Two Sniffin’ Dogs — and a Training Aid in an Oak Tree

I put some simple cadaver training aids out in a cooperative neighbors’ big backyard last week: some carpet, a few teeth, dirt, a sheet. I ran first Coda, then Solo. I knew that Solo might track Coda but wouldn’t be distracted by the knowledge that a dog had come before him. It wasn’t a challenging training for either him or me. It was a chance for him to stretch his legs and get happy.
I haven’t trained the two dogs one right after the other often. That’s because I don’t have an SUV to cart them around together when I go to K9 trainings. The Camry is still our dogmobile. The two dogs have different needs, and I’ve spent the past eight months prioritizing Coda’s getting used to all sorts of search environments and bonding. Plus, learning to mind me. I have trouble multi-tasking anyway, so I’m only occasionally frustrated by our transportation limitations. I do know people who can train and work two dogs. Or more. I admire them. I am not them.
Today, I loved being able to work both dogs in turn. I also realized the differences between them. They both found the hides. Since I often let Solo work at a distance from me, he will sometimes run back to find me, once he’s found the aid, and then go back in for his final alert. Sometimes, I can fling his tug toy from 20 feet away if I limber up my arm. That was the case today. Since I’m still working Coda on a long lead, I do have to move in behind her. I’m rewarding her right now with desiccated liver right at the source. The smell of the liver in my pocket is her best cue what game we are playing. I only use the liver for scent training, so even before I tell her, “Go find your squirrel!” she’s ready. I move in behind her once she’s found her “squirrel,” and if she’s not in a down, gently encourage her before I start giving her several pieces in a row.That’s to reward, but also to encourage her not to paw at the training aid — or try to devour it. She doesn’t leave the source. I like that.
Dogs work differently, of course. Duh, I knew that. Yet, somehow, when it’s your own dogs working so differently, it’s ever so much clearer. It was fun seeing those differences up close last week. It’s not just that Coda is just a year old, and Solo now nine and a half, although that matters, too. Solo is a skeptic at this point in his career: ever-suspicious about where scent is the strongest. He works from the outer perimeters in, and once he hits scent, he slows down immediately. If he finds the hide and it’s something that emits faint scent, he’ll check just outside the scent pool to confirm before coming back for a final alert. It’s pretty clear he’s ruling out areas; making sure his final choice is the right one.
I found the picture above from Solo’s early days of training — he was less than a year old, coming in on a hide in the rocks. I remember the joy and abandon with which he would fling himself into an alert in those early days. It’s not that he has lost that joy, but speed no longer matters to him quite as much. Or to me. He now wants to be sure. He’s like a thoughtful student who goes over the quiz one final time before handing it in; or a veteran reporter who double-checks his sources.
Coda is snotty and certain; she’s a natural. It’s too early in her training for her to even consider that air currents might trick her. She may realize at some point that it might not be that easy, but for now, she doesn’t doubt or query her nose when she gets into source scent. It’s not that she flings herself as Solo did as a youngster. But the map she draws of her scent world appears nonetheless entirely consumed with the here and now, rather than the what ifs. I’m pleased that her map, for all its limitations, is three-dimensional: not flat, but a nice globe. If scent is high, she’ll levitate and climb along walls; she leaps onto whatever is nearby to get closer to it. She ignores me entirely. She moves in on the hide and likes to paw or try to sample it if it’s accessible. She’s like a toddler: happy to experience the world through her mouth, not just her nose. Liver has been the best substitute for the hide that she finds to start to discourage that tendency. Long term, I’m hoping for a toy that will be as meaningful to her as liver. That way, my pockets won’t reek. I also remember to remove the toys before I run the pants through the washing machine.

