Category Archives: Dog behavior

Condor certified as a human remains detection dog

Two years of training paid off this weekend when I certified my dog Condor as a Human Remains Detection dog. Condor and I are members of a volunteer search unit called Midwest Search Dogs. Events such as 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing made people much more aware of search dogs than they were in the past, but search and recovery is nothing new. In World War I, the Germans trained some dogs to go out and indicate whether a person lying in a battlefield was alive or dead so medical personnel would not have to risk their lives evacuating a dead soldier.

Most search units are volunteer organizations. The dog handler has to bear all of the expense of owning the dog, training it and all the travel expense of going to any area he or she is called out to search. Training a search dog is not for the faint of heart. On average it generally takes two years to get a dog to the point where he or she is ready to certify. Most units train twice a week, plus if your unit gets called out, you may have to leave work on a moment’s notice. Lots of people like the idea of being in a search unit, but few people join units once they find out how much work is involved.

Some people do join with thoughts of glory. But the reality of many search units is that you will spend your days searching, but never finding. I have been on two official searches as what is called a “ground pounder.” My job was to walk an area and help the dog handlers and to be another pair of eyes looking for a lost person. On one search it was in the mid-80s and humid and I hiked in rough terrain for hours, getting eaten up by bugs, covered in ticks and finding nothing but a snake and two turtles. In the other search the weather was in the 20s, the terrain was again rough and I fell down a hill, sliding on my butt the entire way down.  

Searching and not finding is still extremely important as you help eliminate areas, but the only glory at the end of the day is your own satisfaction of knowing you did a good job.

On the plus side, you meet some extraordinary people and you form a bond with your dog that is like no other. If you are working a dog that is searching for something, you have to know that dog. You have to know what it means if he turns his head, slows down, speeds up, changes the way he breaths, moves his tail, etc.

Most units in the Midwest have dogs that track or trail, air scent or find human remains. Tracking dogs follow a scent until they find the person the scent belongs to or until they lose the scent. Air scenting dogs are sent out into an area and asked to locate any human scent other than the scent of the people who are walking with the dog. Human remains dogs are asked to go out in an area and see if they can locate a body. Certain geographical areas such as mountains require specialized search dogs such as those than can do wilderness or avalanches. Some dogs and handlers specialize in working rubble, such as what would be left behind in a disaster. Areas with lots of water require a dog that can find a body under water.

While many dogs on search units are purebred dogs bred for their abilities to search, there are a significant number of rescued dogs. And one common theme you will find in the rescued dogs is that they were almost always dogs that were on euthanasia lists, or dogs that had been returned to a shelter numerous times. That’s because the dogs that excel at SAR want to be busy and have a job, meaning they are not the kind of dog that just wants to sit at home and lay on the couch with you. One of the dogs I met this weekend was from a shelter. Her handler was her fifth owner and the shelter had said that if it didn’t work out this time, she would be euthanized. When I met her she was a very happy dog and she certified as a tracking dog this weekend. One of my teammates has one of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever seen and it had been traded around several times before she got the dog because the dog was considered a “bad” dog. I met several people this past week who had both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois that were from rescues.

If you are looking for a dog to do some serious work with such as competitive obedience, agility, SAR, etc. look for the dogs in the shelter that volunteers are having problems with. Or ask the shelter staff if there are any dogs that love to play so much that no one wants to take them out because all the dog wants to do is play tug or fetch. Those are the dogs you would want if you want to be competitive or serious about what you are doing. You want to find a dog that is smart and has something he loves so much that he will work for it. For Condor that is a tennis ball. He will search as long as it takes in order to win the reward of me throwing his tennis ball for him. For other dogs it is a flying disc or a tasty morsel of food.

If you decide you want to explore search and rescue, do a Google search for units in your area. Look for a unit that requires its members to certify through a nationally accredited organization and a unit that believes in positive training methods. The people in the unit will be people you will be spending a huge amount of time with, so it is also important to find a group in which you fit in personality wise. There are a number of Yahoo groups that discuss SAR.


Oh, Those Pesky Puppies

Everyone loves puppies (and if you don’t love puppies, you probably are not reading this blog). They’re cute, they have puppy breath, they follow you everywhere you go and they depend on you for everything – at least for a month or so.

Then everything changes.

Suddenly, that cute bundle of fluff that still hasn’t learned to potty outside (and his messes are getting bigger) has decided your couch is the best thing in the world to chew on. Unless of course your favorite pair of shoes are within reach. Other favorite chewing options may include your arms, legs, clothing, kids’ hair, family cat, other dogs, garden hose, the cable to the laptop and your cellphone.

