Slippity Doo Da
It has been an odd winter where I live this year. Extreme cold but not moisture, then tons of moisture but warmer temps. I prefer snow. It balances things and is the least messy of the wintery mixes that can be offered. So when we finally got the right temps with moisture for a good snowstorm, AND the offer to lay trail from some family members who never want to, I was excited. I think my dogs knew something was up and if I thought they were my shadows before, I had a new experience to go by. Every movement had a furry body glued to it, so much so that a hospital visit seemed inevitable. For every turn was a near trip to the floor. When finally I ushered them outside it was met with leaps of joy and doggie jujitsu - a favorite for both dogs. I let them play the explosive part of their energy out before loading them up into the car. I would know the PLS and the end destination; we would have lunch afterwards, other than that it would be blind.
Snow had begun a few hours earlier and was now intensifying; something I enjoy immensely, but my tracklayers aren't to thrilled with. Still, they bundle up and show a determination I both admire and appreciate. Scent articles are left with me and I give them a dog treat each; I am not sure which dog I will start with or on whose trail. Once they are both in place I will be called and I can start a dog. I try to act nonchalant in the car while waiting, anything I can do to throw the dogs off and make them think I am just running chores. Unfortunately, I am not to good at this and the whining and pacing intensify as the hour creeps by. Finally I receive the phone call (an hour later) and I have decided to throw my usual routine away and pull my girl out first. Usually I do my boy for his exhuberance is over the top and I am worried it might turn into the 'car munchies' and destruction of my beloved automobile. This change in routine throws both dogs, but I can see my girl feels honored she is chosen and presents her head for harnessing. I kiss my boys nose and let hin know that he will have his turn, and while this does not pacify him, it placates him enough I can finish harnessing my girl without barks of frustration in my ear.
Once unloaded I can see my girls nose twitching as she tries to guess which odor she will be asked to follow and I find myself smiling - I do so enjoy this partnership with my dogs, and I know they do too. I offer the scent article to my girl and quickly throw it in the car and lock it, run to snap the line to her harness and leave the barking ensemble my boy is performing. DOT is quickly gotten and my girl is moving at a steady jog. The snow is blinding and occassional snowflakes get sucked down my windpipe causing me to cough. Any footprints left have been erased by the cars and heavy snow falling. Unfortunately, this wonderful white stuff is also doing a phenomenal job of covering the slippery stuff: ICE. As I jog behind my girl at a steady clip, random steps make contact with ice patches and I slip across like a reindeer doing the Charleston after too many eggnogs. Once my balance is resumed I beg my girl to slow down and give me a heads up before I reach those ice patches, but she is in her zone and following odor.
We reach the hospital and I figure now would be the perfect time to do the face plant I know is in my future, but my girl turns to the left and drags me down the next street with relative safety- I am still on my feet. In between my ice skating performances, I marvel at the beauty and silence the snow provides. The trees are magically adorned with white globs of snow ornaments and the unsightly cracks in the road now create beautiful formations of snow columns. My girl is working beautifully and the dampening of sound, the hallowed muting that a good snowing brings sets my senses on high. God is so good!
It isn't but the next block where my girls nose guides her to the left but then she stops and circles, doubles back up then back down the side street. I can see there is some puzzlement to direction of travel for the track, but as to why I can only assume. Perhaps a car rolled over it, backed out of their driveway and up the road a bit as they turned, then forward - causing the snow to layer itself with fresh and old odor...who knows? Either way, my girl makes a decision to continue on the original street we were going down before the turn. I jog behind her a bit puzzled and wondering if we are on track or 'fringe' odor. Several areas of craftily concealed ice bring my Dumbo on ice routine out in the open; one of the few times my draft horse pulling dog is of great asset for her forward pull helps stabilize me enough to keep me on my feet, albeit in an embarrassing way.
The Cycle of Learning
I am a relatively intelligent person; one who tends to learn quickly, find the rhythm of things and then strives to master what I learn. This has worked well for me throughout life in various jobs and life happenings. Unfortunately, there seems to be one area of particular matter, where I seem to short circuit the route of learning to application phase, at least at certain times, and move straight into the" oops, I screwed up phase." I am of course referencing trailing and the need to follow your dog blindly, confidently, and with as little human influence possible, helping only when absolutely needed. Problem is, my brain likes to leap into the fray, absorbing information from my surroundings and those around me and then, unassumingly, micro manage my poor dogs. It isn't purposeful. It is subtle, my ability to interpret what they are telling me accurately now colored by the shades of information I have processed. This is detrimental to our partnership, and I know it has its home hidden in the crevices of insecurities I am not sure how to address.
I am well aware that mistakes are what help us to really learn, often moreso than our successes. When giving lessons for over 20yrs, I was adamant about encouraging my students when the mistakes were made. Letting them know that this how we, as humans, learn and that the mistakes made while under supervision and in the safety of a controlled environment, are much better than the ones made 'in the real world.' Why I can't seem to give myself the same allowances, I don't know.... but a few nights lost sleep won't do me much harm (although my dogs think the tossing and turning is getting a bit old). So this trail is a tale of making the same mistake, in a different way, again... Perhaps, in the retelling of my erroneous ways I will actually truly learn from it, and be the partner my dogs deserve.
As a trailer and SAR K9 handler, I am ALWAYS looking for new people to lay trail for my dogs and new environments to work them in. Just when you think you have a certain area 'mastered,' you find out you have just begun learning. This, to me, is awesome! I love the learning and the depth in which this discipline requires us to grow. So when the opportunity to train at an air force base arose, I jumped at the chance. SERE (survival, evasion, resistane, escape) students needing to revisit their qualifications would be our dogs 'prey.' Their job would be to do everything in their power (within boundaries and within obvious limits) to evade the dog teams that would be stalking them. Our job (another K9 handler and team mate, and our team mate flankers) would be to find the pair of 'escapee's' and work an 'urban' environment.
The temperature is 27F, winds variable and light; the area we are deployed in/from is a parking lot and a series of large buildings like a campus. Open pastures on either side, pavement surrounding the buildings and all around. Military personnel coming in and out of buildings constantly, units rucking their gear in columned fashion, their speed paced for a long haul, and of course, our targets. It will only be about a 15-20 minute aged track, but ironically, these tracks can often be some of the most difficult depending on the conditions. I immediately note the buildings are blasting air out of their vents; heaters blazing on the inside are creating mini vortexes of swirling air on the outside, already disturbed by the buildings, the air flow is now a confluence of variable directions discarding odor in a sparting of directions.
I pull my girl out; my boy had been busy all weekend certifiying for his water HRD and my girl had to sit in the car and watch . She is ready, and despite the fact that we haven't had the chance to trail in almost 3 weeks(!!), I am confident in my girls abilities. Her whining is drowned out by my boys cooing and vocabulary filled with displeasure at being left. I let her out of the car and she makes a quick circuit to each person who will be following us (we have 2 students, one sergeant and my two flankers) filing their odors away for future reference. I harness her and give her one of the two scent articles (first note: both scent articles are sitting side by side to each other. I had made one and put it in a glass jar, however, the original scent article had been co mingled with the other article before I could segregate it.) and before I can clip the line to her, she has direction of travel and is moving forward. I quickly catch up to her and snap the line to her harness, and we are off to the races. My girl is in odor and working well, she works the parking lot to a grassy knoll by a building, weaves back towards the parking lot and inbetween cars and back to the grass that is wedged in perfect geometrical shapes between the concrete walkways. Up ahead I see the other K9 team working their problem; they left about 10 minutes ahead of us - my first worry is that this might be a distraction, but of course the slapping boots of heavy laden soldiers shouting in cadence passing directly by her has a bit more pull then a dog hundreds of yards away. She pauses, a slight cock of her head tells me she find it a bit odd, but a "Get to work," is all she needs to drop her nose and begin working the odor again. She hugs the walls of the buildings, and takes us once again, to another parking lot. She loses the odor and casts a large circle back towards the bulidings and along a rectangular slice of grass. It is here a new experience occurs......WHACK A MOLE!
At first, I notice my girl, nose to the ground and working odor, suddenly make cutting moves to the right or the left - it is a predatory move, but I cannot see reason for her action. A leaf rustles nearby and I figure perhaps the movement triggered some sort of instinctual reaction, but I am feeling a bit doubtful as she has never done such an action before. These cutting moves continue along the grass and I strain my eyes to see what she is 'chasing.' "Get to work!" My stern reprimand sets her back to her job, a toss of the coiled line towards her fuzzy bum is a follow up. I notice she is working odor, but it seems to be in a spotty fashion. She has it, then she doesn't, she has it like a trail, then she doesn't. I figure we are fringing and the buildings have deposited odor in a 'connect the dots' sort of fashion. She takes us by a road, a slight head pop to the right with a shrug tells me that they did not go that way; it is odor blown across the asphalt. She takes us back up along a buildings side, along the grass, a head pop straight ahead should have been my first clue, but she dropped her nose and turned to the right and worked us around another building. As she works I now begin to notice little blurs of grey making quick and spontaneous appearances, usually, directly in front of my girls nose. I drop my eyes to the ground and see the telltale holes the field mice have made...and they have made A LOT OF HOLES! Each step my girl makes, a fuzzy head peeks out and darts back into a mouse size cave; this is a distraction we have never had to work through! Once again I grumble out a "Get to work! FOCUS!" But, even as I say it, I realize the incredible demand I am making on my girl. On one paw, she has odor to follow; her subjects. On the other, she has little demon mice popping up directly in front of her, perhaps trying to take a nip out of her soft leathery nose, but certainly doing a phenomenal job of distracting her and engaging her prey drive.
To my girls credit, she continues to work the odor around the building, giving great interest in a recessed patio where odor has been trapped by the barriers. My flankers, who have been doing a great job at remaining silent and letting my girl and I work the trail, are now occassionally offering information such as, "She is on the track," or, "She is about 100ft off the track but parallel." I am at first grateful, running a track with the nuances and difficulties this situation holds, it is nice to get a bit of feedback that your dog is working odor. I have mentally made notes of a given parking lot where I have seen my girl have great interest, unfortunately, this is where my consistent problem of listening to what is told (and no, my flankers did nothing wrong. They were great! ) to me and then filtering it into what my dog is offering... You will see what I mean...
As we come back around the building facing the parking lot of great interest, one mouse takes his prank too far. As his mousy ears rise from the earth, so does my girls missile teeth launch - it is a fluid movement; she is jogging forward, working odor, the next moment there is a grey body being carefully crunched and dropped. The indignant mouse, now feeling a bit battered and perhaps flatter from its time in the jaws of death, hisses and shows his buck teeth at my girl. Whether this is to intimidate or just show his defiance at the humiliation he just received, I don't know, but it neither impresses nor distresses my girl. The "Whoa! Did you see that's!" are still being uttered by my flankers - for the art of snatching a mouse out of mid air whilst working an odor trail is truly quite remarkable. What impresses me more is that my girl, with a sniff of disgust, leaves the irate and sore mouse and continues on her path, perhaps a bit more smug and satisified. I do notice, that mousy heads are few and far between from this point on...
It is another circuit around the building of choice that sits by the parking lot my girl has had consistent interest in that occurs; then she pulls me across the parking lot and to an open field, a helicopter sitting nearby and a tall 10 story tower. She sniffs along the building, then picks up her head and air scents. I comment to my flankers that she is getting air scent vs. trail and that perhaps the subject is up high and the odor is cascading down... Once again, I should have just followed my instincts and my dogs language, but I listened to well intentioned advice which stated that this was not the track. To make a long story short.. my subjects were in the parking lot. As I follow my girl back to the track, we actually pass by them within 50ft, but my eyes are on my girl and the wind is not in her favor (they were behind bushes blocking the flow of wind). Everyone else sees the subject and I am only happy that if it had been an actual mission the subject would have been found due to my flankers visualizing the subject.
We took another half circuit around the building, back to the parking lot, where my girl suddenly got on top of the odor and bolted to her hidden subject. She was elated and I was disgruntled. I knew I had mishandled her when she was in odor and failed to read her body language as well as I need to. This is training, and mistakes are to be expected and made. But it doesn't feel good to know that the area you are working on is still your achille's. My girl had done a great job, for the subjects had circled around the building, in fact several buildings, and the wind, open area with large buildings suddenly disturbing a flow of odor creates vast complications for dogs following odor. However, my own doubts and worries once again found their way into my actions and I listened to the literal words of my flankers rather than interpreting the information I received from them with the information I was getting from my girl. Further work that evening proved my girl (and boy; he got a chance to work some air scent problems) knows her job, as do I.
For me, it is always a battle of my perfectionist nature and, well, reality. Reality says that mistakes are a part of life and they happen; learn from them! My perfectionist nature knows this and has taught this to numerous students, but when applied to my life I am chagrined and berate myself. I realize that hindsight is always 20/20 and it is easy to 'see' the actions one should have taken to achieve success. It is a battle I hope to overcome soon, where I can allow myself the mistakes and learning moments, without the self recrimination that has followed for so long. My girl did awesome; there are things to work on, as there will always be - we will never 'arrive'. This is a journey that, while at times very frustrating, is one I don't think I would change for anything. I know a mouse who is thinking learning is a painful lesson too...;)
Cold Weather Makes Good Trail
If you trail long enough, you will become very accustom to the variances each season brings. Summer is usually the most difficult in our area. The dry air and winds, hot temperatures and the sharp changes of a hot day to cool night (and vice versa) can subject the dog to a host of problems. Convection currents, chimmney effect, and a myriad of other scent impediments educate the dogs and confound the handlers. Spring and autumn have their own magical nuances, for they have a mixture of cold and warm, new growth and dead decaying leaves, dry and wet, and separate layers of wind currents as the cold (or warm) ground changes to the opposite temperature. Winter too, not to be outdone, has its own set of challenges; white fluffy snow layers over a scent trail and arctic air freezes the moist odor in a layer of ice. Still and all, I will take the three other seasons over summer for good trail running.
This trail was after the first hard freeze, where the balance of ending summer and new fall tip towards the cold hand of winter. The morning would start at a cool 35F and 93% humidity, and it would be a 23hr aged trail - almost double blind, for I knew the general area the subject was ending, however, they would lay a short hot trail to parts unknown, while I ran the aged trail. My girl was quivering with excitement; my boy had been laid up for the past couple of weeks due to an injury he sustained on a mission (he is ok), and she was ready to take on this trail. The machine gun whining and pacing in the back of the car escalated and the puff from her breath began to steam up the windows in the car. My reassurances to her does little to settle her frayed nerves stuffed with anticipation of the fun to be soon had.
At the PLS, basically the middle of a street block, I pull over and begin to prepare. My girls pacing and whining has stopped and a studious, almost magical calm has come over her. I see her nose twitch from the back as it peeks out and tries to gather any tendrils of odor. I know her, she is trying to gather as much information of the area before she is actually started on the trail - it is almost a personal challenge for her, to get the direction of travel before she is started. When the back door opens for her to be harnessed, her head pops tell me what I need to know and the most likely direction we will be travelling. Harness on, scent article presented and my girl does her cursory loop before stopping and presenting her back to me to have the line attached. A quick clip by the carabiner and an "ok" is all that is needed to set her on the trail at her usual jog. The crisp air putting a little bounce in her step and a little urgency in mine - I am cold. I know it won't take long jogging behind my girl to heat up, but right now, I feel the chill right to my bones. A head pop over her shoulder with a quick dismissal lets me know the direction of travel is straight ahead...that and the mac truck force of the pull on the line.
The icy fog mutes the sounds of our stride on the asphalt while the subdued light casts an eerie halo over the city. My girl is in good form, tail curled tight and working her magic. Occassionally, she skirts the side of the road where grass holds vital evidence and odor, however, her main path is straight down the middle of the road...great :/ I am pretty sure she is just keeping odor inbetween both nostrils, and while the street at this time of day is fairly quiet, I am not thrilled at the prospect of a car sneaking up on me from behind, especially in this fog.
As she guides us by the high school I watch her acutely, very aware that subtle changes could mean big things, especially with the heavy contamination. She looks like she will swing into the parking lot but opts to cross the road and even dips the length of the 30' line onto the road running perpendicular. It is a quick 'check' of blown odor and she resumes her jog down the road, a head pop with nose twitches lets me know a turn is coming up. I slow her down a bit she doesn't blow by her turn; this city has short streets, and it is easy to run fringe odor a block or two away. It is moist and cool enough that I assume the odor trail should be fairly 'alive' and viable - for training, I want her as close to the track as possible. The trick is not influencing her to my thoughts and assumptions, as I don't know where the track is - I am just interpreting her body language and sometimes things get hung up in the translation...especially when I impose my thoughts and assumptions. So as I slow her down, I am careful to keep my body neutral and my eyes on her, not on where I think the trail may go.
My girl is pretty darn honest, and I love that about her. If there isn't odor, she is good to abort a direction, she doesn't get scared and 'hunt' for odor on a ghost trail. I cast her at the corner of the gravel street I assume my tracklayer went down..but my girl says "No!" and she pulls straight down to the next block. I know there is a fence fighting dog that lives here and my suspicious nature kicks in and I wonder if my girl is looking for a stress reliever (for her, definitely not me) and a chance to talk smack at a dog with a potty mouth. I know my girl is in odor, her nose keeps dipping to the ground and the tail set and breathing is indicitive of trailing, but the sideways glance and shorter stride tells me she is also aware of where she is at, and who lives next door. Thankfully, the little squirt isn't outside and my girl continues her job, albeit with a little disapointment etched in her stature.
At the corner she swings left, her pace is steady and the pull strong, she is working this trail with confidence, and I am proud of her. Near an empty lot she stops and head pops to the left, sniffing the air. I wonder if the gravel road was the correct road after all, and we are now in drift odor. When she decides she wants to work through the spiky plants I grumble only a little. She picks her way through quite easily; she can duck under the nasty things. I, on the other hand, have to endure the bite of the spikey balls of pain that are at perfect height to hit legs, groin, stomach, ribs, and anything else that gets too close. Once through the torture maze of pain, my girl pulls to the right and jogs down the gravel road, again in complete confidence. She takes me by the hospital in complete control, and at the corner, even stops herself and sniffs either direction before continuing to her left... I am really liking the maturity I see in her. At 3yrs of age, she is very seasoned and thankfully, the speed demon that was her youth has slowed a bit. I can handle her steady jog much easier then her freight-train-moch-two-my-feet-don't-touch-the-ground-oh-my-gosh-I'm-going-to-die, speed she used to offer.
At the next street corner she swings to her right and I see her pace pick up. I know she is anticipating her subject near the library, as this has been a favorite hiding spot for awhile. One of the major flaws that can occur in using the same tracklayer, is that they (people) are patterned oriented, thus, often repeating a simliar track. I have to be stringent and strict with my tracklayers, letting them know they have to TRY to trick the dog, and not just casually, thoughtlessly, walk. My girl checks out the nooks and crannys of the building before dismissing the thought that her subject is there and pursuing again, her odor trail. I notice she hasn't really lost her proximity alert excitement though, and as a blast of the cold air collides with my face, I am quite sure she has gotten an air scent of her prey. As she guides me across another street I once again assume the course she will take...and again, as usual, get it wrong. She does not follow the grass and pasture behind the pool and baseball field (which I will later find out was the actual track), but instead crosses over the bridge of the river and runs parallel, on the opposite of the river. She has numerous head pops to her right, but the odor has probably been pulled over by the river and the highway, of which we are jogging beside.
