Loot Pets Mystery Box Review

If you’re at all interested in comic books, video games, fantasy/sci-fi genres, and other, similar things, you’ve probably heard of Loot Crate. It’s a subscription master crate filled with random ‘nerdy’ items, delivered to your mailbox once a month. Crates each have a theme each month, and contents usually include a t-shirt, and a handful of other goodies, such as vinyl figurines, a pin, posters, trinkets, and baubles.

Not very long ago, the Loot Crate company announced another addition to their line up of mystery cates: A Loot Pets crate. Filled with nerdy things for your pet, this was something I had to try. I eagerly signed up, and waited for our first crate to arrive (incidentally, we decided to subscribe to the regular loot crate the same month, just to see what the fuss was about). The first month’s theme was “Galaxy” and I must admit, I was not disappointed.

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Included in the box was a dog t-shirt (which matched the Loot Crate shirt for that month- quite pleased that we decided to get the human crate, too, as my husband and Deirdre have matching shirts now, LOL). The shirt was an 8-bit ‘ugly christmas sweater’ design on it, being that this crate came out in December. A collar, which was a nice neoprene, was a Weyland-Yutani Corp motif (from the Alien franchise). The firefly food dish was a nice, heavy ceramic with a rubber non-skid bottom. Unfortunately, this was far too small for either of my dogs, but I’m quite happy with it as a place to put my watch, necklace, ring, etc. on the bathroom counter while getting ready for bed at night. Completing the crate was a bag of treats, and a nice golden collar tag that was shaped like a rocket ship and emblazoned with “Founding Pet” on it. The cute rocket tag matched the pin from the human Loot Crate for that month. The box itself has a pretty neat graphic printed all along the inside, and the box could be turned inside out to store things and display the artwork. All in all, I was quite impressed with it all, and instantly in love with the box. I decided to keep the subscription for the next month, which had a theme of “Invasion.”

The shirt collar was a little large for Deirdre, but the rest fit well.

The shirt collar was a little large for Deirdre, but the rest fit well.

 

A few months later, Tiki wore the shirt to protect her staples from bloat surgery!

A few months later, Tiki wore the shirt to protect her staples from bloat surgery!

The following month I eagerly opened the Pet Crate. Inside I found another dog t-shirt (which, again, matched the human crate shirt for that month), along with a space invader’s leash, a rubber battlestar galactica frisbee, some treats, and a silver bone tag. Again, the box had graphics on the inside that were displayed when the box was turned inside out.

Search and Rescue helmet not included

(Search and Rescue helmet not included)

The frisbee lasted about 3 minutes total, but Deirdre had quite fun ripping it into chunks while wearing her x-files shirt.

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RIP Frisbee

RIP Frisbee

 

The following month’s theme was “Dead” and that crate included a Deadpool shirt (which, you guessed it, matched the human crate’s shirt. It also said ‘Tacos,’ which is my husband’s favorite food, so the crate was quite well received around here). A squeaky, plush, Zombie head toy, two bags of treats, and a zombie collar tag charm rounded out this crate.

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The next month was “Versus” and I wasn’t disappointed. Included was another matching doggie shirt, along with a batman toy that, sadly, didn’t squeak, despite Tiki’s best efforts to MAKE it squeak. Deirdre was more than happy to rip it to shreds though, squeak or not.  Some plastic, collapsable ‘Captain America Civil War’ bowls, two bags of treats, and an Alien vs Predator dog tag charm rounded out the box.

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The next month was where the crates started to deviate from their usual format. The theme for the human crate that month was “Quest” and the pet crate was “Quest for Bacon.” Instead of a matching shirt, the pet’s shirt was entirely different, but that crate included a matching human shirt in it instead. From this crate forward, the shirts wouldn’t match the human crate shirts, but instead would also include a human shirt in the dog crate. Also included was a bag of treats, a “Battle Pug” comic book, a D20 dog tag charm, and- Tiki’s favorite thing ever- a stuffed bacon that was both crinkly AND squeaky. The bacon I’d seen for sale in a chain pet store before, but had never purchased it (thinking Tiki wouldn’t like the crinkly-ness. I was wrong).

fullFrom here I started to notice a dip in the quality of the crates. The following months’ crate included a dog and human matching t-shirt, a plain silver dog tag charm, a bag of treats, and a kong air dog dumbbell. The kong birddog was, again, something I could easily get in a petstore, and had before. Nothing about this particular crate felt really unique, instead the crate didn’t seem to fit to a theme so much as just a couple things thrown together. The inside of the box wasn’t unique or designed to go with the theme as the others were. But, I figured any company can have an off-month.

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The June crate was “Dystopia” (actually, dogtopia) and I noticed it wasn’t much different from the previous month. The same generic box interior instead of the uniquely decorated interior of most of the previous boxes greeted me when I opened it. Inside there was a bag of treats, a squeaky hamburger, a fire hydrant dog tag charm, and two t-shirts, one dog, one human.

Our stinker of a foster dog stole the bag of treats and ripped it open before I could get a picture, so instead you get a small pile of treats in the picture instead of the treat bag.

Our stinker of a foster dog stole the bag of treats and ripped it open before I could get a picture, so instead you get a small pile of treats in the picture instead of the treat bag.

For a second month in a row, I was a little disappointed. Instead of unique, fun boxes, it seemed I could expect a t-shirt, treats, and a cheap toy I could now generally find in a petstore in each box. The uniqueness and variety of the earlier months was gone. With a sad click, I cancelled my subscription, deciding to wait out a few months, see what happened with future crates, and if they seemed to turn around, I could resubscribe at a later date.

All in all, I enjoyed the crate until the last two months, and I liked the idea of a mystery crate in general. I know there a few other crate companies out there and have had thoughts of checking them out. If you subscribe to a different one, let me know which one and how you like it!

Behavior 101 #5: Differential Reinforcement

Now that we’ve learned about the four quadrants of reinforcement and punishment, how EOs and AOs effect these, how to identify the function of a behavior, and how to use schedules of reinforcement, we can start to think about how to use these behavior principles to alter behavior. In order to do that, we must learn how items are discriminated within our environment. How do we know that a spoon is good for eating soup, but a knife is better for cutting? We’ve learned to discriminate between these two things. If we use a spoon versus a knife for soup, we’ll get access to our reinforcement (the soup) must faster and with much less effort. But if I try and cut a prime rib with a spoon, well, I’ll be making a huge mess and probably just pick the thing up and take a bite out of it before I’m successful with cutting it. Our history of differential reinforcement tells us that the quickest way to get the soup in our mouth is with the use of a spoon, but the quickest way to cut the steak will be with a knife.

Differential reinforcement is the systematic use of positive reinforcement used in behavior modification programs- usually to get rid of unwanted behaviors and to increase wanted or replacement behaviors. Basically you reinforce behaviors under certain circumstances, and don’t reinforce under other circumstances. The target behavior is put on extinction, and replaced with some other behavior, depending on what type differential reinforcement program you are using. There are several types of differential reinforcement, each one used depending on the circumstances and function of the behavior.

DRO- differential reinforcement of other behaviors. In this situation the instructor will reinforce any appropriate behavior that is occurring instead of the target behavior. For instance, you set a timer for 10 minutes and reinforce at the end of the 10 minutes, if the target behavior has not occurred. Any other behavior can occur as long as it’s not the target behavior. The length of time you choose will be dependent on how often the behavior is occurring, and how short of an interval it needs to be to be initially successful.

DRH- differential reinforcement of high rates of behavior. The instructor reinforces the behavior only after it has occurred at high rates in a given period of time, generally starting at a rate slightly higher than is already occurring and often increasing until a predetermined rate is reached. As with DRO, the length of time you choose will be dependent on how often the behavior is occurring, and how short of an interval it needs to be to be initially successful.

DRL- differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior. The opposite of a DRH program. The instructor reinforces the behavior for occurring at low rates in a period of time, generally progressing lower as the program goes on until a predetermined rate is reached. Again- you guessed it- the length of time of each interval is dependent on how often the behavior occurs, etc. etc.

DRA- differential reinforcement of alternative behavior. This is similar to a DRO, except you’re looking to reinforce only a specific alternative behavior, usually each time if occurs, instead of any appropriate behavior.

DRI- differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior. The instructor reinforces a behavior that is incompatible with the target behavior, which means the target behavior cannot occur at the same time as the incompatible behavior. The incompatible behavior can be physically incompatible, or functionally incompatible. You might reinforce a person singing a song to eliminate that person’s whistling behavior (Or you reinforce them keeping their mouth shut?).

If you're sitting, you can't also be running!

If you’re sitting, you can’t also be running!

Differential reinforcement in some way is responsible for most of our learning. You’re differentially reinforced for saying “Mom” when addressing your mom, but not when addressing your dad. You’re reinforced for sitting at your desk in school and doing work when in English, but for during gym. Or recess. Or after school hours (assuming you’re not in detention- what did you do this time?).

When using differential reinforcement, it’s important to ignore the unwanted behavior, and reinforcement according to your DR strategy. Don’t forget how to properly reinforce:

Reinforce immediately
Reinforce frequently
Reinforce enthusiastically
Describe the behavior (e.g. “Good Sit!!!”)
Use a variety of proven reinforcers

Be prepared for an extinction bust, where the behavior gets worse before it gets better. Differential reinforcement is a good way to combat unwanted behaviors without the use of punishment.

Gastric Dilation Volvulus, a.k.a. Bloat

Gastric Dilation Volvulus, also known commonly as bloat and torsion, is a scary, life threatening condition that can strike dogs of any size at any age, although it tends to afflict the larger breeds with deep chest cavities. It is the mother of all veterinary medical emergencies. No one is sure exactly what causes it, but the veterinary profession has an abundance of theories. Bloat occurs when the stomach rapidly fills with gas then, because the enlarged stomach is top-heavy, the stomach flips over (torsion), twisting the ends off and trapping the gas. The gas continues to expand, with no exit route, and the stomach can grow to massive sizes. You can easily imagine from there how quickly things can go downhill. Often the twisted stomach tissue starts to die as the blood flow is compromised, and other organs get displaced as the stomach grows. The twisted stomach can block major blood vessels that carry blood back to the heart, quickly sending the dog into shock. Shock can occur within minutes of bloat starting, so this is not a ‘wait and see’ type of medical condition, this is truly a dire emergency.

