Copping a Heel: Teaching heeling from scratch.

"Heh heh, heeling is dumb!"

“Heh heh, heeling is dumb!”

No bones about it: When I adopted Fly, I had competition in mind. The performance bug bit me good and hard when I started competing with my American Bulldog, Cerberus, in local UKC events and I knew I wanted to keep going in that direction. I also knew that I wanted to avoid the mistakes I made early on in Cerb’s training. I’ve learned so much in the past few years and I was eager to apply it all right from the start. With Cerb, I took a crooked and winding path through several different training philosophies before I found a great community of positive reinforcement (R+) and force-free trainers. Once I found it, I never looked back, and I knew that my path with my next dog would be much more straightforward!

Enter: Firefly. ‘Fly is a Jack Russell/bully mix (the shelter said Bull Terrier but I don’t see it – she’s more APBT-y). She’s approximately one year old and is best described as a motley combination of Jack Russell teeth, Yoda ears, bulldog snort, and the personality of a three-year old on a five-day PixyStix bender. She’s a little bit bigger than I was looking for my second dog (I had wanted something a little more Jack Russell in size), but from the moment I met her I knew we’d be leaving the shelter together. She just has so much GO. She’s sweet and affectionate, but driven and willing to please. She works well for food and I have an inkling she might work well for a toy, too. She has approximately zero focus right now, but focus can be built… right?


Cerb says “Put that thing back where it came from or so help me…”

I didn’t have a very structured plan for Fly beyond “Let’s do all the things!” My first task, of course, was to get her settled into her new home. That’s probably not so big a deal for other adopters and their new pets, but I had to integrate Fly into a household with two cats and a dog-reactive American Bulldog. I had amazing support from my trainer and my friends and I felt like I could make it work, and I’m pleased to say that it is going really, really well – I guess I’ll have to write a post about it one of these days! The first few days weeks were rough, but I’m now able to walk both dogs through our neighborhood by myself with absolutely no trouble (though I don’t, because I’ve got no desire to partake in Urban Waterskiing — that, and I don’t want to be by myself with two dogs if something goes wrong).

So, integration (mostly) complete, it was time to think about my competition goals and pick a place to start. While I’m interested in eventually doing all kinds of crazy activities with Fly – agility! nose work! weight pull! freestyle dancing! – I knew that I wanted a solid foundation of basic obedience. For me, everything starts with a solid heel. This means heel position, Fly’s shoulder by my leg, her head up and eyes on me. I picked this task as our starting point.

My view during heeling practice. Her eye contact will laser-fire those cookies right out of my hand.

My view during heeling practice on our front porch. Her eye contact will laser-fire those cookies right out of my hand.

I started by simply rewarding Fly for being in heel position. I wanted to make that spot next to my leg pay off BIG TIME. When she sat there and looked up at me, treats rained from the sky. I would do this if she put herself there or if I encouraged her to take up that position, and once she understood the concept, I rewarded only for what I wanted – a straight sit, square front, and eye contact. This was a change from when I first started working with Cerb. At that time I really didn’t appreciate how important it is to tell your dog there is only one right answer. I would reward Cerb for anything even resembling a sit in heel position, long after I should have raised my criteria, and as a result it took quite a long time to get a consistent, competition-worthy sit in heel position. I was determined not to make that mistake again! So for Fly, sitting in heel has only one right answer. Everything else is a blown opportunity for cookies.

I also introduced a new activity for both of us, something I hadn’t known about when I was training Cerb: perch work! I learned about perch work only a year or so ago when I needed to teach Cerb that he had a back end. He had a solid heel at the time, but I wanted to teach him to heel in reverse, and we were really hitting a wall. He just had no idea how to work his back legs – it was like he didn’t know he had them! Perch work is a great way to teach spatial and hind-end awareness, and I thought it would really benefit Fly’s heeling and left and right finishes if we incorporated this activity into her heeling lessons.

What is perch work? Good question! A “perch” is just something your dog can put his or her feet on. You could use an upturned bucket, a concrete block, a tupperware dish — anything that is size-appropriate for your dog and sturdy enough to support her weight. I went through a couple of options with Fly. At first, I tried an upturned bucket. That was a good height for what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t sturdy – Fly kept leaning too far forward and flipping it over, which certainly wasn’t encouraging her to get up on it again. I eventually settled on an old “kitty condo” thing we had stashed in the basement. It still tips a little too easily, but it’s heavier than the bucket.

Okay! I had a perch. Then I had to do some shaping with Fly to teach her to put her front feet up on the perch. I used a clicker for this and click-treated any interest in the perch. Then I click-treated for pawing at it, and within moments I had her doing her circus pony thing with two feet up on the perch.

Now the tricky part. I had to teach her to move her rear feet in a circle around the perch while keeping her front feet up on it – basically, to pivot around the perch. This was easier than I thought it would be! Fly caught on to this much more quickly than Cerberus, who tends to be a little more ballistic with his guesses when we’re shaping something new (see: Cerberus learned to launch himself OVER the perch, but refused to pivot gently around it). I grabbed a handful of treats, stood in heel position next to Fly, and encouraged her to turn her head to the left while I shuffled to the right. The movement of her head turned her body and she shifted her back feet – click! In just a few attempts, I had her following me dutifully around the perch:

I also introduced movement to our heel position practice. I started off with just a few steps at first, rewarding Fly for staying in heel position and maintaining that stellar eye contact. Over a few days of short mini-sessions (which is all Fly’s brain can handle right now), I increased the distance Fly needed to move to get her reward, but I also maintained a random reinforcement schedule – she could get a treat for one step in heel position, or she might need to give me five steps, or seven steps, or two steps. It’s important to be random and not fall into a pattern like giving the reward every five steps, otherwise you might end up with a dog who lags/looks around for four steps and just looks up at you for the fifth, the delicious cookie step. While that might not sound too bad, in a competition setting it could mean the difference between a bang-on halt and a late, laggy halt, or the difference between a sexy left turn and… tripping over your dog, who was looking at that-lady-in-the-hat-over-there because it was only the third step and the cookies don’t come until step five, right?