As we jog around the hotel and near a fast food parking lot, a loud bark pulls both our attention. A large German Shepherd dog in the back of a pick up is flaunting his masculinity by barking incessantly. My girl gives him a singular glance, her focus is on the ordor, but the truck kings owners are 'oohing and awwing' my girl and making typical male prowess remarks for the dog. My girl pulled us by them, and I apologized for my girls rudeness in not introducing herself to their dog, but she was on a mission to find her subject. They smiled and wished her good luck and we continued on behind the fast food restaurant, out into their parking lot and drive through (yikes) and towards the hwy. A head pop to her left made me think we were going to cross right there at the crossing walk, so I gathered the line short so she didn't get squashed when odor pulled her into the street. However, she instead pulled me further north up the street another block or two before crossing. Her speed very indicitive of proximity, and I was struggling to keep the pace.
At a bus storage facility, where I had dropped my subject off, my girl looked around, a bit perplexed... her subject should be here! I waited and she cast herself, pulling me into the trees and secluded acreage behind the storage facility. The moment my feet hit the icy waters I knew I had a whole in my 'water tight' boots. Freezing hands seized my feet as the deep puddles cleverly concealed by the tall grass poured into my foot bed and swelled my sock.. I don't have much time to grumble about the frostbite I am sure to get for my girl is pulling me rather forcefully through the dense trees, making sure my trailing day does not end with at least one abrasion or bruise (thanks sweetheart!). Back on the street near a car dealership, she air scents; we are by the highway and the odor is swirling around her manically, but a few moments later we double back towards the bus lot but a sharp veer to her right and towards a football field and a subject is found, safe...and dry, unlike my feet.
GPS shows she ran true to track a good distance with diversions appropriate for wind and terrain. I was exceptionally impressed with her and her determination, precision, and long paw massages followed. The track was 1.70 miles long and she ran 1.82 miles...not bad :)
The Never Ending Trail.....
It has been smokey and hot here this summer. Fires blazing all around us and little wind to blow it out of the valley. While our hearts and prayers go to those in the midst of suffering, and for the firefighters and rescuers who risk their lives to help others, training on a different front must continue. An intensive weekend of training is set up, and people from different states arrive to share their talents and to learn. This means new people unfamiliar with the trails and the area will be laying trails.... basically, it turns into 'real life' tracklaying :)
A nice double blind track is laid for my dogs and the plan is to wait for dusk/night to run it. But some logistical issues prevent this aspect from being executed precisely, and I begin my trail around 1800hrs. It has been 98F for a good part of the late afternoon and evening with an 8mph SSW wind. The wind was a shock, for it had been eerily still for days. I have a flanker :) and after doing a bit of quick positioning of tracklayer in the area of end spot (double blind dropped to blind and a half, lol) and rushing to the PLS, I am a bit out of sorts and not thinking as specifically as I normally would. Another lesson learned, for on a mission, things don't always go as expected - in fact, they rarely do, so keeping a level head and forward thought is imperative....oops.
Upon arrival at the PLS, my girl who is absolutely shocked she gets to rollout first, has been uttering machine like whines; like a turbo engine revving up. She is nonplussed with the new person in the car who smells like another dog, and had the gall to get in her car with confidence and the flurry of activity, including the off loading of her brother has her now focusing her energies on the one thing in life sure to please: TRAILING. The sound effects are just her way of letting off a little nervous jitters that her cool German exterior normally won't permit. My flanker, a wonderful young handler who has a great dog herself gets out of the car and watches as I harness my girl. I know we are getting close to losing day light, and in my haste to get started I neglect to bring water (was assuming the trail would be close to the river...bad assumption) and the tracklayers GPS, which was also the scent article but had the track in the memory. My girl has already settled on DOT even before she jumps out of the car, but does her typical cursory small cast before jogging out up the gravel road and then off road onto a primitive, overgrown, trail.
My flanker gives a little laugh as the sudden burst of speed is different from her lab; different dogs with different ways of working odor :). The smoke in the air and the oppressive heat is stifling and all three of us are already feeling the increase in altitude and the difficulty in nagivating through the trees. Trails that seem like they are viable and will continue on for a ways, suddenly disappear into an almost impenetrable copse of trees and limbs. Periodic backtracks keep my girl winding her line into intricate knots around the fallen knarled wood. Both my flanker and I observe this, and come to the conclusion that our tracklayer was often trying to orient himself with his GPS and at the same time, trying to keep to a trail and out of the brambles...an unfortunately difficult task to do. When my girl leads us to a shelf overlooking our starting point, we get the opportunity to really see just what type of smoke soup we are breathing; it is thick and noxious. Sweat pours down our backs and face and my girls tongue has already fattened up and grown long - I am kicking myself for forgetting the water and pray the trail will drop to the river soon. Nope.
My girl drops her nose and plows back into the tree line and begins an ascent akin to Mount Everest! There are trails and footprints, although neither of us are certain of the shoe traction of our subject. My girl is pulling HARD int the harness and wants to continue on an upward but lateral trajectory; something neither of us want to do, but my girl is insistent. Roots and deadfall try to trip us, the smoke tries to choke us (and indeed does), the heat tries to smother us, and the spikey plants lacerate and try to bleed us dry - and still my girl wants to climb the freaking mountain! Repeatedly, I stop and take a knee, usually on something sharp or ungiving and carefully cloaked in soft looking grass, trying to give my girl a chance to rest and cool a bit, as well as to see if the wind change - which has consistently been blowing into us from the side (SW so as in up the mountain) might change, and my girl opt for a downhill trail. Nope. My girl, while still panting hard, sits and waits patiently - her head pointing downhill but lateral but with head pops uphill! When I give her the command to resume, she moves lateral then uphill, then lateral.. I am beginning to wonder if I need to abort the trail and get her to water and I am kicking myself for being such a poor partner, I should have brought water at the very least.
My flanker can see that my girl is in odor, but she too is beginning to wonder if we should just head down hill and see if we can reaquire the trail below. I know the trail laid is close to two miles long, but broken into two trails, not evenly; this trail will be over a mile in length. We have only traveled 3/4 of a mile, but the steep ascent coupled with the heat and smoke and insidious undergrowth determined to make us a part of the forest is taxing. I let go of the line and let my girl work the trail slightly above me but still lateral, when she suddenly dives down below me, I feel waves of relief wash over me...only to be shattered when she begins another climb up.. "Sorry girl, not this time.. Lateral I will do, and down, but no more up." My girl blinks at me, and almost as if she understands, she begins to work a lateral downhill course. It is getting dusk, and when we finally make it to the valley, the trees and surrounding mountains make the remaining light all the more dim; I am beginning to ream myself for not bringing a head lamp! What was I thinking?
My flanker, God bless her, does a phenomenal job of keeping her doubts to herself. When following an unknown dog, well even your own dog, on a trail, it is very easy to second guess the dog, especially when they are doing things that defy 'logic.' When the body starts to complain or the light fades, especially in a new area, doubts flood the mind. She is an amazing woman and kept her supportive task first and foremost. My girl having reached the valley, now turns and doubles back. I am a bit turned around and really am not sure where we are, or where the river is, although I believe it directly in front of us. My girl works parallel to where I believe the river is, occassionally turning in that direction for a 100meters before lateral again. I see she keeps head popping and air scenting and I am a bit confused. When she dives forward into a moist cloister of trees, I am grateful and relieved - the terrain is indicitive of a large water source nearby; the river!
Crashing through the trees and tripping over deadfall no longer brings unintelligble utterings from my lips, I am now very confident, and extremely relieved. When the river suddenly presents itself, my girl swan dives into it chest deep. Her fat tongue swooping up ladles full of the cool liquid. I realize the breath I was holding in fear for her over heating, as I exhale and feel the overpowering relief sweep over me. My flanker picks her way up to us, and my girl is already ready to move on. She splashes across and to my shock, it is by a log we can cross :) Moreover, when we emerge out of the treeline, it is close to where our campsite is! She head pops to her right - the direction her trail began, but instead opts to work down river, south, towards the campsite. She looks directly at his truck as we pass it, but then heads back towards the river, her tail curled and her intent and energies focused. Suddenly, a white flash comes bolting from a camper, sceams of "Come!" and "Please don't die!" follow and I am a bit disoriented as I try to place the white fluff that seems to appear and disappear. I choke up on the line as I spot another dog that is only a few feet from my girl, the white magical blob that seems to appear and disappear is getting closer, along with the screams of "Please don't eat my dog!!!"
My girl seems a bit perplexed and I notice she keeps humping her hindend under herself. A glimpse of the white ghost tells me the story of my girls odd dance; she is being bitten in the hocks, tail and when the little gimp can reach, the hind end!! Once again, a small chihuahua has taken on more than his little body can manage and he is determined to fell 'goliath' from the back region. The screaming lady has managed to reach our location but one look at her tells me she is terrified to come to near my girl. The other dog seems to maintain a flanking position from the front, thus my girl has eyes on this dog while her under region is barraged with little needle teeth..that in all honesty, probably barely broke through her fur, but it was in her private lands, thus all the more undignified and uncomfortable. "You need to grab him," I say to the lady, and almost as if the little runt understood, he carefully and quickly removes himself from within grabbing range. This action causes my girl to twist to try and get her tail to a safe place, I have almost 30' of leather line coiled and light tension on the harness so as not to aggrivate an already red zone situation. My flanker has been trying to keep the other scruffy looking dog at a safe distance, but this is quite the futile act, for between the three dogs and now four humans, we are a merry ground of lunacy. One darting in to grab at a white ball of fury, another trying to corral a dog, myself and my girl spinning trying to keep jaws of death from jaws of, stuidity? from meeting.
The little white terror has changed his tactics and is now gnawing on my girls hocks when he gets the chance. I can't get a leg in to boot the little punk into the tree line, and the loose coils of my lead have now drapped efficiently around my feet and over my girls neck to tie us into a sadistic coil of bondage for the white devil to nip at. I can see my girls patience is nearing its end as she lifts each leg up out of reach of the needle teeth and rage of the blanco diablo in turn. Finally, the owner makes a successful dive toward her dog driving it into the arms of my flanker who expertly scoops the snarling tornado up and effectively stops the storm. Peace resumes and the owner is gasping out 'thanks.' The crowd of onlookers (wouldn't be surprised of a youtube video was taken of the event) applaud and numerous comments of what a good girl my girl is and how well trained she is bubble forth. I can see from the look in my precious girls eyes, she is just ready to move on, and that perhaps, this 'search and rescue' stuff might be a bit more difficult then she had first thought, and she looked at me as if to say, "Boy mom, that was the biggest mouse I ever saw! They grow big in these woods!"
I pet my sweetheart and tell her "Good girl! Let's find him," and without a moments hesitation, she dives into the harness and resumes her search.. It is of course at that moment I realize I have not completely untangled the coils of doom from my feet, and further comical antics of my hopping from foot to foot, twirling in unison of the uncoiling, and flat out tripping and near collision with the earth gives the parting crowd a few more chuckles. A sparting of applause lets me know it was appreciated... Back in odor, my girl heads towards the tree lines - which is of course where the campers are and where the white nightmare lives.. Not happening. "Sorry girl, I know you are in odor, but this is where fringing is OK!" My girl seems to understand, and head pops, takes a couple of deep breaths and resumes her path a distance away from the track. When we reach a pasture, her pace picks up and I know she is in proximity - which is good, it is a dark dusk out, and any further antics could be quite disasterous in the dark.
Her pace quickens and a tail wag belays the excitement she has for this occupation, she bolts towards the road, and for the first time in a long time, I am glad we are running the road vs. the track. Another couple tenths of a mile later and we have a find, complete with joyous praise and treats for a fabulous girl who did a phenomenal job! When I am able to view the GPS track, it is shown that we definitely ran parallel to the track laid, but well above it - like on the freaking mountain! The turns are mirrored by her track, but from the hillside and not the valley. It puzzles me, although I can work out the reasoning: heat, SW winds of good speed, terrain, all of which 'pulled' the odor upwards. Such is the nuance of odor..it keeps you guessing more often than not. My girl ran a 2 mile trail, but the actual track was only about 1.22 miles. Backtracks and the upward climb filled in the extra distance. Throw in a few minutes of dancing from the chihuahua from hell and we come up with 2 miles. All in all, a great trail with great people... my girl slept well and got a long paw massage, and I got a hot shower!
A Dogs Perspective, my girl (dog diary)
I hope you all enjoyed the last retelling of a trail from my boys 'perspective.' It is of course, assumed, but it was a lot of fun to write. Both my dogs have very distinct and different personalities. They complement each other in play and in work. While my boy can be quite the free spirit and goof ball, he also has a very serious side and is loyal to the core. My girl of course, being a German Shepherd, has decorum and professionalism bleached into her guard hairs. But she too, can have moments of complete abandon and you can see the fun loving side of her tumble out. She is also loyal to the bone and takes her work very very seriously. So, the tone of this trail, told by my girl (via my interpretation of what she might say), will be much more serious - perhaps with some dry humor sprinkled in for flavor. And now, my girl:
I can feel the morning approach even before the first rays sprinkle into the room. My mistress is still breathing deeply, my arm draped over her side has several advantages, although my mistress thinks it is just out of love and protection. Reality is, I can feel her intentions even before she acts on them; should she try to slip out of bed and sneak away, I will know. It also allows me to feel her breathing changes, and while redundant, for I can hear her just as well, it lends some security in knowing her breathing is steady and rhythmic. I pop an eye open and see my brother is still contentendly laying against her legs effectively causing her to curl into a fetal position or which there is no escape. His method is just as proven as mine, for he will feel her movements just as effectively - but I have the advantage of not getting kicked when she insists on turning over ;0) There is one disadvantage of laying in this position, well besides my leg falling asleep on me at times, and that is during the summer, it gets hot! Even with the fans blowing I can feel my body temperature rise and the desire to pant to cool off begins to dominate my thoughts. Panting in my mistress's ear is not a good idea, it just rains displeasure all over your fur, and while I wear a crusty coat of cool intellect and decorum, I really have a soft melty heart that can be easily wounded. I will jump off the bed and resume my vigil on the cool ground.
Time seems to creep by, and occassionally, excitement pulses through my body tingling my paws. After what seems like an eternity, I hear my mistress breathing change. My brother has been using his 'laser eye' treatment to try and resurrect her, and I will let him take the heat, it is a partnership to get her out of bed; he has the bedside duty and I the ground, guarding the door. When finally she arises, I almost bark in joy, a potentially humiliating action for barking is only for urgent matters, but my joy is almost bursting through my heart...today is a TRAILING DAY!!! These days are always the most difficult to wait for and keep my controlled persona, for everything in me is quivering with excitement and joy; trailing is what I live for, well, that and my mistress. The seemingly endless morning chores drag on and I feign interest -truly an academy award winning act! I am pretty sure my mistress knows it is an act, for on random sips of coffee (eww) she winks at me, a sly smile that warms my heart. I thump my tail in response and when the love flowing through me has no further pocket to fill, I get up and accept the rubs and pats offered.
I agree with my brother...the morning seems to take FOREVER, and it is all I can do to not leap and bounce around like my brother, but I have an image to maintain, but sneak little bursts of energy in when no one is looking. One of my ways of releasing the electrical currents of joy coursing through me is my favorite game: Cover Monster! I know it irks my mistress a bit, but she laughs as much as it bothers her, so it is a guilty pleasure. I tunnel my way under the comforter and, like a land shark (a nickname us German Shepherds come by honestly in our puppihood) I snap at my brothers paws and stomach causing him to leap around like a frog....good times! Once my mistress has her boots on and grabs he backpack, we know it is time to get serious. Once loaded in the car I can feel myself quiver with intensity - it is exacerbated by my brothers low whining and cooing. He can make the most interesting noises. When the windows come down, I pop my head out and let the coolness of the wind soothe my frayed nerves. I always get nervous before I trail, I'm not really sure why, perhaps it is because I try so hard and don't want to ever embarass myself or disappoint my mistress. Trailing is hard and serious work! You can't take odor for granted because it is very mysterious in its ways, although I must admit, it rarely wins - even though it can be confusing at times.
Once my subjectg is dropped off with my brother for 'protection,' I feel the tunnel vision of focus close in; all my thoughts and energies are channeled into my nose and the odors that will collide with it. I hear my mistress open the car door and I let a low pitch whine escape, kind of like a tea pot letting out some steam - I think I would burst if I didn't. When she opens my side of the door, the blast of odor from the outside world is almost overwhelming. You see, we aren't greeted with just one odor like you might think, we are thoroughly saturated with EVERY odor you can imagine, simultaneously. Trees, grass, dirt, bugs, animals, people, cars, plants, smoke, even the wind carries different odors, but I am focused and intent on zeroing in just one odor: my subjects. This is a familiar odor, and in a way, it stands out amongst the rest, for it is an 'aged' odor, almost like light shading of color in the midst of brilliant colors, different but subtle.
I move closer to the edge of the car seat so my mistress can put the harness on; a necessary tool for us trailing dogs. It gives us power and authority to conquer the odor trail we will be set on, and it keeps our mistress close to us (even if we have to drag her sometimes) and within sight. My nose twitches over her shoulder as she clasps the belly strap closed; I've found the direction of travel (DOT) before my paws have hit the dirt, a challenge I present myself with for each trail. I jump out of the car and do a quick circuit of the area, just to be sure I haven't missed anything and thus choose the wrong direction - a frightening thought! When it is time for the clipping of the line to my back, I stand quietly, obedient to the 'rules' of the game...but once clipped, WATCH OUT! I like speed. The game is to find the lost person as quickly as is possible, which isn't as fast as I would like because I usually have to drag my draft horse mistress around (don't tell her I called her that, although she might like the horse reference). Man humans are slow and clumsy! Especially when the odor goes uphill over obstacles, or through trees (I don't know why she doesn't just duck under them like I do...).
The odor hits my nose and I quickly deduce it is about 25hrs old. There are layers of odor from other people walking the trails that are littered throughout the area, but my nose has been trained to zero in like a laser the one odor I am to follow, and it stands out to me like a beacon. A steep hillside is where the scent beckons me to climb, and I do - up and up and then onto a little deer path. The shade helps keep the odor 'alive' and it caresses my nostrils with each breath I take. On occassion I smell the odor over the edge of the hillside and I am tempted to follow, but I have long ago learned that lesson - odor is sneaky and crafty. It tries to make a dog chase it up and down hills, into dead ends and sometimes beyond a turn. I've learned to keep odor inbetween both nostrils, and not just one. It is a difficult task, but us German Shepherds are up for any problem. I jog along the path for a ways and notice that the odor splits; it goes to my right and yet, continues forward. This could be what my mistress calls a 'backtrack,' and they can be difficult to sort out as they age. I follow it forward a few more feet and realize I probably missed a turn, I double back and head downhill where the odor is much deeper and obviously the trail. When it cuts off across a road I almost lose it. Cars can be such a nusance to odor. But, my trusty nose finds where the trail continues and over another hillside we go.