Most dogs will act uncomfortable, sometimes pacing, trying to throw up but nothing comes. Many people, including vets, often think it’s just a ‘stomach ache’ and instruct owners to give some pepto bismol and call back in the morning. The veterinary and dog breeder world will offer you many suggestions for the prevention of bloat- from elevated feeders and no play for 30 minutes after eating, to feeding non-grain or raw based diets, not letting your dog scarf down food, and not allowing them to drink loads of water at a time. But despite all this bloat can still strike. Tiki, my 10 year old long-haired German Shepherd, is a dainty eater. She often takes upwards of 10 minutes to eat a cup of food, and generally will leave a bit behind. She eats grain free, from an elevated feeder, and being 10 years old with early stages of arthritis, she doesn’t run around much during the day, let alone after she’s eaten dinner. She’s never been a water tanker, taking a few dainty sips at a time before laying down, coming back for more later if she’s still thirsty. When bloat stuck at 7pm as I was fixing dinner, she hadn’t even eaten since breakfast that morning, and certainly hadn’t engaged in any physical activity within the 90 minutes prior.

All I can say of the experience- harrowing to say the least- was that I thank everything in the universe that I was at home when it started. Had I been at work, even with my roommate home all day with her, she certainly would have perished. My roommate is not a dog person, and while she likes dogs, she’s certainly not well versed in their medical anomalies. In fact, if someone hadn’t educated me on this subject in the past, I’d almost certainly have not dropped everything, grabbed Tiki up, and rushed the the emergency vet. Many people aren’t sure what’s going on, and decide to wait and see, or take their dogs to the vet first thing in the morning. By then it’s too late.

When bloat first presented itself, Tiki was laying in her usual corner of the kitchen while I cooked and my roommate worked on her laptop on the table. She started panting- no entirely unusual in Texas for a long haired GSD, even with the a/c on, but something about her expression made my roommate suddenly ask, “What’s wrong with Tiki?”

I looked over at her and sure enough, she was panting lightly, but had the barest hint on her face that she was uncomfortable. I called her to me, and she got up and obediently came, and I kneeled down to put my hands on it. I rubbed her face then ran my hands down her side, and stopped cold at her stomach. It wasn’t overly distended- yet. But it was rock hard. Outwardly nothing looked amiss, the stomach hadn’t grown yet to be noticeable enough just looking at her (although that’s what most people will first notice about bloat- the visibly distended belly. By that time, it’s almost always too late.)

My heart stopped. I knew instantly what is was. It felt like she had eaten a really big meal. My naturally dainty, slender GSD had a thanksgiving dinner belly- hard to the touch and larger than normal. I switched off the stove top, gabbed my keys and wallet, and literally threw Tiki into the back of my car. The e-vet was 20 minutes away and I made it in barely 10, going 105mph down the freeway while Tiki cried in the back. If I had gotten pulled over I was prepared to lead a police chase right to the front door of the vet.

I didn’t bother to park, stopping right in front of the door, grabbing Tiki and running into the vet. Luckily a tech came right out when they heard the door chime. I practically threw Tiki at her, mumbling incoherently about bloat, and the tech immediately took her back for x-rays. Not 10 minutes later the vet and tech were both back with x-rays. The news was dire. Her stomach had flipped completely and she would need immediate surgery, with no guarantee of survival. They wouldn’t know the damage to the stomach tissue or surrounding organs until they got in there. Her blood pressure was already fluctuating, and her blood work came back with some irregularities from the bloat. I signed the consent papers at the same time as they were prepping for surgery. Before I even left the vet they already had her open on the operating table- less than 30 minutes from when her bloat started.

The wait was agonizing. Even with proper medical interventions, survival is less than 80%, if any part of the stomach had died off, survival drops to below 50%. Survival depends greatly on how long the stomach has been flipped, if any stomach tissue has died from loss of blood, and if the dog was approaching or already in a state of shock before the surgery. Without aggressive medical interventions, death is nearly certain once the stomach flips, and the emergency vet confided to me afterward that she wasn’t going to tell me this, but that particular e-vet had seen many cases of bloat- and not a single survivor, mostly due to owners not knowing what was happening and waiting too long to bring them in. Manually trying to flip the stomach using a tube down the throat has limited success, and bloat will nearly always reoccur. Surgery was our only option.

It was an agonizing 3 hour surgery, but the vet didn’t call immediately to tell me the damage was too severe, so I was hopeful. When she did finally call it was to say things went as well as they could have, and Tiki was now sleeping. I could come get her the next morning and have her transferred to my regular vet.

Waiting at home for the hour between when the e-vet closed and the regular vet opens.

Waiting at home for the hour between when the e-vet closed and the regular vet opens.

When I picked her up the vet gave me a list of complications to look out for, such as behavior that would signal a change in blood pressure or signs of shock. I paid the bill (a bit over $4000, for the curious. /gulp) and I took her to my regular vet and they admitted her for the day for observation while I was at work. My regular vet, a 60+ year old James Harriot-type man, told me he, also, had never had a bloat survivor in his practice in 40 years as a practicing vet. He was so impressed that she had survived, that he brought in all the techs and the other vets to come meet her while he gave them a run down on bloat signs and symptoms (which he did while kneeling on the floor with Tiki and wrapping a bandage around her stomach). By the time I picked her up after work, the vet was confident she was mostly out of the woods, to keep monitoring her, and he sent me home with antibiotics, telling me to come back in two weeks to remove the 40 staples that were holding her together.

Feeling well enough to jump not eh bed while I was washing the sheets, but oh! too weak to move! when I need to make the bed

Feeling well enough to jump on the bed while I was washing the sheets, but oh! too weak to move! when I need to make the bed

In addition to antibiotics, she received antacids to help with the stomach acid on her healing stomach. Part of her surgery included gastropexy- fastening the stomach to the body wall to prevent torsion in the future (as reoccurrence of bloat in dogs without a gastropexy reaches nearly 100%, with a gastropexy, it’s less than 5%).

Finally feeling well enough, 3 days post-surgery, to show a bone!

Finally feeling well enough, 3 days post-surgery, to chew a bone!

Tiki developed a minor skin infection during the end of the second week of healing, apparently licking in secret as we never caught her actively licking her staples, so into the cone of shame she went and she received a week of antibiotics.

"I do not like the cone of shame"

“I do not like the cone of shame”

4 1/2 months later and Tiki is doing great. Her hair has grown back, she’s had no bloat reoccurrence, no complications, and she healed perfectly. She will celebrate her 10th birthday this fall!

4 months post-bloat!

4 months post-bloat!

 

Behavior 101 #4: Behavioral Operations

To review previous posts in this series go here:
#1- 4 quadrants
#2- Reinforcement schedules & Extinction
#3- Functions of Behavior

As we learned about in previous Behavior 101 posts- all behavior functions for a reason and is controlled by what consequence follows it- reinforcement or punishment. What is reinforcing or punishing to me is not necessarily the same for you. If I washed your car, and in return you gave me the latest copy of The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, I’d probably be over at your house washing your car every month. If you gave that to my husband, he’d probably roll his eyes and throw a soapy sponge at you. He lives with a behaviorist- the majority of his day is spent trying to get me to shut up about it. He couldn’t care less about the field. But offer him maybe the latest BBC Top Gear show or magazine, or some random performance car part- and he’d be a happy camper. He’ll be washing your car frequently. Our reinforcers are completely different.

But what about the very next day? Maybe I’m reading my new copy of JABA and you come inside and tell me, “I drove through the mud. My car needs another wash.” I’d probably point to the hose and tell you to do it yourself. Why? I was reinforced for doing it yesterday- was it not really reinforcement? Reinforcement is supposed to increase future instances of that behavior, but now, I’m not washing the car. Was it really punishment? To understand what’s happening here you have to understand the concepts of Establishing Operations (EO) and Abolishing Operations (AO).

Establishing operations and abolishing operations are anything that temporarily changes the value of a reinforcer, either for better or for worse. And establishing operation will momentarily increase the effectiveness of a reinforcer, while an abolishing operation will decrease the effectiveness. Establishing operations are sometimes knows as motivating operations (MOs), because at the time, you are motivated to gain access to that reinforcers. You gave me a copy of JABA yesterday, so I’m not motivated to earn another one. I’m currently satiated on it. Plus, I already have it. I don’t need two of the same issue. I probably haven’t even finished reading the one that you gave me yesterday.

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What are the odds right now of you getting up from your computer and getting a banana? That would, of course, depend on several things. Are you hungry? Hunger is an establishing operation. It will increase the value of the banana (assuming you like bananas) or anything you like to eat. But what if you just ate a huge feast and you’re so full you have to unbutton your pants to be comfortable. Chances are, you’re not going to want anything edible I have to offer you, even if it’s your favorite thing. You’re full, you’re satiated on food, and this is an abolishing operation. Your favorite food will still be a reinforcer, just not right now. Maybe later, when you’re hungry, you’ll be more willing to do things to get food. I’m certainly not going to make myself a grilled cheese if I’ve just eaten a huge meal. But if I’m hungry- grilled cheese making behavior is pretty likely (as I do like a good grilled cheese).

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Back to the banana, though. You’re sitting at your computer, next to me, and there’s a banana in the kitchen. You’re not hungry, or maybe you don’t like bananas, so the likelihood of you getting up to get a banana is pretty much zero. What if I offered you 10€ to get me a banana? You might be a little more likely to get that banana. I’ve put an Establishing Operation on the behavior of getting a banana, because now the reinforcer value has changed- it went from not very reinforcing (eating a banana when you’re not hungry) to much more reinforcing (money!).

For a banana?

For a banana?

Well, maybe you’re in the U.S. and my 10€ is worthless to you. You’d have to take it to the bank, get it exchanged for US dollars, loose money on the exchange rate, pay the bank for a foreign currency exchange fee, and in the end, you may end up with only $5. The amount of work to make that 10€ meaningful to you is not enough to get you to bring me the banana. All that effort is an abolishing operation. You have to get me a banana AND go through this whole bank process to get your reinforcement? Forget it! Unless you want the 10€ for posterity (cool! A euro bill!), or you’re really broke and that $5 end result is worth it to you. Being broke would be an establishing operation.

But what if I offered you 1000€? Suddenly the effort of getting that banana and the whole rigmarole with the bank might be worth it.

Now THAT'S more like it!

Now THAT’S more like it!

When you take your dog to training class, do you feed them breakfast or dinner right before? Probably not. You want your dog to be hungry and willing to work for training treats. If they work for a ball or toy, do you let them play with that toy all they want before training time? No, you want that establishing operation. You want the dog to de deprived of the reinforcer. Maybe you own a dog who would eat themselves to death (my lab, Dierdre!). Feeding them dinner beforehand would not be an abolishing operation. They’ll still work for food even when they’re full (well, Dierdre believes she’s never really full, she has a black hole in place of her stomach). Like reinforcement and punishment, establishing operations and abolishing operations will be different for each person.