Put it all together, and after two weeks it looks something like this:

Not bad, I think! From a multi-dog kennel at a county animal shelter to… um, somewhat attentive short-distance heeling champion in only a few weeks! In the future, we’ll be working on increasing distance, incorporating left and right turns, getting a snappy insta-sit when we come to a stop, and polishing up her left and right finishes.


Like a Bully in a China Shop

Three Dog Bakery, home of some of the prettiest and tastiest dog cookies in the Richmond, VA area. Cherry highly recommends the carrot cake.

Have you ever thought about taking your dogs shopping?  Yes, yes, I know, but I mean beyond taking them to Petsmart or Petco once a week so that they can say hi to their favorite cashier while hitting them up for milkbones.  I’m talking about REALLY taking them shopping–like at a mall, or perhaps around a quaint local shopping district that’s filled with boutiques and coffee shops.  With so many dog friendly stores (and websites dedicated to helping you find them), it’s more doable than you think!

There are a couple of rules to follow if you are going to try shopping with your dog, the first and foremost being to make sure the store you are headed to is dog-friendly!  Places that are obviously not going to be dog-friendly include grocery stores and restaurants.  They really don’t have a choice in the matter, so, unless your dog is a service dog, don’t even bother.  That still leaves quite a bit, though, and it just takes a little research to plan a nice afternoon out.

Cherry helped me pick out a new charm for my bracelet at Brighton.

Second, and this is pretty important too, mind your manners!  Shopping with your dog can provide great opportunities to proof behaviors such as heeling, loose leash walking, sits, downs, waits, stays, and anything else you can think of (ok, probably not a good opportunity to practice recalls unless your leash breaks!).  However, it is really not an optimal place to TEACH those behaviors.  Your dog should already know how to be polite before attempting to take your show on the road.  This includes not barking at strangers, or jumping on them, or acting at all aggressively towards them (or their dogs for that matter).  It’s important to remember that not everyone loves your dog as much as you do, and while some of the stores and malls are doing their best to be dog-friendly, all it takes is one bad incident (or too many complaints) to ruin it for everybody.

Which leads me to the third rule–the leash is NOT optional.  I don’t care how well trained your dog is (yes, my dogs have beautiful off-leash heels and great recalls too!), you are out in public, around other dogs, small children, and countless other distractions.  Put that leash back on your dog, Sparky.  And speaking of leashes, that leash should be a 4-6ft leash, and absolutely not a retractable style.  Nothing is more frustrating than encountering a dog that’s twenty feet away from his distracted owner, except perhaps encountering that dog without any leash at all, especially when trying to calmly walk past with your own dog.  Not only that, but those retractable leashes are often almost invisible (yes, even the tape ones), and can cause real injuries.  Keep your dog by your side.

Down stays? In public? Aw, Mom!

Fourth–clean up after your dog.  Accidents happen, even with the best trained dog.  Outings are often full of foods that your dog would not normally get at home.  Perhaps those fries from that stall in the food court that you bought to share with your dog hit his delicate tummy the wrong way.  And your dog, after looking more and more anxious, let loose all over the floor of some lovely boutique that specializes in purses that cost more than the GDP of a third world country.  It happens.  And it’s humiliating, but what’s done is done, and how you react is what really shapes the situation.  Looking suitably embarrassed and apologetic and asking for a roll of paper towels and some spray cleaner is really the best course of action.  It’s your dog, your mess, and your responsibility.  Whatever you do, don’t just leave it in the aisle and keep walking.  This includes shopping at Petsmart, by the way!  Those employees are having a long enough day already without having to endlessly clean up after your dog.  Aside from the occasional, and hopefully rare, incident of gastrointestinal distress, your dog should be reliably house trained before you subject anyone else’s floors to him.

Finally, but not the least in importance, is the last rule.  When it comes to merchandise, if your dog breaks it, you’ve bought it.  The same rule applies to young children, or even yourself.  This might affect your decision of which stores to enter.  Personally, I would not take a golden retriever with a coffee table sweeper of a tail into the Waterford-Wedgewood store unless I really wanted to see how quickly I could max out my  VISA card!  Cherry thought about testing the display bed at Anthropologie, but I quickly headed that off, much as I would have loved the very pretty display linens.  Know your dog, and know your dog’s limitations (or, at least, your limitations when it comes to paying for any damage caused by your dog!).

“I would like one stuffed bear with 16 squeakers and extra stuffing please!”

All of that said, if you are lucky enough to have a dog-friendly shopping center near you, I highly recommend the experience.  Cherry and I love to spend a nice afternoon at Stony Point in Richmond, and she often has far better taste in clothing than I do!  By the way, Cherry’s favorite stores are the Coach Store (so much tasty leather!), Three Dog Bakery (om nom nom nom), and Build-A-Bear Workshop (the magical place where stuffies are made!  I’ve wisely never allowed her to actually enter, but she does peer in the windows longingly.).

Some links to help you find dog-friendly places to shop:

Bring Fido

Pet Friendly Travel

Fido Factor


K9DIY: Make a flirt pole on the cheap

This slideshow requires JavaScript.




