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


  1. I remember a Chiller Theater promo, from the 60s or 70s in the New York area, of a six-fingered hand emerging from muck. Terrified me, too.

    What's neat is how convinced she is that there has to be a person *on top* of the leaves -- she keeps checking for that -- and the fact that, even when she's barking with alarm, the tail never stops wagging.

    1. The tail was my signal that we hadn't put her in over her head.

    2. The fact that she bounces back from everything, immediately, was my signal lol.

  2. So cool to watch her figuring it out! Glad you caught that on film.

  3. That is very cool to watch!

    Is there a decent reference (online or book form) that you can point me to for starting a dog on using its nose for search work? I don't really expect either of my two to be great SAR dogs. The one who knows how to use his nose also has a great deal of focus, but no food/treat/toy drive AT ALL. The one with HUGE treat/food/toy drive has no focus and no concept of using his nose. But it would give me something different to work with them on.....

    1. Ruth, for dog owners looking to make their dogs useful with their noses, I really like *Practical Scent Dog Training* by Lue Button.


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