Maybe you come in the next day with that dirty car, and you have the latest copy of JABA that just came out that morning. An establishing operation again- I’ll probably get up and wash your dirty car even though I just did it yesterday, because the new edition of the journal is out and now I want that. I’m motivated to get it. The release of a new issue is an establishing operation- the value of the new edition skyrockets for me.

Currently, I go to work to make money. Sure, I enjoy my job; luckily I didn’t spend 10 years in college to do something I hate. But I primarily do it to make money. My job has a high amount of effort required; working with severely mentally handicapped individuals is not easy, so my motivation to continue to go is to keep getting a paycheck. If I won the lottery tomorrow and suddenly had 10 million euro in my bank account, my going to work behavior would decrease. It may even cease, at least for a little while. Winning the lottery would change my motivation to earn a paycheck, as I’m already satiated on money. I have enough (heck, you don’t even have to pay taxes on lottery winning in Germany, so I’d be set!). Winning the lottery would be an abolishing operation. I’d probably take a year or two off and go travel the world. Shoot, I may not come back! (Just kidding, it’s hard to travel with three dogs, so I wouldn’t go far for very long at a time.) But eventually I may get bored and decide to return to work. My motivation at that point would be different- I’d be going to escape being bored, not to gain access to a paycheck (remember our functions?). Plus I enjoy behavior, so going back to being a practicing behavior analyst would, in itself, be motivating for me.

In order to make the most effective training program for your dog, no matter if you’re training for competition, work, or a good family companion, make sure you know how these affect the individual you are working with to keep your reinforcers highly motivating at the time you’re using them!

Book Review: Thunder Dog- The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust

As a guide dog puppy raiser (for the school Roselle came from, no less) I always intrigued by the story of guide dog handler Michael Hingson and his guide dog Roselle. For those that don’t know about this famous duo, Mr. Hingson and Roselle were on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 when the planes struck the twin towers.

In his memoir of the event, titled Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust, Mr. Hingson writes about the fateful day that his guide dog saved his life- jumping up from under his desk when the plane struck his tower, and guiding him down 78 flights of stairs over the course of several hours while fires blazed above them and jet fuel fumes choked the air of the stairwell. Emerging from the tower just moments before it fell, Roselle guided them both through what must have been sheer terror, to safety in an underground subway station.

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The book is peppered with flashbacks of Mr. Hinson growing up as a blind child, his trials and tribulations from school, to college, to life with his first and subsequent guide dogs. The tales are humorous, inspiring, and set the stage for their harrowing escape from the tower. The flashbacks give you insight into how Mr. Hingson learns to navigate the sighted world with the help of adaptive technologies and establishes the trust and teamwork needed between him and his guides. Without those two things, the pair would never have escaped the tower.

If you’re looking for a feel-good book that doesn’t take too long to read, this is a great one to pick up. Mr. Hingson talks about events that led him to be in the World Trade Center that day, talks about puppy raising and training of Roselle and his previous guide dogs, and explains how she really outperformed herself getting them out of the tower, and then later that night, out of Manhattan.

michael_roselle-300x300A tribute to an amazing dog and their harrowing tale of escape, this book is definitely a must-read.

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Behavior 101 #3: Functions of Behavior

Welcome back to the latest installment of your behavior 101 class. In case you missed the first two, or want to brush up, we covered the 4 quadrants of reinforcement and punishment HERE, and extinction, conditioned reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement, HERE.  Today, we’ll be delving a little deeper into functions of behavior.

All behavior that occurs has a function to it. No matter who is doing it, what they’re doing, or where it occurs, behavior happens for a reason. That reason is not always the most apparent to the observer, but some data taking, and a Functional Analysis of Behavior (FBA), will reveal the behavior’s function.

The 4 main functions of behavior:

Access/Tangible: The organism’s behavior serves to gain access to a tangible item (food, item, etc.).

Attention: The organism’s behavior serves to get social attention.

Escape: The organism’s behavior serves to get away from something/someone.

Sensory/Automatic: The organism behaves in a way that feels good to them.

In order to determine what function is maintaining the behavior we’re looking at, we can take some ABC data. ABC data’s purpose is to analyze the environmental changes surrounding the presence of a behavior. This is considered a ‘descriptive analysis’ of behavior rather than a functional analysis. For most trained behavior analysts analyzing everyday behavior, a descriptive analysis is all that is needed to pinpoint the function(s) of the behavior. For more complex cases or for more clinical/academic/research work, a full functional analysis is done. For brevity, and because doing an FBA takes training, we won’t be discussing that here, but rather looking at descriptive analysis.

What is ABC data?

A= Antecedent: anything that exists before the behavior is exhibited

B= Behavior: the behavior we are analyzing

C= Consequence: anything that happens after the behavior. The consequence can be reinforcement, punishment, or extinction, depending on the effect it has on the behavior.

ABC data is typically taken on a chart with three columns, one each for A, B and C, and helps us see the function of the behavior.

Simple ABC collection data

Simple ABC collection data

Let’s do an example together.

A person says, “Sit.” Puppy sits. Person gives puppy an edible. In the future, the puppy sits more often when he hears, “Sit.”

What is the antecedent? The person said, “Sit.” (This is an Sd, a discriminative stimulus, and we’ll learn what kind of antecedent this is later on). What is the behavior? The puppy sits. Consequence? Puppy gets an edible. What kind of consequence was that? Well, the rate of the behavior occurring in the future goes up- so the puppy was positively reinforced. What was the function of the puppy’s sitting behavior? The puppy sat in order to gain access to the edible. The puppy’s behavior functions for access.

Let’s try another:

The kitchen has a nice, stinky, full trash can. Dog doesn’t touch the trash while her person is home. Person walks out the front door, gets in the car, and drives away. Dog gets into the trash. This is Great Fun for the dog, and as a result, whenever her person leaves, she gets into the trash.

Mmmmmm.... trash....

Mmmmmm…. trash….

What is the antecedent? The trash can being full and stinky? No- the trash can was full and stinky before, but the dog didn’t touch it. The antecedent was the person leaving the house. The behavior was getting into the trash can. And the consequence was, again, access to the delicious trash.

How about this one:

A stranger walks past the front window. The dog jumps off the couch and charges the window, barking and snarling. The person continues walking down the sidewalk, eventually disappearing from sight. Every time the dog sees a person through the window, he now barks.

STRANGER DANGER!!!!

STRANGER DANGER!!!!

The antecedent? The sight of the person through the window. The behavior? The dogs barking. The consequence? The person goes away. Now, we know the rate of behavior in the future goes up (because we are good little data takers!) so we know the dog is being negatively reinforced. What is the function? The dog is engaging in behavior in order to have the strange person go away. The barking functions for escape.

A child is in math class, and is told to complete 5 math problems. He starts screaming, and throws himself on the floor. The teachers remove him to a time out chair. Now, every time he is told to do math, he screams and throws himself on the floor. What just happened? The screaming and throwing himself on the floor functioned for escape, and the teachers put him in time out. He got out of doing the math problems that he didn’t want to do, and now he does it every time he doesn’t want to do math, because it works. Inadvertently, the teachers are negatively reinforcing the screaming behavior. This is why identifying the correct function of a behavior in crucial to planning an effective intervention, no matter if it’s a human, a dog, or your spouse ;).

Can you think of a very common type of escape behavior in dogs? Growling. This is generally the go-to escape behavior for dogs, along with fleeing. Fight-or-flight behaviors are escape behaviors. With few exceptions, a growling dog is trying to get the antecedent to stop.

Go away!!

Go away!!

One of the side effects of punishment is an increase in escape-maintained behaviors. It is one of the reasons that punishment-interventions are only used when nothing else has worked (usually in cases of severe life-threatening self-injury in people). We see this side effects in dogs- use enough aversive control training techniques and you’ll see a lot of escape behavior- to include aggression, growling, and avoidance of the trainer. We’ll discuss the side effects of punishment at length later, but suffice to say, these side effects are the reasons that only Masters and PhD-level Board Certified Behavior Analysts are allowed to use punishment in treatment settings, and only for the most severe cases which have failed to respond to other positive or discriminative interventions (with data to support the failed prior interventions), or for severe life-threatening behavior. Punishment should never be taken lightly.

What’s the function in this example?

A dog is left alone in the backyard. He starts howling. His person comes outside and shouts at him to stop. The dog stops howling and runs to greet his person. His person, satisfied that the howling stopped, then turns and goes back inside, closing the door behind them. The dog then starts howling again. The howling functions for attention. Every time he howls, his person arrives! The howling is being positively reinforced by the arrival and attention by his person. Just because the person is yelling, doesn’t mean that it’s punishment. Yelling at me would certainly be punishment; I don’t like being yelled at (unless, maybe, you’re yelling at me that I won the lottery). But to this dog, all that’s happening is that he is bored and alone, he howls and… yay! My person showed up!

A child might make rude nosies in class. His classmates laugh, and his teacher scolds him. If he continues to make noises, the behavior is maintained by attention from his classmates and his teacher. The teacher is another example of someone accidentally maintaining a behavior they don’t intend to! (It’s also possible the teacher’s scolding acts as punishment, but the social attention from the class outweighs the punishment- we’ll get to that in another lesson, later).

What about a dog with hot spots? The dog’s skin itches, so he scratches it. It feels good, so the next time he itches, he scratches it again. This is an example of a sensory function. If you bite your nails, tap your pen, or rub a soft piece of suede because it feels soft, those are all sensory-based behaviors. Children with intellectual disabilities that rock, flap hands, or spin are often engaging in sensory-maintained behaviors (although, just because a behavior seems like a sensory function, doesn’t mean it is- an FBA will revel if it is or not)

Automatically reinforced, sensory-maintained behavior. AKA- scratching.

Automatically reinforced, sensory-maintained behavior. AKA- scratching.

Behaviors can be multiply controlled, meaning, they serve more than one function. A dog may bark to get attention in one situation, and bark as a form of escape in another. When served broccoli a child may scream, throw the broccoli on the floor, and beg for cookies. The parents, out of frustration at the screaming and worried about their child not eating (especially if this is a severe case of food refusal with a pattern of days or weeks of not eating), gives in and gives this kiddo cookies. This is an example of something that is multiply controlled. The behaviors are functioning both for escape from eating broccoli and access to eating cookies.