Project difficulty level: Easy (takes very little time, no tools involved, simple components, few steps)

Sometimes when the weather’s not cooperating or you don’t have a ton of time available, there is nothing better than a flirt pole for quickly getting your dogs tired and happy. If you’ve ever been in the cat aisle of the pet store  and have seen one of those fishing rods with a feather tied on one end, you’ve seen a flirt pole; dogs just get a bigger, stronger version of that.  The basic mechanism is simple: you need a long, flexible pole, a piece of string or rope or something like that, and a toy that jazzes up your dog (I will often use the ‘skins’ left over from toys that my dogs have de-squeaked/de-stuffed). Flirt poles are fun to chase, fun to jump for, and can even be used to practice impulse control; you ask your dog for a sit or down, start swirling the flirt pole around, then release them to ‘get it’ (try this if you ever want to see your toy-driven dog go off like a rocket.) Many people make flirt poles by getting a lunge whip (for horses) and simply tying a toy to the end.  Even a cheap lunge whip is still twenty bucks around here, though, and sometimes they can be hard to find.  For my version, I wanted to create something that was springy (to avoid shocks to the dog when they hit the end of the rope), easy to fix and adjust if need be (my dogs are three different sizes) and, most of all, cheap.

Continue reading

Raiden: The Microchip that Saved a Dog’s Life, Part II

Read Part I here.

scan0001grayI was frantic at this point. I was 1000 miles away and in the first few weeks of my brand new job. Time off wasn’t an option without serious consequences, and in order to qualify to buy a house to bring Raiden home to, I had to remain gainfully employed (trust me, quitting and rushing up to get Raiden crossed my mind half a dozen times in the first hours). I had no way to get to Raiden.

Right before I had left Tennessee, I had donated some of Raiden’s old toys, collars, and some old crates to a local German Shepherd rescue. I composed an e-mail trying to sound rational through my state of panic. I explained the situation, and asked for help. Luckily I had an answer almost immediately: Raiden’s personal guardian angel, in the form of a rescue volunteer named Amy from German Shepherd Rescue of East Tennessee, stepped up and started working miracles. She told me horror stories of how the local sheriff’s department treats their K9s, breeding unsuitable dogs and dumping the puppies at the pound when they didn’t measure up. Leaving them outside in crates under tarps when the temperature climbed above 90 or dipped below freezing. Using harsh, abusive training measures. I felt sick that I had willingly allowed Raiden to enter into that kind of life.

As soon as Raiden’s stray hold was up the pound agreed to release him into the custody of the rescue, knowing he was on his way back to me. As I had no house to bring Raiden home to, despite frantic house searching (the market was making a turnaround and houses were going for thousands over asking prices, resulting in bidding wars I kept losing) I had to find a place to board Raiden. Amy to the rescue again; she secured Raiden a doggy berth at a county animal rescue league a few hours away. They had an empty quarantine kennel available he could use. It was a temporary solution, but I hoped I could find and close on a house before his welcome there wore out. They got him vet care for the massive gash on his front leg, and kept him entertained with ice blocks filled with dog cookies.

raiden5As the weeks dragged on I became more frantic to find a house. Renting with 3 dogs (one of them a 110 pound German Shepherd) wasn’t an option in this dog-unfriendly rental market. The places that did allow dogs would only allow one, usually under 50 pounds. I could stretch the truth with my 60 pound Tiki, or my 12 year old Labrador, but hiding my 110 pound Raiden who was nearly as tall as my dining room table wasn’t an option. Sending him to stay with my mom and Tiki also wasn’t an option. Besides my mom’s own two dogs, plus Tiki and my lab, my mom had 2 cats. Raiden’s motto with regards to cats has always been “Cats are food. Not friends.” By the time the rescue boarding Raiden requested him to be moved, I had called every boarding kennel between Tennessee and Miami. They all wanted over $1,000 a month to board Raiden. Not something I could afford.

As a last ditch effort, I called my favorite boarding kennel I would use when I lived in Texas. They were familiar with Raiden and loved him. They had boarded Raiden and Tiki so many times before I can’t even keep track of the number. When I was involved with Dalmatian rescue our first stop had always been their DIY dog wash stations. My Dalmatian pup had gone to daycare there several times a week as a puppy for socialization. They were wonderful, and aside from that, they were a place I could afford such long term boarding. The only problem was the 1,038 miles between where Raiden was in Tennessee and where Shangri-Paw was in Harker Heights, Texas. I called them nervously, explaining the long and drawn out story of what was becoming the saga of Raiden. If I could get him to the Austin airport (over an hour away) could they pick him up for me? He was too large to fit any connecting flight on the small aircraft that flew to the local regional airport. I almost cried when they said of course!

raiden4Raiden was transferred to another boarding kennel in Tennessee while we figured out his flight. Finding an airline crate big enough to fit Raiden that didn’t involve weeks of drop shipping turned out to be easier than I anticipated. Finding a plane big enough to hold a crate that size was another matter entirely. Due to cargo space limitations, Raiden could only fly on the very largest of planes leaving Knoxville, and those only flew at the crack of dawn, departing at 6am and connecting through Atlanta. Amy fetched Raiden from the second boarding kennel, got him his health certificate, kept him at her house for a sleepover that night, and gamely took him to the airport at 4am. Everyone had been closely monitoring the weather, if the temperature climbed above 84 degrees F, Raiden would be grounded. In mid-May the temps are already climbing in Tennessee, and mid-May in central Texas is simply already the 3rd month of a 9 month long summer where the average temperature is 16,421 degrees. At night. (I might exaggerate. A little). If anyone’s lived in Central Texas you’ll know the three seasons are hot, hotter and on fire. We had to hope temperatures stayed low enough to let Raiden get into the air. After that, they wouldn’t turn around a plane simply to bring a dog back. The early morning departure was in Raiden’s favor and he was allowed to fly.

