Friday night's callout was date night for me and Perfesser Chaos. Still haven't seen Les Mis.) So the government pays us, right?

Not right.

Oh, but you get your expenses taken care of -- all that money for training at seminars and conferences and classes, the costs of certification, all that personal equipment, tens of thousands of miles a year on vehicles with gas prices in the stratosphere, and for dog handlers, the expense of buying, feeding, and vetting our partners, thousands of dollars every year.

Yeah, sorry, no. That's out of our personal pockets, too.

Volunteer wilderness search and rescue personnel are the biggest bargain in public safety.  Do your cops work for free? Even volunteer fire and ambulance services get grants from the state, and many services offer expense stipends to their volunteers and have some paid staff.

Not us.

Which is why, twelve hours after earning her cape and bracelets, Rosie was reduced to ...

Reduced to ...

I can't even say it. That's my dogter working the kissing booth there.

Lap dance is extra.

It gets worse. The boy shepherds were forced to battle one another for the entertainment of the crowds.

Oh the humanity.

But you, you can spare these hard-working unpaid professional super-heroes from the debasement of further whoring and fighting and begging for the funds it takes to keep a tiny Mountain Rescue unit up and running.

Buy raffle tickets for fabulous prizes. Come to On The Border in Cranberry on Wednesday and spend lavishly. Or just contribute directly to Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group.

Save our canine partners' dignity from the kissing booth and combat arena.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Evvie and the Leaf Zombie

When you are progressing a new pup in SAR work, there are a few rules that help things go well.

One is "One change at a time."

So you don't introduce a time delay in a puppy runaway on the same task that you ask him to find a stranger for the first time. Don't start asking for a refind* the same time you are proofing off chasing deer. Etcetera.

Contrary to the weird fantasies of pop behaviorists, we do not train search dogs inside a windowless white Skinner box, so The Universe has a way of throwing a wrench into this rule. Young Bambi is prone to sit tight and invisible ten feet from your training subject so he can jump screaming from his hiding place just as your pup heads back to you for his first refind.

And you suck it up, improvise, and your puppy, if he is a good prospect, at the very least recovers from the fiasco, and at best surprises you by not giving a rat's fanny and just carrying on. (On his annual review, the boss will select "exceeds expectations.")

One of the forces of impersonal Nature that can conspire against a new pup and handler is a training director afflicted with CRS† who tells you to try your puppy on a fun drill on a totally hidden subject that the big dogs have been doing, forgetting that your puppy has not yet progressed to "blinds" -- she's never searched for a person that she didn't see leaving to hide for her.

Turns out, if you've been doing your motivation work with a receptive learner, doesn't matter.

Especially a student who is a slave to her keen little nose.

Now I know that it is currently fashionable to never ever "stress" a dog in training, and to "stress" a puppy is the same as drop-kicking her.

Evvie is stressed here. She's too young to have had experience of big piles of dry leaves (which are not a normal feature this time of year, but no one told the oak trees in this park or our freakishly dry spring), and the sound -- and perhaps the prospect of being swallowed up -- scare her a little bit.

When Jen does a convincing impression of a Buffy vampire emerging from the grave -- I'm a little freaked out, frankly.

But her nose tells her that there is a person, and her training tells her that getting to that person is the bestest, and the biggest reward she gets from this drill is the experience of overcoming her own disbelief. By gum, the nose doesn't lie! Humans can be totally invisible. And also, big loud piles of leaves probably won't eat me. In fact, they might be a ton of fun.

The point is not to never let a puppy be stressed, scared, stretched and challenged. The point is to start with a temperamentally sound puppy and let her experience and recover from all those things.

You can meet Evvie and her teammates this Saturday, April 13 2013,  at the Pittsburgh Public Market.

* The "refind" is the process by which the SAR dog leaves the person he has just found, returns to the handler, communicates that he has found, and leads the handler back to the found person. We Neanderthals train this after the dog is highly motivated to find and is ranging well in his search work. (Pop-behaviorists and those under their influence "back chain" it while demanding a conditioned signal, separate from the gestalt of search work, often before the dog has the slightest idea about actually searching.)

† Can't Remember Shit

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Attention Pixburghers: The Keister You Save May Be Your Own. Also, NACHOS and WALLEYE.

Photo in honor of The Winter Who Didn't Know When to Go.