Aggression in dogs is often multiply controlled, and without learning in what situations aggression arises and what the functions are in each situation, it will be impossible to intervene on this or other dangerous behaviors. Ascertaining the correct function of a behavior before intervening on it is of tantamount importance in designing a safe, effective and scientifically-validated intervention to reduce the behavior and replace with a socially acceptable behavior. It is important to never make assumptions on functions. Let’s say you are presented with a clinical case of a 16 year old male with polyembolokoilamania. You might do a cursory talk with the caregivers who say “Nope, he does it at all hours of the day or night.” Since this behavior is happening at night, with no one around to provide attention, nothing to gain access to, and nothing to escape from, you might assume this is an automatically reinforced sensory function. But just to be sure- you decide to conduct an FBA and leave the family with data sheets. What you find is that, after each episode, the boy is taken to the doctors or the ER the next morning to be treated for minor injuries related to his activities. Even though the doctors trips are happening hours apart from the target behavior- data and an FBA show you that this is, in fact, being maintained by attention from the doctor, if the doctor is someone the boy likes and he only gets to see if he engages in polyembolokoilamania.

Knowing the function of the behavior, and the effects of reinforcement and punishment, can enable you to systematically control the environment to bring about changes in behavior, such as suppression of dangerous or socially unacceptable behaviors, or increases in behaviors we want to see, such as required behaviors to compete at the top tiers of agility or obedience. We’ll discuss more about using this, along with differential reinforcement, and motivating and abolishing operations, in upcoming posts.

In the meantime- try identifying the ABCs and functions in the examples below and leave your answers in the comments!

Ex 1: Mom pushes cart through the candy aisle. Child screams. To quiet him, Mom gives him candy. The next time he sees the candy aisle, he screams.

Ex. 2: Dog is alone in the backyard. He decides to dig a hole. It’s fun, so he does it next time he is in the backyard.

Ex. 3: Dog is eating dinner. Another dog comes near, dog growls. The second dog turns around and leaves. The next time the second dog approaches the bowl, the first dog growls.

Ex. 4: Mom tells little boy to put his shoes on. Boy screams and says “No!” Mom’s frustrated, and grabs the boy, holding him down and putting his shoes on. He never learns to put his shoes on and screams every time someone tells him to put his shoes on.

Ex. 5: When I open the fridge, my guinea pigs run to the side of the cage and squeal. Shortly after, fresh vegetables appear in their cage. Now, whenever I open the fridge, the pigs squeal louder.

Ex 6: A little girls likes to draw pictures and show them to her mom. Every time she shows them to Mom, Mom gives her a big smile, tells her what a great job she did, hugs her, and puts the picture on the fridge. The little girl draws her mom a picture every afternoon.

Ex 7: As I’m writing this, my dogs come up and head butt my elbow. I reach down and pet them. As more time goes on, they head butt my elbow more frequently. (Then I finally make this the last example, get up, and take them for a romp in the field!)

Product Review: The Hurtta Jacket

Before moving to Germany in the middle of winter from sunny, always balmy South Florida, Deirdre was outfitted in a whole new wardrobe of cold weather gear. Being from Southeastern Guide Dogs, who breeds and trains guide dogs specifically for the warm southern climate (their puppy kennel is even un-air conditioned, to start the puppies acclimatization to the heat early) Deirdre has very short hair for a labrador, and no undercoat to speak of. Her hair is short and tight, like you would expect of a traditionally short coated breed, not like the thick double coated Labradors who routinely swim in the cold north Atlantic. She’d never been out of the state of Florida before moving to Germany, so ‘cold’ wasn’t in her puppy vocabulary, as winters in South Florida pretty much stay above the 70 degree mark.

One of our first purchases for Deirdre’s “winter collection” was made after the recommendation from fellow TU writer, Sarah. The Hurtta winter jacket. Hurtta is a company from Finland, and they definitely know how to make a warm winter doggy coat. This isn’t even their warmest one- they make some puffy down-alternative coats and body suits for dogs). I had seriously considered (and almost purchased) the Hurtta life jacket for Deirdre before ultimately buying the Ruffwear one she has in her collection for our beach and kayaking adventures, so I was familiar with the brand.

(stock photo from hurtta-collection.de)

The red color I wanted (stock photo from hurtta-collection.de)

I found they can be a bit difficult to find in the US if you’re on a short time schedule- I had 4 weeks notice to move and I was never able to find the jacket in the color I wanted (red)in the size I needed, so we settled for the grey/black (which was sold out in a good many places. I finally found it from the Sierra Trading Post). I carefully took Deirdre’s measurements, but she was on the cusp, so I ordered up. They are a bit on the pricey side, but well worth the ‘investment’ as this is by far the warmest dog coat I’ve seen. I hadn’t seen many dog jackets in this style (ruffwear being the only other jacket that comes close- with their belly flaps) but I discovered if you go to a petstore here in Gemrany- all the dog jackets are a variation on this style, instead of the ‘horse blanket’ style of dog jacket I see mostly in the U.S.

Hurtta is definitely the quality jacket brand compared to the pet store brands sold at Fressnapf (the German pet store chain). I found mine on sale, but prices seem to hover anywhere between $50 and $75 depending on where you find them at. In the US you can find them in red, black and blue; In Europe I’ve noticed they also come in Cranberry and an Olive Drab green/brown color.

The color I ended up ordering for Deirdre

The color I ended up ordering for Deirdre (stock photo from hurtta-collection.de)

A waterproof exterior and a thick fleece interior make up the body of the jacket. The belly flap buckles up over the back, making sure it stays put. The collar is high, and lined with a bit of faux fur, with a cord pull to keep it cinched tight. The sides of the jacket come down low, especially over the haunches, to keep body heat in. There are also two thin elastic straps on the back that are supposed to go underneath each back leg to keep the back of the jacket secure, but these seemed to annoy Deirdre more than anything, and tended to slide up into her nether regions, causing even more discomfort, so we ended up forgoing their use. The jacket stays put pretty well except when an errant German Shepherd grabs the tail end in her mouth and tries to yank it off Deirdre (Tiki doesn’t exactly play fair!).

Deirdre is wearing a ruffwear coat under the hurtta jacket, which is why more of her front legs are covered

Deirdre is wearing a ruffwear coat under the hurtta jacket, which is why more of her front legs are covered.

When I first received it, the neck cord was not cinched up, and at first I was afraid I’d ordered the jacket too large. I had to cinch up the neck cord as tightly as it would go, which made for a nice secure fit around Dierdre’s neck, and prevented cold air from getting down into the jacket. Once I had the neck good and tight, it fit her perfectly, although I do occasionally have to tighten the neck cord as it loosens after a vigorous running in the field. In addition to keeping her warm, the wide belly flap also keeps some of the dirt and mud off as the snow began to melt.

You can see the two elastic straps that go underneath in this picture. Deirdre wasn't a fan of those, and they were too loose to stop the jacket from really shifting anyway. When I tried making a small knot in them to tighten them up, they just creeped into Deirdre's nether regions, so we stopped using them.

You can see the two elastic straps that go underneath in this picture. Deirdre wasn’t a fan of those, and they were too loose to stop the jacket from really shifting anyway. When I tried making a small knot in them to tighten them up, they just creeped into Deirdre’s nether regions, so we stopped using them.

The neck cord had the added bonus of having a nice way to hang the jacket on a radiator to dry after coming back inside. All in all, it is a great jacket, well worth the price, and Deirdre was always warm while wearing it.

It even stays put when Deirdre accidentally face plants into the snow

It even stays put when Deirdre accidentally face plants into the snow

Kayaking with your dog

Despite the fact that Deirdre was career-changed for being, well, a scaredy-cat, that hasn’t stopped her from being the best “Adventure Time Dog” when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve scary buildings and vehicles. Swimming and playing fetch at the beach and kayaking are some of her favorite activities, right up there alongside hiking and mountain biking (or mountain running, for Dierdre). Of course, kayaking took some training to achieve, especially as Deirdre learned about the beach and swimming first, then here I was telling her “No, you CAN’T just jump off the kayak and take a swim whenever you want! You’ll get run over by a boat, NOW SIT DOWN.” But here’s how she learned it.

Before kayaking with her, we needed her to learn the basics. She already had a good command of basic obedience, both on and off-leash, and a very reliable ‘come.’ Next we wanted to introduce her to the water. We were lucky enough to live not far from one of the few remaining dog beaches out there. The 2.5 mile stretch of Jupiter Beach, just north of West Palm Beach, is home to one of the best off-leash dog beaches in the state. On any given day dozens of dogs are playing, walking, and having a field day on this stretch of beach, and non-dog people are warned to go find a different spot somewhere on Florida’s 1350 miles of beach. These 2.5 miles belong to the dogs!

Going to the beach can be fun, but safety precautions should always be taken at the beach and around water. I will allow the ‘search and rescue/swift water rescue’ part of my brain to give you a bulleted list of things to consider!

  • Check the water hazards at the guard station- be aware of ‘dangerous marine life’ such as the presence of jellyfish, sea lice, and sharks, or to be made aware if there are any known rip currents out there at the moment. Never leave your dog unattended (duh).
  • Know your dog’s (and your own!) swimming level and don’t overdo it. Swimming for dogs and people is strenuous exercise, and a dog could easily pull or tear something. Running through sand is also hard work, make sure you don’t let a novice dog overdo it. They can tire easy, and the last thing you want is for your dog to get too tired to swim back and get overtaken by a crashing wave. Many dogs will play until they drop, so be mindful!
  • The sand can be HOT, so be aware if your dog is hopping from foot to foot or showing signs of discomfort.
  • If you have a light colored or shorthaired dog, take precautions to put sunscreen on areas that will be directly touched by the sun. Take it from this glow-in-the-dark Irish girl- sunburns are no fun, and can happen inside of 10 minutes (the worst sunburn of my life happened with just 20 minutes of exposure while kayaking. I ended up in the ER 5 days later because my skin was so swollen the blood couldn’t pass through the layers properly)!
  • Never throw your dog in the water. Let them make the choice to go in, if they want to.
  • Check for water hazards! Oh, I mentioned this already? Well, do it again! I would always check Ocearch’s shark tracker before going out- Katharine the Great White Shark likes to pay coastal Florida a visit now and then and she comes in awfully close to the beach when she visits.
  • Salt and ocean water minerals can damage dog coats, so make sure to visit the shower station and rise your dog after some time in the water.
  • For dogs that really like to get out there and swim, get a life jacket. It will help keep them upright when they’ve been pounded by a wave, will keep them from becoming too tired, too quickly, and can be the difference between life or death if they’re pulled out by a rip current.

