Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Your SAR puppy

One of the member coordinators of my Search and Rescue team said she often fields inquiries asking what members should look for in a puppy, and asked for group input.  As I formulated a response, I thought that the information would potentially be helpful to a larger audience.  Here is what I would say to the member:

I am so glad that you asked this question!  Both you and your new canine partner will be much happier if you make a good decision, and that decision begins with research. Not every dog is a candidate for SAR.  Begin first with your end of the leash.  Being a dog handler whose actions can make the difference between life and death, or the recovery of a loved one, is serious business.  It isn't about having a dog with a cool vest and playing on the weekends in the woods.  Are you in good health? Are you physically capable of training and working with a dog?  While other types of dog activities can be adapted to physical disability, SAR isn't one of them. 

I won't break your heart yet by asking if you have considered the expense! When I am looking at pups I expect to spend between $1500-3500. Are there cheaper dogs out there? Oh yes, some breeds cost less than others and maybe you will be the lucky one.  The purchase is a minor expense in consideration for what is yet to come, with food and vaccinations, emergency expenses, seminars, crates, toys and travel. Food for thought.  Be certain that you can afford it before having your heartstrings tugged by a puppy. 

I assume if you are asking about becoming a dog handler, that you have attended training and learned what it involves to work with a dog.  If not, start there.  If you lack the commitment to attend training and observe how others handle their dogs then you probably are not going to be reliable as a dog handler.  You may be a better dog owner, as opposed to being a handler.  There is no shame in that, and it is better to realize this before you obtain the wrong dog or potentially put lives at risk.

You've already done this? Terrific!  Most likely you have asked the other dog handlers where they obtained their dogs and what their recommendations are.  Ask advice from the people who are in the position you aspire to.  Don't regale them with stories about your favorite dogs or your opinions about dog training you've never done.  Listen.  DO ask reasonable questions about the care and maintenance, travel and expenses and how a working dog is maintained in the home as opposed to a pet.  Then realize that there may be differences between how each handler answers these questions.  There is no single "right" answer.

The "right" answer depends on you.  Make a practical evaluation of yourself and your lifestyle. If you have owned or trained a dog before, what parts did you enjoy most? least?  what qualities of that dog, or dogs, drove you crazy and which did you appreciate?  Identifying your own temperament as a handler can help to steer you in the direction of the right dog for you.  If you lack patience, an excitable, reactive dog may not be the best choice for you.  Look at your home and lifestyle, as well.  Where will you be keeping this dog?  Do you have other pets in the home?
When you watched the other handlers, what attributes of their breeds attracted you? 

Which breed to choose?  Remember the square peg-round hole concept?  Choose a breed that suits the job.  There are many people competing in dog sports who love a particular breed and will do the best they can in their venues, accepting that the breed may not be the ideal choice. For them the breed is first, the task secondary.  This is fine for sport.  It is entirely unacceptable for SAR.  We cannot cajole and bribe a dog into wanting to search when the day is long and difficult; the desire must be innate to the dog.  The most commonly used dogs are herding and sporting dogs, with hounds joining the ranks as single purpose trailing dogs.   So what do you want to do?  Tracking, trailing, Urban Search and Rescue, detection work (HRD), area search are all examples of the opportunities available to you. What are you interested in?  Next identify the breeds most suited to that task.  If you can't live with spit towels and gobs of saliva spewed on your walls, take the bloodhound off your list no matter what you plan to do; neither of you will be happy. 

All dogs within a breed are not created equally.  There are hounds that are bred specifically for trailing and whose breeders are well-known within SAR circles, and there are hounds bred for conformation shows.  Conformation shows judge a dog on how well they conform to the breed standard.  It does not judge their scenting ability, willingness to work for a handler or any other attribute than movement and appearance. Also, conFIRMation is not the same. Look it up.  They are not used interchangeably and if a breeder tells you the dog has good confirmation, either ask if they are good Catholic dogs or run away screaming!  In most breeds there are splits between the conformation, or "show dogs", and the working dogs.  In some cases, such as the Labrador you have even further divisions which include the show dogs, hunt test dogs, field trial dogs and British dogs.  You need to understand the differences before you go looking for a dog.  There is a distinct difference in the work ethic in a dog that has been bred selectively for generations for scenting ability and hunt drive, and one who has not. 