Time to bang the drums for the Unsung Geeks of the Forest.  If you are in trouble in the woods, gulleys, caves, and cliffs in the Central Appalachian response area, some of the people and dogs who drag themselves out of bed or beg off work to come find and help you are the Nerd Kings of search and rescue -- the doctors, biochemists, engineers, tech-heads and generally overedjimicated dweebs that make up a disproportionate chunk of the roster of Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group.*

Whether they are running experiments on effective sweep width of visual searchers on the Allegheny Plateau, exposing a "technological" fraud, reflexively reprogramming the National Inland SAR School's planning software during class time, geeking out over comms and navigation systems, kludging together a new and improved hypothermia field treatment protocol, or engaging in a lively "discussion" over whether the belay line on this high angle haul system requires a radium release hitch at the anchor -- they never let their obsession with overthinking, hashing out, innovating, debating, even disputing** get in the way with gettin' er done when it's time for action.

They are the teammates who I have trusted with my life -- quite literally at times -- for over eighteen years.  Every one of them a volunteer professional who sacrifices his or her time, money, and ceaseless psychic energy to the mission of saving total strangers. Maybe, one day, you.

Well, radios and GPS units, maps and Ferno litters, trailers and insurance and the Mr. Coffee at the command post aren't free.  So we are having a fundraiser.

Actually, four commingled fundraisers. A fundraising blitz. Fundraise-a-rama. The April of Extreme Fundraising. WHERE TO BEGIN?

Let's start at the climax, the end of the road. And that road is Route 228 in Cranberry Township, just 25 fast highway minutes from glorious downtown Pittsburgh.

Just what it says; print out the flyer (download a PDF here) and come to On The Border on Wednesday, April 17 any time between 11 am and 8 pm. A generous 15% of your total food and drink order will benefit Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group.

Print out a stack of flyers (black and white is fine) and hand them out at work, at school, at your PTA meeting, next to the guy selling roses on the 16th Street Bridge.

Email the link to all the Pittsburghers you know, Facebook it, Tweet it, and if you, too, are mired in geekdom, share it on Google+.  Hey, you non-Burghers can do this too! Have you fled the nest, or just have some friends in Western PA? Send it on, Baby!

I understand that On the Border has some pretty good Tex-Mex food, and am looking forward to guacamole and sangria.

But wait, there's more!

Because we're gonna have a bit of a party at On The Border, culminating at 8 pm in drawing the winning raffle ticket for a Fabulous Lake Erie Fishing Trip.

Yep, the lucky winner will get four hours of professionally-guided fishing for four people -- captain,  boat, tackle, bait and fish-cleaning. Bring your own beer, license, and sunscreen. Tip the mate!

You can fish for these:

Or these:


Or my personal nomming favorite, these:

That's a $500 value.

Tickets are $5 each.  You can buy them from me by emailing me at houlahan AT zoominternet   DOT the thing with which you will be landing those monster walleye. Or lakers. Or perch. On the day of your choosing (minus those that are already booked, natch.)

I'll mail you your tickets, or send you a scan and hold them for you.

But, sez you, I do not live near enough to Erie, PA to take advantage of this fabulous fishing opportunity.

Aha -- but perhaps you have a friend, family, business contact, or much-admired blogger to whom you could bestow a gift of chartered fishing, were you to be favored by Fortuna with such a prize?

Erie is within two hours of Cleveland, OH; Pittsburgh, PA; Buffalo, NY.

Within three hours or thereabouts: Rochester, NY; Hamilton, ON; Morgantown, WV.

See? Day trip!

But wait, there's more.

You can also buy tickets for the Reel Obsession Lake Erie Fishing Charter from AMRG members at the Pittsburgh Public Market on Saturday, April 13.  We will be at the Market from 9-5, selling tickets, running a SAR dog kissing booth, demonstrating some of our SAR skills, and possibly running a tug-of-war contest at which you may challenge trainee SAR dog Nico.

Just so you know: the tree lost. I am not kidding.
Also at the Public Market, and at On The Border on Wednesday the 17th, we will be selling raffle tickets for a separate raffle with other fabulous prizes that will also be drawn on the 17th. (You do not have to be present to win.)

Prizes will include a round of golf for two at Butler's Golf Course, a NASCAR "racing experience" with Rusty Wallace, a night at the Sun & Cricket B&B, climbing at REI, a canoe trip from The River's Edge, and more coming in every day. The generosity of local businesses and the industry of our fundraising committee has been overwhelming. How about helping to turn that generosity into cash for your friendly neighborhood search and rescue geeks by buying some tickets?

But to get these tickets, you have to show up at the Public Market on April 13 or On The Border on April 17.


* Postgraduate education is not a requirement for becoming Of The Body. It just seems to sort of happen that way a lot of the time.

** Mommy and Daddy are not fighting, Sweetie. They are just having a discussion. Now go play with your rescue rack.