Dierdre’s first trip to the beach we thought we would just walk up and down and let her play in the surf a bit, get used to the noise and the water and the fact that it will come up and touch your feet and flow back out. I didn’t want to push her fearful sensibilities. Deirdre had other ideas.

"This is GREAT guys, why haven't we done this before?!"

“This is GREAT guys, why haven’t we done this before?!”

Learning to swim was second nature, but being in the ocean is a bit more than just regular swimming, so we took at least 10 trips to the beach first to get Deirdre used to the idea and to really get her some water practice and conditioning. She was nervous of the big crashing waves at first, but it only took her about 3 minutes for her to realize she was a water dog on a genetic level, and there was no turning back after that. We had to reign her in a bit, especially as she didn’t yet have a life vest. She played with Tiki for a bit, then quickly ditched her for the water, since Tiki will not go in water any deeper than her elbows. We thought we’d get one person in the water and entice her out, allowing her to venture as far toward us as she felt comfortable while the other person stayed on the beach. It only took two attempts before she was launching herself out toward the person in the water.

IMG_9189

Finding a coconut to play fetch with just sealed the deal. We could have thrown that coconut out into shark and crocodile infested waters- Deirdre would have found a way to fetch it.

Look guys, a coconut!!!

Look guys, a coconut!!!

At that point she was so gung-ho about the water I decided to call it a day and come back when she had a proper life vest, before she drowned herself. Along with the Ruffwear life vest, I ordered her a chuck-it retriever bumper, and armed with these things, we returned to the beach for several sessions of swimming lessons. The first few times we wanted her to get a feel for the water, the waves, the currents, and to build some swimming endurance and confidence. Deirdre was 100% on board with that plan. The beach and the water quickly became her favorite places. We practiced recalls from the water, and even directed send-outs into the water.

IMG_9542

Deirdre would retrieve the bumper from further and further out, and we started throwing it up current, against the waves, waiting until a big wave crashed so she’d have to jump up and over the wave- I wanted her to be completely comfortable and confident with the water before ever asking her to sit in a kayak. This was a two-person training event, and we’d always have one person on the beach and one person in the water with her, just in case. (The person in the water’s main job ended up being swimming out to get the bumper when Deirdre would loose it in the waves and it would float away from where she was searching).

No matter how far out, Deirdre will fetch!

No matter how far out, Deirdre will fetch!

A few months after starting the beach trips, we decided it was time to take her kayaking. Normally I go out with my husband in two single kayaks, but for the purpose of starting Deirdre out, we decided to rent one large tandem kayak for the day. While I personally prefer a sit-in kayak, those are exponentially more difficult for dogs, and sit-on-tops are far more common in Florida, so we rented one of those. We decided to head into the intercostal, to avoid the waves that open ocean kayaking would bounce on and possibly unseat Deirdre. Since I don’t own a tandem or a sit-on-top kayak, we weren’t able to do a lot of kayak training until that morning. First we practiced getting in and out, which was more difficult on land than in the water, as the kayak’s angled bottom makes it rock from side to side. But quickly Deirdre was hopping in and out on command, and we progressed to teaching her where her spot to sit was.

IMG_0354

One of us had to hold the kayak steady and Deirdre never did get completely comfortable with sitting on it before we launched.

Uh guys? I'mont sure about this...

Uh guys? I’m not sure about this…

Never the less, we forged ahead with our plans. We launched the kayak into the water just until it was barely floating, then hopped in and called Deirdre to jump on. Since it was sitting in the water, she was more willing, and after realizing it was more stable, she quickly became comfortable with the idea. The plan was to kayak out to Peanut Island and let Deirdre play in the water, but it was a holiday weekend (labor day) and the channel was jam packed with boats. In addition, the moon jellies were spawning and they were everywhereI’ll take this moment to add- I’m terrified of jellyfish. I’ll get in a body of water with a shark before I’ll get in one with jellies. I hate them. I nearly called it a day at that point. The water was so infested I could’t dip my oar in without whacking jellies everywhere.

We paddled out across the intercostal, having to stop occasionally and teach Deirdre where to stay and how to sit on the rigid plastic hull. Pulling up alongside Peanut Island, I became thankful for Deirdre’s rock-solid stay. There were tons of boats anchored up against the island, with at least a half dozen dogs playing in the surf. Deirdre was ready to jump overboard and swim to meet her brethren, across the jellyfish infested channel, but thankfully she headed my command to sit her butt down and keep it there.

DCIM999GOPRO

As we got going, Deirdre relaxed and enjoyed the trip. She didn’t startle at the large boats and yachts in the intercostal, which was a win. We paddled through the wake of some boats, to get Deirdre a feel for staying seated while the kayak bounced about. After paddling into the lagoons on Peanut Island we let Deirdre hop out and play in the water for awhile. We practiced her jumping in and out of the kayak a few more times before heading back out to sea.

IMG_0343 IMG_0348

On the way back I sat in the back for picture taking opportunities and to better reward Dierdre from the treat bag since I wasn’t satisfied with the treating ratio my husband was supplying ;)

IMG_0358

Deirdre even managed to stay properly seated while we beached the kayak back where we launched from, although she wasn’t too happy about it becoming wobbly again. Deirdre was officially a kayaking adventure dog!

What does a pirate dog say? BAAAAARRRRRK!

What does a pirate dog say? BAAAAARRRRRK!

Moving internationally with pets

For those of you working dog rescue, you’ll know one of the number one reasons for surrendering your dog (probably right before or behind ‘we had a baby’) is: “We’re moving.” There could be any number of reasons the person actually wants to surrender the dog, from ‘can’t find a place that takes pets’ to ‘it’s too much work/money/time’ but a lot of the time it boils down to “I don’t want to make sacrifices to bring my pet along.” For us ‘dog people,’ we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure our pets stay with us during a move, be it across town or across the country. So when I was offered a job not just a few states away or in another part of the country, but in an entirely new country altogether on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean- right in heart of the European Union, my first priority was not only my 3 dogs, but also my 2 guinea pigs (both rescue-piggies). They were mentioned during my initial interview, and I made sure it was abundantly clear to the company offering me the position that I wouldn’t be coming if it meant leaving my pets. Moving to Germany with 3 dogs and 2 guinea pigs would be a challenge, but we were a package deal- either we all went, or we stayed in the United States.The only exception to the rule was my current guide dog puppy, Francie. Because Germany was definitely not within the puppy raising territory for Southeastern Guide Dogs, and Francie was not my own personal dog, she would have to be transferred to another puppy raiser to finish being raised. As soon as I knew for sure that I was accepting the job (a mere 4 weeks before I was expected to be there), I had to jump into action to start preparing the dogs. My first call was to the German Consulate in Miami, Florida, to find out the shipping and import requirements. We began to research flights and import fees, trying to find an airline that would ship the dogs as checked baggage, who would also allow the guinea pigs, with a climate controlled cargo hold, and no layovers in places like Russia, Turkey, or Africa, or the UK, where their incredibly strict import requirements extended even to animals that never leave their carriers on a layover. A non-stop flight couldn’t be booked for the time frame I needed, so I settled on a flight from Miami to Frankfurt, with a short stop in Berlin, both legs operated by AirBerlin. AirBerlin had a climate controlled cargo hold for animals, separate from the main baggage compartment, and they were one of the few airlines willing to fly my guinea pigs (a.k.a. Meerschweinchen. I had to make sure to always use the German word for guinea pig when talking to the consulate or the airlines, as the ‘pig’ part of guinea pig seemed to stand out to every non-native English speaker and they instantly thought I was trying to import large, pink, farm pigs used for pork chops and bacon. This led to quite a few amusing conversations at first). Our first step for the three dogs was a trip to our vet armed with a credit card. Because we were cutting it so close before leaving, I scheduled my vet visit for the day after I accepted the job; If I’d received the offer or taken even one extra day to decide, there would not have been enough time to prepare the dogs for export. The European Union requires a 15-digit EU complaint microchip on every dog that is imported into the country. More recently, the microchip companies have been making complaint microchips here in the US more standard, but the chips in my two German Shepherds, Raiden and Tiki, were 8 and 9 years old and not the right kind. Raiden had accidentally been double-chipped 2 years before when he was neutered, but it was, unluckily, with a non EU compliant chip. So Tiki received a second microchip, and Raiden got himself a third. Deirdre, our career-changed yellow lab from Southeastern Guide Dogs, was the only lucky dog whose chip was in compliance. Once the new chips were inserted our vet gave them all brand new rabies shots, which had to be given after they were inserted and/or scanned for their microchips. This rabies had to be given a minimum of 30 days prior to leaving US soil, so we were cutting it very close. The vet had to write and sign a letter for each of the dogs, on veterinary letterhead with his USDA certification number and the dog’s EU chip number, that he had inserted and/or scanned the microchips of each dog prior to injecting the rabies. For good measure we got a fresh round of vaccines, heartworm tests, and bloodwork done.

Deirdre says, "Don't forget to pack me!"

Deirdre says, “Don’t forget to pack me!”

The next 4 weeks were a whirlwind of packing, moving our things into a large storage locker, buying airline approved crates, deciding what to take and what had to stay (we ended up packing along 6 suitcases, 2 backpacks, one snowboard bag, and one pelican case in addition to the animals). The guinea pig’s C&C cage was dismantled, the coroplast carefully cut and the entire cage, along with their fleece cage liners, some dog toys, extra leashes, Deirdre’s life vest, and a few ruffwear doggy jackets for the Florida born-and-raised short haired lab, was all crammed into one suitcase. The rest of my training, search and rescue, and various dog sport accoutrements went into storage. Because the pigs are considered rodents to the airlines, AirBerlin would not allow them to be flown in a plastic airline-style carrier. It had to be waterproof and metal. The only solution we came up with was to buy a metal toolbox and drill ventilation holes all over it with the largest drill bit we could find at Home Depot. With a bunch of live animal stickers on it, and a few towels in the bottom, the pigs were ready to fly. After triple-checking with the German government, I finally believed them that the guinea pigs required no documentation to come into the country (they needed even less than me!). They would be the easiest to get into the country, all we had to do was walk in with them!

No pigs left behind. The entire cage assembly went with us, too.

No pigs left behind. The entire cage assembly went with us, too. We had a designated “animal” suitcase for all the dog things.