After clearing massive red tape involved with flying dogs as cargo, Raiden’s crate was taped up with a dozen pieces of official documentation, and he was taken to his flight. At work, I was on pins and needles waiting for confirmation of his arrival in Texas. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when I got the message that Raiden had made it safely- with one major delay. The President of the United States had picked that very same day and time to fly in Austin as well. Raiden’s plane was delayed, but thankfully one of Shangri-Paw’s owners managed to get to Raiden and pick him up (although driving back to the kennel amid all the presidential traffic was a nightmare, I hear). After checking all the weather and travel requirements needed to get Raiden halfway across the country, no one thought to check the President’s travel schedule!

Knowing Raiden was in safe hands, I turned my attention to the house hunt. I replaced my realtor, again, and finally found one who understood the sense of urgency and understood the idea that big dogs = big yard. In two outings he showed us every single house in the area that was available for sale in our price range. We wrote up offers on half a dozen houses, and finally one was accepted. 1.3 acres, already fenced, with a pond. It seemed like heaven for the dogs, especially Raiden, who loved to swim.

raiden6After a frantic, stress-filled 6 week closing, the keys were finally in our hands. We grabbed the furniture and boxes out of the storage locker, shoved them in garage, then 3 days later, took off for a long cross-country drive to collect 3 dogs from two different states. I began to  have strange dreams, dreams in which Raiden wouldn’t speak to me, or where he yelled at me for giving him to the sheriff. In one dream he told me I didn’t love him, that he would never forgive me, and that he was going to live in Germany with his new doggy friends. In another dream he didn’t recognize me.

The morning that we finally pulled up in front of the boarding kennel to collect Raiden, I wasn’t sure what to think. I walked out into the yard where Raiden was playing with his favorite toy of all time- his giant bowling ball sized buddy ball. I called his name, and he paused, then ran over to sniff me. True to his nature, he gave me a good sniff to be sure of who I was, then ran right back to his buddy ball, and gave me a look that I was very familiar with. “Kick my ball! Make it move!!” After getting out to the car Raiden was marginally more excited to see his partner in crime, Tiki. We paid his bill, said our goodbyes to the wonderful Shangri-Paw staff, and headed off for another 2.5 days of driving. We pulled up outside the house at 2am. Shutting the gate, I opened the dog crates and let Raiden, Tiki, and Hawkins the lab, hop out to explore the new 1.3 acres of yard while we unloaded the car. It took exactly 92 seconds for Raiden to discover the pond and take a middle of the night swim. After calling him out of the pond, we went in search of a towel to dry him off with. Back into the pond Raiden went. It was hard to not laugh, and if it hadn’t been 2am, I would have admitted defeat and let him swim himself into exhaustion. Seeing him happy, swimming, back with me, and most of all, safe, was the greatest reward for the incredible effort and manpower that it had taken to get him this far. As it was, Raiden had to wait until the next morning to have an all-access pass to his new pond.

A lot of people have so far told me I was completely crazy to have gone through so much trouble and spent so much money to bring home what they consider “just a dog.” But Raiden is much more than just a dog. He’s my baby, and I vowed to take care of him for his entire life the day I brought him home. Anything less than my best efforts to save him and be reunited would have been unacceptable in my own eyes.

raiden7Of course, I wouldn’t be able to end this post without my most absolute heartfelt gratitude and thanks to Amy of German Shepherd Rescue of East Tennessee and Shangri-Paw in Central Texas. Without their help and dedication in making Raiden’s journey home possible, this story would have had a tragic ending. Amy’s quick action to jump in and secure Raiden from the pound, her legwork in driving Raiden all about the state, spending hours on the phone with the airlines trying to get him a flight and clear the red tape before pulling an all-nighter to get him to the airport before the sun was up was more than I could ever have hoped for in my wildest dreams. Shangri-Paw’s willingness to brave presidential traffic and fetch Raiden from Austin, much less agree to long term boarding for a dog with a history of reactivity problems, is above and beyond, and they’ve set the bar so high for personal care that no other boarding and daycare kennel I ever use will even come close to comparing. So, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you guys. Raiden would thank you too, but he’s too busy playing in his pond.

Raiden: The Microchip that Saved a Dog’s Life, Part I



raiden1Microchip your pets. We’ve all heard people say it. Rescue organizations, vets, trainers and other dog owners all encourage microchipping. When I first brought my squirming, crying, chomping 8 week old shark, (oops, I mean German Shepherd. The two terms are interchangeable when talking about schutzhund puppies!) Raiden, to the vet following an adventure filled car ride back from the breeder’s house, the first thing the vet did was microchip him. I didn’t think much of it at the time, simply taking the paperwork and shoving it into an already growing binder of paperwork on this little puppy. I had no idea that little chip, hardly the size of a grain of rice, would not only save his life one day, but bring him home to me across thousands of miles.

Raiden was my pride and joy from the moment I laid eyes on him. Well… on his litter, at least. I’m not quite sure which squirming little week old black wrinkly blob was him when I went to the breeder’s house to see the litter. After the tragic and premature death of my first German Shepherd, a rescue from an animal sanctuary, I wanted to be sure I was buying a dog with as many health clearances as I could get. My first shepherd had died a sudden untimely death just weeks before we were scheduled to take our 4-hour, 160 acre mission-ready test to become a fully trained search and rescue K9 unit. After suffering a massive seizure at the top of the flight of stairs in our house, he tumbled down them, breaking his back. I was determined to spend a lifetime with my next K9 partner at all costs. And boy, would that determination be put to the test.

