Tuesday, October 26, 2010

flying Cooper

This photo is distorted but this was Cooper, in harness, and suspended from a beam.  At USAR training last week the dogs took turns being secured in the harness and then lifted.  What you don't see in this photo is that Cooper was wagging his tail the entire time!

Pre as demo dog

Pre rode along with us to the Machtig Strom trial, so that I could work him on a new field, and that was a good decision.  When we arrived at the field, I practiced a send away for the bite pillow and did a little heeling. I told the Club that I would like to work Pre as the demo dog, if possible and at first they said someone else would be doing it, but then said I could.  There was only one SchH1 entry so we went opposite them, and I was directed to do the long down first.

Something flipped a switch with Pre, and as we approached the field, he began to load, barking and hopping.  So, when we took our position for the down, he was amped. I recalled that he had been a little squirrely on the down before, and so instead of turning my back to him I stood sideways. When Minna recalled her dog, Pre started to get up on his elbows, turning slightly. I pointed my finger at him and he layed back down.  But I went to him to straighten out his position and let him know that despite being a trial, I could still do that.  This is one of the beautiful things about going as the demo dog. You can't break out in play on the field, but you can make corrections and praise reasonably and surprise the dog that thinks he/she is untouchable in competition.  You let them know that the correction collar might be absent, but you still have your hands.

He was really squirmy on the down and it took me a minute to make sure the position was straight and calm.  It was clear that he wanted to be up and doing something. anything!  It was a very good opportunity, as he had been perfect on in similar practice on his home field.

When we began heeling, he was still cranked up and started barking and jumping as he walked. Unacceptable! I was able to tell him (quietly) "no", and use my hand on his chin to correct the barking.  By the time we made our about turn, he had settled in properly.  He moved nicely through the group and you can see the contrast in attention between the two dogs.  I made a mistake that I will be sure not to do in the future--- instead of taking the figure eight to the left first as I practice and making it corners rather than rounded, I rounded it off and stepped to the right as the dog was still moving forward. I did this with both Pre and Cooper, losing the dog for a moment. It was captured on film and I immediately recognized my fault in the matter.  It was helpful for my learning, as I will most certainly remember to do this properly in the future. It was so ridiculous to find myself doing exactly what I instruct our club members not to do!  So there is my confession!

We did not continue to the moving exercises because the dog opposite us broke on the long down and had lost too many points in obedience to pass so the judge indicated that we could continue if we wished but there was no need.  I decided that it was more important for Pre's training to end with the heeling, and not reward him with exercises that allowed him to run.  He needs to learn to hold himself together, to cap that drive and sustain it calmly.  If he does that, he will be rewarded by continuing to the active portions.

Training-wise, it was a great opportunity to get Pre out in trial conditions and yet be able to make some corrections.  I wasn't able to simulate it well enough to amp him up on the home field, so in order to prepare him for the big trials I plan to attend in 2011, we will travel to other fields to work. He is fully capable of V-rated phases, and that is my goal. 

Cooper vom Foxtal, FSA, BH.... we're on our way!

1) Train for the title, not the judge
2) If you are worried about passing, you are not ready
3) No excuses. Be a good sport

Last weekend, Tom and I packed up the van and headed for the Quad Cities of Iowa.  Where we landed was Moline, IL, to be exact. I had wanted to get Cooper's BH out of the way this year so we would be free to pursue our working titles in 2011 but time was running out and this was the last opportunity in our area.  In fact, Machtig Strom is not even in our North Central Region.

The office of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America was outstanding. Because I didn't yet have Cooper's DVG scorebook (don't even ask me to explain what a debacle that whole membership has been, trying to get paperwork from Germany!) and suddenly time was upon me and I needed a book.  I contacted the USA office and profusely apologized for my tardiness, prepared to just put down a deposit at the trial.  Not only did they take care of my scorebook, they expedited it. THANK YOU, USA OFFICE!

