Seeking for hidden treasure: Geocaching with dogs

Over the summer, I discovered this delightful game called Geocaching.

Basically, Geocaching is using our fancy GPS technology to search for tupperware in the woods. (Well, and in towns and cities, too. They’re everywhere.)

People, it’s like searching for hidden treasure! It’s fun. It gets you outside. It’s cheap. You can (usually) take your dog. And you never know what you’re going to find.

To get started all you need is a GPS-capable piece of equipment like a smart phone or an actual GPS and a free membership to and an app for your phone (I use c:geo/ which is free, but there is also an official Geocaching app). You type in the location where you’d like to go searching, and it gives you the GPS coordinates and some details on all the caches in that area. There are traditional caches which are just a container (tiny or large) hidden at the given coordinates.

Large! Google "Raiders of the Lost Cache" for the full awesomeness of this cache.

Large! Google “Raiders of the Lost Cache” for the full awesomeness of this cache.

Or tiny. And tricksy.

Or tiny. And tricksy.

There are multi-caches that include searching for multiple containers, often containing coordinates that lead you to the final find. There are mystery or “game” caches that can involve solving a code. There are even virtual caches which require you to go to the location and report back to the cache owner what you find there. (Some of these are super cool.)

A very traditional tupperware cache.

A very traditional tupperware cache.

Also needed: a curious mind, a sense of adventure, and a little bit of frustration tolerance! Some of these suckers can be hard to find!

This one hadn't been found in a year!

This one hadn’t been found in a year!

That’s it. Simple, right? Yes. But not always easy. You may be at the coordinates, but you’re still looking for something hidden. And that hidden thing may be the size of your thumbnail. Some cache-hiders are absolutely devious and evil. But that’s part of what makes it so much fun. They are so creative! Once you finally “see” and the lightbulb goes off above your head, it’s like a rush of amusement and joy.

This guy was a bit more creative.

This guy was a bit more creative.

Caches are rated on the website both by difficulty of terrain and difficulty of the hide. Obviously, it’s best to start out simple until you get a feel for the game. Another good tip is to always check the log before you head out, especially if you’re having to travel any significant distance, to make sure the thing has been found recently. It can be really annoying to travel half an hour only to get to a cache that nobody’s been able to find in the past 8 months.

Now to bring dogs into it. Safety first! Caches should be marked on the website if they are not dog-friendly but be sure to use common sense as well. Remember, if you are out in the woods, to carry appropriate safety equipment and water both for you and your dog. Personally I find a convertible leash to be super useful because it lets me easily tether my dog to a tree or a post while I search or write in the log of a cache I’ve found. And since many caches are hidden in areas that allow hunting, be sure to wear orange and dress your dog in orange if you’re going to be out! As with any hiking, if you’re going by yourself, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Safety first!

All business, holding down this tree while I search.

All business, holding down this tree while I search.

I hope I can get least a few of you out into the woods searching for hidden treasure. It’s addictive and it’s fun. I think a lot of us need more fun in our lives.

An Overview of Long-Distance Dog Rescue

In today’s Interconnected Modern World, the transport of adoptable dogs across the nation is an increasingly common part of the rescue scene. Social media is plastered with plaintive pictures of dogs marked “urgent” all across the country. Out in the real world, adoption events frequently host dozens of homeless puppies who have traveled from Georgia to New Jersey before reaching two months old.

Long-distance dog rescue does a lot of good. Lives are saved that would otherwise be lost. Adopters find sweet, wonderful dogs and get the glow of knowing that they saved those dogs from death. But for all the good things that these networks do, they are not without problems and complications.

Today I’d like to talk a little about where some of those dogs come from, where they wind up, how they get there, and what some of the common risks and benefits are for shelters, rescues, and adopters along the line. In this post, I’m going to concentrate primarily on the South-to-North movement of shelter dogs into foster-based rescues along the I-95 East Coast corridor.

Stage 1: Listing

The whole process starts when a shelter lists its homeless dogs on the Internet. Volunteers or shelter staff take photographs of the dogs and summarize whatever information they have (estimated age, size, gender, spay/neuter status, best guess as to breed mix, and any signs of temperament that can be observed in the kennels), then post that on Petfinder, RescueMe, AdoptaPet, Petango, and — probably the most important for rescue networks — Facebook.

Foster dog Silver’s original shelter picture from RCAS.

If the dog is lucky, she’ll attract the notice of someone who can either sponsor or pull her.

Sponsoring means that the person is not in a position to personally rescue that dog, but is willing to pledge money to help someone else defray the costs of rescue. At best, this can ensure that a dog gets saved when he otherwise wouldn’t, because the rescue would not be able to afford the costs of care without that sponsorship. Used wisely and well, sponsorship saves lives.