That’ll Do

Away from MeI have second dog syndrome, and Coda is my fourth shepherd. I am such a beginner. Again. At 11 months old, Coda remains an enigma and a challenge. One friend, listening to my admiring, yet rueful description of her, said that she sounded like a young raven or a crow. Beautiful, smart, wary, clever, and as shiny as a patent leather shoe. Even though she’s pure black, she reflects light. She learned early that if she dropped a marrow bone from some height onto the concrete floor of our house, she might knock the marrow right out of the bone. A corvid trick she’s applied to all her toys, though she hasn’t yet learned to drop rocks into something to raise the water level, like the old Aesop’s fable. That’s coming, though.
She’s so fleet of foot that she seems to fly, sometimes. Terrifyingly, at times, it’s away from me. She has a rear end that looks more like Betty Boop’s than a raven’s tail, so how she moves so fast is a mystery. When she’s walking, it waggles like an off-kilter planet, with loose unctuousness. She loses that waggle when she speeds up. All of a sudden, she’s low and straight and swift, like a panther.
Coda can be utterly charming—flinging herself on me with abandon, wanting me to put my head down so she can lick my ears, or lying on her back, her white teeth flashing, eyes rolling, bubblegum pink tongue lolling out of her mouth, leaping over to her crate, and pushing the door latches over, and flipping the door open with her nose, so she can get ready for the peanut butter bone I’m preparing. Occasionally, she will gaze up with such affection when she’s heeling that it gives my heart a brief hitch, and I momentarily see what our relationship might be like. Her nose and her hunt drive? Both are over the top. I’ve trained her on old bones, on buried hides, on faint scent that so faint I wonder whether she’ll recognize it. She does; focusing on scent work isn’t a problem. But right now, unless we are training in an abandoned warehouse, she is constrained on a long lead or parachute cord. I have little rope burns around my ankles and my fingers, though I’ve created training gloves out of gardening gloves.
I’ve never had a German shepherd who didn’t reliably come when called, who thinks that chasing wild things is far better than tug toys, better than smelly liver treats, far better than anything I can offer. Far better, especially, than me. Perhaps I can be more exciting as pee on a tree, as one K9 trainer exhorts me to be, but I can’t be more exciting than a bunny running. Prey drive, her breeder, Kathy Holbert, told me, is tough. Coda comes by it honestly, genetically; now she needs to re-channel it, and I need to help.
It’s going to be slow. Obedience, obedience, obedience. Swift correction and redirection when she starts to stare and hackle. At our house, for Coda, every day is a bunny day. For her, it would be worth it to go through the closed window. For me, it’s not so much of a bonne idée. I correct, ask her to do something to refocus on me, and reward. Games when possible. In the meantime, I feel like an old-fashioned parent, the not-fun one, imposing new boundaries, restricting freedom. I have friends inside and outside the dog world who tell me that this is my challenge, like a difficult daughter who will, as an adult, help me run with the wolves. I just want her recall to come back to where it was when she was six months old. I want her current Away From Me (apologies to all experienced herding dogs), to become a That’ll Do.

Welcome to What the Dog Knows Blog

Coda in the woods

Coda as a puppy learning how to search for hidden treats in the woods

The tendons that support my cervical vertebrae are unknotting from weeks of bending over page proofs with a red pencil, wondering whether that little line is an en dash or an em dash, what it should be, and why I care. A chunk of the past three years has been devoted to writing, reporting and editing What the Dog Knows, the book.

Now that the book has moved through my cognitive system like a deer through a python in the Everglades and is in the capable production system at Touchstone and Simon & Schuster, it’s time to start my blog! And train the dogs. And train the dogs. Especially little Coda, who at 10 months, is no longer so little and no longer as cute as she was here, in an early hunt for treats in the woods. If I want her to learn how to hunt for cadaver scent in the woods, she needs to learn that deer are not planted in there for her amusement and pleasure, and that I, her handler, am not an extraneous nuisance to ignore. To her, I am not yet as exciting as pee on a tree, or a rabbit, and I need to be.

My hope for this blog? That, like Coda, it will evolve and be a challenging adventure. I’ll focus on working dogs—cadaver, trailing, law enforcement, conservation ), the good science that’s emerging, the legal and social controversies, and the training and handling issues that arise. Occasionally, I’ll throw in a cute dog picture (see above) or video. I’ll have some guest posts from working dog handlers, trainers, and breeders who know better than I about so many working dog issues.