After researching breeders (it takes a special dog to become a search and rescue dog- prey and hunt drives, a willingness to work long hours in brutal conditions, good health, and a fearlessness accompanied by an endless trust of his handler are among the most basic) I settled on one, got on the waiting list, and after months of waiting, picked up my puppy. I was over the moon. We instantly began search and rescue training, as well as myriad of other sports. Schutzhund trials, conformation shows, even herding (which quickly ended when Raiden decided sheep must be for eating instead!) Raiden swept through the dog shows, taking his UKC championship at just 7 months old, and not long after earning himself a Multi-Breed Best in Show the weekend of a German Shepherd specialty show in which he won the breed over the top winning German Shepherd in the region, and went on to win a group 1 all three days and a Best in Show that Saturday. All before his first birthday.

raiden2He collected enough ribbons and rosettes to choke a horse, but after a surprise attack by a dog on the end of a flexi-leash being held by a clueless owner, Raiden suddenly became fearful of all other dogs. His reactivity grew, and we withdrew from the dog show world. We stopped competing in schutzhund, and the dog shows became infrequent occurrences. I read piles of books on control, behavior, aggression, rehabilitation, desensitization training, counter-conditioning. If there was a book out there that I thought would help Raiden, I bought it. I enrolled in behavior courses, finally applying and becoming accepted to a graduate program for a post-grad certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis. With every assignment and exam I completed, I tried to apply my studies to Raiden. When behavior modification essays were due, I would invariably write about him, outlining behavior principles that would help change his behavior. Still, Raiden made little progress. He was content around other dogs only while working, and if the dogs around him were well trained as well and would give him a wide enough berth and leave him alone, he was content to leave them alone, too.

raiden3As his reactivity became worse, the search and rescue team we worked with decided his reactivity was too much of a liability, and cut him loose from the team. For a dog that was bred to work, and loved every moment of it, it seemed a terrible curse to relegate him to an early retirement of becoming a loved house pet. A local deputy sheriff K9 officer, and head of the K9 training program, gave Raiden a new, rare opportunity. He wanted Raiden to come work as a narcotics detection K9 with the county’s sheriff department. It was a heartbreaking decision to make for a dog that meant the world to me, but at the time it seemed a better life full of the work he loved. With tears in my eyes I handed him over to the sheriff, hoping to one day read about a big drug bust that occurred thanks to Raiden’s terrific nose. The sheriff promised to keep in touch, and even offered to let me come visit and watch his training. I left him that day feeling fairly positive about his future.

I decided to give Raiden a few weeks to settle in before e-mailing the sheriff. When I did, the e-mail bounced back to me. Funny, I thought. I must have written it down incorrectly. I waited a few more weeks, then tried calling. No answer, and voicemails went unreturned. I told myself he was a very busy man, and Raiden must be enjoying his new life, so I let it go. I graduated with my master’s degree shortly afterward, and sat for my board examination in behavior analysis. I passed, but it seemed a hollow victory when the dog that had spurred my drive to study behavior was no longer in my life. I gave up attempts to contact the sheriff, and when I accepted a job offer nearly 1000 miles away just north of Miami, I left Tennessee without ever seeing Raiden again.

Raiden 045

Raiden during his SAR days

I moved, put all our belongings in storage, started my new job, and began the hunt for a house to buy. I still had Raiden’s niece, my female German Shepherd, Tiki, and my 12 year old Labrador, Hawkins. Since they had gone to stay with ‘grandma’ (my mom) in California while I was house hunting, I was determined to find a house fast so we could be reunited. I thought of Raiden often, but hoped he was having a grand life as a narcotics detection dog. So you can imagine my surprise when I got a call one evening from the microchip company Home Again. I was still the main contact on his microchip. They informed me that Raiden had been found wandering the streets, and that some good Samaritan had picked him up, driven him to the nearest vet clinic to have his microchip read, and contacted the chip company, who in turn, called me. I took the address of the vet clinic down and informed them I would be getting in touch with the sheriff’s department that now owned him.

Amazingly, the sheriff picked up the phone on the second ring. I explained the call I’d received and he told me Raiden had just managed to slip out of his dog yard that morning, and that they’d been looking for him all day. I gave him the address of the clinic he was being held at, and the sheriff assured me he was on his way to pick him up as soon as he hung up the phone. I asked how Raiden had been doing, and he told me he was doing fine until he escaped that morning. Not wanting to keep him from rushing to claim Raiden, I didn’t ask any more questions, and hung up the phone.

To my absolute utter shock, I got another call three days later. This time from the local pound. My heart plummeted when they told me the sheriff had never claimed Raiden and the vet had had no choice but to transfer him to the local pound. Luckily, once again, his microchip was his savior. After scanning him, they called the microchip company, who gave the pound my cell phone number. They called me first. I explained to them that I had given Raiden to the sheriff’s department, but the pound said calls to the department went unreturned. Then she shared the most shocking piece of information. Because of Raiden’s dog reactivity, he was considered unsuitable for adoption. He would be euthanized at the end of his 5 day stray hold. I nearly fainted.

Read what happens next in Part II of Raiden’s story.

My Dogs Smell Better than Yours: an Introduction to K9 Nose Work


About three years ago I sat in an uncomfortable plastic lawn chair on a semi-dark outdoor dog training field and watched my very first nose work class. Eight dogs, many of whom had never been given the freedom to do anything without their person’s guidance, were introduced to the notion that finding food in cardboard boxes was a THING they could do. Food! In boxes! On the ground! Who would have thought?