At worst, however, it can result in a good-hearted donor being scammed (one reason that most shelters caution sponsors to send their money directly to the vet clinic that will be treating the dog, and not to any private individual), or the dog being sponsored right into the hands of a hoarder or fake “rescue.” Be careful where you send your money, kids.

Pulling means that the person will step up and make a commitment to get that dog out of the shelter and take legal ownership of the animal. Once a dog is pulled, she’s officially out of the shelter system and in the rescue network. The shelter’s involvement ends there — and the rescuer’s begins.

Stage 2: Vetting

Next, the dog goes to a veterinary hospital for a comprehensive physical and health check. Most of the time, until the dog goes to the vet, the rescuer has no idea what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into in terms of medical bills. Many of these shelters are so under-funded that they are not able to provide any medical care whatsoever — sometimes not even rabies, parvo, or distemper vaccinations on intake. (When some of the shelters are able to vaccinate dogs on intake, it’s because some generous private individual donated those vaccines to make that possible. The shelters do not even have enough money to buy their own vaccines. They have to beg for that stuff on Facebook.)

Some problems, like an infected, embedded collar or a gunshot wound (both of which are, depressingly, pretty common in my experience), are obvious before you commit to the dog. Others aren’t.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that any dog pulled out of these shelters is going to have fleas, ticks, and some form of intestinal worms on intake. That’s just a given. The more critical questions — because these are less certain and considerably more expensive to treat — are (1) whether the dog is heartworm positive; and (2) whether the dog is going to break with a serious infectious illness like distemper or parvo after being pulled from the shelter (because remember, these dogs are coming out of an almost completely unvaccinated population, and these diseases are tragically common in those regions).

This is why sponsorship can be so important: because if a rescue gets bad-luck dice rolls a few times in a row, they can go broke very quickly. Unlike big municipal shelters that have city or county animal-control contracts to help cover their bills, small private rescues have no source of funds beyond adoption fees, donations, and whatever their volunteers can contribute out of pocket. When you have to eat the costs of a few heartworm cases or cherry eye operations on top of that, you’d better hope your credit-card max is forgiving.

Stage 3: Boarding

Before a shelter dog can be legally transported across state lines to a receiving rescue, that dog must undergo 10 to 14 days of pre-transport quarantine in order to ensure that he’s not harboring infectious illnesses.

There are two main ways that ethical rescues can comply with this rule (we won’t count the third option of crappy fake “rescues,” which is “pass them off as personal pets and don’t quarantine the dogs at all”): (1) pay for the dog to be boarded at a professional facility; or (2) rely on a volunteer foster home to quarantine the dog for the necessary period.

The advantage of using a professional boarding service is, of course, that it’s professional. The dog receives a certain level of care and the kennel staff is generally diligent about following proper quarantine procedures. The disadvantage is that it’s expensive ($10-25 per night for most facilities), and those costs add up very quickly, especially if the rescue is regularly pulling dogs. Boarding five or ten dogs for two weeks at a time is a financial burden that is far beyond the means of small-scale rescue groups.

Using local foster homes is much more cost-effective, since the rescue usually then only has to pay for food and emergency medical care. However, it requires relying on volunteers who have widely varying levels of dog-handling sophistication. Many are excellent, experienced, and highly competent. Some of them have the best intentions but not the best skills. A few of them are completely inept and/or outright dishonest (in one recent incident, a temporary foster actually stole the dogs).

This shouldn’t scare you off accepting or appreciating the valuable help of volunteer fosters. None of these rescue operations could function without them. But just to reiterate, once again: if you have to rely on the help of a stranger off the Internet, it’s always wise to choose carefully.

Stage 4: Transport

After the quarantine period, the dog has to be examined by a veterinarian for a health certificate verifying that the dog appears to be free from contagious illnesses and parasites, and is healthy enough to make the journey across state lines.

Then the dog has to make that journey. Again, there are several options:

Commercial ground transports run regularly up and down I-95, usually every week or every other week. Transport fees range from $125 to $250 for most dogs, depending on how big they are and how far they’re going. Cats typically cost around $50-100; sometimes they can travel 2-for-1 in a shared crate. These are usually converted vans or buses, occasionally in caravans of multiple vehicles.

The biggest limitation of commercial ground transports is that they don’t go everywhere. They run a regular route (or a couple of different routes, if it’s a big enough transport service), and that’s pretty much it. If either you or the dog is way outside the coverage area, you’ll have to find a different option.