9 days before we flew out, we took my trusty credit card to a vet that specialized in international travel and export. All 3 dogs got health exams and airline health certificates. The vet double checked their microchips, and one of the techs spent several hours filling out Annex II APHIS bilingual import forms for each dog. The forms were about as confusing as you’d expect from a government agency, and they had been updated with a new version, literally, 7 days before our second vet appointment. Go figure. After putting down all our info, current US address, future German address, US and German phone numbers, description of dogs, microchip numbers, ages, rabies vax info, my credit score, my blood type, and promising them my first born child, the forms were completed. All three forms were then sent by overnight courier up to the USDA office in Gainesville, Florida. There, the USDA vet reviewed the paperwork, and, stamped with the USDA seal, they were overnighted back. I picked them up from the vet’s office just a few days before we left, made extra copies, and placed each set into plastic document holders. These I zip-tied onto the doors of the crates of the respective dogs, marking them in English and German as “customs forms.” We covered the crates in “Live Animals” stickers, as well as arrows and contact info stickers, duct taped a large ziplock bag of kibble on top of each crate, and zip tied all the corners. I wrote “My name is ______” on each crate in both English and German in case any of the baggage handlers wanted to talk to the dogs and call them by name. 10246247_534299763733_8020674155776221377_n 10487329_534299748763_6463920117264176691_n They day we flew out we rented a van to get everything down to the Miami airport. The bags, dogs, guinea pigs, backpacks and the lone pelican box holding my computer were all dropped at the curb while my husband ran to return the van. Once he returned we had to find two porters to bring a small army of carts to ferry everything inside, while one of us stood with the animals on the outside curb and the other stood at the check-in counter. We made quite the scene. I was amazed at the number of people that let their small children run right up to the door of Raiden’s massive crate, and was equally amused each time he waited until they were less than a foot from his crate door before letting out a massive bark, inevitably scaring the pants off of whatever child ventured up to stick their face next to his crate door. After checking in our baggage we left the crates at the baggage counter and took each dog for a walk outside, one last chance to relieve after their 90 minute drive to Miami. 90 minutes before the flight’s departure, the FAA came to inspect the crates, making us remove everything while they looked over it with a careful eye. Once they were done we were able to put each dog back in, I zip tied off the doors, zip tied leashes to the doors and added Raiden’s basket muzzle to his crate, just in case someone had to get him out for an emergency. We said our last goodbyes, assuring the dogs and pigs we’d see them on the other side in Frankfurt. Another army of carts, FAA, and AirBerlin officials carted off the dogs. The flight to Berlin was uneventful. We arrived, made it through their passport check points and proceeded to our connecting gate. When a baggage handler appeared in the boarding area, we were quick to catch her attention and ask about the dogs. She assured us she had personally seen that all the animals were loaded onto the plane, letting me know “the big one wasn’t happy.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that Raiden was barking at people, probably demanding that someone offer him the food taped to his crate. The baggage handler was curious what was in the toolbox and said there had been a lot of guessing going on among those loading the plane. We boarded the second plane and shortly we were in Frankfurt. We were able to retrieve our numerous bags in short order, and thankfully, they all rolled. The pelican box and snowboards came off the oversize conveyor and after a wait that felt like eternity, the dogs finally came up the baggage elevator. I used a dog leash and ran it through all the handles of all the suitcases and tied them to Raiden’s crate, dragging all the suitcases behind us as we, very slowly, made our way to customs. We were definitely quite the sight, and the customs officers were happy to have something interesting to do. They barely skimmed all the paperwork, briefly checking for the USDA seal and the rabies certificate, and with far less fanfare than I was expecting, told us we were good to go. They chatted with us for a few minutes about the two shepherds- Deutsche Schäferhunds- the pride of Germany! It took all of 3 minutes. They didn’t even scan the dog’s microchips. Very anti-climatic after all the preparations we had done. They asked us to open the tool box holding the piggies, but only because they were curious to look at them. Apparently it’s not common to bring your guinea pigs along by plane when vacationing or moving!

Our baggage trail. Making our way between customs and the rental car counters.

Our baggage trail. Making our way between customs and the rental car counters.

We very slowly made our way to the rental car counter, mostly by standing some 100 meters apart at a time and forcibly rolling suitcases across the space one at a time, then dragging along the dog crate with the snowboards laying atop them. I highly recommend the suitcases with 4 wheels on the bottom, or this process would have taken us hours otherwise! We garnered a lot more attention with dog crates, guinea pigs and an ungodly amount of luggage. It took over an hour and a half to get the rental van then to cram what we could on two smart karts. What couldn’t fit on the smart karts was either pushed or dragged behind us and, after requiring two elevators to get everything down to the parking garage level, we resumed our slow crawl toward the van. Arriving at the van we found out that there were seats in it, and only the last row folded down, and they didn’t fold flat (and like everything in Europe, it was smaller than its american counterpart). As we played tetris, dismantling crates and trying to cram everything into the van, we ended up having several Germans stop and watch the festivities, offering their suggestions that we would need to rent a second van, or just enjoying the madness. But we persevered and after dismantling Raiden’s crate, placing Tiki’s crate inside of it, putting Raiden inside Tiki’s crate, Tiki laying on the floorboard of the van at my feet and Diedre in my lap, we finally got everything into the van. We made it out of Frankfurt and found a place to pull over with some green space to let the dogs have their first pee since we left Miami. It had been over 12 hours, but the crates were clean and dry, so the dogs were grateful to be able to go. Since the humans were running on 4 hours of sleep that we had received over 24 hours prior, the dogs got nothing more than a quick walk once we reached the hotel, some kibble and water to fill their empty bellies, and then we all took a blissful few hours to sleep. Finding an apartment with 3 dogs proved to be less of a challenge than it would be in the US, but still a challenge. Germans love dogs- Germany is a dog country through and through. Dogs can come into shops, restaurants, on the train and subway, and are seen in public more often than children (no joke- bring your dog everywhere and he’ll be welcomed, but bring a small child into a restaurant before the age of 5 and you’ll get a lot of dirty looks). They’re also all impeccably trained. The German laws are strict about dogs living outside or being kept in the yard, on a chain, or in small kennels and dog runs. There are lot of rules, and dogs must have 2 hours of contact a day with their owners. I have yet to see an outdoor dog here.

Deirdre visits the Deutsche Telekom store with me

Deirdre visits the Deutsche Telekom store with me

And since over half of the German population choose to rent rather than own property, they have no problems renting to people with dogs. However, as soon as you tell them you are American, they no longer are willing to rent to your dogs. In their experience, too many Americans come to Germany, acquire a dog, leave their dogs outside to bark all day while gone at work, do not train them to the German’s standard, and then dump them in a shelter when it’s time to move home. Germans require microchips in all dogs, not to help a lost dog find their way home (although that’s a perk) but to being able to identify the animal’s owner and prosecute them if the dog is ever abandoned. The Germans are serious about caring and training for the dogs in your family. Tie your dog up outside and you can expect a visit by the Polizei. It’s a different culture altogether. I was not military, but being in a military-heavy area, we were quickly lumped into the general ‘american military’ category.  Landlords were happy to rent to dogs, until they found out we weren’t German. The ones that were willing to rent to us, wanted us- a family of 3 dogs and two adults, to rent out 6 bedrooms homes (one property manager told us a two bedroom apartment would be ‘far too small’ for 3 dogs. I asked why she felt each dog needed their own bedroom, considering I couldn’t convince them not to hog my own bed, let alone sleep in their own). After weeks of searching we finally found a townhouse, albeit a 4 bedroom one, with a landlord who had once had three large dogs herself and figured if we’d spent a small fortune to bring the dogs all the way from the US, the chances of us abandoning them were small. She was concerned that we did not have a yard, but I promised her I actually walked my dogs, and, knowing the forest and the farm fields were only a block away (and that German leash laws only extend to community areas- dogs are free to be walked off leash in farm fields, forests and open areas), agreed to rent to us.

The village we settled in: Neunkirchen am Potzberg

The village we settled in: Neunkirchen am Potzberg. Lot of dog walking fields and just about a kilometer to the forest.

After getting settled, we weren’t done with the import paperwork yet, so back to the vet we went. The EU requires dogs to have a ‘pet passport,’ an adorable royal blue passport adorned with the European Union stars across the cover. Each dogs gets a passport, and inside contains the dog’s shot records, microchip numbers, contact info, description and a picture of the dog. When at manned border crossings, the dogs passports are handed over along with the human’s passports. Despite just having had a rabies shot a month before we left the US, in order for their pet passports to be valid for travel within the EU, each dog needed a brand new rabies shot. Because of government regulations, they were not allowed to ‘transfer’ the US rabies shot, so for the second time in 3 months, each dog got another rabies shot.

Tiki and Dierdre's passports

Tiki and Dierdre’s passports

Dierdre's passport, complete with photo of her at the beach back in sunny South Florida.

Dierdre’s passport, complete with photo of her at the beach back in sunny South Florida.

The passport contains the owner’s contact info, microchip number, description of the dog, the issuing vet’s information plus all the vet records- shots, deworming, any titer tests (required for entry into the United Kingdom), physical exams and any other pertinent vet information. IMG_2151 IMG_2150 We are now free to travel about the European Union!

They're a little larger than my own passport

They’re a little larger than my own passport

Twilight walk through the farmer's fields!

Twilight walk through the farmer’s fields!

Search & Rescue Dogs: FAQ

It takes a special dog (and handler!) to become a fully certified and mission-ready K9 Search team. Not all dogs and people are cut out for the extreme environments, sleepless nights, intense amount of work and training, physical exertion, and occasionally, heartbreak. Over the years of handling a search dog and being a ground and spec ops team member of search teams in several states, I’ve been asked a lot of different questions, so I thought I’d throw some of them together here for those interested or curious. Obviously, answers will change slightly depending on what team you’re working with, but I’ve been on three different SAR teams in three different states, and trained in different disciplines on each one depending on the needs of the team, but for broad generalizations, this is how it works!

August 2011 (91) How did/do you get into search and rescue?

This answer will vary based on the number of people you ask. Everyone is going to have a different answer. Did they love the outdoors and want to give back? Did they feel a calling to help others? Were they attracted to (what they thought) would be fame and excitement, something to brag about? Those last types don’t usually stick around too long. For me and probably a fair number of other handlers, it was the thought of working a dog in search work that first bought me to putting in that application. As for the more technical ‘how’ it depends on the team. But for most the process is similar. There is generally an application process in which you apply to join. An interview process weeds out people with the wrong ideas about SAR (attendance at an overnight or high altitude search as the ‘victim’ usually weeds out quite a bit more), and after a background check, sometimes a physical fitness check, and the support of some team members, you come onboard as a trainee. It’s important to note that just because you make in through the application process, doesn’t mean your dog will. And vice versa. Like I said, it takes a special combination to succeed.

