Today started out with our first tracking session. Fortunately it had stopped raining, although the ground was sopping wet and the first tracking team accidentally went through a puddle. We got a handout about tracking procedure and behaviors last night, but it was another thing to see it in action. I didn’t get very many pictures, and none of A’Kos in action because I was too busy!
First, we put a harness on A’Kos. Then Brian and Kender start walking off to hide. Because A’Kos has been trained to track Venus, one of the trainers at 4 Paws, she goes with them, and A’Kos is allowed to watch them walk away. We hide A’Kos behind a van and distract him as Kender is hidden. Today Jessa, one of the trainers, handled A’Kos to show me how it is done. She gets a 16-foot flexi leash out along with a thick leather glove. (The glove acts as a brake to slow A’Kos down so he doesn’t jerk the leash out of our hands when he hits the end.) As she hooks the flexi leash and unhooks the regular leash she starts the build up: “Where’s your boy? Where’s your boy? Where’s your boy?” Then she lets him go, paying out the flexi leash through the leather glove. A’Kos makes several circles around us, finally slapping the line taught twice in the general direction of Kender’s trail…and we’re off, running through the sloppy grass, A’Kos making huge bounding strides as the trainer keeps repeating, “Where’s your boy?!” A’Kos never hesitates, around a cone and over a hill and straight for Kender in the trees. When A’Kos finds Kender, we reward him with a bag of Bil-Jac (his favorite treat) and tons of hugs and praise.
Over the afternoon, we learn more details about how the tracking works, and we get to hear stories of how tracking has worked for other families. We’ll be practicing our tracking with Venus and alternating which of us tracks and which of us hides with Kender. By the end of next week, A’Kos should have Kender’s scent down, although blind tracks will be a daily practice task for a long while. In the meantime, we can practice using, “Where’s your boy?” and taking A’Kos to Kender even if he’s just in the next room. This conditions the dog to connect that phrase with the act of finding Kender. Jeremy told us this afternoon about a mom in a training class with a boy named Kenny (I’ll never forget that name now!) who would elope every day, several times a day, straight out the door. When he did, his mom would shout, “Kenny!!” and go after him…with the dog in tow. After just a few days, Kenny managed to fully escape without anyone seeing where he went. When his mom shouted, “Kenny!!” the dog immediately went after him, through several doors and around several corners to catch up with Kenny in a stairwell just before he got outside. All of this even though “Kenny” was not his established tracking command and the mom did not get out the tracking equipment for a formal blind track.
I bet I know some moms who can see a use for this trick at Foster!!!
We got to learn all about how the seizure and scent alert dogs work even though A’Kos is not trained for that task. It was fascinating to hear about how each seizure dog will alert with a different but consistent time window before a seizure, anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours. Also, that window will usually get wider if the seizure is going to be stronger. The dogs will often alert on seizures in other people as well, not just their own child. One family told how their dog had already alerted to a seizure on its first night back in the hotel! Jeremy stressed the importance of keeping a diary so that they can be sure of their dog’s alert window. Shelby also demonstrated practicing on physical seizure alerts, where the dog alerts to the seizure itself. One dog in the class has been trained to alert for peanuts, and he discussed handling that alert as well.
During all of the tracking and scenting lectures, Brian and I worked on acclimating A’Kos to Kender’s cane. Although he was conditioned using a modified golf club, Kender’s cane is different enough to need special treatment. Also, unfortunately, Kender tends to throw his cane around when he gets into a meltdown, and A’Kos was too close to one of these yesterday. So today, we worked with the cane, tossing treats around it, laying it across A’Kos while he was in a “down”, feeding A’Kos treats while swinging the cane back and forth near him and even toward him. Sometimes I would just walk up with the cane and give A’Kos a treat with the cane right next to the treat. By the end of the day, we had A’Kos back to pretty much ignoring the cane. Amazing!
The last thing we learned about was the “come” command. Jeremy stressed that this command needed to be reserved in use so that it would be effective in emergency situations. We should never use “come” to bring A’Kos to the vet, to put on his harness, or to give him a bath. When we practice the “come” command, we should use Bil-Jac so that A’Kos places the highest possible value on obeying this command. We watched Jeremy practice with his own dog Brody, getting him to come from anywhere in the room as excited as if chasing a ball. I also noticed how Jeremy dealt with Brody as he was leaving. On the way from the building to his car, Jeremy never once said, “Come.” Instead he used words like, “Come on,” and “let’s go” and “over here” with Brody’s name. The name and the excited voice were the important part. “Come” is special, so Jeremy knows that Brody will always come when called with that word, whether to dodge a car or make it out of a burning house or whatever the urgent need is.
When class was over, Kender and I were dozing on a couch. A’Kos came over and grabbed a ball right out of my purse, so Brian took him out back to play ball for a bit before leaving. Boy, does A’Kos love to play ball! Yesterday and this morning we had trouble getting A’Kos to get into the car. This afternoon, we just tossed the ball in, and A’Kos went right in after it! In the hotel he still wants to play ball. He will go get the ball and bring it to me, dropping it at my feet to get my attention. If I toss it into the next room, I get to see him bounding away after the ball, happy as anything and completely adorable.
Kender wasn’t as close to A’Kos at dinner tonight as he was last night. He also spent time with other dogs today, even going up to lean on Brody during the lesson! The bond is still growing, though. A’Kos is learning to look at me now when Kender fusses, so I can use the disruption commands later on.