Commercial air transport (i.e., buying your dog a ticket to fly cargo on a commercial airline) is not something that rescues use routinely. It’s just too expensive and troublesome to set up on a regular basis. This is an option generally used only for individual dogs flying to individual adopters, and not within the rescue networks themselves.

Volunteer transports can be either by air (as with Pilots N’ Paws) or ground (either networks of relay drivers or transports where volunteer teams undertake the whole marathon drive in one go).

Once again, the tradeoff is usually cost vs. convenience. Long-haul volunteer transporters tend to be a pretty experienced and reliable group, and relay transports are more flexible than anything short of just buying the dog a plane ticket on Delta, but it still takes some legwork to set everything up, and the transports run on their schedules, not necessarily yours.

Foster dog Leia on the airfield after arriving with Pilots N’ Paws.

Stage 5: Arrival and Fostering

At last! The dog arrives!

…and now is the first time when you, as the receiving rescue or adopter, get to actually see what it is that you’ve got on your hands. Now is when you get to cross your fingers and pray that the shelter assessment was accurate, the pre-transport boarding experience went smoothly, and you-the-recipient are equipped to handle whatever it is you’ve got.

…and the resident pets are ready to handle that, too.

Now’s when you get to start doing your work.

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.


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

Scent theory image from

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.

December 2009 332

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!). ;)

Fighting SAD – how my dogs help me to survive wintertime

Every year when the days grow shorter and the air gets colder I am reminded of the reason that I pursued becoming involved in agility.  The reasons that people get involved in dog sports are varied far and wide, from those raised from childhood on up and those becoming involved later on in their lives.  When I started agility it was something that I had wanted to do with my corgi Ein for a very long time.  But what finally made me reach out of my comfort zone and enroll in a Foundations Agility training class was that I needed something to cling to during winter time

“Seasonal Affective Disorder”
or SAD is a variety of depression that is directly related to the changes of season.  It can strike as fall and winter set in and even when spring arrives.  Many of the range of classic depression symptoms can show up.  I am a person fortunate to not be subjected to depression regularly, so it can be scary and upsetting to experience the intense apathy and gloom that settles over me when the days get shorter.  I feel desperate to cling onto the last rays of sunshine that escape far too early on winter days and when they are gone I feel at a loss for how to fill the long hours between sundown and bedtime.  That is not sensible, but depression is not a sensible disorder by any means.

Ein’s Foundation Agility class provided an amazing change for me in the winter of 2012.  One night a week we would drive through the darkness to training class and I could enjoy a whole hour of fun with my dog.  There were nights when I truly felt too gloomy to even go.  But having that scheduled training class each week pushed me to attend and sure enough, as soon as I was there, I was always glad that I went.  Since Ein and I had never done any training beyond home taught basic manners when he was younger, a whole new world was opened up to me.  Our class fluctuated between obedience and rally obedience lessons, and foundation agility skills.  Ein and I not only had our weekly class, but plenty of “homework” to focus on during the rest of the week, and it opened up a whole new world and hobby for me.

For me, anything related to my dogs is fun so they are truly my rock and focus when I feel seasonal depression taking its grip on me.  Below are some of the things that I (try to force myself to) do each winter to fight off those apathetic feelings that creep their way in.

Training Classes
I love to take my dogs to training classes, and I tend to increase on the amount during the winter time.  There are so many types of dog training classes out there from basic obedience, to tricks and manners classes, to the more focused dog sport classes.  Currently I attend two agility classes per week and may add something else in there during the most depressing and cold of the winter months.  It is so valuable to me to be able to escape the cold and darkness into a bright training building to work and play with my dog.

Tricks, Tricks, Tricks!
I don’t think enough can ever be said about how relaxing and bonding trick training can be.  The benefit of those good feelings is doubled for me during winter time.  If you are goal focused, as I tend to be, you can even work on Trick Dog Titles!  More than a few Team Unruly dogs have enjoyed achieving them and it can keep you in good ideas of what trick to work on next.  I have been pulled out of many a gloomy mood by forcing myself to pick up the clicker and play around with shaping a trick with one of my dogs.

Therapy Visits
I have mentioned that Perri is a registered therapy dog and taking her to visit senior citizens in nursing homes has as much benefit for me as it does for them.  Perri and I make her visits year-round, usually one time per week.  I love our visits always, but in the winter time it is more special and heart warming than usual for me to enjoy the happiness that my dog can bring to people.

Dog Projects
I love to make things for my dogs, even if I do find some projects to be a little overwhelming.  We have a whole range of posts on dog projects that you can enjoy doing, and your dog will appreciate whatever you make for him!  Baking dog treats is also very relaxing for me in the winter time – it makes the house warm, it smells good, and my dogs never turn their noses up at a tasty home baked treat.