On Saturday, Cooper lost his sit in motion.  I don't know where it went, but it was lost.  However, I knew that everything else was in order and if we missed that exercise, it would still be fine.  I felt very confident that he would pass.  In our club, we do not train for a BH.  We train for SchH3.  We also train for the requirements of each level, without worrying about having to find Santa Claus.  If you attempt a BH wondering if you will pass, you are not ready, in my opinion.  Schutzhund is a balancing act;  for every minute you address an issue in one phase, there is something to be challenged in another.  Sometimes you have to step forward knowing that things are not perfect, but you try to ensure that they are as close to perfect as they can be at the moment.

It rained hard on the drive down. It was raining still on Sunday morning and although I had my lovely pink and black rain suit, I hoped not to have to wear it all day!  Luckily, the rain stopped before we began.  The trial field is at the airport.  Obedience was done in a clearing between two stands of trees.  Immediately on the other side of the trees was an unfenced football field, complete complete with goalposts where the protection work was done, so I am not sure why we didn't use that instead. 

 The area where we did obedience felt more like an area you would take your dogs for a break, and in fact, a dog was doing exactly that before we began. Instead of complaining, you ask: what does this teach me about being prepared?  You need to practice in areas that do not have visual cues for the dog so that they understand that, no matter where they are, if you ask for obedience, that is what they do.  The caution to that in training is that you must reward the dog for simple exercises they know when you first do this, so that they learn new places are FUN and not a source of correction.

So, I took Cooper out and did a little heeling there, fast and happy and with reward.  If I was trialing for a working title I get the dog over the jumps and do a send-away. I had Pre along, and since he needs new field experience, I did a send-away for a pillow there, as well, and a little heeling. Cooper was competing opposite another dutch shepherd and a very nervous handler.  I won't go into detail as to their work except to say that the judge did grant them a pass, but they were not ready for a BH on a new field.  Cooper did very well and I was so happy with his performance! He remained attentive throughout the routine, which is quite lengthy as it involves both on and off leash obedience.  He lost the sit.  I turned around, and there he was, standing.  He was rock solid, and didn't move, and it was indeed an incredible stand in motion, but he had been requested to sit.  I could only smile as I walked back to him.  That is one thing I have definately learned in competition; don't let the dog see your worry or anger, no matter what they do.  My little Cooper-man would melt if he saw me walking back angrily.  If it was Quinn, he would be up on his toes, ready to defend his honor!  Either way, I just paste that smile on my face, make a conscious effort to relax my body posture, and just go on from there.  Yes, we have things to work on, but they are all easily worked and not a lack of foundation.

The judge complimented Cooper's drive and training.  The traffic portion was a breeze in comparison to what he had just passed in CT with the FSA.  In fact, this traffic portion was shorter and easier than most. We walked in a parking lot as a car, bicyclist and jogger passed and then we stopped to converse with the vehicle driver. We moved the dogs informally in and out of a group of people, and did a tie-out with a neutral dog. 

In the tie-out, you are able to tell your dog to "down" (unlike the FSA), so I removed Cooper's leash, told him to down and walked away.  Let me repeat:  I removed Cooper's leash, told him to down.... and walked away.  Did you catch that?  When I returned, after Al had walked his adult male dog back and forth in front of Cooper, I noticed that the tie out was laying next to Cooper. Not attached.  Oops! I had forgotten to secure him!  Thank goodness, he knows his long down!

I'm glad to have that step behind us.  I love medallions and certificates, and things that document that first step for a dog but we didn't receive any.  I might have to visit the trophy shop and make my own!  I was once again, very proud of this stripey boy that I bred myself, who is so willing to try whatever I ask of him.  He's a darned good dog.

Another great track for Pre

My friend, Sue, layed a track for her SchH3 dog across a short grass field.  An hour or so later, she returned to run the track.  When that was finished, I ask another handler-- a man who has never layed a track for Pre-- to put down a track over the top of Sue's.  The track had two long legs that crossed her track 3 times on each leg.  On the first leg there were three articles, and on the second leg, four.  From the 3rd article of the second leg, the track continued across an asphalt walking/biking path and ended with a tracking favorite that doubles as an article, a tin of sardines!