It's a loooong way down!

Hope you’re not afraid of heights. It’s a loooong way down!

Can MY dog do it?!?! (A.K.A. What kinds of dogs can do SAR work?) 

Generally, no one dog breed is the be-all end-all for SAR work. In fact, what most handlers want, is a type of dog, a dog with certain qualities that will make it an outstanding searcher. Dogs need to have great work ethic and motivation to work- after all, they’re going to be searching for hours and miles over rough terrain in all sorts of freezing or sweltering conditions. High energy and fearless, usually good search dogs are horrible family/house pets, and a good number have been dropped at rescues and shelters for being ‘too hyper’ or ‘out of control.’ If your dog is a nice, calm family dog that likes to go out with the family but isn’t batshit insane and bouncing off the walls, then SAR work might not be for your dog. (just being honest here, folks).

We see a lot of dogs from the Herding, Working, Sporting, and Hound groups, and mixes of those breeds, but just because your dog is of a certain breed doesn’t mean it will make a great search dog. Dogs that are too small and too large generally do not perform as well. A small chihuahua will have trouble covering as much ground as, say, a fit and trim labrador, and will most likely never cover the 160 acres in under 4 hours needed to pass their certification. And trust me when I say, even with a fast dog, covering that 160 acres in under 4 hours still requires a downright grueling pace. The dogs also need to be confident, as they will be encountering situations your ordinary house pet will never see. Cliffs, swaying bridges, rubble piles, spooky nights, forest animals, howling wind, and intimidating obstacles are all things that can fail out an unsuitable dog. I once evaluated a young German Shepherd for search work. Pulled from the pound, he was a very sweet boy (and had he been suitable for search work, he would have been a foster failure and my newest SAR dog), but he was afraid of the dark. Eyes checked out fine, he was just unwilling to move more than 3 feet away from the handler in the dark woods at night. He’s currently a wonderful obedience competition dog for the family that adopted him, he just wasn’t cut out for SAR.

My very first search dog, Iden.

My very first search dog, a rescued German Shepherd named Iden. We trained in air scent. Don’t let the picture fool you, he was a total goofball, but an A+ searcher. He once managed to open the door of the RV at a dog show, and followed my scent all the way across the fairgrounds to the ring I was showing dobermans at (at a dead run, with about half a dozen strangers chasing after him trying to catch him!)

SAR dogs need to be motivated to work for long hours at a time. Throw a ball into the bushes for your dog. How long does he look for it? If he gives up within a few minutes, chances are, your dog won’t make the cut. Does he perseverate on it for hours afterward, scratching at the door to get back out to continue looking, or crashing through the bushes looking for it, destroying your garden and digging up all your good dirt in the process? Probably a good search dog right there.

Your dog must hunt for the object with an insatiable appetite, because 2 hours into a search, that will be what is keeping your dog going. They don’t have a vested interest in finding a lost person- they just want their reward, and as far as they know, the person hiding has it. And it’s theirs! And they are going to get it back!! A good search doesn’t WANT to work, s/he NEEDS to work.

Think of the stereotypical personality of a Malinois. A pocket rocket. A maligator. Intense, obsessive, with no off button. Those are the traits you usually want to see in a good SAR dog. Would you want that living in your house 24/7 when you’re not on a search? Yes? You might make a good handler.

Raiden, one of my German shepherds, once rolled his ball behind the TV stand while I was gone. I came home to my living room destroyed, the tv stand overturned, the TV smashed all over the floor, books and remotes and knick knacks thrown everywhere, and Raiden, standing happily behind it all, ball in his mouth, with a look on his face that said, “Well, Mom. My ball got away. But it’s ok! I found it!”

Raiden and I having a little chat at training about what we can and cannot do while searching. No, you may not take a swimming break in the frozen lake! As you can see, he's giving me his complete and undivided attention.

A young Raiden and I having a little chat at training about what we can and cannot do while searching. No, you may not snack on that dead thing or go swimming in the partially frozen lake! As you can see, he’s giving me his complete and undivided attention.

What types (disciplines) of SAR work are there?

Usually I’m asked this question of people a tad bit more knowledgeable about the whole process and who are really interested in getting into it, as most laymen don’t realize that there are different disciplines in SAR work. And there’s even disciplines within disciplines. To start with general SAR, there are a variety of different types of work you can do within a SAR team. Everyone starts out as a general ground team member (affectionately called ground pounders). Even K9 handlers MUST be certified as a ground team member *first* and must maintain their ground certification. You will not work your dog every moment of every search, and while your dog may be recovering from a 3 hour search in his crate in an air conditioned trailer, you will most likely be reassigned with another field team as a ground support and redeployed to the field while your dog recovers. In addition to ground team, people also perform in swift water rescue, technical rope rescue/high angle/vertical/cave rescue (sometimes combined into a general Spec Ops category), Urban Search and Wilderness Search, K9, Search Management, or you may specialize in medical, and train in any of those fields with a medical specialty. It’s also not unheard of for people to train in all categories (but not common, as each discipline is pretty much like another full time job, and search management takes A LOT of experience, training, responsbility, and years of familiarity with the search process). Within the different aspects, such as, say, Spec Ops, there are subdivisions. If you’re a Spec Ops member, you may be a rigger, in charge of the ropes and rigging systems designed to pull people up and out of harm’s way. You may be medical, or you could be an edge tender, managing the ropes on the edge of a cliffside, ensuring there’s no rubbing on sharp rocks and keeping things from getting tangled during the descent and ascent. Or you could be a ‘rescuer,’ the term for the team members with specialized training that go over the edge on ropes to find the victim (not for people afraid of heights!).

A rescuer and two medics in the bottom left, an edge tender in the top right. 1 of these people is also a K9 handler.

Two rescuers and a medic in the bottom left, an edge tender in the top right. 2 of these people are also K9 handlers.

Within the K9 speciality (because that’s all you really want to know about, right?) you must choose a discipline for your dog. Some dogs branch out into two disciplines, but initially, you will only train in one. Air Scent, Tracking/Trailing, and Human Remains Detection are the three broad categories, with Avalanche available as a discipline n high-risk areas.  Within air scent we find Urban/Disaster and Wilderness, while Human Remains Detection (HRD) can be urban, wilderness, or water. Air Scent dogs are worked off-leash, and they are trained to alert on any human scent in a given area. Generally these dogs range far from their handler, even a quarter mile away, and they are charged with clearing designated sections for any human scent. These dogs are good for locating people trapped in rubble (Urban) or when the missing person does not have a Point Last Seen (PLS) for a tracking dog to start from.

There's no one under this puddle, Mom!

There’s no one under this puddle, Mom!

Tracking/Trailing dogs are exactly what you’d suspect. They trail the scent of the victim from their PLS. They typically require a scent article, such as a sock or mitten, and are trained to follow only that scent, and to ignore other scent paths crossing the one they are following.

Tracking on dry, dead grass, dirt, and concrete is some of the most challenging tracking conditions.

Tracking on dry, dead grass, dirt, and concrete are some of the most challenging tracking conditions.

Cadaver/Human Remains (HRD) dogs are trained to alert on any human remains in their given search area. They generally work smaller areas than air scent dogs, and can detect scent buried 18 inches deep, high up in the air, amid the rubble of a fallen building, or even underwater.

What sort of training do you need to be a SAR worker/handler?

Most people don’t realize what a time commitment SAR work is when they first sign on. They think it might be like a dog training class- come once a week for maybe an hour or two, and BAM, search dog in the making. The reality is much, much different. Training, (and maintaining that training) takes about 15-20 hours per week of a handler’s time. Often group trainings are held 3-4 times per week, for 3-5 hours at a time, and you’re expected to work your dog solo on other nights, especially when you are in the training phase. At group training you will be expected to act as the subject for other people’s dogs and they will act as your subjects, so you will not be able to arrive first, train quickly, and head home. It’s a group effort.

Like the post office, weather will not be a factor. You will train in snow, sleet, hail, rain so heavy you can’t see your path, pitch dark conditions, heat upwards of 110 degrees, muggy humid days and sweltering nights, and in brush so thick you need a hatchet to clear a path. And lest you think “We don’t need to go into that thick underbrush, no one could possibly get through!” we once found a 92 year old, wheelchair bound, alzheimer’s victim 5 miles from his care facility 25 yards into impassable blackberry brambles. Never underestimate your subjects!

On nights you’re not training your dog, you’ll be training yourself. You’ll participate in weekend trainings without your dog, mock searches that last until midnight on a day where you’ve just worked an 8 hour shift at your regular, paying job (and that you have to go back to the next morning). You’ll attend classes on scent theory, wilderness first aid/first responder and EMT-B, ropes and knot tying, FEMA courses, scene and hazard safety, wilderness survival, map and compass courses, GPS classes, lost person behavior, navigator training, hasty vs thorough search scenarios, air observer, man tracking, crime scene preservation, incident command, and critical incident stress management (just to name a few).

Training for cave rescue at Airman's Cave, Austin, Texas. Yes, full sized adults DO fit through that hole (affectionately known as the birth canal). Cave rescue is NOT for the claustrophobic.

Training for cave rescue at Airman’s Cave, Austin, Texas. Yes, full sized adults DO fit through that hole (affectionately known as the birth canal). Cave rescue is NOT for the claustrophobic. I’m not claustrophobic at all and I had a mild panic attack about halfway through. SAR will push you to your limits.

These courses are all just the prep work for having to gain the required ‘sign-offs’ needed to become mission ready. Once you’ve attended the courses, you must demonstrate knowledge in each section by proving your skills in the field. You’ll have to tie knots in front of your instructors by memory and to their satisfaction. You’ll have to assess a scene or situation and provide the needed care while an instructor looks on. You’ll have to call for air evac, or decide when to call in a spec ops or K9 team, and you’ll have practical demonstration assessments, where you’ll have to do things such as tie a swiss seat harness and use that and your equipment to ascend and descend a steep or vertical cliff face, or serve as a munter during a haul out of a victim. You’ll have to pass your fitness test, which, for our team, involved hiking 2 miles with a 30 pound pack in under 30 minutes AND your pulse rate and blood pressure at the finish had to be within acceptable limits (NOT an easy test, rest assured. I pulled my back out at the start of one from the weight of my pack, was 30 seconds too slow, and was laid up for 6 weeks before I could retake it).