Part of the reason I get so downcast in winter is because I am cut off from my walks in the woods, and that means that the amount of exercise that my dogs and I get is reduced also.  Keeping my dogs in good shape is very important to me, and conditioning indoors is just as fun for us as trick training is.  Sarah wrote an excellent post in July about some conditioning exercises and tools, and FitPaws is a great resource for equipment and training advice.

Got Poodle?
I certainly never added Perri to my family to fight my SAD, but her ever growing coat does keep me busy.  I can easily burn away two to three hours on a total bath, blow out and groom on Perri.  I enjoy spending the time with her and trying new ideas with her coat and keeping her as nice looking as a “tomboy woodland poodle” can manage.
Each winter the transition is difficult for me.  I am losing my outdoor training sessions, my quickie evening hikes, my dog swimming time and just the simple enjoyment of being outside without my nose hurting.  I hate it, it sucks.  But my dogs motivate me to do some things that make it suck a little bit less, and I am so grateful to have them.

Good Dog Habits

The internet is full of discussion about bad habits dogs have. There are articles talking about how to deal with dogs who pull on leashes. There are studies about separation anxiety and the way it causes beloved pets to act out. There is debate about different training methods used to eradicate these behaviors. There are multiple TV shows dedicated to ‘problem dogs’ and how to fix them.

But what about good dog habits? What are behaviors that “good dogs” display that make their owners happy?

Now, my dogs are far from perfect. They do plenty of things that make me batty. However, there are also things they do that make me very, very happy. Herbie, for example, absolutely will not take a piece of food without permission. You could literally drop a steak on the floor six inches in front of her face and she won’t touch it unless you say ‘ok’. And Julio? His big feet need to be wiped off when he comes in the house from a muddy play date, and he’ll stand completely still and hand each paw over for a wipe-down when he sees that towel.

So today I’m going to take a moment to talk about good doggy habits that I wish all dogs had! I’m not saying my dogs do all of these (I wish!) or that a dog that doesn’t do one or more (or any!) of these is a bad dog. They’re just nice things that I appreciate about dogs I’ve met over the years. Many of these are safety-based, both for the humans and the dogs in the equation.


1. Barking (or lack thereof).
There is a time and place for barking. I absolutely want my dogs to alert me if there’s a stranger at the door. I do not want my dogs to bark for no reason. I appreciate a quiet dog, and have had a few people ask me if Herbie knows how to bark (of course she does!) Animal Control came by once and later told me, “I saw your dog wagging her tail inside the front door, but I never would have known you had one otherwise!” I replied, “I actually have two dogs.” Only barking when there’s a reason for it is especially important if you’re living in close quarters with other people, like in an apartment building.

2. Waiting at the door. 
Door rushing can be a very dangerous behavior, both for the dog and for the people coming through the door. Imagine coming in with an armload of groceries and getting bowled over upon entering the house! Worse, imagine a dog rushing outside and into oncoming traffic! I love a dog who can look out a wide-open door and not go sprinting through it! A simple “wait” command goes a long way here, and I love to see dogs who don’t leave the house without permission!

3. Loose leash walking.
No pulling, no struggle for control, pleasant, peaceful walks. ‘Nuff said!

4. Waiting for permission to take food. 
Another instance in which a “wait” command is useful. Gobbling anything that falls on the floor can be dangerous for dogs, so it’s good if your dog can resist the urge to scarf down anything that smells tasty. This good habit also prevents fingers from getting snatched and makes feeding time less of a free for all!

5. Not begging.
Along the same lines, I will feed you when I feed you, and begging is unnecessary! This behavior can get annoying very quickly, and if you have a dog that drools (JULIO!) it’s especially unpleasant. I am extra impressed by dogs who lay quietly out of sight during meal times. I’m all for hand feeding and sharing human food, but it should be on my terms! Not begging also means no dogs under foot when cooking and carrying around hot food or sharp knives!

6. Polite greeting. 
Meeting new people (and dogs) can be very exciting! With that said, I really appreciate a dog who does it with four feet on the ground, without jumping or shoving or humping.

7. Crating well. 
I love to see a dog who goes willingly into his crate. My two both know a ‘go to your crate’ command. It also makes me happy to see dogs sleeping happily and quietly in their ‘dens’ once they’re in them. I like to see crates used as safe places, and a dog that crates politely is a must in our house!

