Real SAR training begins

So, Edna turns 7 months old on New Year’s Eve. She is a spritely little thing at only 30 pounds.

I had made that my target age to ramp up Edna’s search training. I almost regretted that, because I spent quite a bit of her early months worrying about how she would perform when we finally started our real search training.

At first, she did seem slightly tentative while playing with the people who helped me with her first runaways. In a runaway, a person takes the her toy and teases her with it while I hold her back and encourage her. They are not scenting problems. They are set up to simply teach a dog that a person is out in the woods and has their toy, and running to them is the most exciting thing of all!

In the very first runaways, the dog is let go to run after the volunteer as soon as he/she tucks behind a tree or other object. As soon as the dog arrives at the “hidden” person, the volunteer plays with the dog — it is a big party. The best search dogs are highly focused on the toy, so are easy to motivate.

At first, as is usual, I played “lost person” and Edna did great – lots of enthusiasm and focus. When I began to set up problems with strangers, however, she was a bit less confident. She played with less intensity, and seemed just a bit less eager. I have to admit, I was a bit worried. If Edna didn’t have what it took to be a great SAR dog, I’d be faced with unthinkable choices: re-home her or give up search and rescue for the years it would take Levi to pass away so we’d have room in our home for another large-ish, very active dog. It is a tough and scary reality for any SAR handler.

As we have practiced more, however, I saw that my first suspicion — that she simply needed more experience playing with new people in this strange new game  — seems correct. Her runaways with family members or teammates are great. As a young puppy, she was very submissive with new people, and it took her months to grow out of her habit of greeting people with submissive urination. She is a sensitive and respectful girl.

So, I am working to build confidence in her that will make her able to careen into any person at all and to grab that toy and tug the heck out of it.

In January, I plan to add the second half of the runaway, which is to call her back to me, ask for her “bark” (which she learned months ago) then teach her that I have no idea where that person is, so she needs to lead me in. (Another confidence builder, for sure!)

By February, I plan for her to be ready for actual searching — where she does not know where the person is, and she uses her nose to find airborne scent.

And, of course, we have been practicing obedience. I want a high level of focused attention in our heeling performance, so looked to Leerburg.com for training guidance. I purchased an online course that has been great so far. I train Edna for about 15 minutes per evening, using that program. We started with using treats to create a bridge reward to create a marker word (“good”) to use when she is sustaining a behavior (such as maintaining eye contact, or holding a long stay) and also created a marker word (yes” or the sound from a clicker) to mark the moment of a desired behavior and also the release of a behavior. (Such as the end of a longer heeling pattern or a down stay.)

Now she has some great intensity when I take her out for training, and I get her started with the word “ready!” I am working on enhancing her awareness of how to maneuver her feet. Dogs are generally quite unaware of the position of their rear feet, specifically. To train a dog for precision heeling one sees in competitions such as AKC or Schutzhund trials, you must have a dog that has not only complete mental focus on the handler, but awareness of where its feet are. It almost is like you are training a dance partner. Edna, midway through this program, can now walk backward on cue, and is learning to step up on elevated objects with her rear feet. It has been challenging, as she is very aware and sensitive, and wanted to dodge any object, such as a plank or low bench, or even a snow sled, that I place for her to practice on.

Another obedience challenge I am tackling is her come when called under distraction. Like most dogs, as she gains confidence as an adolescent, she is less likely to obey my call to come when she sees people and their dogs approach. I am now putting the electronic collar on her (uncharged) when we go for walks so she associates it with fun outings. I will use it as an invisible leash to correct her when she refuses to come when called in exciting situations.

We continue to do fun training tasks as well, such as “shake,” and “crawl” (a low army crawl,) down stay, sit stay, “bark,” and other necessary and less “fun” commands as well such as “leave it” (i.e. put that deer leg down NOW) “let’s go,” (time to get in the car!) and other every-day things.