That night I told the instructors, “I have to do this! When can I put Frankie into a class? And how can I teach it!?”

Flash forward to now. I have received my certification as an instructor from the National Association of Canine Scent Work, two of my dogs have earned titles (and the third will kick some major butt when she is old enough), trialed at the highest level with a friend’s dog, watched hundreds of dogs search, taught many sessions of group classes, and currently instruct an average of 20 dog-handler teams per week. To say that I have become addicted to this sport would be a gigantic understatement. Nose work is the most fun I have ever had working with dogs. I think you should try it immediately.

Here are some points for anyone interested in K9 Nose Work®:

See that black object? Owen found that single container (filled with 2 half cotton swabs of odor) in a huge school courtyard.

See that black object? Owen found that single container (filled with 2 half cotton swabs of odor) in a huge school courtyard. Cool, huh?

  • Dog reactive dogs are welcomed. Since each dog works one at a time in both classes and trials, it’s perfectly okay if Fluffy isn’t thrilled with dogs in his face. We use a warning system of either the handler or dog wearing a red bandana to let other handlers know that that dog would like a little extra space.
  • Dogs who are deaf, blind, missing a limb, in a wheelchair, old, young, etc. are also welcomed. If your dog can sniff, your dog can do nose work.
  • It is a fantastic way to boost confidence in shy and fearful dogs. Giving a fearful dog the choice in how they work without constant human intervention is an incredibly powerful tool. Suddenly the dog understands that they can control their environment to some degree and that there are rules while playing the game. For instance, my human reactive boy Frankie knows that no one will squeal “cute dog!” and try to pet him while he is searching. Having that level of emotional safety is a big deal for him, and he thrives in nose work because of it. Besides Frank, I have seen and heard of amazing progress in all areas of a reactive/fearful dog’s life after doing just a few weeks of classes.
  • Nose work is a great mental and physical energy burner. Solving increasingly difficult scent problems can be exhausting even if your dog isn’t running laps in a search area. As someone who lives with three medium to very very high energy dogs… this is one of my favorite bullet points!
  • It can be done anywhere. All you need in the later stages is a cheap odor kit, your dog, a long leash, and their rewards. That’s it. No super special equipment to buy, and unlike other sports, you can practice basically anywhere your dog is allowed.
  • Sorry, but no, a couple of nose work classes will not get your dog ready to sniff out drugs for your local police department or find missing persons for SAR. While sharing many similarities in training, nose work is purely a sport and activity to have fun with your dog.
  •  Yes, it is in fact largely based on professional detection work, still… even if your Chihuahua is the world champion nose work dog, no one will hire him as an explosives detection dog. I promise. (You wouldn’t believe how many calls I get a month about this!)
  • Dogs start out searching for food or toys in order to give them an immediate incentive to play the game and help to build upon their natural hunt drive. Eventually the dogs will learn to recognize and alert to three different target odors. These include birch, anise, and clove.
Your car stinks, dude.

Frankie during a vehicle search at a mock trial. Photo by Gadabout Photography.


  • There are four elements to a K9 Nose Work® trial: exterior search, interior search, container search, and vehicle search. These four elements vary greatly between the levels: NW1, NW2, and NW3. But don’t worry, dogs only search the outside of the vehicles, they are not allowed to get inside of the car like the pros can!


Want to try the game out for yourself? Okay, let’s go!

Cardboard boxes are the main way we introduce dogs to nose work, since they help to contain the scent of the food and give a context for the game (dog sees a bunch of boxes: “Yay! We are playing that hunting game!”). Make sure your dog can easily access the inside of the box. If you have a teeny tiny dog, use a short box at first. If your dog doesn’t like sticking his head into a box with flaps, use a box without them for now. My garage is full of them, but you really only need 5-10 boxes. Just use the same one each time for the food to start with.


River has no problem with getting into boxes and sticking her head into them. Obviously.


Your dog should search for their absolute highest value food possible. A couple of items I have in my rotation include: cooked liver, steak, chicken, cheese, and hot dogs; feel free to use anything else that is equally awesome. You want your dog to choose searching for food over anything else in the environment, so make it worth their while. I can assure you that while Oscar may like his regular kibble well enough for meals, he will go nuts over chicken and give you much more enthusiasm. The majority of the canine population will choose high value food over toys, but if yours loves his tennis ball above all else, use that!

If you have multiple dogs, put the others away in a separate area while one dog is working. On a side note, this is a great way to work on crate manners with the other dogs while brother or sister is playing. My puppy River will throw herself into any nearby crate after her turn; she knows that’s the only way I will restart a different search!

Start the search indoors when first introducing nose work. Your backyard or the local park may have more space, but it also has way too many distractions for most green dogs. A large area isn’t needed for beginning box searches: I use my living room with the coffee table pushed against a wall all the time!

There aren’t too many rules for nose work, but the number one is ZERO OBEDIENCE. Really. No “leave its,” no “come!”, no “no!”, none of that silly stuff here. The reason for that is because we are building on the dog’s natural responses and instincts. By giving them cues and directions, you are putting the human stuff back into the equation. Have some patience and give your dog the time to show you their world. A big difference with nose work compared to other sports is that you truly are not going to teach your dog anything new; you are the one who needs to learn how scent works and the best way to refine their already incredible skills. So, as the popular saying goes, trust your dog! This is especially important if you would like to compete at some point, when you will have no clue where the odor is placed.