8. Letting go. 
I love a rousing game of tug, and so do my dogs, but there’s nothing worse than a dog that just won’t let go of something. Teaching a ‘release’ command, such as ‘give’, ‘leave it’, or ‘drop it’ is very important to any dog, but especially for ones with high drive and/or powerful jaws! I knew a lab who not only released things as soon as you asked for them, but would put them exactly where you indicated you wanted them (in your hand, in the toy basket, in a specific spot on the ground, etc.)

9. Recall. 
Obviously we all want dogs to come when they’re called, but in a very leash-based society this is something that is not always enforced. I like a dog that comes the first time you call it, regardless of what distractions are going on. This is easier said than done, and it’s something we spend a lot of time working on at home.

10. Sit, down, stay.
These are three commands that I think any dog in any lifestyle benefits from knowing. A dog that will promptly and effectively do these things is off to a good start, and they are commands I like to instill from day one!


What about you, dear readers? What are your favorite ‘good dog habits’? Does your own dog have a good behavior that makes you smile every time? Here’s your chance to brag! We’d love to hear them.


I have found my joy, and his name is Steve.

Years ago, when Steve was young and completely insane and I was new to agility and new to the special kind of insanity that is Border Collies, I had a trainer completely steal my joy. The club where I took obedience and rally also ran an agility program, and the instructors were some pretty accomplished people– multiple championship titles, Nationals, even someone who has been to Worlds. It was natural that I would just start off my agility journey there.

Very bad plan. Very bad. They begin with what they call Foundations, which is exactly the skills that it should be, but the problem is they have six young, green dogs all trying to

Big air Steve

Big air Steve

work, usually offleash, at the same time. Steve, young and overly excited about anything and everything that moved tasked with rear-foot-targeting a small board OVER AND OVER AND OVER again… well… let’s just say that didn’t keep him very occupied.

I did a lot of mat work with him. I did a lot of control unleashed games with him. But what it came down to was that there was no way for me to keep this dog under threshold far enough for him to learn much of anything with the class set up the way it was.

And none of the instructors either could understand that or were able to honor that and help me work around it.

We finally made it out of Foundations after several sessions and moved into Beginner 1. This class involved stringing several jumps together, maybe in a big circle. Stever dropped probably 85% of the jumps. So they found me special jumping instruction. She was going to teach my dog how to jump.

Never did anyone address that my dog was so over threshold that his brain was gone and the only thing his body wanted to do was GO AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.

I left class crying week after week.

I was taken out of the class and set aside and told to work on my relationship problems with my dog.

My heart broke. I got this dog to play agility with him, and I had failed completely before I ever got started.

They missed it. They missed it completely. The problem was not my dog, not at all. It was not me. I was doing everything I knew how to do.

The problem was the setting. The problem was instructors who just didn’t get it. Nowhere along the line did anybody suggest a different class, or private lessons. That was what he needed. No one said anything about thresholds.

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

I quit. I left class crying yet again and I never went back.

Finally after some encouragement from friends, I switched to another training club. I went to meet the instructor to see if my dog was broken. He wasn’t. He ran beautifully alone in her training building. What?

So we joined her classes. One dog in the ring at a time, for the most part. The rest of the dogs crated either in the building or out of it, depending on the dog.

And yeah, he was high at first. WOOHOO AGILITY! He crashed a lot of jumps. But as he learned the game, as he learned the environment, he started to settle.

And we made progress. I stopped crying. My dog learned. I learned.

Somehow, I had an agility dog.

We’re nothing amazing. I don’t like to trial, so he has a couple CPE titles and a couple legs in USDAA Performance 1 Gamblers (and I think 1 in Standard).

Here’s his first USDAA Gamblers run ever. (fast forward to about 50 seconds in)

Now most of the agility we do is on our own, just playing around in the training building, running whatever course is leftover from classes. I like it. He likes it. It works.

Recently I’ve put him back in Rally Obedience classes again. I love the instructor. I love the sport. Steve is a smartypants who pretty much knows all the exercises (he has one Rally Excellent leg, and I just haven’t managed to get out of bed to make it to another trial). But it’s good for him to go brain, and it’s good for me to go play with him in public.

And play we do. Sometimes, our play gets caught on camera, like it did before class last week. We were just warming up, fooling around, getting ready for class. The instructors husband caught us on film.



(and before anyone says it, yes, he forges terribly and no, I don’t care)

And what do you know, my old agility instructor, the one who broke my heart and stole my joy? She saw it and she commented on the “long way” that Steve and I have come and that it was “impressive”. And that would feel good if it were coming from somebody else, coming from someone who supported us and believed in us from the beginning. But she is somebody that we worked hard *despite* of, somebody that broke us down instead of lifting us up.