I tracked Pre using only a chain collar. His speed now is consistent without being a speed-race. I used very small articles and saw that he does need to see very small articles in the future, as he was slightly crooked on two after registering their presence belatedly.   He will be seeing those again.  Still, the cause for celebration was that he did not give so much as a head check at the multiple cross tracks that bisected ours.  And, from the re-start at the third article, I let the line drag behind him and watched as he methodically worked the track, continued across the path and downed at the sardine tin. Success!

Tracking with Pre

You're wondering who Pre is.  I know you are!  Pre is a male Belgian Malinois owned by my friend, Sam L, who is off to Law School and who generously left Pre in my care so that I can compete with him.  I've *known* Pre since he was a youngster and watched them grow as a team. Sam is a gifted dog trainer and Pre is a very talented dog. It is unfortunate that they weren't able to see this journey to its completion together.  I have some big expectations to meet, however!

                       This is Sam asking Pre to "sit pretty"

We've been doing quite abit of tracking, mostly because we will have all winter to break down obedience exercises.  I don't often have photographs of our work because, well, I'm WORKING. Unlike a trial or even a seminar where there are people taking photographs, I don't have that luxury when I am out by myself or with my training partner, Sue.  I finally asked Sue to use her cell phone and get his picture of Pre doing a track on dirt.

This was a difficult track, and Pre's first on this type of surface that I am aware of.  Because of this, I had adequate food reward; I wanted the track to challenge but not beat him.  The farm field had been turned over and had huge furrows.  I laid the track walking on top of the furrow ridge, knowing the scent would pool in the bottom of the trough and pull the dog off, if he did not stay exactly true to source.  I laid one long leg which crossed a hay covered field break, continued in dirt and  ended with a right turn that contined about 15 feet into grass.  I think I had 3 articles down on the dirt leg.

Pre handled the track wonderfully.  He worked at the source of the odor and was not drawn into the trough, downed quickly on articles, even though he had to balance himself on the top of the ridge, finding that as challenging as I had to walk it!  There were two instances when he became distracted.  Once it was due to roadway traffic that caught his attention and once was simply a brain fart (unknown etiology.  yes, that is a technical term) .  Since Pre knows what his job is, I made a line slap that broke his reverie and sent him back to work, and that was sufficient.  When I can feel on the line that he is "checking out" I simply put more back pressure on the line and he pulls against the pressure..  That seems to be working well, and his speed is now consistent and measured.

The cutest thing he does on a track is something Sam taught him at the article indication.  When the reward is being "rained", if there is a pause, Pre sticks his nose to the ground as a trained behavior.  I'm using that now as part of his re-start posture, placing food just ahead of his paws and also between his legs and when he shows me the nose-down position, he is granted permission to begin tracking again.  What began as a cute default behavior is now adding to his calm re-start.

Cooper Passes FSA in CT

On October 9, 2010 the team of Debra Krsnich and Cooper vom Foxtal successfully completed the FSA certification at a SUSAR test in Connecticut.

Besides an exercise in acronyms, that single sentence is so powerful. It speaks to the commitment to the State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance and the Wisconsin Task Force to which they belong; to the breeding program that produced this dog; the versatility of a dog that was trained in schutzhund and can transfer those skills to a different venue; the memory of the great dog that preceeded him; and finally, to one weekend in time when a dog and handler emerged as a Team.

Cooper vom Foxtal was born on July 30 2007, a wiggly little brindle boy sired by Nico van Neerland (2002 KNPV PH II National Champion) and out of Roya vom Foxtal (SchH A). As a stout youngster he enjoyed beating up on his littermates, his future lay in schutzhund. Although both he and my other puppies sometimes traveled to training at the rubble site in Milwaukee where WI-TF1 trains, it was nothing more than a fun road trip at the time. I was busy training and certifying my Belgian Malinois female, Jinx du Loups du Soleil.