Edna’s training begins

These are the activities I have worked on in my first 24 hours with Edna:

  • housebreaking. I have either my eyes on her, or she is locked in her crate. She gets a treat and hears the command “potty” when she goes outside. This is time consuming – when awake and playing, a pup has to relieve itself every 10 – 15 minutes!
  • clicker training. I am “charging” the clicker with her. All this means is that a primary reinforcer (food) is given at the same time a secondary reinforcer (could be anything — sea mammal trainers use a whistle, dog trainers like a little device that makes a distinct “click-clack” sound. This helps when training very precise behaviors later. I hope to not only teach her some fun tricks, but also to train her to alert on cadaver material, items people may have discarded while hiking, (and maybe my GPS when I lose it in the woods one day!) and also it helps when training a bark on command, which I plan to teach her so she can tell me when she has found a lost person.
  • socialization. Edna is very social and sweet, but meeting all kinds of people in all kinds of environments will boost that great temperament and preserve it. She went with me to the Ketchikan Daily News, where I used to work as a reporter (and am filling in now, part time,) and she was held by men, women and  she trotted around and had her photo taken by reporter Nick Bowman.
    Edna on her second day home, getting ready to visit Ketchikan Daily News friends.
    Edna on her second day home, getting ready to visit Ketchikan Daily News friends.

    She also visited the North Tongass Volunteer Fire Department where I was attending a drill. She ran around near the ambulance and fire trucks, learned about the strange noises of air brakes and loud engines and got cuddled by firefighters and EMTs and even the fire chief (who happens to also head up our Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad, which Edna and I are members of as a SAR team.)

  • small, important lessons. She has taken two gentle, small hikes with me and our four other dogs. She has experienced woods, trails, wet, thick brush and lots of puddles already. She is very brave about the rain, puddles and cool temperatures. Teaching her to accept a collar and to give into leash pressure is another project. When it’s sunny, I tie the dogs up on our broad deck – they love to lie in the sun while I weed the garden and pick raspberries. Today was Edna’s first time, and it took her awhile to accept the limits of her tie out. She had a nice chew bone she finally gave into, and she accepted the fact that she would just have to wait patiently. She also is learning to follow me, to respond to her name (I just give her a bit of kibble while saying her name.) She also is learning that she must not use her teeth on people in play. We use a gentle correction of some sort – either a finger tap on the ribs or lifting her away via scruff, then we redirect her by wiggling a toy so she can bite that instead, and praising her.
  • “Come.” The most important lesson, possibly. Many times during the day I give her a treat while saying “Edna, come!” This works to train older dogs too – even ones who have learned bad habits. I turn a bit to the side, crouch down, don’t stare at her face, and hold the treat against my leg to encourage her to push in close.
  • Sit for a meal. This is pretty simple – using a leash to control her movement. All four older dogs know to sit for their food, so I use a leash to keep her from lunging into their bowls, and to guide her into a sit. Being a Border Collie, she very easily and naturally folds into both sit and down positions. This is where I am teaching her the release command “OK!” When she is in a stable sit, I say OK, all the dogs start eating, and I encourage her to stand up and dig in. The “OK” will be used a lot when releasing her from sit or down stay, or from a crate.
  • Kennel. Go into a crate on command and quietly stay there until released. She whines a bit about the kennel in the car, but it is mild and I am confident she will stop when she realizes it accomplishes nothing. She slept quietly from 11 p.m. until 6 p.m. this morning, so I was happy about that!
  • “Off.” When she tries to jump up on the couch, we gently guide her back down and say “off!” the minute her feet hit the floor, then give her praise and the attention she was seeking. This one is tough with soft-hearted visitors/kids and an adorable puppy!
  • “Leave it.” Good for biting houseplants, toes, poking cats and other puppy misadventures. We use the same routine as for putting her teeth on people.
  • “Wait.” Great for warning to not go through a door, or to run off when I’ve dropped a leash, or to keep a dog from jumping out of the car when you realize another car is coming, or you are having a hard time untangling five leashes.  🙂 I just block the dog with my hand or the leash when they first are learning, saying “wait” as I do it.

So many things to teach a young puppy! It is very fun, and rewarding, and if the foundation is set up correctly, the pup will be a delight as it grows, rather than a large, hyper, gangly menace.