Steve and I? We didn’t need to work on our relationship. We have that in spades and we always have. We just needed somebody who understood what we needed to help that relationship shine in a particular environment.

I am so lucky to have this amazing dog in my life, and I am so very very grateful to have found people who would build us up, who would work through the hard stuff, who would sing his praises and help me toward achieving what I wanted with him.

That is what everyone trying to train a dog deserves, whether you’re just trying to learn basic manners in a beginner obedience class or you’re trying to learn a complicated game like agility. Respect. Honoring of your special relationship with your dog. Encouragement. Knowledgeable advice appropriate to your situation. We are not all cookie-cutters. We all deserve to be treated and taught as individuals.

Behavior 101 #2: Simple Schedules of Reinforcement, Extinction

Hopefully by now you’ve had some practice identifying how the four quadrants of reinforcement and punishment play an integral part of your everyday life. If you need a refresher, feel free to review HERE. Last time, we talked briefly about how a reinforcer may hold more value to one individual, but may not be of value at all to another individual. Making sure to choose effective reinforces is a must for any behavior change intervention. Often a behavior analyst will do what is known as a preference assessment along with the initial assessment. A preference assessment involves repeated presentation of various potential reinforcers, and data is taken on how much the individual interacts with each given item, and if that item is freely chosen over other available items. This isn’t done with just people or dogs; research into the animal behavior world has even involved preference assessments of Galapagos turtles (for those interested- the preference assessment showed that one turtle preferred having his shell rubbed, while another turtle in the study preferred being sprayed with the hose.

Generally, things like food/edibles, shelter, water, and sexual stimulation all fall under the category of ‘primary’ reinforcers. This means that these things are genetically hardwired into most of us to act as reinforcers. This isn’t to say that pizza or candy will be a reinforcer for everyone, but with a few extreme cases, I haven’t met too many people that don’t like to eat at least every so often (I have, however, worked with kids who don’t eat at all. Period. So just because it’s a primary reinforcer doesn’t mean it will act as one for an individual).

Most other reinforcers fall into the category of secondary reinforcers (or conditioned reinforcers). Secondary reinforcers are things that, by themselves, have no reinforcing power, but through the use of pairing, have become reinforcers. Can you think of the most commonly used conditioned reinforcer? We use it everyday. I’ll give you a hint- it’s green (at least, in the US it is!). If you guessed money, then you were correct! Money is a very powerful secondary reinforcer, because it holds unlimited access to other conditioned or primary reinforcers (it’s also a generalized reinforcer, but we’ll talk about generalization later). If you hadn’t been taught at some point that money is a means of buying things you wants and/or need, then all money would be to you is a piece of paper. Hand money to a 3 month old. Does it have any value to them? Other than maybe an interesting texture (or taste?), you probably won’t have a very effective intervention if reward a baby with a dollar bill every time he makes eye contact.

Reinforcers can be conditioned by a process called pairing. Pairing involves simultaneous presentation of the primary reinforcer with the one to be conditioned. Most clicker trainers will be familiar with this process from their early stages of working with a new dog. A click noise by itself holds no value to a dog that has never heard it before, or has never had it paired. The click itself is not reinforcing. What clicker-trained dogs have been taught to understand is that the click means a food reward is coming. Initially, when you are starting out, you must pair the food (or ball, or whatever primary reinforcer you’re using) with the sound of the click. This is usually achieved by firing the clicker in rapid succession with the presentation of the primary reinforcer. Also called ‘loading’ the clicker. What it does is teach the dog that the sound equals a reward. It pairs the stimuli together.

A paired reinforcer

A paired reinforcer

I’m sure most people are aware of Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov conditioned a dog to a bell by feeding the dog every time the bell was rung. After enough times of hearing the bell and being presented with food, the dogs would begin to drool in anticipation of being fed. This is often referred to as Pavlovian conditioning.

Pairing isn’t just done with reinforcers, but with punishers as well. We can have conditioned punishers, just like we have conditioned reinforcers. We use this process throughout the day, most likely without realizing it. A speeding ticket is a conditioned punisher, as the presentation of one usually limits the future amount of time we spend going above the posted speed limit sign. A car horn is another conditioned reinforcer. A parent’s warning could be another (“wait ‘till your father gets home!” sent most of scuttling to our rooms and generally effectively stopped whatever behavior tended to bring upon the wrath of the offended parent). Of course, a conditioned punisher or reinforcer will loose its value if it’s not regularly backed up with the primary reinforcer/punisher. If your parent warned you enough times, but Dad never cared about your antics when he returned home, chances are, after a time, you didn’t care when Mom said that, and you just continued on with your shenanigans until somebody put an eye out. The punisher lost its effectiveness, because it was never backed up with the actual punisher to which it had been paired. You can probably guess that this is called ‘unpairing.’ Never fear, it’s simple to re-pair a conditioned reinforcer.