Did I say odor is sneaky? It is! Just when you are positive it goes one way it disappears and moves to another direction. When I pull my mistress down the hillside we run into a trail and the river. Odor seems to split into both directions, but the pull of the water seems to create what humans call a 'scent pool.' These pools of scent are odor heaven; heavily saturated and really enticing to linger in, sometimes it is really difficult to find an exit. This time, my mistress applied pressure to the line, I feel it and know she was asking me a question, "Are you sure the odor goes this way?" This is my time to recheck the information the odor is offering me and see if I am deciphering it correctly. Since the odor seemed to be fading the further I headed downstream, I knew I better double back and into the stronger and truer odor trail.
Heading back I smell the odor change, it gets richer, stronger, I am not really sure how to explain how us dogs know when we are on the right track and getting closer to our prey, but when we do, it is obvious. I jog up the trail a bit but find myself looking over my shoulder to the right, across the river...odor is over there. I decide I better do my due diligence and investigate why the odor is on the other side of the river; besides, the water is cool to my paws and a few licks of water never hurt a dog. I hear my mistress groan at the choice of my crossing. You see, humans have an aversion to getting their feet wet and seem to always look for logs to cross the water on. I find it very odd, for they also complain about being hot, but a quick splash through some water is a sure fire way to cool off. Humans puzzle me, but I love my mistress dearly, and so put up with her oddities.
Since there were no logs for her to use to scamper over the river, she albatrossed her way across getting much wetter than I think she planned. I on the other paw, already had odor and was working the scattered scent trying to find the exit to this puzzle. Odor seemed to be everywhere and swirling around my delicately trained nose in a whirlwind of scent. A gentle breeze created a stronger odor pattern back on the opposite side of the river and I found myself following it back across. I heard the mumbling from my mistress who was non to pleased to have to traipse across the river a second time back to our original side, but I know my job well: follow the odor. Unfortunately, the moment my paws hit dry land, the powerful pocket of odor diminished and I realized I had to return to the other side of the river. I braced myself for the exhasperated comments my mistress would make. I don't think she realizes how hard us dogs are working trying to figure an invisible odor trail out. It isn't like the odor we are following is the only scent out here. But as I hear her splash across for the third time, I do feel a bit guilty.
Once across again, I feel a little panicked; there seems to be no area where direction of travel (DOT) is obvious. I can feel my mistresses eyes on me, waiting for my lead. My heart beats a bit faster and I search the ground for clues furiously. Suddenly, my right nostril detects a stronger pocket of odor under a tree. I duck under the low limbs and feel waves of relief for this pocket of odor has an exit, my confidence is restored and I turn on the speed to show my mistress she can trust my nose. I feel the jerk on my harness several times a muffled "Good girl, sorry," as my mistress navigates rather clumisly I might add, the low branches I ducked under (I do wonder why she doesn't just duck like I do?). The odor trail I am following leads me up a hill and over an obstacle course of fallen logs. My vision narrows and my focus becomes acute; I am zeroed in on my targets tracks and all obstacles are navigated with the athleticism that comes from being a German Shepherd... Only the furitive echoes of "WAIT!!" reach my ears and pierce my drive and focus; my mistress is being bounced around behind me like a beach ball on stormy seas. I can feel the heavy pulls on my harness and have to really focus and tune my timing of jumping logs and ducking under limbs accordingly. Slowly I realize that I'm not being the best partner for my mistress. We have had discussions about these things while I had my paws massaged.
"Sweetheart, I love your dedication to odor and you are a great trailer. However, you need to slow down and not keep pulling when I am under a tree or getting my face scratched off by limbs. When I say "WAIT" I mean "WAIT!!!!!" Understand?" I blinked at her and kissed her hand with gentle licks. I did understand and promised then that I would help salvage her bruised body from any further beatings, but once odor tickles my nose, I want to prove to her that we can find the lost person FAST. Time is life, and for someone lost, that is everything...Right? But as I hear my mistress yelp from impact and feel the reverberation of it down the line to my tack, I realize I need her to be with me; we are a team. I heed her cries and slow my pace, even stopping for a moment and glancing back to be sure she is still alive and not hemorrhaging from any vital body parts. "Good girl, okay," is my cue to resume my course, but I alter it a bit and slow down a little.
The odor is rich and full in the shade of the trees. The river gives life to the aged scent I chase, and I feel a shiver of excitement run down my spine. I LOVE trailing! I run up a narrow trail with glances down below; I smell the odor that has rolled down the hillside, and I feel a bit torn between chasing it and maintaining the path I am on. I know from experience that if I follow it down the hill, I will have to come back up from the scent pool to the path I am on - and my mistress will be banged up further. I dismiss the thought and continue forward, this time, I smell odor to my left, up a hillside, but odor remains in front of me as well. Some 'people' call this 'fringing' because I don't follow the actual track but stay in odor on the easier path. I call it 'SMART.' I am trying to find someone and potentially save their life - they need me to get there as fast as possible, not by following their every step. Dogs know odor and how to achieve the end goal better than any human...just saying.
As the trail before us disappears and becomes overgrown by river brush, I find the odor trail a bit more difficult. It seems to have pools of odor in different areas, some tucked under spikey plants (my mistress hates those) and others in grass towering well above my head. Experience tells me what to do, and I focus even harder on the thin line of odor that continues to move forward and not bottle up, although sometimes, I find myself suckered into thinking my subject is close by, the smell is so strong. As I work through the grass, it tickles my nose and blinds me, but God made my paws to be sensitive to my noses leading and they seem to navigate the roots and shrubs with little trouble. Not sure why God didn't do the same thing for humans. My mistress is not very coordinated I guess, but she does have hands that give great paw massages, so I guess there had to be a sacrifice and surefootedness was it. I've learned not to take the hard jerks on the line or the colorful language that sometimes erupts from her lips, personally. I know she loves me and is doing the best she can with what she has.
Soon the odor leads me to the place my subject crossed the river. Like a wild wolf I leap across andland on the sandy bank; I am getting close to my prey and I can feel my heart pound faster in anticipation. I hear a loud splash behind me and guess my mistress figured it was bath time, but so much for my plans of stealthily sneaking up to my prey and surprising them. I shrug off my disappointment and scamper up the bank to the tall grass of a pasture. The grass is so tall I have to leap like a rabbit just to get through it. The odor is getting so strong I am almost overwhelmed and the excitement and closure of stalking my prey is just around the corner. I hear the praises from my subject as I reach her and sit, proud and purposeful (my mistress taught me to sit to confirm I found the right person) and lavish in the praises from my mistress and my found subject. Dried chicken bits melt in my mouth and the rubs on my ears and back are ecstasy. My mistress is huffing and puffing and asking questions about the trail, a bit insulting if you ask me, as I just ran the trail so what is there to ask? But I know humans are mysterious and every question she asks makes a better trail layer for the next time. From what I could understand, I mostly ran the trail 'true to track' and it was about a mile long. I know I will get good paw massages tonight and I bounce and play tag with my brother on the way back to the car. Trailing is so amazing. I am blessed to have a mistress who loves me so much, and a job that is so wonderful to do. God is good.
A Dogs Perspective (my boy)
The more trails I run the more I realize truly how much of a team effort it really is. I am forever learning how my dogs work, how odor plays in different enviroments and terrains. I lay my thoughts and experiences out here on many of those trails, however, there is a side to those trails that isn't really covered and that is the dogs...at least from their perspetive. Anthropomorphism is dangerous ground to walk while training a dog or any other animal, for it can lead to assumptions unjustified and skewed by our perspective and not the animals true intent which is intrinsic. However, for the enjoyment of my readers, and because of the close bond I have with my dogs, I will share a trail from what I believe could be my boys perspective of it all. I will tell it in first person, as if he is narrating. The trail run is true and those details will be exact, but whether or not the words I put in his mouth are true, is definitely subjective ;) Without further ado... my boy:
I hear mom shift in the bed and her breathing change; she is about to awake and it is a TRAILING DAY!!!! I know how long it will take her to slowly rise from the depths of sleep and I think it too long, so I will bore a hole in her covers with my eyes - this is a sure fire way to get her up faster...that and if I jump on her, but that never goes over well for me, so I wait...eyes focused, intent, predator mode turned on... It works! If only she didn't have to do all the inane human stuff. Dogs figure potty and a quick bite to eat and we are good to go! Who needs coffee?? Have you ever tasted the stuff? I eat most anything readily, but coffee, well, let's just say I steer clear of the stuff. The morning drags on and I try very hard not to be to obvious with my enthusiasm, but I do want her to know how much I LOVE trailing! I mean, for the longest time she only worked with my sister until she got certified. That was a very difficult time in my life and I had to watch on the sidelines as she got better. Maturity, or lack therof, was my moms reasoning for my lack of training. I think I am just interested in LIFE, and so had moments of divergent investigation, ya know?
Anyhow, the moment we turn the horses out I know we are ready and I start my barks of joy and leaps of ecstasy; not something my mom seems to enjoy, but I can't help it....WE ARE GOING TO TRAIL!!!!! Once we load up in the car I can feel my sister, who is always so 'perfect' and full of self control, vibrate with excitement..It is contagious and my barely controlled whining gets higher. I will probably be told to be quiet because I bark in my mom's ear, but, it isn't my fault my sister passed her excitement on to me, now is it?
My mom parks and gets ready. I have to wait in the car and it is all I can do not to eat a seat belt or something. When she comes to the door and opens it I want to leap out and start sniffing, but I contain myself and wait for my 'equipment.' I think I have to wear the harness because my owner is to lazy to go up the hills without the pulling power of my mighty muscles, or maybe she thinks she will get lost if not attached to me? I dunno, but I know how to dress myself and when she offers the harness over my head, I push my leg right through the hole and wait for the clipping - this is my cue to bark. See, we have a routine, an important one that has to be followed exactly, or the trail might not be a success (not my fault if it isn't, just saying). Once the harness is attached I am allowed to jump out and sniff a little, mark my territory (you know, X marks the spot and all) and then it is time for the line to be attached. The excitement I feel is so amazing my toes tingle and I can barely hold still much to my partners chagrin; another clip and another bark - now, the scent article.
Let me tell you a little about 'scent articles.' They stink! Literally! Humans for that matter, are quite the stinky animal, even though they all think they smell good because they take showers and all. But us dogs have amazing God given noses that smell EVERYTHING in living color. So when a sock is used as a scent article, there is very little need to stuff our noses in a bag to 'get a whiff.' Thankfully, my mom doesn't do that, she just lets us walk up to it, or holds the baggie and lets us a sniff at our leisure. We usually smell it from far away anyhow, so it is just more a routine that makes our human partner feel like they are doing something for us. Silly really, but that is just a little of the generous spirit us dogs have towards our masters.
Ok, on to the story (I love telling stories..I have a lot of them!)... Focus! Something my mom says to me when I go off on one of my tangents.. It helps. So I am focused. About the story. The trail! Yes, so I sniff the scent article and I look towards the way my sister had just run a trial. Because my mom is limited in trail runners, sometimes we all have to walk back to the car on the road and reposition the trail layer, then drive back to the start. My job is to always follow the freshest odor, so when I smell the fresh odor to my right, my mom tells me 'Good boy (I love it when she says that), But check over here.' I do, and smell the older odor of the track layer, I hesitate to go forward, but a 'Good boy,' from my mom is all I need to know that this is the trail she wants me to follow. And I do. I think people think trailing is easy and straightforward. This is further from the truth than, well a dog is from a cat! There are so many different odors on the ground and in the air, all swirling around our sensitive noses and often tempting us to abort the trail we are running for something more fun and interesting. This is a hard truth, and it takes dedication and alot of discipline from us dogs to stay focused and following that singular odor.
I am normally a 'head up' kind of dog; I like to smell the tendrils of odor hanging and floating in the air, as opposed to my sister who is a 'nose down' kind of dog. She has the largest shoulder muscles! I hate to admit it, but she can beat me up if she wants to, she is so strong...Focus! Ok, so I normally keep my nose about shoulder height while working, but this trail, something is different, my nose seems to be pulled by a magnet down to the earth and I want to enhale every molecule of that scent. I smell the dying flowers from a hot summer, and the moist dirt from the dew of the morning, but my focus is on the faint telltale odor of my subject, and I am eager to prove to my mom again, that I know my job and can do it as well as my sister. I continue up a long steep hill, nose to the ground, being tickled by the stems of grass, passing bugs that would probably get sucked up my nose if I sniffed to hard - another potential hazard for the trialing dog, just saying...
Occassionally, I look to where a strong cloud of odor has drifted. My mom calls it a 'head pop,' but not all head pops mean a turn is coming. See, I have learned that odor likes to play games with us dogs, kinda like hide and seek. Sometimes you follow it and it peters out to nothing, then you have to remember where you last had it (that is where our human partners comes in. Their job is to remember these things and help us refind the trail if we can't on our own) and sometimes that is embarassing, but us dogs just take it in stride. On this particular head pop, it is because the odor has fallen over a steep cliff. I don't want to go down there, but I will if the odor is strong enough.. thankfully, it isn't, and I continue up the steep hill. I pass a couple of piles of coyote droppings and consider giving them a good sniffing; you can learn alot by sniffing 'scat.' People really don't know what they are missing, all the information they can learn by just sniffing something left over from a really good meal. Focus! Ok, so I wanted to, but I don't, I really am quite purposeful in my work and I do take it seriously, even if my mom thinks my sister does more. It is just that I am very varied in my interests, but trailing is the most fun I've ever had in life (except eating and maybe playing 'cover monster' with my sister) and I know the practice I do is so that I can help find people who get lost in real life. So I pass the opportunity to 'meet and greet' a coyote, and continue on my work. My tongue is beginning to get dry and it is a little harder for me to sniff as deeply with as much 'taste' of the odor as it was when I began. My sisters trail was close to the river and she could pop on in and get a drink whenever she liked.. I love water, and right now I could use a good swig, but my trail is on a mountain, and I can feel the pull of the odor grab my nose, my body follows in a tight turn to the left.
My mom says she likes my pace more than my sister, for I am quite the easy going chap. I don't run very often, but keep a fast walk to slow jog, so I can smell EVERYTHING (but don't tell my mom that part) and still do my job well. But as I come by this turn, I can't help but catch some fresh odor on the wind. It is fleeting, but it is telltale; my subject is getting closer! This truly exciting for a trailing dog, when the odor changes from old and stale, to fresh and ALIVE! I find I can't help but quicken my pace a bit, even while I dodge the trees and go under the limbs that give a nice back scratch if do it just right. A couple more turns and I head downhill, the odor tumbles into my nostrils faster and I again pick up my pace. Just as I am committing to head down a steep incline, a blast of wind again carries a package for my nose, one that is carefully dissected and interpreted by this sensitive instrument - fresh odor from my prey. I begin to veer to the right and can hear my mom talking. She said this was a 'known' trail, but I don't 'know anything!' about this trail, so how can it be a 'known trail'? I hear her telling me that I am getting odor from the walk back to the car, and that the trail is to our left. I hesitate a moment as I feel her apply some pressure to the line in question; she wants to know if I am committed to following the odor, or if it is just a fleeting glimpse of what lies out there...I am committed, and to my shock, she follows me :) :) I am so excited by the fresh odor I begin to move much faster than my normal pace, unfortunately for my two legged partner, because we are going down a very steep mountain side with lots of dead wood, roots, brush, and well, most anything else she can trip on and tumble over. But I am a good boy, and when she tells me to 'WAIT' I do, and even wag my tail which prompts a "Good boy!!!" form her.
I continue down the hillside, occassionally feeling the hard jerk on the line from my mistress trying to stabilize herself from a trip or some such mishap. She always tells me "Good boy," to let me know it isn't a correction, and I have learned not to take it personally. We all have to put up with something in life, right? The fresh odor is mesmirizing and gets my heart pumping fast, but the further down I go, the less I smell it. I will be honest, a little fear tumbled into my heart for a moment. Did I make a mistake? I don't like to make mistakes, and I hate disappointing my mom! Moreoever, if my sister hears that I messed up, I will never hear the end of it. But even though i don't have the strong fresh odor pulling at my nose, I can smell the older trail out of my left nostril.. Did you know dogs can smell with each nostril independently? Well, we can! It is pretty cool and it helps us determine which direction a trail travels, from oldest to freshest. So as I smell the older trail, I gently guide my mistress to the left, trying very casually to look like I meant to go this way the whole time, but I don't think she bought it, just between you and me.
At the bottom of the hill lies a road, and my nose tells me that I need to head left. Roads can be tricky because the cars that travel on them disturb the odor so much. It can scatter the odor on both sides and really cause a dog a lot of trouble. Thankfully, this road is rarely used, so I jog up the dirt road and enjoy the cool earth on my hot paws. I am hoping we cross a river because I think my tongue is stuck on the roof of my mouth. I find the turn where my prey ducked into the tree line, probably trying to trick me, but I am feeling strong and know my job well. As I turn again, finding direction of travel to what my mom calls 'a backtrack' I smell the telltale signs of water, my best friend besides food (well, my mom and sister of course). I begin to lope inbetween the trees and can hear my partner behind me huffing and puffing as she runs; humans are so much slower than dogs, ya know? I find the creek and you might think I jumped in with all paws and rolled around in it like a pig in mud, but you would be wrong! I kind of surprised myself, but a blast of fresh odor, strong and intense has grabbed hold of me and I find myself driven even harder to make the find. I leap over the creek and run along a barbed wire fence, my impatience to find my subject (and get my treats) my only thought. Unfortunately, the strong pool of odor suddenly disappeared and when I stopped and looked back at my mom, she saw my disappointment. "Let's check over here," she says as I double back over my path. I've learned that if I over shoot a turn, I need to retrace my steps and run a little circle and see if I can catch the trail again, but sometimes, it is quite disheartening when you think you found them, only to come up with nothing. Odor is mean sometimes..
A fallen strand in the barbed wire fence makes my journey across quite easy; especially because mom held up the other strands.. Her progress through took more time and included some words and grunts I won't repeat. Once across, I stopped and stood, patience is a virtue, especially when trying to find people and odor trails. The wind kissed my nose and odor became apparent, I knew where the trail was, and my subject was close! I began to run through the field, along the treeline, and up another steep hill and there she was!! My subject and my sister who sat next to her for protection. I ran up to her and sat in front of my prey who rewarded me with oh so yummy dried chicken!! One of my favorites! I ate those yummy morsels up quickly and had to be held to get my gear off because now it was time to play with my sister! Another favorite pasttime and a wonderful way to continue the celebration of a great trail run. I feel my feet flying over the earth and chase my sister around, splashing in the river and drinking the cool liquid. I am so proud of myself I can hardly keep the joy from spilling out everywhere. I feel this elation every time I find my subject. I know the work I do is important somehow, but thrill of the chase, the mystery of odor, and the predator/prey relationship is what keeps me coming back for more. I know I will sleep well tonight, and can hardly wait for the next trailing day..