Once you have selected a breed and a type, familiarize yourself with the abbreviations commonly associated with the working and genetic tests for that breed. The reason for this is so that you can ask good questions and not be overwhelmed or "snowed" by a seller who throws unfamiliar jargon around in order to impress you.  Know the difference between a MH (Master Hunter), FC (field champion) and CH (conformation champion).  Understand if the SchH, VPG or IPO titles (schutzhund) are more important to you than an OTC (obedience trial champion).  Is your breed predisposed to ocular degeneration and require a CERF test, and are the hips and elbows of both sire and dam proven to be free of dysplasia by either OFA or PennHip? 

I prefer to look for working titled parents, whose work I am familiar with. I know what they bring to the table as natural characteristics, and what is a result of training.  One of the most basic things evidenced by a title is the dog's willingness to work with and for a handler, their trainability. You can see this is some certifications, but they will only bear weight if you are familiar with the testing organization and what was required; otherwise it is just an interesting piece of paper.

Will you get a male or a female?  This decision may be made for you by virtue of your personal preference or by the existing animals in the household.  In general-- and this is a broad statement--- males work more independently, but you don't have to deal with estrus (heat period).
If you bring a young female into the home and you already have an unneutered male, you will need to be familiar with the signs of estrus and prevent unwanted mating.  Do your research concerning the effects of an early spay/neuter, as this may affect the working life of your dog.  Early spay/neuter results in more long bone development.  Males do not develop secondary sexual characteristics, and therefore will look more feminine. More importantly, it can lead to incontinence in females and has also been shown statistically to have a higher incidence of ACL tears. Ultimately, your lifestyle will determine what choice will be best for you in this regard but you should make an informed decision.

I'm sure by now you are thinking "but I just wanted to know what to look for in the puppy!!!"  Yes, I know.  That is why I have emphasized that you need to look first to your end of the leash.  Finding the right SAR prospect is less about the dog than about knowing yourself.  If you are honest with yourself, you will make a good choice.

Which leads me to this question: do you get a puppy or a dog?  This, too, is a decision made by knowing yourself.  Without a doubt, puppies are adorable! What is your experience with training puppies?  A puppy will require several years of training before testing for deployment and that means years of making sure you have provided the right foundation of training to shape pup's abilities.  Puppies are a crap-shoot.  Even in the most carefully planned breeding, there can be an aberration and you need to consider up front what you will do if this puppy does not work out.  Is your household able to take on an additional dog if this pup has health issues or you do a poor job of training?  Or will you drop out of SAR and have a nice pet? My advice with puppies is to find a responsible breeder that you trust, that has been recommended by other dog handlers in your same area of interest. Ask the handlers for both positive and negative opinions of locations they searched for candidates. Be aware that many good breeders will not sell their best dogs to someone who is unproven.  Anyone can make claims of what they plan to do; it's another thing to demonstrate what you have done to prepare and come with a reference.  Make sure the breeder carries out the proper genetic testing as recommended for the breed.  Do not take their word for it; ask for documentation. No responsible person will be insulted by this. Once you have made a choice in the breeder and the litter, you will be asked to place a deposit and wait for the puppy to be born.  Sometimes you will begin your search at a time when a puppy is immediately available, but the biggest red flag to a breeder is the shopper who wants a puppy NOW. 