Your puppy also has  become more independent. He wants to go exploring. He wants to learn the rules and, if he can’t find any, he will be happy to make up his own. He will race through the house jumping on things, testing his strength and generally just keep growing up.

At this point, you might begin to wonder what happened to that sweet little thing you adopted. You wonder if somehow you got a “bad” puppy. Instead of causing joy, the puppy begins to cause tears and serious bouts of frustration.

The good news is, you are NOT alone and that puppy isn’t a bad puppy. Just about all puppy owners feel the same way you do. And puppies grow up. If you give them love, structure, training and socialization, they will become awesome family pets that you will be proud to call yours. The bad news is, they won’t become that awesome family pet without your help. Puppies need training and socialization.

You can’t expect your puppy to know not to chew on your shoes, bite the kids, potty outside, or bring you the paper each morning unless you train him.Taking your puppy to a puppy class is an important first step. It will help you see you’re not alone as you share your scratched up arms with other puppy owners. Your puppy will learn how to interact with other puppies and both of you will learn how to interact together as a team. Nothing strengthens the human-animal bond like a good training program.

Let’s look at some common problems:

Housebreaking: It’s all about patience and consistency.

You can’t scold your puppy for an accident that happened when you weren’t watching him. The puppy will never understand that he is being scolded for something that happened in the past, even if it is a very recent past. Ignore accidents and clean them up thoroughly with a cleaner designed for pet accidents. Take your puppy out on a regular schedule and keep his food and water on a regular schedule during the housebreaking phase. Make sure he can predict when he will be let out for the last time at night and when he will get out first thing in the morning.

Never let your puppy out of sight, even for a second. If you can’t watch him, teach the puppy to hang out in his crate. When the puppy does potty outside,  be lavish in your praise and give him a treat. Don’t just let your puppy outside and hope he goes. Go out with him and keep him on a leash until he potties. If he won’t potty, take him back inside, put him back in his crate and take him back out in 5 or 10 minutes.  Then let him off leash to romp and play. Otherwise the puppy may get so distracted at playing that he forgets to potty until he is back inside. Watch for your puppy to begin sniffing near the door or on the floor. When you see this, immediately take him outside.

For more house training tips, visit the ASPCA’s Virtual Behaviorist for some great tips.

Biting: Puppies need to find out how their teeth work and they do this by biting anything they can find, including you. Puppy teeth hurt!

One of the best ways for puppies to learn bite inhibition is for them to play with other puppies or tolerant adult dogs. The puppies and adults will tell the puppy if it bites too hard. Sometimes humans can use the same approach. Try making a high-pitched “yelp” if your puppy bites you. This works for some puppies. But a word of warning: this doesn’t work for all puppies and some puppies learn that it’s a fun game to make you yelp. Telling your puppy “no” or “no bite” doesn’t work. Remember, he doesn’t speak English. For all he knows you are telling him how much fun you are having with him.

If your puppy is biting you, get up and walk away from him, ignoring him completely. If he begins to follow you and isn’t biting, tell him what a good puppy he is and then find him an appropriate chew toy. And, make it a fun toy then praise the pup for playing with the toy. Provide the puppy with LOTS of things to chew on. Don’t just say, “Well he has lots of toys” because the toys have to be things he wants to chew on, not things you think are fun. Elk antlers and Kongs filled with treats make good chew toys. Also, don’t keep all of your puppies’ toys out all of the time. Puppies are like children and they can get bored easily so be sure to rotate them. Don’t hesitate to put your puppy in his crate if he is driving you nuts. The crate can be a fun place to relax and chew on a favorite item. Put the puppy in the crate with a treat and some toys, but never as a form of punishment. This should be more of a place for him to chill out while you catch up on work, exercise or watch TV.

If your puppy is biting at you when you or your kids walk through the house, take a toy and put it on the end of a rope or leash and drag that beside you. The puppy will decide that the toy is much more fun than your leg and start to chase what you’re dragging. This can also be a fun and safe way for your children to interact with the puppy.

Above all, keep your cool. Yelling at the puppy won’t help. Don’t close his mouth if he is biting you, push him, spank him, spray him with water, or do anything else that might harm or scare the puppy. You want him to love you, not be afraid of you.

My number one tip: Ignore bad behavior, reward good behavior. If the puppy is just on your last nerve, put him in his crate with a Kong and then sit down with your favorite beverage and relax.