It was Jinx who led me to Urban Search and Rescue (USAR). When I acquired Jinx, my goal was Mondioring. When a friend dragged me along to a “fun day at Rubble Town” sponsored by People and Paws SAR in Milwaukee, I found the disaster search work very interesting but wasn’t sure it would not conflict with ringsport. We flew to College Station, TX for a Canine Search Specialist (CSS) course taught by FEMA instructors, where I discovered that while pursuing ring titles would create conflicts, schutzhund seemed the perfect compliment. By the time Jinx was side-lined in December 2008 with a medial glenohumeral ligament tear and ultimately diagnosed with a peripheal nerve sheath tumor in 2009, she had passed her FSA (Foundation Skills Assessment) and Type 1/CE, as well as having one leg of her MR1 and being the North Central Region Schutzhund 2 Champion.

The Acronyms

FSA is FEMA's "Foundation Skills Assessment". The details of this evaluation (and the CE) can be found on The FSA was formerly FEMA's Type II (Basic) deployment evaluation. However, several years ago, FEMA designated that an "in-house" evaluation and it is essentially a pre-test for the CE. SUSAR operates under certification procedures similar to what FEMA had before - the Type II and Type I system, being a younger system and still in the process of bringing all the dogs up to that level. So, passing the FSA qualifies us as a Type II (Basic) certified disaster search resource for SUSAR and we can be deployed through our state team.

SUSAR stands for State Urban Search and Rescue. SUSAR is the association of state disaster search teams across the US. Most of these teams are funded by and are part of their state's emergency management agency. These teams usually operate the same as FEMA teams with all the same components and similar requirements. In an emergency in your state, it is likely that the state-based teams will have the initial response, as FEMA stages.

CE means Certification Evaluation. This is FEMA's deployment evaluation for disaster search canines and handlers. When you pass this test, it means you are a deployable resource through FEMA, if you are a member of a FEMA Task Force.It also means that you will be a Type I (Advanced) resource through SUSAR. Because I am not within the mandatory response area for an existing FEMA team, I belong to WI-TF1, a SUSAR Task Force.

Waiting in the Wings

As I devoted so much time to Jinx’s surgeries and rehabilitation, Cooper waited in the wings. He was not titled in schutzhund as quickly as he would have been, had I been able to focus on his training but we continued working in our club, Fox Valley Police & Schutzhund Club. With Jinx diagnosed with cancer, and dying in May of 2010, I needed another disaster dog. Cooper was confident on the rubble and had many of the tools I would need, thanks to his schutzhund training, so he received the nod to step up. Still, he existed in the shadow of Jinx. At times he surprised me with how quickly he learned a new skill but it was always in the context of a comparison with Jinx. If Cooper felt it, he did not let it affect him and he worked, as always, with a joyful attitude, daring me to recognize the talent in front of me.

The Test

On October 9, 2010 WI-TF1 welcomed two newly certified dog teams: myself with Cooper and Scott Pierson with Xamb (prounounced "Zam") Xamb is a male German Shepherd Dog, and Cooper is a male Dutch Shepherd Dog, bred and trained by the handler. Both teams traveled to CT where they completed their FSA/ Type II Disaster Canine Evaluation through the SUSAR system, under evaluators Konnie Hein and Elizabeth Kreitler. Cooper and Xamb are the second generation of certified dogs for both handlers, having trained previous K9s to Type1/CE. They join Wisconsin's only other SUSAR certified disaster dog, also on WI-TF1, K9 Gretzky and handler Geoff Gardiner.