Knowing Your Limits.....
There are times in life when it seems like the world is caving in on you, intent on swallowing you up. Is it the last straw that breaks the camels back, or is it the big happenings followed by the relentless squeeze of little things piled on top until you have no room to breathe? Have I depressed anyone yet? LOL.. Not trying to, but I am sure most of you all can relate in one way or another. When you are in this boat, the little things can be blown out of proportion and over dramatized. But after having a car collide with mine (their fault) on my way home from a training, insurance loopholes dragging things out, and then rental car hoopla, including but not limited to, having a truck expertly launch a rock into the windshield of the rental car (which I get to pay for because I 'opted out' of the $24.50 a day rental insurance (did someone say Highway robbery??!!!)), to finding out that I have to replace all 4 tires (but insurance wants to only pay for one) because of AWD (all wheel drive) manufacturer safety guidelines. Of course, the finances for an extra $900 for 3 tires that should not have to be purchased for another year of more is not in the budget book, and, well, you get the picture. Two missions the same week and ungodly temperatures and excessive dryness making fire hazards pop up everywhere, and the perverbial straw is floating down towards the camels back.
So, what does all that have to do with trailing? Good question! Trailing doesn't stop just because the poo hits the fan. Training must continue because lives depend upon the readiness of those who will be on the search. When, after a heartfelt discussion with my 'normal' tracklayer led to the (hopeful) promises that they would change and follow directions, I jumped at the opportunity to stop having to do known and small/short tracks. I was running out of ways to make them challenging and fun for the dogs (even though a 'fire trail' is always fun for the dogs) and me. I set it up as a challenge for the two girls; see who can lay the most challenging double blind trail WITHOUT WALKING ON THE ROAD. The only caveat. The distance was to be minimum of a .75 miles and while they would walk together, each one had the opportunity to be the lead when they laid their trail. I hoped the thrown guantlet would get the juices of competition flowing, and me a great trail - or two :) I would age it overnight allowing it to be about 15hrs old when run. The temp while laying the trail was 98F, 3mph SE wind and a whopping 12% humidity; definitely a challenge I was looking forward to.
Somehow, the dogs knew trails were being laid the night before. Unbelieveable nagging on their part was driving me nuts! Thankfully, the offer for some source (HR) was laid out for me, with a loose idea of where they may be laid (basically a guideline as we have 7acres and that is a lot of land to find lids or a glass jar). I also laid out some scent articles in the form of a gun and clips, so I could work on distinguishing commands and scent article practice. Both dogs had a ball, found all the HR (yay) and my girl nailed the command to find the scent articles. Both dogs returned to the house satisfied and eager for the morning to bring them a stimulating trail, and I got some rest.
Morning came quickly and boy howdy the dogs knew they were going to have fun. My girl who normally shuns breakfast wolfed down what was offered; she knew she was going to need it! Truly the sixth sense of a dog is amazing... I got my morning chores done as quickly as possible as the day began to heat up from the moment the sun summitted the mountains. Ugh. The girls were taken to their hides by a generous family member (who was probably glad they were not asked to lay trail and hide) and by the time I was ready to head out the door I am kicking myself because my radios are still in my car, and not the rental. My tracklayer had deleted her trailing apps from her phone and forgot to record the trails, so double blind took on a more serious tone - I had no way of getting in contact with them, or where they were hiding should my dog(s) not be able to grab the trail or had difficulties. Great, more pressure...
I made it to the PLS with a knot in my stomach; definitely adding to the realism of an actual mission, minus the personnel and skilled volunteers and workers that would be there to aid in the trail. My girl was ready - I could see the look in her eyes and feel the energy pulsing through well muscled shoulders. My boy had stayed with the tracklayer for protection. I prescented my girl and saw the fire stoke in her eyes, her nose twitched and dripped with excitement. A quick harnessing, a second scenting and the clip is attached. I expect her to bust out in full speed as is her norm, but not this time. She cast herself one way up the road, then back, stops, looks at me (not a good sign), then moves into the grass and back to the road. Crap. Crap. Crap. All the background fears come leaping from behind and ransack my consciousness with all the things that can go wrong from here. I quickly douse the flames of panic with a cold dose of denial. If I cave to the panic now I will be in big trouble - best to just wait on the dog and see what happens...
After several circlular casts in the same area (in direct sunlight from morning to night) I cast her a little deeper into the grass, she obliges taking a wide oval when suddenly her nose drops and I see the trailing behavior, although subtle, I am looking for. She jogs towards the treeline shading the river before she stops and drops a load. If dogs are anything like birds who drop off any excess baggage before taking off in flight, I am ready to run. Unfortunately, that isn't what happens (more pressure). She works into the tree line starts across the river, doubles back, starts down stream and doubles back. Once again across the river and she is on the other side, so I follow. She moves upstream a 100ft or so before crossing the stupid river again! What the heck? Now I am beginning to lose my loose hold on patience. I wait to see if she commits. She does. So I cross the river again. I'm controlling emitting the verbage my brain is dumping my way; I really don't want to expresss my frustration which is slowly bubbling like a lava vent. My girls head pops back the direction we started and follows through with the action. We arrive back at the tree line again and my girl delivers another package. Ooookkkk....
She head pops back the direction we traversed just moments ago and I can't help but utter a sharp "Get to freaking work!" She does. She heads on back, decides crossing the river for the what 4th time? is what she should do and I oblige to follow, my mutterings gaining volume. Once across, my girl ducks under some low hanging branches and I see it...HOPE! Tail wags, heavy detailing of the area and my memory is jogged of the previous nights subtle hints of the trail laid. "There may be a few backtracks and scent pools," laughter from the girls..
My hopes renewed and my girls confidence bolstered, she leans into the harness, nose glued to the ground and the commencement of dragging momma through the branches, under brush, and any ungodly trees that balance between to high to jump and to low to duck under, begins. But, I am happy, my girl is in odor and the telltale curl in her tail, pull in the harness and confidence on the trail are presented in full and living color. She navigates all the obstacles with a true grace I marvel at even while I bang and bounce off of the same. How she can be inhaling at a rapid rate, focused on the singular target odor whilst working at a fast (for me) pace and voyaging over some of the most tricky obstacles without breaking stride is something to marvel at. I find it extremely difficult to jog behind her and keep my eyes from being gored by evil malovent limbs, stabbed by machiavellian branches or displace a knee cap from some forlorn log. But, a good trailing dog is a sight to behold and a joy to run behind (except when being bludgeoned to death by your shifty (and sometimes sharp) surroundings - then it is just plain painful).
An old worn deer path slowly being reclaimed by the growth is the path my girl decides to follow. Her body language is indicative of being in odor and she is strong and fresh - my confidence sores and the weeks woes begin to slowly fall from my stooped back. I feel a smile tugging at my lips and I know my girl is smiling too. When she decides the nice steep hillside is the next area we should go, I don't grumble, I huff and puff a bit as the hillside is littered with dead fall and my girl is agile and cat like - I am the staggering mammoth behind her, but I feel strong and love seeing my girl work the odor. The thrill of the double blind and a dog in odor is hard to replicate....unless there are costly stakes. The quick stab of responsibility makes me all the more happy my girl is working the odor so noticeably - no quibble or blurred language. At the top of the hill she continues heading a northwest direction, in the sunlight that has warmed to a low broil. The numerous saplings are only about 9ft tall and do little to shade the area - but they do get in the way and complicate the line handling.
Weaving and ducking at a furious pace I struggle to keep my feet under me and my eyes on my girl. She is in scent heaven and devouring every molecule she can inhale, which for me seems like we are looping and running circles. My girl has not lost the pull, despite my leaning on the line in question. Occassionally she stops her progress into a dense area and comes out before I have to crash through (good girl GOOD GIRL!!!) and I am quite sure it is just a scent pool or drift odor, for she stays obedient to the pull of the track. We continue a more northerly direction and entering areas I have never been before - good, and a bit disconcerting. Having a vague sense of familiarity of the area lends comfort - the assumption the girls wouldn't leave this comfort taps a code into my mind I can't ignore except for the fact my girl is dragging me away from that security. I apply a little more drag to the line and I am greeted with more ppm's (paws per minute). Okay, they went this way...up another dumb hill. One other little tidbit offered the night before: "There was very little bramble on both trails." Bramble is the term I use for the branches that try to scratch my eyes out and leave nice deep furrows in my skin as I crash through their ranks.
Unfortunately, what I am being drug through is alot of bramble....alot of it!! Second and third doubts pollute the landscape of my mind but are weighed by the ever steady pull and confidence of my girl. I've been a jerk before and pulled her off odor because I was insecure (and stupid) and I don't have any plans on doing it this time. I let her work. I see the head pops to her right and the sheer density of the forest is foreboding and off putting. When I apply a little pressure to the line in question to our vertical ascent I get a look back and a stop. Huh. "Ok girl, lets cut over and down a bit and see if you can find the track there." My girl obliged. Once onto more level but cluttered grounds she picked up her pace and once again I felt I was on a merrry ground weaving through trees with a deja vu feeling. I still see the work ethic in my girl but the annoyance of her wanting to investigate every tendril of scent is beginning to take its toll - the lava bubbles once more.
To her credit she began to do quick 'peeks' into the areas pooled with odor. Only when she muscles into the harness do I follow praying I'm not stabbed or gouged in delicate areas any further. When she drops her nose and works the little deer path in front of us I breathe a sigh of relief...until I see the tree graveyard I have to hurdle. The shouts of "Wait!" are probably still reverberating in the forest today. The downhill slope of this odor trail wasn't helping although I was thrilled for the shade the older growth lent. Once on the moist floor of the valley my girl continued a northeast progression; my sense of orientation to my whereabouts a bit skewed by the many twists and turns and loops it felt like we had done. I kept eyes on my girl looking for any sense of weakening or softening in her stance or confidence - but none was to be had, she was in odor. Through the mucky, muddy, sticky marshy lands she worked, an occassional head pop the only detraction from the trail odor. I strained my ears to hear the river but never did until the first (deep) crossing presented itself. I looked for a 'safe' crossing but my girl had made her leap and was about 20' aheadon a 30' line and I would be pulled in like a hooked fish if I didn't make the choice to jump. I did and landed with an elegant splash that soaked my pants. I made it to the sand bar and saw the second leg of my journey was another deep crossing. While I knew the cool of the river would be welcome, the slosh of water tight boots now swimming pools for my feet, was not. But, if you are going to run with the big dogs..... I jumped and splashed and, well, got soaked...
Up the embankment and into grass about 4' tall. A proximity alert was seen as my girl porposed through the grass. She made a few swings by the river and one attempt to cross - which I decided I would not follow and she gave a "Gotcha!" grin back at me...and some say dogs don't have a sense of humor..the turkey! She maintained a trajectory straight across the waving sea of grass to a rocky slope and back down towards the river....and more mud..yay... A black bolt shot from the left tree line to me and the voices shouting my boys name a few yards in the river greeted my ears. My girl? She was in the river and working upstream, but opted for dry land and then to her subject for some very well deserved goodies.
Debriefing began after my girl received lavish praise and goodies then convorted off with my boy for some well deserved R&R playing tag. Yup, many backtracks, once across the river and back (little turkey) and definitely up the steep hill with LOTS of bramble (goes to show how perspectives can be different and eye witness accounts are not accurrate (I bare the scratches and jabs to prove it)). They laid a 1.5 mile trail and my girl ran a 1.39 mile trail (good girl for shortening it :)). Also, the GPS trail showed we did not go in circles like I that we had but numerous 90 degree turns amongst a couple 180's. My boy ran a great double blind trail too and made his find without any difficulties. A few great learning apects for me (the girls walked downstream in the river for quite a ways. My boy abandoned the track for the odor hitting the banks and came out just yards from their hiding spot. The track was about 500ft from the river, so possibly still retrievable, but interesting he opted for the water 'track' vs the land track even though he crossed at same junction and head popped towards land track...something to remember and watch for). All in all, the frustrations of the week got put on hold for an hour. I got to watch the miracle these amazing dogs do naturally and particpate as a partner with them. They were tuckered out when they got home, so I got peace and quiet there too :) God is good!
Low Humidity Aged Trailing...Interesting...
I love trailing. Truly, it is a passion that runs very deep. Trying to understand how odor plays its games of cat and mouse, and the dogs with skills so amazing, seem to 'win' more often than not. That being said, it is the blind to double blind trails I love the most. The fact that I have to be so intune to my dog; aware of their breathing, speed, head and tail set, head pops and the thrill of knowing you have to be one with your dog, or you will not make the find. They are a test of the dogs capabilities and training, a test of the humans ability to stay focused and accurately 'read' your furry partners body language, and a thrilling run (if behind my girl ;) ) of an invisible painting etched in real time by an odor drivin dog.
So when I have no recourse but to do known trails, some of the fun gets sapped out of it....and I have to find new ways to complicate the trail and challenge myself and my dogs. Running in the summer when humidity levels hit all time lows and aging it overnight in an urban environment is one way. The other complexity is not what most would imagine it would be; it is the human factor. Once we know any component of the track it is very human of us to want to control it and how it is run. Fighting this compulsion is difficult but oh so necessary! I believe I did a good job on both my dogs tracks this time through, as I blanked out my mind to the track and anything I knew and focused solely on the dog - like I am supposed to do. I let my dogs work until they gave a negative. No posting or nervously waiting for them to 'figure' it out while accidentally, possibly, subtly leading them, which has happened when I run any part of known track...which is once again, why I prefer blind to double blind.
It has been hot hot hot here as of late, and mummifying dry. When it was time for my track layer and I to go lay the tracks, it didn't take more than the start to feel parched and ready to stop. But I was eager to see how the dry weather influenced the odor and threw in some neat nuances and difficulties for the dogs to work through. My dogs came along in the car, parked in the shade by a creek that had a great breeze flowing; they were cool temperature wise, but oh so frustrated watching us leave them. They knew instinctively that a track was being laid and the anticipation that built in the car was expressed by barking, whining, and a lot of slobber down my windows. By the time both tracks had been laid, I was ready for a cold shower and air conditioning and my dogs were ready to run it....only they had 15hrs to wait...15hrs that would be spent velcroed to my body, eyes piercing my soul with the longing and need to run the trail. Morning couldn't come quick enough.
As the morning rays pierced my room, I could feel the silent stoic stare my girl posesses bore holes through y sheet and into my back. It was time to get up..who can sleep with a 90lb german shepherd telepathically searing you with unblinking eyes? How these dogs know it is a trailing day still puzzles me. I mean, even before I am out of my sleep wear or had my first cup of coffee, they are being obnoxious and prepping themselves to run trails.. It truly is interesting, for on days no trails will be run, they do act differently. The usual routines of 'cover monster' and constant check ups on me while I dress and prepare for the day occur, and when I am finally ready to head out and feed the horses, the dogs bound out with the exhuberance and joy only a trailing day can bring. I enjoy watching them dance around and chase each other, secretly hoping they unload any extra brown baggage that will otherwise have to be totted around in a blue baggy if deposited anywhere other than in the wild. Then, it is into the car where we will have a bit of peace and quite for a short time. See, dogs don't tend to remember where trails are laid, that is what noses are for don't ya know? But they do learn patterns, so once a known direction, say towards the forest is turned, the whining begins, but towards town, not so much...until the windows go up. Then the cooing and whining begins from my boy, who truly does some amazing bird imitations. Occassional low whines from my girl let me know she is still alive and excited, otherwise, it is a quite unemotional (to the unobservant) look my girl offers. But to those who have the eyes to see, her excitment and passion are evident and clearly being displayed, just not as vibrantly (or loudly) as my boy.
I drop off my subject and my girl and run my boy first. He really does a fabulous job and I love watching how particular he is about the age difference in the odor. For instance, a few days prior to this trail, my subject had laid a trail on the school grounds which this trail would cross at one point. He gets there and obviously has tendrils of odor from that older trail, possibly even scent pools as there is grass and buildings to 'hold' the scent (and we had lingered there for a bit talking to someone). But, the fresher trail is going the opposite direction, so he dances a bit, finally opting for the fresher track and discarding the luring scent pools that seemed to beckon him. I see this several more times by the hospital where my subject had walked by and hid close to at one point. Truly truly amazing the dogs nose. When I finish my boys trail, I swap dogs and walk back to the car with my girl. We will drive to the next PLS and begin our trail. The subject will move aways away, somewhere, but due to her age, not too far.
Once in the car, I can feel my girl mentally preparing herself for her run. My boy just lets his excitment spill all over the place, letting everyone who is around know, he is excited. Such an opposite coin, my girl, she is all about decorum and maturity (except playing 'cover monster'). A hair tie is her scent article, and as I harness her, I can see her nose twitching and measuring the air; she will most likely have DOT before she gets out of the car. This is good if not a blind/double blind trail. If the latter, then I want to see when she has a head pop and watch the first scents she gets. But since I know direction of travel (DOT), I allow her this privilege. I have to start her a little into the trail as are ingress back to the car would be the fresher trail, albeit in the wrong direction odor wise. By the time I have shut and locked the door she has solidified where the odor trail is and has begun without me! Sneaky girl. I call her to me, snap the lead to her harness and tell her to "Find her!" and off we go..
The little year around creek, now tamed by summers heat and parched ways, has left scars on the land from when, with winter's wrath, had raged, overflowing its banks with icy waters for months on end. Now, the light chatter of the waters are calming and cooling, very welcome, and aid in the moisture needed to keep odor alive and fresh. My girl dips towards the waters for a moment, ambling towards the south end of the bank. Knowing direction of travel, I have to be sure to keep my feet moving and not post or apply any unnecessary pressure to the line; I don't want to accidentally (or intentionally) influence her choices. Once again, I tune myself solely into my girls subtle language, blanking my mind out to the surroundings and thoughts that would lead me to sway my girls choices. It isn't long before she gently sways towards the east end of the church and towards the road where she is drawn once again towards the south. I know why, for the railroad tracks run diagonal in a WSW fashion until heading south; and my subject had walked a good ways on the tracks.
The little southward dip is quickly corrected with a my girl doubling back over herself and heading west. She crosses the railroad tracks and onto the west side of the tracks - head pops to the east. It is a steady jog my girl holds, her nose dipping to the ground in shady spots, but otherwise holding to just below shoulder height. When she continues up and past the road my subject turned north (right) on I have to fight the urge to slow my pace and add pressure to the line. I do question her, which is done often when I want to be sure she is still working in strong odor. When I do, she leans into the harness and continues forward; she is still in odor. I submit and follow. It isn't too long before she follows the odor into someone's large backyard...UGH! This is truly where I hate trailing in urban areas - my dog wants to follow odor, but odor and my dogs don't have any boundary issues, but people do. In this case, I am aware the railroad tracks are behind this large yard and most likely, due to the slope from the tracks to the yard, the trees creating a sound barrier from the train, and the shade for scent to hide in, there is a large scent pool. My girl is pulling hard and steady, so I hitch my big girl pants up and start my monologue in case windows are open and eyes are viewing our intrusion and wondering what the heck is going on.