The more items a conditioned reinforcer can be paired with, the more powerful that conditioned reinforcer will become. A paper bill that only buys you a drink of water is nice, if you’re thirsty (we’ll talk about motivating operations another day) but a paper bill in the form of a $1 bill, which can be spent on limitless things from gum to soda to cheap dollar store toys, or even saved for bigger and better things, will be a more effective reinforcer. And, naturally, $100 will generally be more effective than $1 when it comes to maintaining the behavior that got the money in the first place.

This reinforcer is pretty worthless to Dierdre. As you can see, she's tasting it. Other than the novel fun of shredding it, this wouldn't motivate her to retain behavior. However, it would probably be more reinforcing to you or me!

This reinforcer is pretty worthless to Dierdre. As you can see, she’s tasting it. Other than the novel fun of shredding it, this wouldn’t motivate her to retain behavior. However, it would probably be more reinforcing to you or me!

Of course, there is a limit to how effective a reinforcer is given the behavior that it was presented for. If you only got paid $1 a day to go to work, I’m going to guess that that’s probably not enough to keep you going to work, even in this economy (especially if today’s cost of living continued to be what it is). Maybe if you really loved your job, but then your reinforcement would most likely be coming from somewhere else, such as social attention, praise, or a rewarding feeling (e.g. volunteer work). Even if you offered me $5 a day to snuggle puppies all day, I’d still probably turn you down, simply because that involves leaving my house and I love to sleep. Sleeping and being at home is worth more to me than $5 and some puppy snuggles. Ok, there are times I’d get out of bed for this for free, but that usually because I haven’t done so in awhile, so I’m deprived of the secondary reinforcer in this scenario- puppy snuggles. Give me a few days of doing it and I’ll quickly become satiated and it will loose its reinforcing value. Puppies are a lot of work!

Now, to dabble a bit into what’s known as organizational behavior (a.k.a. the behavior of workers/employees), we see this play out every day in the wages paid for different jobs. Less desirable and more demanding jobs, and/or jobs requiring much more initial effort in terms of education, higher degrees, etc. often net the larger paychecks. And I don’t mean ‘fast food worker’ less desirable so much as ‘septic tank scuba diver’ less desirable. There’s only so little money you can pay someone to suit up and scuba dive in a tank full of human waste before they call it quits. (Yes, this is a job that actually exists. Mostly in Australia. Gotta love their adventurous, hard-working spirit, that’s for sure!). This is also the reason why often (not always, but often) you find poorer customer service and lower morale at locations that pay poor wages. Research shows that companies that pay higher wages and provide benefits have higher morale among their employees, better customer service, and less turnover, such as Starbucks and Costco. More effort equals higher reinforcement equals continued effort on the part of the individual.

If your dog exerts a lot of effort for a behavior (say, a variable surface track, or a utility dog obedience routine) and is met with very little reinforcement, the dog’s quality of work may decline. The work and effort is not worth the reinforcement. So how do we get around having to give the dog a cheeseburger for every agility jump, thus creating a 200-pound porker that knocks down all the rails because his belly hangs so low? We institute reinforcement schedules. These can be fixed or variable, with a frequency or time interval, and all have their pros and cons. Chances are pretty good that, at your job, you’re on a fixed ratio with regards to your pay. You are probably getting paid on a weekly, bi-monthly, every 2 weeks, whatever schedule. If it’s always the same, every pay period (excluding bank holidays and whatever kinks get thrown in there) then you’re on a fixed ratio reinforcement schedule. If you give a puppy a treat every other time the dog sits, then you’ve placed the puppy on a fixed ratio schedule of 2. Every 2 behaviors nets the pup a treat. We usually write this as FR-2. At my job I get paid every week, so I’d be on a fixed ration of FR-7, every 7 days, I get paid. This can vary widely, but there comes a point where, eventually, a FR schedule is too high to control the behavior. If you dog only got rewarded every 150th time he ran a challenging variable-surface track, he’d probably ‘forget’ how to track. The ratio is not high enough to maintain the behavior. Finding the happy medium by gradually fading the reinforcement is required.