If you have done your research and developed a relationship with the breeder, they are the best source to select your puppy.  In all likelihood, your decision will be made with your heart and not your head.  Selecting your SAR partner based on the odd patch of white, or the one that is clinging to your leg, rather than factors that a breeder observes day in and day out, is a poor decision.  As puppies grow and develop, they change.  The pup engaging in dominance play today may be tomorrow's underdog.  Pups are more active at certain times of day, and spend much of their time sleeping.  If you make one or even two visits, you may not be getting a complete picture of personalities just due to timing.  The breeder is in position to make daily observations.  The Volhard test is geared to pet dogs and can give you some information but with my own litters, I did not find it to add any information that I had not already gained via observation.  The age at which puppies go to their new homes is too young to perform many searching tests but there are several things I look for.  I want the pup who checks in with me (does not ignore my presence) but who is not clinging to me.  I want to see it out and exploring as we walk, which means the pup will follow and respond to "puppy, puppy" calls.  Do not choose the one who is underfoot or shy, no matter how cute.  Let them follow you into tall grass or over unstable footing.  Ideally, this is done in an area unfamiliar to the pups so that you have a true impression of how they handle new experiences.  I prefer the pup who shows strong prey/chase instinct.  It is less important to me that they retrieve the item, because I know how to train that, but for a novice having a strong retrieve drive may make things easier.

Because I engage in other activities with my dogs, I look more closely at the puppy's strike and grip on a toy, as well.  This can reveal nerve strength, but isn't something that a novice would be aware of.  This is another reason why it is important to find a breeder that you trust, who is familiar with what you are looking for and knows how to select the right candidate.  Take another handler with you as a second set of eyes, to make impartial observations.

Are there successful dogs who have come from nondescript, newspaper-ad litters? Sure.  But if your intention is to make an educated, informed decision and to mitigate problems you will do everything possible to be in the "statistically likely to succeed" column.  Recognize the knowledge that you do not possess, and use the experience of those who have tread that path to assist you.  It is to your credit that you are at this point and asking what to look for in a puppy, instead of presenting it to the team and asking "will this work?"

There is another option.  You can find a young, adult dog that has been selection-tested for working qualities.  This is a more expensive option but you will have a dog that you can immediately put into a preparatory program.  You know that the dog is in good health, that the hips/elbows/eyes/ other genetic issues, are all good and that he or she has the drive and ability to do the job.  You also know what the adult temperament is like, and whether this dog is something you can live with.  Most of such candidates will be imported from Europe.  This may seem a more expensive option, but remember that you are paying not only for the health but also the time someone else spent in teaching a proper foundation.  For the novice, this is an excellent option.  It will also provide you experience that you can use should you elect to obtain a puppy in the future, with a more complete understanding of the qualities you need.

You may wonder why I have not suggested a shelter dog.  If you are looking for a puppy, consider all the hours of planning and genetic testing that a responsible breeder performs in order to create a healthy, willing canine partner. They carefully nourish the pregnant bitch, and then the puppies.  They provide environmental enrichment and challenges to help the puppies grow and explore with confidence. Vaccinations are done sparingly and over time, to minimize the issue with site cancers and immune-deficiency.   Contrast this with an abandoned litter, likely without proper gestational nutrition and genetic testing, raised in a concrete kennel, vaccinated and neutered young; the choice is clear.  Occasionally you may find a young adult dog in a shelter who is simply too much for the owner to handle, but not a bad dog in terms of fear or aggression.  If you know what you are looking for and the shelter allows you to test the dogs, you may find a gem.  It still does not address the health issues and you will need to decide whether you will pay for Xrays on a dog you may not keep, or whether the shelter will even allow this to be done.  Some shelters are better than others about allowing dogs to go to working homes, and they remain a possibility, with considerations.

Finding a puppy is so much more than merely looking at a litter! You would be wasting time if all you did was run from newspaper ad to ad, checking out the "free to good home" section.  Or even some of the exorbitantly priced AKC Champion pups that are pretty pets.  So when you ask "what do I look for", you first need to know the answers to the questions above and narrow your search so that you are selecting the best candidate from the best potential litter.  The best turd in a pile of turds is still a turd.

After you find your canine partner, and are astonished at how quickly he or she learns and how wonderful it is to look at the years ahead, it will your turn to shake your head when someone asks "what do I look for in a pup" and say, "Well, let me tell you....."