"I know you are following the odor girl, but this is someone's yard. I hate doing this. I think the trail is on the tracks sweetheart, let's hurry up and get out of these good people's backyard." My girl obliges in quickening her pace deeper into the yard, only for me to see what has revved her engines: a cat. Mr Kitty Kitty has arched his back and thrown down the gauntlet; this is his backyard and he isn't thrilled with the intrusion of a 90lb shepherd dragging a 110lb homo sapien. "FOCUS!" The sharp command checks my girl and the governor for speed is replaced. A few head pops based on visual stimuli of a retreating cat and my girl resumes her primary traget: subject odor.
I am pulled towards the corner of the yard, conveniently past the nice opening in the trees that would have kept my eyes from being gouged out, and instead into the heavily thicketed section. Even my girl who gets to duck under everything had to push through the dense growth. A few scratches and painful stabs of branches later and we have come into the open space of the railroad tracks. My girl summits the mound and straddles a metal rail, her nose in the air she swings her head to the west and then the east. I am sure the trains have pulled the odor further west then our location, but we have to be close to the end of the fringe odor - and she opts to head east towards the road. Her pace quickens when we reach the road and a head pop to the right to the backyard we had just trespassed on tells me the scent pool is luring, but my girl is obedient to odor and instead guides me to the left (north) and resumes the actual track, preferring to jog the street which I find interesting (and annoying. very grateful it was quite at the time of our run) except when we hit shady spots. Then she drawn to the sidewalk and the grassy spots where odor is captured more readily.
It is a nice morning, about 61F with a 6mph southerly wind; mostly to our backs which is good. As we jog along past homes with dogs barking their displeasure of being behind a fence while an intruder passes by freely, I realize I am uncertain where we are on the track. I cannot remember where the next turn is which is really good, or bad if my girl isn't truly working. I know she is by her gait and steady pull, her breathing and head/tail set tell of purpose and focus. We pass the street I think we should turn on and while I do a head pop of my own, my girl pulls forward with a quiet confidence that fuels my own. One of the things a fast dog can do often, is overshoot turns. In rural areas this isn't much of a problem for odor is consistently captured by the trees, grass, brush etc. However, in urban areas, buildings, cars, asphalt, concrete, and the sheer contamination of critters and people, exhaust and what not can shift odor into places harder to find. So if a turn is overshot, it is not as easy to recapture. I have worked alot with my girl on street corners and still feel my boy is King in urban environments, but my girl is quickly mastering these quirky and difficult areas and see as we cross the road the subtle test of the air to either side; she is checking for odor in a turn. Good.
The next street she pulls me back to the sidewalk and when her head pops to the right (east) I am not surprised she obeys the pull of miasma. We are coming towards a very decorated home, complete with old fashioned tractor and other ornaments....and dogs. Lots of dogs. They are, thankfully, behind fences or in the house, but the cacophony of barks and yips hits crescendo as we pass by. My girl barely acknowledges the routy crew; she has the telltale signs of a proximity alert. Her speed changes, sparks of energy seem to ignite through her body. At the next corner she confidently swings north (left) again and has head pops to the east (her right) and she is drawn off the track towards large alleyways before the Safeway and its parking lot. I realize too late what is happening. To get back to the car without overlaying either trail, we had to walk along the hwy. The odor would be pushed through the large openings of the alley and parking lot and is the fresher track as it was laid last. I hold my breath and wait to see what my girl will do. She will not be wrong if she wants to follow the trail of our egress back to the car, and yet, she would be for that trail would not lead he to her subject.
At the back of Safeway she stops and tests the air. She takes a step towards Safeway and then turns back towards the direction of the track (north). I offer a few words of encouragement, "You are right baby, but keep sniffing, go with the strongest source of scent." I will only intervene if she chooses the trail back to the cars and passes the opportunity for an air scent from the end spot. It seems like forever but it is only a few seconds of waiting. A gentle shift of the wind is all it takes for my girl to reassess and commit: she will follow the track, she got a blast of fresh odor from her subject.
She isn't 'on track' but she is definitely in odor and pulling hard. She guides me to to the next street and pulls hard to the right and to the hwy. I am gathering line as fast as I can for I know she will blindly follow the pull of the odor into danger. Even standing waiting for the numerous cars to pass she is leaning in the harness, she wants to make the find. Finally, a gap in the parade of cars and my girl seems to feel the slight release of pressure on the line and plows forward, her stride breaking into a lope and I let a few loops out of the 30' line. She beelines for the creek and her subject, joy and elation breaking through the serious and studied face she has worn since the beginning of the trail. A quick sit in front of her subject and she is treated to praise and yummy goodies which are quickly devoured, then a dip in the creek to cool of hot paws and a dry mouth.
The picture above is her trail and the subjects track. I really enjoyed both trails, even though I find, ironically, my confidence in doing known trails dwindle. Knowing the trail gives a false sense of assurance. You believe your dog is perfect and never makes mistakes all the while gently, probably inadvertently, influencing their movements. I don't want this and so try to do as many blind/double blind trails as I can, saving a known trail for technical resolutions and work. But, when fate denies, improvise, and that is where I am currently at. Finding new ways to run the trails needed to keep the dogs on top of their game and improving, for if you are not moving forward in life, you are moving backwards.
Bad Day To Be A Snake
I am not sure if the sport side of trailing has the same difficulties as the SAR side has, but one of the MOST frustrating aspects is not having tracklayers, let alone good tracklayers. As has been stated many times through out this blog, it takes many people to save people's lives - it is not just the SAR personnel but all who have contributed to their training, gear, expenses, and prayers for their safety. But for mantrailers, we have to have one extra crucial component: tracklayers. These unsung heroes are not only vital to the training of the dogs, but it seems, a rare breed. Few have the understanding how important this act is; without tracklayers, we are up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Tracklayers are actually the ones who train the dogs, for the better or to their detriment. Yes, the handler of the dog aids in the dogs learning by reading the dogs body language and helping them when in a jam, but the tracklayer is who sends the dog into the world of odor, and what they do, where they go and introduce to the dog is what is teaching the dog. Because scent is an alien world to us, at least to the extent the dogs understand it, most people assume that if they just walk a trail the dog will learn. And for the most part, they are correct - that is until the same trail is laid over and over and over again, or when directions aren't followed. This can really cause problems in the training regimen of the dog for it is people's lives at stake. Not a good comibination. So after losing a mediocre tracklayer (willingness was there, but refused to follow instructions) that allowed me to run blind and double blind aged trals, I was forced to seek other avenues. A young lady was willing, but her age restricted any blind trails for I would be forced to walk the trails with her; definitely better than nothing, and hopefully, a future tracklayer in the making :)
The hot sticky evening presented the first opportunity to lay a known trail. The young girl was a bit nervous at the prospect of going into the woods, but she bolstered herself and followed behind me sotically. It wasn't long before her confidence grew and she was strolling along through the dense foliage with an air of assurance, proud of herself for bettering the nagging doubts that flittered about in her mind. Since it was to be a known trail and one in which I had to attend the laying of, I made sure it was the trail I wanted to run, complete with river crossing, backtrack, sharp turns, and terrain untraveled by the dogs. I kept the trails about a half mile each and then carefully, so as not to contaminate the trails, walked back to the car. (that was hard to do! I sure do miss having tracklayers with their own car or at least old enough to lay trails by themselves, lol)
The next morning, life exploded and my 12hr aged trail turned into a 24hr aged trail. It was about 90F when we finally got out the door and drove to the end of the trail so I could deposit my subject. She was excited to go find a hiding spot I didn't know about and wait to be found....The dogs? They were coming unglued, the whining and 'singing' going on in the back was quite deafening in the enclosed car. My boy drew the lucky straw of being first, so my girl had a line clipped to her and the young lady led her out of the car with sad looks shot over her shoulder towards me. I reassured her that her turn was coming and not to worry, but as I drove away I could see in the rearview mirror the young lass struggling to pull my girl the direction she wanted to go; my girl only had eyes for the departing car carrying her 'mama' and brother.
At the PLS I wrangled the harness onto my squirming boy, scented hin off of a hair tie and snapped the carbener onto his harness. The usual barks at key points in this process occured on point, and as my danced his jig in anticipation to work I noticed a sudden movement of a black stick. As I am jerked forward by my boy who has direction of travel (DOT) my backward glance is of a very perturbed garter snake that had been sunbathing only to be rudely tap danced on by a black and white furry behemoth. It flicked its tongue at me with and with a less than friendly shake of its tail headed for safer territory. My boy probably had no clue what he had done, he was on the hunt! He gave a wide cast (the first trail laid would be the second trail run and it was behind us, so older odor was behind us but the wind was blowing into us thus giving him whiffs of odor in more than one direction) finally settling on a path that ran parallel to the river. He dove over the edge of the embankment and onto a small overgrown deer path with the zeal and joy only trailing can bring and splashed across the little feeder stream with triumph. I watched him closely, watching his nose bob from the ground to shoulder height; the grass waving gently in the hot breeze was vigilant in its growth this year and mustered 6ft in altitude. It was also very dense, and my boy had to begin a porposing type action to move through it.
As he pulled in the harness and drug me through the sea of green, I felt my feet being grabbed by the entanglement of grass stems. It made me very glad I wasn't having to run behind my girl in this stuff. My nose began to tingle and I could hear my boy sneezing - I was fighting off my own oncoming sneeze attack which was ramping up. A slight downward glance revealed my pants had turned yellow with the pollen. A few more powerful sneezes from my boy erupted and I felt such a pride well up in me for his persistence in these difficult conditions. A few feet further and a large swathe of grass trampled down making almost a crop circle like shape, told me a herd of deer had bedded down her last night. My boy didn't bat an eye or mis a beat - he traipsed right through it and onward in his quest for his subject..good boy!
I noticed we were hugging a path close to the river; the track we had laid was actually up in the tree line. Yet again, another lesson in the movement of scent - you can't predict with certainty where it will land. I had anticipated that the fog that is produced by this river might move the odor, but the prevailing winds were towards the trees. A gentle slope towards the river and across an open field would encourage the odor to drift towards the rivers edge, but not usually against the wind. My boy though was moving confidently and with his nose to the ground; he was in odor and his paws slapped the ground with precision and purpose. A head pop towards the treeline took us back onto the actual track and into the dense grove of anorexic trees, complete with bony limbs that like to scratch and claw at your face and clothes. This is the time I am not thrilled he is following the actual footfall, for it usually entails some sort of painful happening to me. Nevertheless, I am thrilled he is obedient to odor and I do my part and follow, supporting his decisions. I know some complex problems lay before him and I am curious to see how he will handle it in this heat.
My boy weaves through the scrawny copse of trees and heads towards the river; while layihg this trail, we had to think through this section as the overgrowth was pretty nasty, and I could see myself falling flat on my face or being tripped and speared by a branch. We had headed further north before doubling back and crossing the river (wet feet and all) about a tenth of a mile above our current location. The scent pools here due to our pausing and circular route could pose a intricate nexus of odor. But, my boy fast forwards the problem. He head pops to the north, a slight glance over his shoulder to the east where we tried to walk but were forced to turnaround due to the overgrowth and the deadfall (no guessing on how it got its name), and then back to the river. He quickly makes his decision with a leap off the embankment into the water; if it was a human doing it we would consider it a belly flop, but my boy doesn't seem to mind and laps up some of the cool liquid on his way across, being sure to splash especially well so he is thoroughly cooled off. Thankfully, in this area there is a large tree that lends its body to my crossing, although truth be told, I probably would not have minded getting my feet wet as hot as I was. Once across the tree bridge I snatched up the snaky line sliding through the tall grass and follow my boy towards the vacant campground situated next to an old frontier settlement. Only a rugged rock fireplace remains to tell the story of a generation far tougher than my own - my boy passses it without a thought and even though I can feel the part of my mind that waxes romantically through yesteryear want to explore the imagination of what these pioneers might have thought about what I was doing, I am pulled into current reality by my boy whose head has come up and his forward motion stopped...he has lost odor. Once we crossed the river the precious shade enjoyed was lost and we were thrust into the oven an open pasture presents. My boy turns and looks at me with a confused almost hurt look..it isn't fair when odor plays tricks like this. Most likely the odor has risen and is hovering above his head, but the humidity factor is very low (26%) and it is possible that we have a broken chain trail. I don't know where our subject is for her big delight was in being able to move the end spot and try and hide really well. I cast my boy in a circle figuring he can pick up the trail at some point. There are moments I see him lift his head high, sniffing the air with a skill set I will never understand but will always admire. A few more tests of the air and he hesitantly moves forward, crossing a gravel/dirt road and into another pasture. He pauses, casts a large circle and stops, his nose pointing towards a large heavily treed hillside. I wait. As much as I want to push him forward I know it is for my own benefit and not necessarily for the good of the trail. A few moments later and he has decided he does want to pursue the wafts of odor he seems to be getting and moves forward at a walk, and then a jog; proximity alert!
When the speed goes from a sedate walk to a full bore hard pull in the harness, tail wagging and the bouncy lope, ears back and the smile I know that is plastered across his face, I am relieved and can't help but laugh. It is quite often the 'easy' trails that can throw some heavy learning our way - especially on known or technical trails. Our innate human reaction is to guide, or worse, think we know where the odor is, and pull our dog off of scent because 'we think it should be over here.' But, if we (I) are patient, allow our dogs to work and explore the many nuances that odor offers us, we can, for a short time, delve into the world our dogs in live in and explore their amazing powers. My boy of course bounded across the field, across the road, up the hill, through the trees, and to his find who had managed to work her way deep into a heavily thicketed area surrounded by tall trees. Even from within 5ft it was hard to make out where she was, so without a dogs majestic nose....she would have been lost. I checked the overlay of the trail and it was neat to see that even though we were below the trail when we hugged the river (the track was to our right) my boy made similiar turns like a mirror image of the track, just about 75ft to the west of it. He cut the trail short by taking the river early, but reconnected to the track and finished out the trail with a lavish find. That's my boy!!
The Amazing Nose Knows.....
The more trails I do the more admiration and appreciation I have for what the dogs can do, and allow us to use them for. God really had fun making animals, each with their own unique and special gifts and talents. There are many animals that have good olfactory capabilites; some with exceptional ones, like the canine - but few besides the dog, which allow us humans to mold their expertise to suit our needs. Yes, scenting is an innate ability all dogs have, but just because you have a given breed - bloodhound for example - does not mean you have a mantracker. This genius may be inherent in all dogs, but not all dogs have the strength, stamina, desire, drive, focus, and discipline to follow a specific odor from its beginning to its end. This type of dog is more rare than one would think and is worth it weight in precious metals, jewels, saved lives, and dog biscuits.
I have always been one to challenge myself and see what I can accomplish. Trailing is no different, except, I have to challenge my dogs and see where their limits and strengths are. Because we are SAR, lives are at stake if I don't know my dogs potentials and ceilings, then I have the possibility of putting them in over their head, or, worse, not using them to their fullest. I had recently tested aging of an 8 day old trail with phenomenal success; it was single blind with a double blind hot trail tacked on at the end. So running a 3 day old trail should be easy peasy, right? Ha! Well, that is where the nuances and trickery of odor factors in. Odor doesn't play fair. It is benevolent when it wants to be, and nefarious and twisted the rest of the time. Our human brains were not meant to perceive odor the way a dogs does, so we try to extrapolate the information and decode it in ways we can understand - which often is to the detriment of the trail being followed. This trail was a test; a learning opportunity where my dogs abilities and odors wily tricks met head on...who won? Read on :)
It was a battle to get out of the house. So many little daily details and chores occupied much of the morning - and I could see the thermostat rising and dreaded running in the heat of the day. It is truly remarkable how intuitive my dogs are (as are most dogs), especially on trail days. They know, even when I try to disguise my actions. It isn't a routine, for my normal everyday wear is pretty much my trailing clothes and I go about my normal duties as normal. But somehow, they know. This day was no different. I got dressed and my boy leaps on the bed and encourages my girl to play the game of 'cover monster,' much to my chagrin and annoyance; I don't like having to remake my bed post game. Both sets of canine eyes drill me with holes as I slip my boots on - they will be velcro dogs to the extreme until I load them into the car, which for this day, won't be until after the plethora of minute chores that interupt my flow. By the time I am free and my subject is ready, the mercury is pushing 80F. Not terribly hot - if you are standing and doing nothing, but I am running behind a trailing dog bent on finishing some invisible race, first. I load up the dogs and off we go.
The whining begins as the asphalt turns to gravel and we enter the forest. The respite of the shade the trees lend is short lived as the dust we kick up refracts off the sunlight we enter, and amplifies the heat. The cooing of my boy begins to intensify as he fears he won't be the first to run; he is right. I want to work the faster dog first this time and enjoy my boys more leisurely pace after. I had done a cardio workout in the morning that was anerobic, so I was really not looking forward to this trail and the workout to follow. Once my boy and subject are off loaded near the end spot (they will move from this area, up to a 1/4 mile a way (sometimes up to a half mile, but I was tired, not this time) that is totally unknown to me) I head out towards the PLS which is an open area lined by trees. Campers have populated the area since the trail was laid, but that shouldn't be a problem...I hope. I glance in the rear view mirror and see my girls studied face, an occassional high whine erupts but stops as quickly as it starts; my girl is excited.
At the PLS I prep my gear and take note of the strong southerly wind, about 10mph steady. It is dry, with a low humidity, about 28%. I know the laid track is about a mile long and 3 days old. I've moved from having flagged positional starts, to a more general area, thus making me have to read my dog more carefully in the cast for DOT (direction of travel). I harness my girl and prescent her; I know she know this scent well as she has found this subject many many times. Her knows twitches and with permission, she leaps out and begins her cast while I grab the line and lock the car. She returns to me ready for hook up, and with a simple "let's find her" she heads off towards the single outhouse style restroom. She deviates from full committment there, and heads towards a line of trees that guard the campground from the dust the gravel road kicks up by other vehicles heading further into the forest. I can tell by the way she is working that she is in drift odor; her nose is up higher and she seems a bit uncertain and noncommittal.
"I think you are in blown odor baby, let's cast you again." My girl doubles back to my side, and dutifully makes an arch like path before continuing in a parallel route of our previous path, but closer to the river and away from the road. She weaves behind some camping areas and straight to the river where she decides it would be great to cross at the deepest section. Easy for her, she just jumps it covering an 8ft spread and lightly landing in about 6" of water before leaping again to the bank. Yeeeeaaahhh...not happening... I chose to walk back to a fallen tree about 30ft from where my girl crossed, and safely cross. My girl looks a bit disgruntled that I don't fall her, and definitely perplexed when I walk away, even though I eplain my plan to her the whole way. She leaps back across the river, and walks the tree plank with me across.