The FSA exam requires the dogs to successfully complete elements in obedience, direction and control and agility. Testing began with 8 dogs and the teams demonstrated off-lead heeling with speed changes, turns and moving through a group of milling people. Obedience is the foundation for any disaster dog, as they must be able to move through scenes under control of the handler, without demonstrating aggression or fear or being distracted. The dogs are also placed on a tie-out and left without command, to be retrieved by a stranger, to evaluate any potential aggression to humans. Dog aggression is tested by having the teams figure eight around two dog and handler teams, acting as "posts". Both the posted dogs and the heeling dog are evaluated. The dogs must also demonstrate an emergency stop and must immediately show a change of speed and then stop upon command, after being recalled. Some of the dogs clearly struggled with basic obedience but were able to complete the tasks...until the group long down.

Eight dogs lay down next to one another. Eight handlers left their dogs and walked around the corner to wait for the interminable five minute time period to end. First one dog sprinted around the corner, then another. Then the evaluator began retrieving dogs and returning them on leash to their handlers. Finally, three handlers returned to their dogs and three dogs were waiting in perfect position. When I saw Cooper laying there, in perfect, attentive sphinx position, I could have kissed him on the lips. Decorum prevailed and a heartfelt “good boy!” had to suffice. The rules specify which elements can be re-tested and the five dogs were able to make another attempt at the long down, but unfortunately, the results were no different the second time. And then there were three.

Three dogs continued to the bark barrel. The rationale of the bark barrel is to evaluate the bark alert behavior. The bark alert is the only alert method that can be recognized from out of sight, and so an enthusiastic and obvious bark alert is imperative. A person is concealed in a barrel, pipe or similar container where the dog can only smell the person, not see them. The dog is sent from a distance of 25 yards to perform the bark alert. The female pitbull who was up first, ran to the barrel, sniffed and then wandered off to urinate. Fortunately, both Cooper and Xamb were focused on their task to the exclusion of other distractions and barked with focus and persistence. Then there were two.

Only Cooper and Xamb continued from that point as part of the testing, but the evaluators generously allowed the other teams to complete the elements as practice and reward their dogs. During the test, you can only reward your dog with praise except at the bark barrel, where a secondary tug reward is allowed. Scott and I were able to successfully direct our dogs through the testing pattern in Direction and Control and through the elements of the agility course, including climbing a ladder, traversing an elevated plank, moving through tunnel and over unstable footing, among others. Cooper was not sure that the tunnel-- much smaller in diameter than what he was familiar with--- was meant to go through and thought at first he should walk on top of it! In all of the elements the dog must preceed the handler and must also demonstrate a stop and a turn on one.

Of the eight dogs who began the morning together, only Cooper and Xamb moved on to the rubble search. They were joined by a third dog team that needed only to re-test on the rubble. Interestingly enough, all three were Midwest teams.

With the obedience and agility elements completed the teams must then search a 3500-5000 square foot rubble pile simulating a collapsed 3 story structure and locate two victims within 20 minutes. The standard echoes the FEMA requirement of a bark alert indicating the presence of live human scent. The goal of the FSA rubble search is to see that the dog can work independently of the handler. Therefore, the handler remains off the pile at the starting location until the dog has barked a minimum of three times in succession. Xamb and Cooper both moved across the unstable footing, with the pile being completed the night before and still in the process of settling, with confidence and located both victims within the allotted time.

The success of the two WI-TF1 teams at this test, serves to demonstrate what can be accomplished with limited resources. The task force does not boast a large budget or fancy equipment and training center. Most days our victims are drawn from the membership of the wilderness team of People and Paws, and all of my foundation work is done within my schutzhund club. We have only one rubble pile. There were others at the test who face the same struggles and travel great distances to test and train their dogs. We train our own dogs and truly realize the depths of those partnerships.

