Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Found You!

This week, Alfie got to find his very first canine "target":  Hickory, a spunky and adorable mini dachshund.  We started off by using gloved hands to rub a sterile gauze pad all over Hickory to get a good scent sample.  Then off he went to hide with his handler (this time, Charissa), while I covered Alfie's eyes. 

After several minutes, I snapped the tracking line to Alfie's harness, his signal that work (or is it play?) is about to start.  Then I give him the scent item and the "smell" command.  At this point in training, that's a little superfluous...Alfie had already seen AND smelled Hickory and is smart enough put two and two together!  Still, keeping to the procedure is important for later, when I'll ask him to trail a target he's never met before.  Finally I give the "find" command...again it's hardly necessary, but hey, I like to feel like I'm doing something! 

A brisk breeze made conditions challenging and caused Alfie to work slowly, circling and weaving as he went along.  He did not follow their exact path, often preferring to trail along a hedgerow where their scent had no doubt collected against the windbreak offered by the vegetation.  After about a quarter mile across a field, a path, and through a semi-wooded area, he plunged sharply left through some brush to find Hickory in a cement drainage culvert. Yeah!

Hickory and Alfie are both wagging; I'm holding Alfie by the harness and Hickory by his red leash as the two dogs sniff and try to play

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Learning to Read

Alfie's sitting in the grass in his tracking harness; his nose is up sniffing the breeze

Talk about a new challenge!  While I'm trying to teach Alfie what I'd like him to do (follow a specific scent trail, to the exclusion of all other distractions), he has something to teach me too:  how to read his body language.  Although there are whole books written on that subject, the key thing seems to be that all dogs are different, and you have to learn to read your dog.  So I've been trying to consciously take note of all the little signals Alfie sends while working.

In general he looks focused and intent while on a trail -- loose tail, nose twitching, ears and eyes moving, mouth open.  Normally, when we're just out for a walk, he's easily distracted by every admiring passerby -- not when we're on a scent!  He ignores them like they don't exist.  Once a man tried to pet him in harness and Alfie just gave him a half-wag and an apologetic look like, "Hey, sorry, I'm kinda busy right now!"  So funny, given Alfie's usual life-of-the-party personality!

He always seems to know the general direction to take right off, but depending on terrain and wind, he'll then start to "cast" in loose s-curves right and left to help narrow down an exact route.  The interesting thing is that while doing that, he'll start glancing in the direction he favors, even while casting right and left of it.  That glance is really key for me to notice because it usually seems to be correct -- he knows that's the way he needs to go, but is just making sure and narrowing it down.

When he starts getting close to the subject of our search, he doesn't look (to my eye at least!) more "excited"; but he does gain a ton of confidence, moving much faster and leaning -- hard -- into the harness!  When he "finds" successfully he dashes right back to me for a yummy treat.  I have a feeling that once we start finding actual DOGS he'll be so focused on them that the treat will become superfluous!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quick Update

So here's the deal: if you don't hear from me on the blog for a while, you know it's not that nothing has happened...on the contrary, it's that everything has been happening and I haven't had time to write about it!

The big news is that our Austin home finally sold -- hooray!  Now we're starting to take the first steps toward getting our own place here in Missouri.  Alfie has already put in his vote:  It needs a big, fenced yard! 

And yes...Alfie's been learning many new things...not the least of which is his trailing/tracking work.  Doesn't he look happy?

Now, in all honesty, Alfie has always been a super-enthusiastic worker for me...but I have never seen him work so wholeheartedly and eagerly as he does with his scent work.  It's almost like he can't believe I would really ask him to do something so fun!  All his scent "problems" have been very short and easy so far, as I just want to build on success.  We'll have to wait and see how he does as he goes along.  But for now, we're having a blast!