Once on the other side, I pick up the soggy line, mentally making a note I will need to oil the leather again, and wait for my girl to select direction of travel. This side of the river is heavily shaded (yay) by towering pines. The area remains moist and cool; perfect for keeping odor alive, and often creating larger scent pools. She is quick to find the odor she needs to move forward and she leans into the harness picking a steady trot - which means a fast jog for me. We jog parallel to the river, although on a path above the water. Logs litter the area and it feels like an obstacle course meant for gladiators: jump the log, dive under the branches, dodge the protruding boughs, jog through the tic tac toe pattern of strewn trunks (picture running through tires and ya get the idea), drop and roll under the fresh deadfall, leap up to jump the next series of fallen trees while you duck the low hanging branches. All executed with sheer unadultered finesse of a drunk elephant. Bruises galore, for me...my girl was grace divine.
Once through the gladitorial training grounds, my girl dives down towards the river only to quickly double back and head straight up a steep hill. I had noted some head pops to her right, towards the hill, but figured it was due to the heavy fog that comes; moved the odor uphill a bit. I was very glad she had not chosen to pursue the odor, especially after the calisthentics I had just done (on top of the anerobic workout) as my legs were feeling more and more like the trunks of the trees I had just scamperd over. Now I had to decide if I would let my girl climb the mini mount Everest in pursuit of odor, or chalk it up to drift scent. I question her with pressure on the line, she answers by pulling harder. Great. Uphill we will go.
Summitting the 75ft hill was taxing, but my girl was acting like she was in fresh odor, tail curled tight, and nose almost to the ground...odd. My shaky legs reach the top and level ground only to be greeted by the glaring sun! Ugh. The change in temperature is like a fist in the gut; easily fifteen degrees or more cooler in the shade by the river. I have little time to whine, my girl has the scent trail and she is eager to follow it to its conclusion. She weaves through the 6ft saplings that are grouped so close together it is a literal pain to get through. Branches grab at my sunglasses, scratch my face, and snag my shirt - all in a days work running a trailing dog.
Several scent pools cause us to loop through the maze of trees and test my nerves. I keep my rising temper in check as the branches have a second, third and fourth go at my soft skin (mental note: wear long sleeves...and armour) - my girl is working hard and I won't disrupt her flow. She breaks free of the saplings from hell and finds a small deer path to follow; a much easier time for us both. I am studious of her body language, she is in obvious odor, working fast and furious, often like a proximity alert, but most likely a scent pool strung out along the shrub we traverse. Her nose is mostly close to the ground which I find odd considering the temperature and us being in the direct line of the suns harsh heat. I would figure the odor would rise to at least her head heigth; yet another assumption proven wrong.
As my girl pulls me forward we enter more familiar territory and I calculate we will drift towards the left, following a path that becomes more defined, and is easy to walk. My girl, however, wants to follow odor and its mischievously malevolent path which of course, is not in the direction of ease. My girl pulls to the right and up yet another, steep hill. "Are you sure honey?" I question sweetly; my girl pulls harder. A sudden trip to the lumpy earth has my lead hand land on some spiky plant. I yelp and look to see tiny spins protruding from my palm and fingers. As I start to pluck them out, my girl dives forward and the line buries them just a bit deeper - my decorum is breaking. I can see we are on an upward, yet parallel path to the 'yellow brick road' easy trail, but my girl is not having that, she is working the odor trail with a singular focus that is both impressive, and maddening. My hand is on fire, my lungs feel like they are about to explode, and my legs seem to have 20lb weights attached to them. It is hot, and my girl isn't satisfied with a steady climb - no, she is matching odors dastardly plot turn for turn, which means up and down the stupid mountain.
It is at these times self reflection and ones failings stand in stark reality; you cannot deny the truth for it is mirrored before you, at every turn. Did I yell at my dog, again? No... Hopefully I am beyond that horrible flaw. Did I ignite the air with a little noxious fumes from words best left to the imagination...yes, yes I did. No sooner did the nasty words spill forth after whacking my knee on yet another branch, then I was repenting and asking the Lord for forgiveness, to find yet another spiny needle buried deep in my hand and new, more creative words spill forth. Thankfully, the Lord knows my failings and weaknesses better than I, and is quick to forgive; although I am sure he wore ear plugs at moments.
As my girl leads me down the final hill, she is hearing me ramble my fifth apology for my less then eloquent verbage. She has learned to tune me out and stay focused, and she is now closing in on her prey. Her speed picks up and I am almost at a run, my hopes high we are close to the find because I am tired and still have painful spines in my palm. She breaks through the trees and into an open campground, almost expectantly. She looks around, then slowly takes me back over the edge into the tree line again. She is working odor, but her head is up, testing the air: we have moved from the aged track to the hot track. I see movement to my left and assume it is my sister and my boy, but my girl pulls me towards the river. I question her with the line, and she breaks from a jog to a run - crap! I set my weight back and grit my teeth against the pain in my hand as the leather line digs deep; I am not running across this gopher holed filled prairie - I hurt badly enough! She slows to a slow jog which I will allow, but my shoulder pays the price of slowing this freight train of a dog down. As we enter the shade of the trees fortressed around the river, I am expecting to have to double back and uphill to our find, but of course, no, I am wrong, again. There, by the river, in a little nook is her subject - my boy, laying in the river relaxing. Relief floods over me, and praise erupts. My girl is doted on, praised, rubbed, given her treats, and I suck air and pull the spikes out of my palm.
GPS comparison/overlay shows a parallel trail run, with only one crossing over the actual track. Truly interesting, and a learning experience, for her nose was on the ground most of the time as if she was on the track. The uphill climb parallel to the track was probably due to the prevailing winds blowing that way, and the heat and subsequent rise of the odor. My girl demanded paw massages that evening that made my sore palm groan, and she deserved it. My boy ran a great trail that day as well - good times for all, even if painful...
Trust your Dog, Trust Your Dog, Trust Your Dog....TRUST YOUR DOG!
I have noticed that alot of my non-fiction accouts are about my girl. Certainly not because my boy is less worthy or interesting, but mostly because my girl moves so fast and pulls so hard, learning happens fast and usually painfully, or in a funny manner. But as I type this and my boy stares at me with his precious goofy-bright-eye way, I think of the many trails he has been a compass in my learing. He caught on to the idea of trailing the first time I tried my girl at 10mos of age. It was a spur of the moment decision to 'see' if any potential was awaiting in her growing body, and certainly NOT a simple puppy trail! I was a bit naive and over exuberant in my expectations in both distance, turns, and high contamination - but, as expected, she rocked it. My boy was in the house, 11mos of age, and having a conniption fit. I patronizingly told him he didn't want to do this, but I would let him 'try.' He blew me away...calm, steady, and right on track...I had two SAR dogs!
My boy always has a happy, easy going nature; he makes everyone laugh at his pranks and smile at his attempts to do the same, smile. I call him a "puppycorn" because he has a, well, horn. It is the bony protuberance at the top of his cranium, which he believes is for extra brain power and scenting capabilities, but it really just adds to his charm. He was a bit slower to mature in his aged trailing abilities, but once he did he has become an excellent all around trailing dog. Unfortunately, due to his sweet and comical nature, it is easy to study the 'serious, I have a job to do' german sherpherd and thus, the lopsided quantity of stories about my girl. So here we go...
Three days and twenty two hours after the trail was laid by my sister it was time to run my boy. I had already run my girl on an awesome trail she destroyed (hers was almost 8 days old!!! And, for the most part, double blind because my subject moved from her generalize end spot to a new unknown area) with amazing precision and my boy was dancing a jig in anticipation. It was a warm day, winds from the south at 10mph, 34% humidity; basically, a gorgeous day! As I drove to the PLS, a large circular campground on a gravel base, my boy whined and cooed, chirping at times like a song bird, he made his excitement known and practically shook with suspense. A small cloth hair tie will be his scent article and as I try to dress him in his harness, he just about punches me in the face with his proffered leg which expertly slides through the gap of his belly band and allows him to adorn himself with his harness. A sharp bark in my ear is his reminder to me he is ready! I notice the twitching of his nose and see the twinkle in his eyes; I am quite sure he has already decided on DOT. Nevertheless, I rescent him to be sure and allow him the opportunity to cast himself if needed - it isn't, but he adds a few squirts to nearby plants in case they are in need of a drink, and he is ready to be hooked to the line.
Dogs are pattern animals, as are we, so I know well the next series of events that will play out - but it is cute to see anyways. First, my boy whips around and offers me his fluffy tail, or so it seems, he actually is presenting me the back of his harness for attachment. But, he is so excited, he can hardly stand still long enough for me to get the clip on before he is barking and turning circles. If I am fast enough, I can get him hooked up in one try, but it usually takes twice, or thrice, on this occassion it takes a fourth attempt - he is exuberant and his energy is spilling out everywhere indiscriminately. Once clipped, the bark comes and the trail begins. My boy wears a big smile and you can feel the pride and enjoyment he feels saturate the area. He moves into a slow jog, nose close to the ground which I note; it is almost a 4 day aged trail and getting warm, my human mind figures scent would have moved a ways and perhaps be higher, but that is often my biggest problem - my thinking where scent 'should be' and not just reading my dog. But today, while I make note of it, I continue to follow my boy who is clearly in odor and following it closely. The trail we are on forks many times and he is selective on which path he wants to take, an occassional spritz on a nearby tree is left, perhaps marking a 'waypoint' for later interest.
As we continue to jog through the saplings, jumping logs and dodging branches (well that is what I am doing), I notice that my boy head pops to the right, but is pulled to the left by an unseen source. A momentary pause whie he decides his direction gives me enough time to glance at the gps. I see that my boy has been pretty much dead on, but that the track will head to the right - but my boy, having decided his direction, is pulling to the left. I know this area well. The mist that prevails from evening to morning is reknowned for carrying odor into this pocket of trees. The river runs below the rise we are on and snakes through the valley pulling odor into large scent pools. I've watched both my dogs work these pools, looking for the exit trail that might be a ways away - but the odor is strong in these pools and tricky. My boy pulls hard in the harness - he is obedient to odor, not necessarily the track and I have a decision to make. Do I trust my dog and let him make the mistake, or do I 'help' him back to the track and the perceived area where odor 'should' be? I follow him.... aware that I am leaving the comfort of assumption and into the unknown world of odor.
I question my boy by applying tension on the line - if he is in error and uncertain, he will stop and look at me, test the air and make a new direction of travel, but if he is right, he will pull hard into the harness, which he does. Hmmmm. I follow, but can't help but narrate my thoughts to him. "Are you sure buddy? I think you are in a scent pool and we are going to have to backtrack." He ignores me. Great. Another spindly limb smacks me in the face as I trip over a concealed root. I am fighting my baser insinct to pull my boy up and lead him to the track...
He works the odor closer to the edge of the hill where I figure he will descend, run a westerly direction towards the track and hug the river...NOPE! My sweet boy starts down the hill into the densely treed and tangled mass of fallen trunks from winters savage beating. I have surrendered myself to following my boy, for I know he is in odor even despite my misgivings. The part I didn't sign up for was when after I committed to the treacherous terrain, he would decide to double back and head back up. This happened twice before I pulled the plug. I knew he was locked in a scent pool up top, totally saturated with odor. But, when he descended, he lost the heavy cloying scent and had to work harder on finding the odor, especially in the terrain we were in. Once he headed down hill again, I "Good boy'd" him and he gave up the scent pool and continued down into the marshy land. I had great hopes he would work in a westerly direction, but no matter how hard I tried to convince him with my oral arguments, he just wagged his tail and leaned into his harness harder taking me right into a shallow lake.. well, not a lake actually, but a large swath of standing water about 8" deep. Yay...not.
I was beginning to really lose my cool at this point. You see, once again, a little information given goes a long way to derailing my confidence. Unbelievably stupid, I know. I trust my dogs - except when I know I am right, which seem to be being proved wrong more often than not. I grumbled through the water and sticky suctiony mud. I moaned as I felt my limbs impact branches of precise height for pain. And I muttered unintelligible words when my sunglasses got swiped off my head for the 50th time, only this time, never to be seen again. Still, and through it all, my boy trudged on, often seeming to be heading the opposite direction of where I believed we should be going but with a fierce determination I admired - and annoyed me.
As we came upon the river I also came to eat my own words. While I was moaning about the impact crater in my knee from an ambush by a jutting bough, I let go of the line. "I don't know why you have taken us this far she isn't even close.....ohh." Insert foot in my mouth. My boy, having free line and no longer handicapped by the anchor my body created, bolts down the path, and upstream a bit, but my eyes are on the subject sitting directly in front of me. She is about 5ft below the ledge I was led to and sitting on a sand bar in the middle of the river. My boy, had been getting the fresh odor blowing into him by the winds which is why he circumvented the track midway through. He bolted upstream because a large scent pool was there from earlier in the day and when I ran my girl. A few moments later he returned running along the river and jumped right into my subjects lap for his find. I had no clue she had moved from the original end spot, let alone the distance she had moved. The river is windy and snake like, my boys path was actually a direct line to her (although it felt like we were wandering in the woods) once down the hill and out of the scent pool.
Had I pushed my agenda on my boy, I would have failed him on many levels. I don't know where the odor is but my dogs do. I have to surrender to my own limitations and walls I put up because odor is elusive in my understanding. The world of vision is crystal clear; hearing, no problem... Odor? Oh I can smell things just fine, but not clearly and with the genius level, breakdown, and understanding that my dogs can. If I had pulled him up and brought him to the track I would have been telling him I know better where odor is. If that is the case I should be hooked up to the line and not him! If I had brought him to the track, he would have followed it - but it wasn't the freshest source of odor which I need him to follow. There were times when I know he used the trail odor to keep him on course. He would head westerly a bit then rev up and head away from the track, much to my consternation, because he was getting a blast of fresh odor. I was making mental checks and waypoints in case he lost odor. This is necessary for SAR (especially with a GPS) as air odor is not always direct. A fresh blast may come but if winds change, then the dog has nothing to follow - so it is imperative we know the difference of when a dog is on the trail or using air scent. Interestingly enough, he had his nose down and appeared to be trailing vs. air scent until literally the very end. I believe the moisture and shade and slope held the track odor and blew it quite aways off track, but spotty.
This was probably a less entertaining story as it was more educational then funny. However, for those that enjoy the stories because you are enduring the same with your own dogs, well, here you go :) My boy got lots of treats and praise and my admiration of his abilities has grown.
Nacho The Terrible
Most of my trail retellings are of rural/wilderness/mtns settings due to the inherent comedy nature brings. However, many of my trails run, are urban/suburban and bring new dangers, complications, and absurdity. The dogs don't care, not as long as they are able to work, but there are definitely differences in how odor plays the game when in a populated area. Just the sheer amount of contamination generates complexity, but throw in buildings, cars, and asphalt/concrete that does not hold odor well (and can get very hot) and the difficulties are exponential. Distractions like deer and wildlife (which can still occur in the city) are, for the most part, replaced with pedestrians, exhaust, cats that like to tease, and barking dogs - often loose and free.
For my dogs, any trail, anywhere is enough reason to get excited and this day was no different. As soon as my sister slid into the front seat of my car, the whining began. Quick, sneaky licks to their subjects face dealt over the baby gate separating the dog space from the driver and any passenger. Winds were rolled down so doggie heads could catch the wind (and leave us alone :) )This trail would be a ripe age of 24hrs old, single blind. It was about 70F with a 10mph wind from the south; humidity was still decent at 42%. I would run my boy first as his excitement spills everywhere and makes things messy (drool down the side of the door, the carpet protecting the back gets pulled up due to his pacing, and noise pollution with his barking, whining and bird chirps he makes) and allow him to stay with my sister while she waited to be found. I drop her off near where she hid; I don't like to drop her off exactly at the end spot, but in the general area, allowing her to move and hide elsewhere - often having her leave and lay a hot trail from the end spot.
As I drive to the PLS I glance in the rear view mirror and see my girl. She is laying down, an intent focus studied and calm. I know this look. She is mentally preparing herself for the job at hand. Such a difference from my boy who wears his emotions on his paw for all to see. She loves her work, but she takes it very seriously; this wll be a good trail.
At the PLS, a gravel/asphalt driveway where school buses park when off duty, I harness my girl and watch her nose twitch, she is gathering evidence even while being dressed. "What a beautiful dog!" comes a gruff voice a few meters behind me. "Thank you, she is getting ready to run a trail, practice for search and rescue," I reply. The gruff voice returns as a mechanic dressed in overalls appears from behind a bus, "I used to have an all black shepherd. Man they are good dogs." A quick wave and smile of acknowledgement is all I have time for, my girl is already casting herself about looking for a promising odor that will set her on the trail.
"Probably should know who are looking for, huh girl?" I smile and produce a small hair tie from her subject. She bolts forward and with a quick whiff by skilled nostrils, she takes in the odor, doubles over herself and sets off at a steady jog out of the parking lot, sharp turn to the right and up a quiet street. A football field is to our right, and she takes a slight detour towards the entrance; her head lifts and I can see her work the air to her advantage - her subject did not go this way. A small circle later and she takes us up to the next street and makes a left. A small squirrel darts across the street chittering obscenities at us for disturbing his domain. My girl gives him a curious look, then dismisses the grey ball of fur; she has more important things to attend to.
My girl has set a steady pace, easy enough for me to maintain at a jog, and I am enjoying the beauty spring brings. Trees that had looked dead or dying not more than a week or so ago, now are adourned by graceful leaves of green. Blossoms peak their heads out of buds that sheltered them from the cold, and test the temperature in hopes a full appearance can be made in safety. Lawns that had looked dry and inhospitable now offer a sheet of satin green, grass soft and inviting. At is at this moment I notice my girl has suddenly stopped having swung onto an alluring patch of grassy real estate. I have little time to question her actions before my answer is produced in all its stinking glory. I am sure my girl felt she was just doing her part in fertilizing this beautiful lawn, but I am aghast and quickly look about to see if accusing eyes have witnessed the atrocity committed. My girl, having relieved herself of the burden is ready to go, move on, find her subject - but the evidence is starring at me with black eyes that steam, giving off its location even though concealed in a sea of green.
I search my pockets and of course, can not come up with the doggie bag I try to keep on me at all times. A car passes by on a perpendicular course to our location, but I can feel the condemnation emanating from them, perceived or not. My girl is straining at the line, an exasperated look from me stops her engines, for the moment. A discarded piece of bark lends itself to my plight and I deftly scope the steaming pile up and send it over to the gutter. "Let's find her," is said quickly and I am relieved my girl starts off straight away - the quicker the better. When she makes a right turn up a street I am able to breathe a little easier. Few things diminish ones sense of pride then jogging behind a trailing dog, focused, intent, on a mission all the while a blue steamy bag of eewww swings to and fro off your wrist, occassionally smacking your hand with a squish of shame.