Alright. You have your curious dog, cardboard boxes, and boiled liver ready to go. Put a couple of treats in one of the boxes (henceforth known to you as the stinky food box) and let your dog eat them. Put a few more in and then “hide” the box while your dog is watching but restrained. Release them. When they go to get their food and start to eat, drop a few more pieces into the box one by one – this reinforces the find and allows the dog to stay at the box a little longer. Pick up the now empty and slobbery box, then either have someone hold onto your dog, put them into a crate, or into another room before their second turn. Rearrange the boxes and dispense more food into the stinky food box. Release your dog. Once they find the correct box, hooray! More food! Pick up the box and repeat the process. Working with your dog off leash is optimal; that way they are free to move as quickly as they want and you aren’t getting in the way like a silly human.


River checks out the white box because I touched it with greasy hot dog hands – this is one of the reasons why we use only one stinky food box to start out with. My girl isn’t confused though; she catches the odor in the short box soon after.

Here is another rule: don’t be stingy! Give lots of food rewards each time your dog finds the correct box and throw a party (if they like that sort of thing). When your dog starts to figure out the game and is madly excited to search, begin to make it a little more challenging. Examples of how to do this include: putting an empty box on top of the food box so your dog has to push off the empty box to reward themselves, placing boxes in a big pile with the food box somewhere underneath, stacking the food box on another box so it’s slightly elevated, hiding the food box in a bigger box on it’s side, the possibilities are endless!


Pile O’ Boxes! The odor is place on the side of the dark blue box that Frank is pushing up.


A simple box search by itself is an awesome rainy day activity for any dog and can be played over and over again with just searching for food or toys. However, classes are a ton of fun and the best way to learn how to really get into nose work. You can find a directory of instructors in your area through the association at, just click on “certified instructors” towards the top. Workshops are also a fantastic way to get the sport started in areas without CNWIs yet, so watch out for those. This sport is pretty new to the scene, but it’s growing fast!

And just for giggles, here is a glimpse of what a more advanced search looks like:

Have fun and happy sniffing!

Introducing Julio

I have been joking for quite some time now that I need a black pit bull to go with my white one. I have also been successfully resisting the temptation that comes with helping countless adoptable puppies find their forever homes. In fact, I’ve even successfully re-homed the numerous strays who have found their way to my door since Herbie made her appearance in 2011. I will admit I felt a pang of jealousy as other TU authors put together the lovely post about the newest canine members of the team, but I reasoned that Mike and I are really, really in no place to take on a second dog.

The multitude of reasons I gave myself were really very sound logically. Top of that list was the fact that we were in the middle of hunting for our next place to live. Finding a place that allowed our one pit bull was going to be difficult (and I really could pass Herbie off as a pointer if I wanted to). Adding a second dog to the mix wasn’t even an option.

Then, one night while we were grocery shopping, my phone rang. It was our roommate Bryce. The words that came out of his mouth next really shouldn’t have surprised me at this point in my life, but I had no idea the degree to which they would impact my life.

“Harry [our neighbor] just called. He said someone dumped a dog at the boat launch. He wants to know if he should bring it home. Do you think you could get him placed?”

I sighed heavily. Our plates have been beyond full as it is, and I felt like we had just managed to get rid of the last stray that wandered through our lives (that one was a kitten, so at least he didn’t eat much). Of course I said to bring him home. What was I going to do? They couldn’t leave him at the boat launch. He was bound to get hit by a car (or worse. It’s a really bad part of town.) Bringing him to the town shelter was an option, but they are undergoing renovations and are overflowing. The dog would be lucky to last 24 hours.

We finished our shopping, checked out, and drove home to await the new arrival. An hour or so later, Harry came home with the 70lb cargo in tow. Of course the dog was big. Of course he was black. Of course he was a pit mix. Of course he was an in tact male. He was just what I’d want in a dog, and just what most shelter goers are not looking for.

Julio on his first morning with us.

The good news was that the big, black dog appeared to be friendly. He was at a good weight and didn’t bear any of the telltale marks of a fighter or bait dog. Mostly he just seemed really confused and a little frightened, but he greeted me with a wagging tail and allowed me to run my hands all over him and check his teeth, which revealed that he’s only about a year old. I immediately wondered if he was someone’s birthday puppy who grew to be bigger than they expected.

We used the neighbor’s yard to introduce the new arrival to Herbie, which is how we learned two things: 1. the dog is friendly with other dogs and 2. he can squeeze under fences. Thankfully, he only went under the fence to be with Herbie (and people).

Now we just needed something to call him. We employed our go-to method for dog-naming, which is just to keep shouting names until the dog seemingly responds to one. We went through the usual list of  Spot, Max, and Fido before I jokingly called out, “Julio!” The dog stopped and turned to look at me. One more Julio and he came to my side. Granted, I think it was total coincidence, but the name stuck because… well… me and Julio down by the school boat yard.

The next day, I brought Julio to the barn/clinic with me, hoping to have him assessed by the vet after I was done with my hours for the day. It was a struggle to get him in the car. As soon as I opened the door, he cowered and shook. I had to physically lift him into the vehicle. I may be a horsewoman, but that was no easy task. Once at the barn, I left him tied in the barn, since I didn’t trust him not to squeeze under a stall or kennel door.

Some time later, I came outside to get something and was unpleasantly surprised to find a totally loose and naked Julio prancing happily through the barn yard. I quickly caught him, and the new farm hand informed me that, “He keeps slipping his harness.” Wonderful, an escape artist. The farm hand then cheerfully added, “He just follows me around and doesn’t go anywhere once he’s free.”

It turns out Julio is great off leash. He just follows whoever is around and doesn’t wander. He is also good with dogs, puppies, cats, chickens, and horses (thank goodness!)