A more effective ratio of reinforcement is a variable ratio of reinforcement. A variable ration (VR) is still written as a number, say 5, but that will only be the average ratio, not the constant ratio. The dog may get rewarded for sitting on the 3rd time, on the 6th time, on the 4th time, on the 5th time and on the 7th time. The average ratio is 5, but the frequency varies. This keeps the individual guessing as to when the reward will come. This time? No. This time? No. This time? YES! All right, I got it!! This time? No. Because the individual keeps guessing, the behaviors maintain throughout several instances of non-presentation. Variable ratio schedules are the most resistant to extinction.

Extinction is what we call it when a behavior stops being reinforced, and eventually disappears. That behavior becomes extinguished. Often, when you extinguish a behavior, you experience what is called an ‘extinction burst.’ The phrase, “It gets worse before it gets better!” usually refers to an extinction burst. An extinction burst happens when a behavior that typically produces a reinforcer, suddenly stops producing that reinforcer. The organism’s first response will be to try the behavior again. Maybe harder this time. Or faster, or in rapid succession. Anything to try and make that behavior work again. Think of it like a vending machine. Everyday you put a dollar in, press the button, and get a soda. This has been working nicely for you and you’ve become accustomed to getting a soda every day from this vending machine. One day, you put in your dollar, push the button, and nothing happens. What is the usual response? You may push the button again. And again. You may push it harder, you may push it faster, or multiple times in rapid succession. You might try putting in another dollar. You may get mad, try and shake the machine, even kick it, before you finally give up and walk away. This is an extinction burst. You’re usual behavior of putting a dollar n and pushing a button has worked well until now, and when it didn’t work, you escalated the rate and intensity of your behavior until you realized it wasn’t going to work.

We see this a lot in children, especially younger ones. Say you go through the grocery check out, and there’s candy there, and the child wants the candy. The parent says No, and the child starts to kick and scream. The parent is distracted, busy, maybe doesn’t want to deal with it right now, so they give in and buy the candy. The next time they go to the grocery store, they tell themselves, “I’m going to stick to my guns this time. No candy!” When they approach that checkout and the child screams for candy, the parent says No. The kid screams and cries, and when that doesn’t work, they may scream and cry even louder. They may start kicking and hitting. They’re going through an extinction burst.

Extinction bursts are usually responsible for many people believing that what behavior intervention they’re doing is not working, when in reality, you know it IS working because the presence of the extinction burst means that you’ve blocked the reinforcer maintaining the behavior and you just need to be persistent and wait for the behavior to extinguish. This can take time, and of course, in some instances, such as self-injurious behavior, the risk of injury is far too great and a different intervention must be tried.

Sometimes ignoring an attention-maintained behavior can be rough, such as trying to ignore a barking puppy in a crate while you wait for them to be quiet before you let them out. You don’t want to let them out while they’re barking and therefor inadvertently reinforce the barking, but you just can’t stand the barking. In instances like these we try to elicit the behavior we want, often through prompting, or by offering an alternative or incompatible behavior. For barking dogs, I usually toss a blanket over the crate, which distracts them enough for them to settle down for a moment while they try and figure out what just happened, and then reward the quiet with praise and letting them out.

Interval ratios of reinforcement involve amounts of time, rather than presentations of behavior. Instead of rewarding a dog for every 3rd sit, maybe you’re rewarding for every 30 seconds of a solid down-stay. This would be a fixed interval of 30 seconds. FI-30. Of course, interval ratios can come in the variable form as well, and are also the most resistant to extinction. When you’re proofing that down-stay for competition, chances are you’ll use variable intervals to make sure your dog stays for however long you leave them there- 30 seconds or 10 minutes. These are also written as the average number, so VI-5 for an average of every 5 minutes (or 5 seconds!).

There is also fixed and variable time ratios. In these scenarios, the organism is rewarded on that time ratio regardless of whether or not the behavior has occurred. Feeding your dogs dinner might be on a fixed or variable time ratio. If you feed your dog dinner everyday at 5, regardless of their behavior that day (did they chew a pillow? Or were they a perfect angle while you were gone? Either way- you’re going to feed them!) they’re on a fixed time ratio. If you’re more like me, and feed them generally sometime in the evening (6? 7? 8:30?) then they’re on a variable time ratio. Of course if your dogs are anything like mine, they start campaigning for dinner around 5:30ish, or as soon as I get home from work. The closer to when they believe dinner should be, the more intense the behavior gets. This is typical of a variable time ratio- the closer to the approximate time to when the reward should appear, the more intense and stronger the behavior will get. Then, after the reward appears, the behavior diminishes or disappears entirely until closer to when the end of the next interval will be (the following morning, about 8am, my dogs are back to campaigning!).

Next time you go to train, think about how you’re using these simple schedules of reinforcement throughout your training session. Next time, we’ll talk about compound schedules of reinforcement, as well as different types of differential reinforcement!