We come across many dogs on our urban trails, often loose and curious of who is invading their neighborhood. My girl handles each situation with dignity and composure, often totally ignoring the intrusion into her scent picture with little more than a badgered look of tolerance. Dogs barking behind fences or through curtained windows receive little more than a glance of acknowledgement. As my girl leads me down a quiet street, the silence is broken by a series of sharp barks; obviously not a housed dog. I start looking around, ironically, it isn't the large dogs that tend to give us much problem, it is the little ones who are intent on destruction. I start gathering my line and try to slow my girl a bit further without disturbing her flow. The barking is getting louder and more aggressive. I spot someone behind their house in a connecting backyard to front yard lawn - there is no fence, and the barking is coming from that area. I am wearing a SAR T-shirt as most people who see us running trails wonder what we are doing ("Why is that dog dragging you all over the place?" "Is that a police dog?" etc") and it helps keep me from having to stop repeatedly to explain.
"Nacho! Nacho - Nacho!!" I hear the lady well before I see the dog but while she is yelling a the dog, she is not taking any action to stop the dog from heading our way, as the barks continue to get closer.
"Practice trail for search and rescue," I try to encourage the lady into action - like grabbing her dog. But Nacho has other ideas. This is his block and there is an intruder. A flash of white darts around the backside of the house; it isn't much larger than a dove, but fast. My girl has slowed to a walk, and while she is working the odor, I know she is distracted by the warning barks of the insidious Nacho. I try again, imploring the owner to grab her dog - my girl weights a lean but muscled 90lbs. Nacho? Maybe 2lbs. If my girl jst kept trotting and stepped over the dog, she could injure it with the wind generated by her massive paws. I am concerned. Nacho isn't.
"Nacho!" Still lots of words but no action. Nacho has eluded his owner and found a way to stand directly in front of my girl. His beady eyes shower my girl with challenege; he has a Napolelon complex if ever I saw one. Despite his size and stature he stands strong, his Chihuahua heritage pumping the needed courage through his tiny frame, the only weakness exposed is the hind legs trembling with adrenaline, and maybe a bit of fear. My girl has stopped with a bit of surprised look. She towers over this white appetizer, and while I have gathered my line and have her close, I know this is a tense situation. The guantlet was thrown by Nacho, if my girl chooses to bark, this cute bal of terror will probably be blown a few yards away - not ideal.
"Nacho! Come here..." The owner has arrived, but Nacho has no intention of backing down when pride is at stake. He approaches the female Goliath with audacity fueled by stupidity, but forward he comes. My girl is curious, a few guard hairs stand on end, and while I don't want too much tension on the line and create a push pull effect, neither do I want to have too little should she swipe with her paw. It is a strained few seconds... noses touch. Nacho blinks through the hurricane of air each breath my girl has, but he stands his ground. My girls tail is wagging and there is a charmed look in her eye; Nacho's bravado has earned some bragging points, he has counted coup and earned a feather (perhap burning one of his 9 lives...or is that only for cats?). When he starts to play hunch, front end dropping, tail wagging, it is time to move on. This amicable parting could quickly end if my girl reciprocates and smashes Nacho into condiments.
"Sorry, he thinks he owns the world," his owner says while sweeping the idignant Nacho from the ground.
"I understand - it is in his DNA." Once Nacho is carried to safety I tell my girl to get to work and she resumes her job, perhaps with a bit of a smile from her Nacho encounter. At the end of the block she head pops to the right and I think she will follow through with it, when she swings back straight and crosses the busy street. As we come to the net block her slight head pop to the right tells me that most likely, the track had run parallel to us. She continues straight for a few blocks, but has head pops to the left, nose in the air testing, tasting, analyzing - but no commitment. I can surmise our subject is somewhere to the left of us.
At railroad tracks, she pauses, then swings left and runs parallel to them. Occassionally her nose drops to the ground and I wonder if we are on track, or just blown odor from the vacant lot on either side of the tracks. We come to a street and she procedes straight for a block before swinging to the left. Her casual stride makes me believe we may have over shot our track and are now working back towards it when she suddenly offers a proximity alert, tail tight, speed picks up, head lifts and I am drug towards a church that hugs the river. Around the building and straight to the trees guarding the cool waters and her subject.
Track overlay shows we were almost perfect, until just after Nacho the Great encounter. Her head pop to the right was correct, the track went that way, but only for one short block. She did overshoot the left hand turn by about 500ft when she opted for the vacant lot and railroad tracks. She was backtracking to the track when she got the proximity alert and made her find. Very proud of her. Paw massages, treats, praise, and bragging rights for surviving Nacho the Terrible - alive.
Follow The Odor...
I am still amazed - even after 'running' well over 1,500 trails, how far odor will travel; and even how long it will last. The moment I use my preconceived notions of where odor is, my dogs prove me wrong. Truly, working double blind trails is one of the best ways to break you of the bad habit of inferring, interfering, or just plain getting in the way of allowing your dog to work the odor trail. It will open the eyes of those that hold a narrow view of where odor lies and what it is capable of doing, and perhaps, rein in those who feel odor is 'invincible' and can outlast time itself (yes, that is an exaggeration - but you get the picture). While I try to maintain a balanaced position on most everything, it is truly the dogs and how they work the odor maze that teaches me the most and ultimately allow me to formulate my convictions. It was an aged trail of only a couple days maturation that helped to shore up my thoughts that, odor and a trailing dog, maintain an almost symbiotic relationship. And, just how elusive and sneaky the hunted miasma can be while being pursued by a determined trailing dog.
A mid spring mornings warm rays of sunshine called to me through the window while I sipped my coffee. My furry partners lay half dozing on the kitchen floor – to the world they seemed lethargic, unenterprising and totally at peace; but I knew better.. Every movement I made caused a subtle twitch of an ear, an eye popping open as I refill my caffeine infused beverage, and an out and out leap to feet and bolt to the door if I look like I am ready to ‘start’ my day. They know: It is a working day, a trailing day.
“Calm down..eesh.” I try to navigate through the fur blockade in front of me. Neither dog is willing to let me escape their sight, and I will be accompanied through the process of brushing my teeth, make up, and dressing. When I start to put my boots on is when the real chaos begins. My boy feels the need to leap onto the bed and bark in my ear his joy and eagerness to get started. My girl is enticed by his over the top energy and leaps onto the bed to play ‘cover monster’ or ‘bed troll,’ both of which mean I will be collided with on multiple occasions in my boy’s attempt to escape my girls jaws as she tunnels her way under the covers. I love their enthusiasm, but usually have to put the kibosh on their antics before their crescendo. My fur magnets accompany any further traveling I have around the house before being loaded into the car, where peace, at least for a time, will be had.
I off load my tracklayer and subject near the end of the trail; they have instructions to wait 10 minutes before laying a hot track, at least another half mile. They can change directions, go where they want (excluding the road) and basically, try to ‘throw’ the dog. The warming temps chase the chill of the brisk morning away, and when I arrive at the unmarked PLS, I shed some layers; I have a premonition I will be hot before the trail ends. My girl whines in excitement as I put my arm braces on, set my GPS, and prepare to harness her. I pre-scent her this time, an act I often forget to do but really enjoy the results of, and harness her. I can she her nose twitching as she is already processing odors, eliminating some and targeting, one. It is about 65F, and the winds are 11WSW; the humidity is about 54%, and the past couple of days have had variable winds of considerable strength, with a dousing of occasional rain– a typical spring. When I unload my girl and attempt to attach the line to her, I am forced to jog behind her: she already has direction of travel – no need to cast.
Nose to the ground my girl trots over the heavy gravel and squishes through the quick change of solid ground to moist, sticky mud. A slight head pop to the left and my girl dismisses any further thought of the odor that beckoned her and instead, plunges forward on the trail. Her tail is tightly curled and she is working this odor almost as if it is a hot trail; her intensity is high, her pace while faster then I prefer is still carefully restrained, her focus can be almost felt and the energy she contains hums through the line. A small deer path pulls her forward, but never straight, she weaves trees with a speed and dexterity that could put an agility dog to shame. Even as I marvel at her capability to focus on a singular odor days old, while weaving a marathon of saplings, deftly jumping lifeless logs with grace, I am, as usual, towed behind with all the finesse a blind raging rhino has. The evidence of my lumbering, scarring the landscape, and my body. I believe she must be ‘on top’ of the track due to her behavior, but a series of subtle head pops, again to the left, follow with a break to odor. No change in intensity, no change in speed (ugh), tail still tight and nose still hovering a few inches above the ground, I see no difference when she ‘leaves’ the track and pursues the odor, that is until we enter the largest scent pool I’ve thus encountered.
I have noted on many different occasions and in different areas, the tendency for odor to congregate, saturating a given area well off the actual track laid. Usually, there is a creek or river and trees are in abundance, however, the areas the odor tends to pool are not always the most dense in foliage. Rather, there are areas where a thinning of trees is had, followed by a barrier of dense forest coupled with much blow down and debris. I know the area my girl is working is renowned for the heavy fog in the early morning and late evenings. The area she is working is on a rise of about 75ft, the river flowing below it, snaking around its course, constructing bogs and wetlands and cooling the surrounding air shielded by the hovering trees. The dense fog rises from the river floor and carries it to much higher ground permeating the area it falls and creating massive scent pools off track. This is the area my girl is now dragging me towards with fervor.
My girl continues to weave through the labyrinth of trees and entanglement, her body behavior has changed from a steady forward pace to a more arched path; I know she has hit a scent pool. From experience, I’ve learned to let go of the line and watch her work. Trying to keep pace with her through the dense verdure and trees is just begging for injury. Her fervent pace and small stature (as opposed to mine), allows her to deftly duck under low hanging branches, weave through closely knit trees, and navigate through the tangle of limbs and debris with little hassle. I keep a smaller diameter, allowing her to work out the nuances of this large odor deposit. She works the middle of the saturated area as if she is in proximity of her subject, working intricate patterns as she tries to find the ‘exit.’ Little by little her boundaries expand. There are times I lose sight of her and have to stop and listen to the crashing brush – if I hear nothing, I usually need to go find her, she is snagged by her dragging lead. This can be quite the challenge as she lends no aid in her retrieval and freeing. It becomes a game of Marco Polo minus the “Polo.” When I find her, I am usually exasperated and she, quietly, patiently, awaits her release only to resume her search, now well rested.
Several times I believe she has found the exit for she works towards the river away from the deep forest and towards where campgrounds populate. But, instead, she doubles back into the loving arms of the scent pool. This is where patience is of utmost importance. It is quite a vexatious time, watching your dog work through the invisible pool they are trapped in, especially when you think they have found their way out only to dive back in. It took a couple of false starts out before the actual egress away from the scent pool, but once she found the exit she moved with her same determined pace- down the hill.
Winter is never kind to the waterlogged forest. Icy ground gives a false sense of stability and strength to otherwise weakened trees, the earth, over time, moved away from their life giving roots by the constant runoff of water. When spring comes, the warmer temperatures melting the icy security around doomed trees, the inevitable occurs – beautiful giants crash to the earth with little pomp and circumstance. Their discarded bodies toppling onto each other creating an almost impermeable barrier to the outside world. Not to my girl though! She is in odor and determined to make her find. The patience I exhibited in her work through and out of the scent pool she now has to reciprocate – I am clumsy navigating through the organic maze, inevitably whacking a valued appendage into a wooden pillar causing me to see stars. The slow progress down the hillside allows my girl to pause and air scent, confirming her direction of travel or sanctioning a faster plot, more direct and perhaps less painful (for me).
Once through the wood cemetery my girl takes me through the wetlands this area of the forest offers. Splashing through the glacier cold water, its mud grabbing boots and trying to pull them off with forceful suction, we head towards what looks like a path. I can hear the roar of the river, but am quite disoriented to how far down this water path we have gone. My girl is obviously in odor and as we reach the river’s edge, paces back and forth. She begins to head up stream for about 30ft then doubles back and to the point we exited the river. My cue to begin looking for safe portage across the raging beast. I am quite certain my subject backtracked in this area, looking for a safe place to continue her trek. My girl has no problem plunging into the bone-chilling waters and porpoising across to safety. A large tree, uprooted by time and element lends its bulk to my passage. From the bank it looks like a pretty easy crossing; the tree is large and wide, the roots look to be right at the bank, so a little work through the roots and we will be on our way..right? No.
I take off the line so my girl can cross – she does and waits patiently for me, nose to the ground, selecting direction of travel so we can resume without a break once I am across. I begin across the tree bridge with high hopes, for once, I am not concerned with slipping or sliding into the frigid roar below. Problems arise when I see that what looked like the roots being on land, are actually roots still sitting in the river..about 10ft from the bank. Uhoh… My girl is getting impatient. To her, the obvious thought is to jump in, dry off, keep moving, humans are weenies.. For me, the obvious is, don’t get wet, don’t die, live, humans are weenies – but being an alive weenie is better than a dead one. “Hold on, baby.. I am trying to find a safe way to cross.” I keep my voice cheerful, upbeat, inside my head is the panic Holy caramba what did I get myself into?!! I see a series of logs that parallel my fallen tree. They reach to the bank and their shoulders peek above the rapids. Looks good. Ok, but here is the second problem, suddenly the size of my tree bridge is working against me, I am about 5ft above the water and my tree log extension. I will have to slide down the tree I am on, with my toes, test and see if the logs will move under my weight, and then, should all be ok, garner the balance to cross, avoiding the protruding roots that threaten to knock me off into the waters. If the logs aren’t safe, I am really in trouble! Not sure how I would have made it back onto the ‘safety’ of the tree.
With extreme care I slide down the tree, praying the bark doesn’t sheer off and send me cascading into the awaiting arms of ice cold river. When my boot hits the logs and they feel safety, I control the elation that floods over me; I still have to cross them. Slow and deliberately, I sidle across, reaching the bank with overwhelming relief – only to be whined at: my girl wants to go..NOW. I reclip the line and before I can say “find her,” we are off, heading back up towards the direction of the PLS (which was a solid mile up), by some campers, her pace quickening as she works her way from aged to hot track. A sharp left across the pasture, across the road, and to a sandy (and uphill) trail. Rejuvenated from her rest while I worked across the river, my girl wants to run..hahahaha, NOT HAPPENING. I have very good endurance, but I have my boys trail still run and I can feel the beginnings of fatigue creep into my muscles. My lungs are already screaming at me, they think I have lost touch with reality and assumed oxygen was not a necessity. I gasp out a “slow down” and my girl complies, albeit with a consternated look. I take a knee and tie my shoe, sucking air and enjoying the brief respite. The moment I stand, she has leaned into the harness and figures she will drag my corpse, if necessary, in order to make her find.
In all honesty, the whole trail was run beautifully; the latter half was run almost on top of the track the whole way. She made her find – no surprise there. The fact I survived, mostly unscathed, a little more shocking. Feedback from my tracklayer told me what I expected: a backtrack at the rivers edge, a harrowing river crossing. While my girl had a large deviation from the track via the scent pool, it was in the exact formation of the actual track – and following the course of the river. A perfect reminder that odor does what it wants to, not what we think it will do, and that we need to be able to read our dogs and KNOW they are in odor. Let them work. Help when necessary. When running trails for SAR, LE, or MWD, the find is ultimately most important for it is people’s lives we are after. Accuracy (the find), speed, and the determination of the dog to complete its task is of the highest importance. As with most every trail, there is something to be learned and observed. My girl thoroughly enjoyed her treats and demanded her paw massage in the evening. Good times
I am by nature, analytical. I like to reflect, dissect, and examine closely what has transpired, hoping to find ways to improve on the areas I am weak in. This routine of mine is a double edged sword, finely cutting the detrimental spots away from the whole and allowing me the chance to refine and amend. It has the danger, however, of cutting away confidence, becoming overly critical of oneself to the point of self abasement in an effort to find the elusive 'perfection.' Over the years I have gained wisdom and realized that life alone happily hacks away at you, ripping and tearing away at your beliefs, causing you to do an in house check of yourself and shore up convictions and theorys you might hold. So to be too analytical can be a disservice to one's self if carried too far. But, there is a beautiful rainbow of reflection upon ones actions when not carrying the sword of Damocles. You can look back to times with a fond remembrance, gently chiding yourself for the minor mistakes with the chuckle experience has brought, and smiling at the younger, perhaps naive person you once were, and enjoy the ride memories take us. This is the retelling of a trail my excursion on memory's lane takes me.
It was a hot summer day, the heat of the merciless sun pounding down its furnace type rays, forcing submission into any who ventured out too long. I was eager to test my dogs abilities in trailing by expanding the distance and aging. I had that beautiful trust in my dogs, pure and untainted by my own education, which, in all honesty, was quite limited at the time (less then a hundred trails). There was no fear that they would lead me wrong, or could make a mistake that could not be recovered from. It was during this honeymoon time I asked my tracklayer, a rather bold and brash young lady, to lay me a trail 'off the trail' and deep into the forest. I offered her to take my boy for 'protection' and companionship; we had no radios at the time, nor cell pone coverage in that area - already poor decision making. I also requested a 45minute or so aging, a huge jump from the super 'hot' trails I had been running, at least mentally for me - not so much for the dog(s).
Finally the time came. I pulled my girl out and harnessed her; I did not yet have a routine or pattern in how I approached things, but rather a serendipity outlook. My girl had no governor on her speed control yet, and the moment a baggied scent article was presented her, you better hold on tight because "Light speed!" was next. Rarely needing to cast my dog for DOT in those early trails (and even now often) my girl had done her due diligence during the harnessing process and had already detected her prey's path. Our start was on a little gravel road at a ski resort; the path lead down to a yurt used for cross country ski rental during winter. Beyond that lay miles and miles of rugged wilderness not yet familiar to me or my tracklayer. My girl was already chewing up the first quarter mile at break neck speed - literally! It was all I could do to keep my feet under me as she glided over the ground with little effort. Not for me, however, for I don't seem to have the 'gliding' gene in me. Rather, I believe a little 'drunk charging elephant,' or 'crash landing albatross' got doled out to me when the dormant genes were being distributed. I caromed down the hillside, ricocheting off of stumps, trees, uneven ground, and boulders.. sound familiar? It seemed to hurt less in those days, or maybe the experience was still new and 'invigorating.'
We headed down a fairly clear path humming with the sound of busy bees, wasps and hornets happy the snows have melted and flowers graced the world once again. A sharp turn to the right enveloped us into another world. Where once the sun showed its strength in mighty waves of heat, and flowers and sunlight kept the mood light and cheery was now replaced by a dark, dank, shrouded land. A creek, so boldly chattering away its thoughs in the light now seemed to be muted, subdued in its enthusiasm as the ground absorbed much of its life giving waters creating bogs of mud. Trees that had seemed friendly gatekeepers of the the sunny path we had trod, now took on a sinister feel. These rooted behemoths had formed an alliance with each other to keep the suns rays from ever reaching the forest floor, and they embraced this plan with interlocking limbs and branches so dense, the whole area was cast into shadows as if it were dusk. It took a bit for my eyes to adjust to the immense change in complexion, but my girl was using her nose, and the moist surroundings was an explosion of odor to her, and she dove into her harness all the more.