By the end of the week, I had Julio neutered, tested, vaccinated, microchipped, treated for fleas, ticks, worms, and heartworm, and listed with the local rescue group. My best friend kindly pointed out that I had already dropped a ton of money on this ‘homeless’ dog and casually asked who the microchip was registered to (shush!)

And then a funny thing started to happen. The days passed and, despite the fact that I had a few interested potential adopters for him, Julio started to sort of melt into my life.

He started off by buttering Herbie up.

Herbie is sort of hit or miss with other dogs. She knows how to be polite, and there are lots of dogs who she plays nicely with. However, I think part of the appeal is that, at the end of the day, she gets to leave them behind, go home, and have her humans and her house all to herself. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve had several fosters come and go since we got Herbie. On a few occasions, people have tried to guilt me into keeping some of them by mentioning how sad Herbie would be to see them leave, but the fact was that Herbie always seemed either indifferent or relieved when they left. I just sort of figured Herbie enjoyed being an only child and the center of our attention. One of the multitude of reasons I had for not getting a second dog was because I didn’t want Herbie to feel left out or jealous.

The bond between Herbie and Julio started off subtle. They would peacefully chew their bones next to each other. They would quietly share the back yard. They would ride in the back seat, one nose at each window. I would get on my computer at the end of the day and have one pibble curled up on either side of me on the couch.

Then I had both dogs on one side.

Then I had two dogs on the other end of the couch sleeping together without me. He was the yin to Herbie’s yang.

They started to become inseparable and formed a friendship the likes of which I haven’t seen Herbie be a part of since Paulie, her poodle, left. Now they are the best of friends. They greet each other excitedly in the mornings. They jump in my car in unison. All day, they romp at the farm… running at full tilt around the property, splashing through the disgusting pond, and wrestling like puppies. They even play tug together for hours. It’s good to see a dog who can match Herbie’s pulling obsession. As the days went by, it became harder and harder to fathom separating them.

Herbie even got Julio over his fear of car rides. Her joy at the sound of me unlocking my car door is contagious, and he quickly realized that we were not going to dump him like his last owners. Instead, the car became a sure sign of adventures to come. Now I have two dogs who line up for their collars/harnesses and wait at the back door, wiggling ecstatically, while I put my shoes on and grab my keys.

All the while, Julio was finding ways to charm his way into my heart as well. It started off with the little quirks about him that I found endearing. For example, he sleeps upside down. I love dogs who sleep upside down. He has epic frog legging capabilities that make me laugh every time. He is also totally obsessed with playing with water. I discovered this the first time I tried to hose him off, but the depths of this obsession keep appearing in new and fun ways. There are little physical things that I love about him. His little white toes, his sad brown eyes, the bump on his head from squeezing under too many fences (or trying to reincarnate as a unicorn, I’m not really sure).

I quickly learned to appreciate how willing and quick to learn Julio is. He may not be a very bright dog… in fact, he makes me wonder if Herbie has just been playing dumb all along… but he tries so so hard, and he’ll do just about anything for a piece of cheese. He learned sit, down, and stay in the course of a day. He comes when I call him. He goes in his crate on command. I don’t know if it’s just because he’s never been given human food or what, but he works really hard to make a little piece of cheese count.

Epic frog legs.

Speaking of things that he’d never been introduced to… another thing I love about Julio is the wide-eyed wonder with which he approaches each new day. He seems genuinely grateful for his new lease on life. I don’t know a thing about his past, but the way he flinches sometimes makes me wonder if he wasn’t treated very kindly. I’m pretty sure he led a very sheltered existence. The first time I took him to a park must have been the first time he’s ever been to a park. All the new smells. All the nice people. The creek that never runs out of water to play with. It all made my heart melt.

But my absolute favorite thing about Julio is that he picked me as his human.

Don’t get me wrong. Herbie likes me just fine. She listens to me. She gets excited to go places with me. I’m her Adventure Human and that suits her just fine, but at the end of the day, Herbie is Mike’s dog. I cease to exist when he walks in the door. He’s the one she wants to snuggle. He’s the one she stares at adoringly. His word is god with her.

But Julio picked me. It’s me he shadows around the house. It’s me he wants to lie close to. It’s me he seeks out when he loses sight of me. It doesn’t matter who else is in the room, that dog’s eyes are on me.

Of course everyone was telling me from day one that I would end up keeping this dog. I secretly hoped so, but there were so many reasons not to.

Then we found an apartment. The perfect apartment on a seven acre horse farm. The land lord is a friend of a friend and he said he didn’t care how many animals we had as long as he didn’t step in dog poo. The biggest obstacle in our way was suddenly removed. Out of nowhere, we had the option of keeping this second dog. I kept living in denial. The Petfinder ad was still up. I continued to screen homes, though with less resolve than when I started.

One night, while Mike and I lay in bed before falling asleep, I dared to ask, “At what point do we officially admit that we’ve become a two dog family?”

“Babe… we bought him a crate.” Fair point.

Julio has been here for one month, and I suddenly can’t picture life without him. I can’t imagine him not greeting me with a frantically wagging tail every morning. I can’t imagine not seeing his head thrown back in glee and his ears flapping in the wind in my rear view mirror. I can’t imagine running a hose without offering it to him to play with.

On Monday someone emailed me to ask for more information about Julio. I looked at Mike. He said, “Tell them he’s not available.”

I typed, “Thank you for your interest in Julio. He is no longer in need of a home. Good luck in your search for your next pet.” I hit send.

I guess it’s official.

I have two dogs.

Black dog, white dog. Like I always wanted.