The Schutzund Connection

In many courses for disaster dog teams, the emphasis now is on “training in drive”. Handlers are taught to play “The Game” (ala Balabanov). Because a disaster dog must work off leash and yet respond quickly and confidently, it is critical that they are taught behaviors motivationally. Pain compliance will not create the dog you need for this work. As you can see by the testing elements, much of it involves exercises we teach in schutzhund. The aspect that is missing is environmental and the challenge to step outside the box in your training thought. My club members have acted as “spotters” as Cooper learned to climb the 6 foot ladder. They provide distractions for obedience. What dog can’t benefit from learning to traverse unstable footing or crossing a teeter-totter? And my directional tables see multi-use as members also use them to teach positions and heel around them as obstacles! The bark barrel is simply a “revier” exercise to a concealed subject, where we teach the dog to respond to scent versus sight. We use tug reward with concealed subjects, so even the method of reinforcement remains consistent.

I believe that handlers who have a foundation in positive schutzhund training, using verbal markers, have a distinct advantage over USAR handlers who lack this. Your dog already knows how to learn, how to engage you. He knows the take direction from you in a search pattern. The behaviors trained in schutzhund compliment USAR throughout the levels.

Out from the Shadow

Cooper and I tested on Sunday for our Type 1/CE. Evaluators do not encourage this because it can be a big leap from the skill set of the FSA search to that test, and statistically there is limited success. However, we had driven all the way to Connecticut and had nothing to lose by trying. In making my decision, I advised evaluators that I would end the test if Cooper appeared to struggle, so that he would get a reward and end the experience positively.

In the Type 1/CE the dog must search two piles of approximately 3500-5000 square feet, simulating the collapse of a three story building. There are 0-6 victims and you do not know how many are in either pile. There are also distractions. In this case the distractions included venison and recently worn clothing. The dog must alert to live human scent only, not human remains or clothing. Safety officers are also on the pile as the dog works, so the dog must only search for inaccessible live human scent. The first pile we searched was the limited access, meaning we had to remain off the pile until the dog alerted us to a located victim, and then we could proceed but had to remain within five feet of that victim to redirect the dog. This search evaluates the ability of the dog to work independently and simulates an unstable area where the handler cannot safely wander around. Cooper entered the pile dynamically and located two victims. After the second, I directed him to move into areas we had not covered and it was clear from his behavior that he had no new scent. As if a shadow was pulled back—the shadow of Jinx—I realized with a start: I trusted my dog!

As Cooper stood before me, his posture telling me there were no more victims to find there, I believed him. It was clear, and we were a Team. I told the evaluators were we had completed that search. Later, I learned we were correct but in my heart, I knew it at the time.

We drove to the second site and began the search of the full-access pile. Due to an accident with one of the first dogs to test, things had run behind and we were rushed to get to the next site without adequate rest. Too late they realized it, but Cooper was already at the pile and not about to relax. I’m sure that will come with more experience, but for the moment, tongue hanging out, he wanted to work. That debris included several busses and interesting spans and crevices. For this search, the handler must present a search strategy, map the search area and debrief. I began with an on-leash air scenting exercise around the perimeter, on the downwind side, letting Cooper convince me he had scent. As we walked, he suddenly stiffened, ears forward and body tense, and pulled toward the pile. I released him and he fairly flew onto the rubble. My bad! I had released the wrong clasp and he still had his collar on, which is not allowed! I had to recall him quickly in order to continue! Fortunately, that obedience foundation paid off. He came back, the collar was removed and he was once again dispatched to the search, locating his first victim. I threw down the tug reward, played at the source of odor, and then sent him off to find another. He located a second victim successfully. Whew! I could tell by the way he was working the scent that there were two more there, and later I advised this in my debrief, identifying the areas, but Cooper did not make a bark alert and therefore did not pass. The scent at those two was diffuse and we were the last dog team of the day to test, so it was not concentrated as the two he located. He had poked his nose right into the location, stood there and looked at me but failed to bark! The poor boy was simply out of gas. Still, I knew what he was telling me. The evaluators were impressed with his agility (squeezing under a bus, one asked “what is he? An anaconda?”) and how we worked the areas together. Cooper never quit.

I went to Connecticut to pass an FSA. I did not imagine that I would come back with the partner I have, who is a phenomenal dog in his own right. We left as a dog and his handler, and returned as a Team.