You’ll have to maintain certain equipment, which can end up being expensive. You’re required to carry a certain number of items with you, and most people add their own optional items on top of that. First aid, ropes, flashlights, batteries, fluids and food, safety gear, navigation tools, documentation tools, emergency shelter, communications, maps and compass, GPS systems, gloves, protective eyewear, a helmet, carabiners, prusiks, flagging tape, knifes, fire starter, paracord, sleeping bag, and toiletries are just some of the items you’ll carry with you. If you’re a K9 handler, throw on even more water for your dog (your dog will never carry a load while searching), extra food, and multiple rewards. A fully outfitted 24-hour search pack can weigh upwards of 50 pounds, a 72-hour pack can flatten a small child.

A look at the contents of my 24-hour pack. My 72 hours pack contained even more.

A look at the contents of my 24-hour pack. My 72 hour pack contained even more.

The price of your involvement can add up. You can’t afford to go the cheap route with most gear- even my expensive pack from REI was tearing at the seams after 12 hard months in the field. Your equipment is not a place you want to skimp on either- bargain bin at WalMart is not going to cut it in a life or death situation in the field. You’ll often need duplicates of everything- a 24 and 72 hour pack for the field, and a set of each to be used in training. The last thing you want is to exhaust your first aid kit on a training (and you WILL use your first aid consumables in a training situation- there’s no pretending to break out the gauze and ace bandages), then have a call out that night with an unready pack that hasn’t been resupplied.

You’ll need to provide your own uniform, which can see a lot of wear and tear and may need to replaced every 6 months. Your expensive water proof, leather, military combat-grade boots will be falling apart after 12 or even 6 months of intense use. You may need to upgrade your vehicle to one with 4 wheel drive, and you’ll be putting insane amount of miles on it driving to search sites, K9 training, team trainings, and missions. Search and Rescue is not a cheap endeavor. Your K9 will be burning calories at incredible rates, and your dog food bill will go up. Raiden, my second search dog, was eating 10 cups of high performance dog food, every day, at the peak of his career, and I’d often supplement with high calorie treats, calorie dense oils, and protein snacks while on a search. Keeping weight on him was hard. These dogs are the olympic athletes of the dog world. For a comparison of what Raiden is like now in his retired semi-old age (he’s 9 now)- he’s down to just 4 cups a day. So the increase to what he was eating while working was astonishing, and he didn’t have an ounce of body fat on him. You’ll have trainings without your dog, to train your search skills, and these will be in addition to the many hours and nights you spend training with the K9 team. Some weeks are spent out with your team every single night after you get off work.

You never know what you'll be doing at training. Practicing rappelling from someone's vaulted living room ceiling? Yep, that's a possibility.

You never know what you’ll be doing at training. Practicing rappelling from someone’s vaulted living room ceiling? Yep, that’s a possibility.

What certifications are required?

All of this will be before you’re even allowed to set foot on an actual search. Before you’re deemed ‘mission ready’ you must pass all of these skills, and demonstrate them before your instructors in order to get ‘sign-offs’ in your task book. Your task book will be a log of all your training and the sign-offs are the instructor’s signature verifying that you’ve demonstrated that skill to the team’s standard. You’ll also keep a training log of every run your dog does, and you must keep it accurate, as often, in large, high-profile, search cases that end up going to trial (such as the Laci Peterson case), your log books and task books will be subpoenaed, and your dog’s training records will be scrutinized by police, detectives, and lawyers.

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Once your task book is completely filled, you’re ready for your ultimate test- your SARTech 2. Similar to a lawyer passing the bar exam, or a doctor taking the medical licensing exam, this test independently certifies you, no matter where you got your training. You’ll have a written and practical test in which you’ll demonstrate man tracking, map and compass skills, land navigation, rope skills, route and area searches, and clue finding, Without this outside certification from the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), you are not a viable, tested, certified search and rescue worker and you will not be allowed on a search. Some teams will allow a SARTech 3, the lowest, basic, ‘Intro to SAR’ certification, to be present at a search but they are not allowed to leave the command center except to drive into town to bring back food, and basically act as errand boys for search management. A SARTech 1 certification certifies you to operate at the highest level- search management. It can take a year or more to reach a SARTech 2 level.

No matter how highly your instructors think of you, without that outside national certification, you are a liability, with no way to verify the quality and extent of your training. The same holds true for a search dog. Their handler may be SARTech 2 certified, but the dogs themselves must pass their own SARTech evaluations as well (and FEMA certs, if they’re disaster dogs). By gaining the certification of an outside, national, independent organization, the quality and effectiveness of search dogs is held to a high standard. It means that both you are your dog are knowledgeable, capable, and proficient at your jobs. Those who can’t pass the test, don’t search on real searches. The stakes are too high to let someone who is untrained or just ‘dabbles’ in SAR to spend valuable, limited time finding a victim who could be in real danger.

Rok, a certified SARTech air scent and FEMA disaster dog, chilling on the team's rope bag.

Rok, a certified SARTech air scent and FEMA disaster dog, chilling on the team’s rope bag.

Each SARTech K9 test involves a written exam portion for the handler, followed by a practical evaluation in the discipline in which you’re certifying for. To pass a SARTech 1 certification for an air scent dog, the dog and handler must locate two subjects within 160 acres in under 4 hours, during the day. They must also complete a night search consisting of locating one subject inside of 90 acres within 2 hours.

A SARTECH 1 trailing dog test consists of a 50% rural and 50% urban track, 1 1/4 miles in length, with 8-15 turns, cross tracks and aged between 24 and 26 hours old. The dog must complete this within 3 hours, including time for breaks. They must discriminate scent at the start of the track, meaning the dog must locate the start of the track with direction from the handler, rather than be be told exactly where it is (such as a traditional start for an IPO tracking dog where the start is marked with flagging tape).

A land HRD dog must test at each of several stations and indicate the presence of scent (or lack thereof) at each of the stations. The stations consist of buried source, elevated source, source in a vehicle, source in a building, and a blank, where no source is present.  The amount of source material can be no more than 15 grams in weight and the dog has a 15-30 minute time limit depending on test station and difficulty level.

There will be incredibly tempting distractions both in training, on the tests, and of course, in real life. My first search dog once came barreling back to me with an entire rotted deer head (with a pretty impressive rack) in his mouth. It was covered in maggots.

There will be incredibly tempting distractions both in training, on the tests, and of course, in real life. My first search dog once came barreling back to me with an entire rotted deer head (with a pretty impressive rack) in his mouth. It was covered in maggots. He was very proud of his find.

A water HRD dog will test for 500grams of source or more, both in shoreline and open water, and both in swift and still water.

Disaster dog certifications come in various levels, and are often jointly trained, tested and recognized with FEMA and NASAR. The requirements vary between types of urban disaster tests, but tests generally include an agility element which may involve climbing ladders, elevated planks, tunnels, see saws, slick and rough surfaces, areas with limited viability, and areas where the dog is required to crawl. There is an obedience element in which the dog must follow handler cues to go 25 years in either direction to certain areas, and 50 yards back, and take directions from the handler at each station.

Sample FEMA canine directional test

Sample FEMA canine directional test

For a FEMA disaster dog, they must also locate 2 victims buried in rubble and must stay within the bounds designated by the test, and the handler will keep the dog within this search area using only verbal or hand signals.

Disaster City, College Station, Texas. The site of many, many FEMA K9 certifications.

Disaster City, College Station, Texas. The site of many, many FEMA K9 certifications.

Of course each test is more in depth than the brief overview I’ve provided here, and if you’re interested in all the requirements for each test, you can visit the NASAR document that outlines each test here.

What’s a real search like?

In a word? Grueling. The pager may go off at 2am, and you’ll drag yourself out of bed, jump into your uniform, grab your dog, and be off. You could drive hours to reach the site. Often the searches last for days, and you may be searching for 18+ hours a day in extreme temperatures. You’ll be hot or cold, tired, hungry, your feet will hurt, you’ll be dirty, sweaty, disgusting. Your hair will be greasy, you may not have a shower in days. Your only sleep will be stolen a few hours at at time, often in the dirt, or on the hard concrete floor of a fire station garage. You’ll be searching all hours of the day or night (I once searched a graveyard at 2am with my squad. Creepy.) You could see mass carnage, suicide victims, bodies, or you could be faced with the emotions of not finding that lost 18 month old child and seeing the distraught parents as the search days carry on with no clues.

Ground teams searching

Ground teams searching with air support above

When you first arrive on scene, you and your K9 will be given an area to search, and that area could be quite a distance from base camp. If it’s extremely far, and you’re extremely lucky, you’ll be given a helicopter ride in (If you do, you won’t always be given the same lift back out!) You’ll have a few ground team searchers with you, and you’ll use your topographical map, gps and compass, as well as wind speed, direction, weather, temperature, and knowledge of how scent moves in different conditions to plot out the best way for you and your dog to clear the area in the least amount of time. You’ll be paying close attention to your dog’s body language, watching as he picks up a scent cone and using his body cues and your knowledge of scent to put together the puzzle and to ultimately guide your dog toward the victim. A lot of people think K9 handlers are a bump on the log while the dog searches, but that’s just not true. It’s a team effort, and while the dog may pick up the scent, it could be a hot and still day with no wind, and it’s up to you to know scent theory and wind and weather conditions and to be alert to your dog’s body language in order to help your dog work the scent cone back to the victim.

Scent theory image from http://www.k9-search-and-rescue.com/scent-theory.html

Scent theory image from http://www.k9-search-and-rescue.com/scent-theory.html

If you’re lucky, the missing person is within your area, and your training will help you find them. More often than not, you’ll finish your search area with no luck and return to base camp to recover and be redeployed. Some searches end in happiness, some end in heartbreak, some end with no answers at all. You have to be able to accept the outcome no matter what it is.

Is it worth it?

Yes. Absolutely.

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Travis County Search and Rescue's Spec Ops team for the 2011 Garner Rope Rescue Competition. That's me sitting down in the front!

Travis County Search and Rescue’s Spec Ops team for the 2011 Garner Rope Rescue Competition. That’s me sitting down in the front! We took home second place in all 3 events that year (we lost 1st place by only half a point in high angle rescue!).

It's a lifestyle

It’s a lifestyle

Disclaimer: All pictures (except for the one with the helicopter) were taken during training. You generally will not be taking pictures during a real search, unless you stumble on evidence/crime scene (and then you won’t be putting those up on the internet!). ;)