Rotting deadfall, punky from the moisture and insects lay strewn across the eerie realm. The cool dampness that was such a welcome relief upon first entrance, now sent a shiver down my back. My girl, saturated with odor was being introduced to her first scent pools; and she was drowning in the magnitude of it. I waited as she worked a circular path, splashing through the dejected creek, mucking through the cold bogs, and weaving an intricate pattern with the line through the putrified wood. I couldn't help but keep my head on a swivel, scanning the spooky woods for any monsters that lurked about - real or imagined. Once my girl had sorted out the mystery and began moving on the odor trail again, I followed with a hasty pace; I wanted out of there, fast!
A narrow game trail carried the odor my girl sought and I couldn't help but imagine the animals that tread upon this path - looking over their shoulders for pernicious claw to reach out and sieze them, dragging them back to the terrors of the shadow world. Our path became complicaed by the fallen sentries populating this portage, almost as if they sacrificed their lives so that a few more unlucky souls could be consumed. As my girl ducked and dived over the blockade, I attempted to do the same. I could see the brilliant light of the living world calling to me to "Hurry!" The panic that had been so carefully banked by rationale now burst its confines and I heard a voice so foreign and full of emotion it startled me. I had made that sound. As I scrambled over the last of the wood titans, I was suddenly yanked back towards the malevolent forest. It is truly odd how many thoughts in a split second one can have in a threatening situation. Many more then when in a calm reasonable time. Absolute astonishment hit me first; I truly could not believe that all my fears had suddenly compiled into reality: I was being grabbed by a monster! Of course, quickly layered over these manic thoughts was reasoning; I hadn't heard footsteps, my girl wasn't barking, there are no monsters...right? Nevertheless, as I was yanked back with the same force I had been using to escape, I tried to whirl around and face my foe - never a wise action when your 'foe' is a multi armed solid block of hard wood. How I didn't impale myself with my flailing actions I don't know (yes I do, it was God all the way) but I came around swinging with my one good arm...Problem was, my shirt had gotten hooked on one of those nefarious limbs and effectively pulled my shirt almost over my head - I was swinging almost blindly. It again, took a moment for my brain to re-engage and process my predicament: My shirt is snagged at the neckline and hooked on a protruding limb. It has been pulled to just below my eyes in my attempt to slug my attacker, and is now locking my arms in an upwards position due to the armholes being in my pits.
I stand in awe at some of the most ridiculous positions I get myself into, sometimes. Because I was scrambling over the logs in the first place, my legs are in a straddled position and my girl is still pulling on the line, her desire to find her subject still strong. "WAIT!!" One of the most common used words in my communication with my girl while trailing, is shouted for one of the first times. Thankfully, the word still had the desired immediate effect I needed and my girl stopped in her tracks (bless you sweetheart). Disarticulating myself from my wooden hanger was no easy task - well, it was, it required undressing myself; now I am grateful for the dark shadows. My arm braces always serve as an obstacle, so the disrobing and redressing took more time then I liked; mostly because I could review the scenario in minute detail and I felt like a fool. This was when I realized I better grow a larger sense of humor for myself because this type of occurrence was likely to happen again (little did I know how many times, how many ways, or how loosely I would need to hold my pride - what would be left).
Once reassembled, my girl led me back into the brutal light and heat the sun strewn fields held. I was still kind of chuckling to myself about the ludicrous happenings as we jogged up a hill. My girls tail was tightly curled and raising - a clear sign that she was in fresher odor. Another covert section of woods pulled my girl in, I was beginning to worry a little; we were deep in the woods, had taken many turns, and I had no way to radio to my tracklayer if anything happened - or worse, I couldn't find her. These early trails were blessed with the fools luck that so often seems to evade the seasoned handler. I praise God for his protection. I wasn't too thrilled at the prospect of going back into the baleful forest, although it had lost some of its threat since my undressing. Still, while the much cooler temps would be appreciated, the terrain became much harder to surmount. This particular section had been harshly beaten by old man winter and had woodedn bodies tossed everywhere. My girl dove into the jumbled mess with the zeal and determination I have come to truly admire and trust.
Outside of many whacks of shins to lumber, our ingress bore no further need to share. A sharp bark from my boy told me we had found our sbject before eyes were laid upon her. Lavish praise, yummy goodies, and the chance to romp and play with her 'brother' were her rewards. My tracklayer relayed how nervous she was in the concealment of the forest, but my boy's jovial presence seemed to drive the evil away and put her more at ease. We had covered about a mile and a half, and while I am not sure what the GPS would show (I did not have one at the time) it seemed upon discussion that my girl hit most of the notable areas my tracklayer had gone. It was a long walk back to the car, filled with laughter erupting from my tracklayer at the retelling of my experience. I look back on these early trails with a fond remembrance for they were what would carry me through some of the harder lessons to be learned. My dogs could do no wrong, and every trail was a true 'double blind' for I had no radio or cell service. The trails were all new, thus complicated, but not with aging, backtracks, or other notable nuances, but with the difficulties of learning how to read my dog(s), handle the line (especially with only one good arm), remain patient while the dog worked out the problems, and filled with the joy a strengthening bond with your partner(s) brings.
Trailing, like all things, can bring you some of the highest highs and the lowest lows; especially if you are doing it for more than just fun. Watching your dog work the mysteries of odor painting a latent image of what the person whom you are following did, before your eyes, is amazing. Loose tendrils of odor try to entice the dog into scent pools seemingly created to trap your dog in a never ending swirl of odor. The skilled dog works the edges and finds the exit, escaping the ruse before too much time has passed. These wonders propel us forward through the hard times when the odor trail 'wins' and the dog struggles to accomplish their mission. These trails, while expected, can be very difficult to mentally overcome for the human. Complete trust in the dog is necessary especially when lives depend on it - when a hiccup in a trail during practice occurs, it can send the best into a tailspin of doubt. We humans like to understand why 'failure' occurs so we can correct it; this is not always possible with trailing (what with odor being invisible). And a lost track does not mean failure, for every mistake can be a great learning opportunity - if you can keep the correct perspective.
So when a late spring morning trail is run to near perfection, it is noteworthy and brings great joy. This trail was to be only a three day aged trail. But, as is typical, ‘life’ got in the way and it became a six day aged trail. Since I’ve had several recent missions where the PLS was the subjects home and scent pools, aged trails overlaid by numerous fresher trails, and contamination galore – I wanted to emulate an aged track colliding with a hot track. It was about 65F with a 7mph WSW wind and bore tidings of a warm summer ahead. My tracklayer/subject had instructions to wait 10 minutes at the end of the track before laying a hot trail wherever she wanted. The PLS was a campsite (recently used over the weekend and through the week of the aging process) near the river. I had handed my boy off to the tracklayer so he could “protect” her from any boogey creatures – and keep him from having a conniption fit in the car (he likes to be first for the trails). My girl fairly hummed in the back while I put my arm braces on and set my GPS. I liked seeing the anticipation in her since she is normally so stoic and full of decorum. I harnessed her and out of the corner of my eye I could see she was already tasting the wind and processing, probably guessing which odor she would be asked to follow. “Out you go,” was quickly complied by my girl and she began detailing the surrounding area while I finished my prep work.
A quick sniff of the scent article and she is off – heading straight for the river, a simple task for her but much more treacherous for me, even on a warm day. Thankfully, a large tree, complete with limb handholds awaits my voyage across and I actually reach the other side before she does. Slight indecision of how to cross the river without getting too wet is hampering my girls progress, and I understand. It wasn’t too long ago where she, while during a deployment, fell head first into a deep river. She was ok, and it was quite funny from my perspective, for she looked like a professional diver completing a perfect pitch into the cold waters..but she wasn’t taking any chances this time. “Come on girl, you got this,” was all the encouragement she needed. A few well placed leaps and she was almost across – unfortunately she picked a higher embankment for end spot and required some assistance out of the frigid waters.
“Good girl!” A sideways glance my way and a hefty shake sending chilled droplets all over me was her response, then nose to the ground. You could almost hear the engines tuning up for blast off. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the inevitable hard pull and speed that would surely follow. The winter had not been kind to the forest. Trees that once stood tall and proud now dropped with defeat, or worse, plummeted to the earth in despair. Tangled limbs sheared off by the weight of heavy snows and strong winds populated the forest floor, awaiting the opportunity to exact revenge by tripping any who crossed to close. My girl deftly weaved her way through the chaos with the skill acquired from a thousand trails. I of course looked less and less skilled as I bounced from one foot to the other, praying an appendage did not impact a branch, trying to keep pace with my girls steady pull, all the while keeping the line from snaring in the limbs. Sound complicated? It is… I am sure I have made some hunter on his critter cam split his sides in laughter at my attempts to stay vertical to the ground. It is a joy to bring laughter to someone, ya know?
Once through the first couple of scent pools, complete with low limbs and sharp prickly brush, my girl worked her way up a hill. Since I’ve had to really do some soul searching and figure out why my patience level with her while trailing has been so short, I quickly sent a prayer up that I would remain the supportive partner she deserves/needs. Stresses in life, no matter the reason should never play into trailing – I know this, but have been guilty of allowing the strains and difficulties I have/had been facing to taint my trails. As my girl worked up the hill and over the deadfall and blow over, I felt calm and at peace, absolutely thrilled at watching my girl work a trail six days old. She finds some limb about nose high and itemizes it; her subject touched this. A wag of the tail tells me she recognizes the odor. There had been lots of rain and wind during the aging process, as well as the return of early summer warmth. The excitement in my girl as she worked was soothing and I felt renewed faith in our partnership. Watching the tail wagging and fine detail work is one of the reasons I enjoy trailing so much.
As is typical in trailing, my dogs get to crawl under the fast majority of the brush and limbs I have to contend with. For me, it looks like a gladiator obstacle course of ducking, jumping, diving, climbing/scrambling, and a whole lot of face slapping by limbs, boughs, branches, leaves and whatever else feels compelled to beat me up. This trail was no different, although the pace my girl set was. Her normal turbo speed was settled and only on occasion did I have to break to a fast jog. I marveled at the wonderful pace and was further pleased to find my girl ‘wait’ when I requested her to “Wait.” A smile and bright eyes met mine each time before she proceeded with a simple ”Ok.” Lovely.
Soon the odor pulled her towards the river and the inglorious mud. Little green tops of moss posed for my hoping pleasure, desperately trying to stay atop their little heads in a desperate attempt to not squish into the sticky suctioning mud. A futile attempt at best. My girl was being towed by the odor trail and her four paw drive easily navigated the boggy surface. The glades beckoned her pace to quicken and she obliged. My own pace began to emulate a dance I recall seeing done by Pinocchio while he still had strings; disjointed, awkward, comical. The faster I hopped trying to avoid the deep bogs, the less precision my feet landed with, my forward momentum of course being aided by my girls freight train power now has me on my toes flying face first towards a slimy cold mud bath. Thankfully, a tree trunk broke my fall, and almost my nose, but, hey, I wasn’t muddy. “Ease up girl, that hurt.” If my girl could shrug, she did albeit with a wink and good natured smile. Peeling myself off the bark of the tree, we continued on, I now with less care and worry about mud which was inevitable.
The wonderful Hawthorne trees still bare from winter, brambles and bougainvillea tear at me as we weave a serpentine pattern through the dense brush. Little critters have paved wonderful holes through the brush leaving an archway fit for a queen, but sized for a German Shepherd. My girl doesn’t need to slow her pace one iota, and I see her ears twitch to hear the crashing lumbering giant behind her. My mutterings of frustration speckle the air as I tear another nosey bush away from areas of my body that deserve privacy. A wayward stem finds its way up my nostril, a truly odd sensation and one not planned on repeating. While I grouse about frisky sticks I notice a lot of the spikes of the bushes are laying at paw treading level. My girl isn’t complaining as she steps on these evil little barbs, so I tighten down my loose lips and cheer my girl on with some praise. This of course means more speed, stronger pull, more crashing through the brush; mental note, cheer your dog on at the end of the trail not the middle..
A sudden sharp head pop followed by obedience to odor and my girl has leaped 8ft across the river, splashed in the middle and leaped the next 5ft or so to the bank; she has caught fresh odor. A cocked head and expectant look from my girl tells me she expects me to follow her. HAHA. No. The water is about 4ft deep at the bank, in the middle, and on the far side. I am 5’4, and while it may be warm this day, the water is freaking icy cold snow melt and is still moving very fast. A high whine rides over the roar of the water, epigrammatic -my girl is impatient. “Sorry sweetheart, but I am not crossing here. We need to find a safe place for me to cross.” Without a second word or thought, my girl leaps back across to me and resumes the aged trail. What an awesome dog! I know she has caught odor, probably from the fresh trail being laid by my subject. I radio to confirm this as this is a behavioral change that needs to be filed away in my memory. We’ve had quite a few of these behavioral changes recently on missions, with only a few confirmations (some cases remain open).
Another quarter mile or so along the river before she noses a fallen tree about a foot from the bank; a perfect crossing. A few well laid leaps and she is a across. My turn. It is funny how safe and secure the logs look from the safety of the bank..and then you start walking on them. Moss helps keep your boot on the log, bark adds traction, no bark – you are in the water…slippery slippery slippery. Thankfully, this particular log had more bark and moss then slick wood and I managed to get across safely. Quick clip of the line back on my girl and she was off up the embankment to the road, head up, casts herself taking inventory of the freshest scent, and she double back towards the car. Occasionally gliding to one side or the other, but mostly on the road at a boot slapping pace. The tail curls and wags; proximity alert. A hard 180 up a steep path blocked by a gate where our subject sits and my girl is full of pride. She beams her smile to me while gobbling up her goodies and savoring the lavish praise. She rocked this close to 2 mile trail. GPS overlay of the track shows near perfection. She was slightly above the actual track in the beginning, but made almost every turn point for point, and was on top of the track often. Paw massages for my girl, well deserved,
Hypothermia Averted... (part 3)
A good nights rest and a couple of paw massages for my girl who rightfully demanded them, and a plan of action has been decided. Since I set my girl up for trouble by having her ignore the hot trail and take the aged, I needed to replicate the problem but allow her to ‘do’ the right thing. Thankfully the ending of our aged trail had untold places for a hot trial to be laid and would serve our purposes beautifully. A very frank discussion with the tracklayer was had and promises to follow directions would follow; the only directions this time was to NOT WALK ON THE ROAD (this is a continuing theme).
Another drippy morning greeted us as my pups and tracklayer all piled into the car to drive to the forest. The car heater felt delightful on hands cold from the air piling through the open windows – windows that have SAR dog effectively poking out of. They close their eyes against the sting of the driving rain pelting them, but their noses twitch and take in all the information they will need. Windows go up as we enter the forest; I don’t want any scent unnecessarily spilled out and polluting a successful trail with sneaky artifice odor. I drop my subject at the PLS and give similar instructions as the previous day: “Keep walking – we will find you.,,,,NO ROADS .” I will give her about a half hour walking time before I prepare my girl and start her on the trail. I drive away praying that this will be the trail that starts to resolve the problems I inadvertently installed in my girl.
While we wait, I let the dogs out to run and enjoy themselves and boy do they! Frost is on the ground giving the grass a white beard, but the sun has made an appearance is gently shaving the white stubble off the new growth green. Brume rises from the rushing waters and moves silently on its course, mysterious to those in observance. I find it fascinating and watch with a studied intent; this fog is moisture laden and can carry odor a great distance and create scent pools well off the trail. I watch it rise and move over one of the lower mountains – so glad I am running a hot trail today, I am tired and banged up from yesterday. My knee sports a bruise and welt a prize fighter would be envious of but I am optimistic and eager to start the trail. A few more minutes of observation of my crazy dogs playing tag with each other and I load them up; it is time.
We arrive close to the PLS but still well away from the hot track. I want my girl to ‘roll’ from aged track to hot track on her own. Campers hustle about dismantling their home away from home; they are hunters, this is obvious by the camouflage they wear – and the piles of feathers and wings of their victims: turkey. I harness my girl in the car, she is excited but reserved, not unusual for her, but I still feel the slightest of uncertainty in her. My boy tries to push his head in the harness and interfere in every way possible; he wants to run every trail. The disappointment is worn plainly in his face and I know he will serenade our progress with barks and howls of discontentment for awhile. That is ok, he will have a trail soon after.
My girl unloads from the car, nose to the ground, tail tightly curled. I haven’t given her the scent article yet (it will be the car seat) but I love watching her inventory the present odors. I call her to me, clip the line on her, open the car door and point to the seat, “Find her.” My girl pops her front end up, sniffs, whips around and has DOT (direction of travel) before I can close the door and gather my line. She jogs through the fallen camp and I nod silently to the hunters as we jog by. My girl is in old odor and I watch her with baited breath; the hot trail looms ahead and it is a double blind trail. She jogs over the gravel road and to the other side, begins to head towards a stout wood fence that blocks atv’s from violating the hillside, but folds over herself and finds a small deer path that straddles the gulley and the road. Her nose drops to the ground and electricity fairly crackles off her body as the energy of a hot trail surges through her. She plunges into her harness and heads up a path strewn with blow over and new sediment washed down by the rivers of melting snow. Of course, it has to be uphill, but the exuberance flowing through my girl allows me to feed into her vigor by letting her pull my damaged body up the hill . Numerous paths inject themselves into ours and she ignores all but the one she is set on. When the ground levels out so too does her pace increase – ugh. A cross country marathon has begun and I am the awkward albatross on the runway trying to take flight. My girl ducks, dives, leaps, swerves, glides and ascends all that lays before her.. I, crash, smash, gracelessly hop, collide, bounce off of, and pant in sheer exhaustion up the hills and through the deadfall. Still, I am loving what I see out of my girl – the fire is back, each step is building confidence in her and in me. We have been running parallel to a barbed wire fence on our left. A sudden decision on my girls part to go under it fails epically.
Her first attempt to go under allows one of the barbs to snag her harness and as she backs out pull it over her head. She know looks like the hunchback of Notre Dame; her harness perched over her ears and the belly strap pulled tight behind her elbows. The sorrowful look she gives me has me in peels of laughter as try to rectify her predicament. “Hold still sweetheart,” I chirp as I try to stifle the giggles oxygen deprivation (running so hard) and the situation offers has me in. A few moments later and I have her harness perfectly perched on her back. She looks at the barbed wire and back to me; she wants to go under.
You get good at handling barbed wire when running trails in the woods. Ancient metal warriors still stand as sentries of their charge long forgotten. New growth cloaks them in dangerous concealment until unsuspecting victims get snared in their trap. This particular fence though, is still in pretty good shape – minus the logs that have fallen on top of it in areas. The selection of entrance my girl has chosen, is where the fence is strong and buoyant. I step on the bottom strand and lift the middle one, a head gesture is all my girl needs to leap between the proffered gap. Team work perfectly executed, that is until it is time for me to get on the other side. My girl doesn’t step on the bottom strand and lift the middle – even though she has a harness that would effectively protect her from the barbs.. Oh no, she is on the other side and ready to go; she has a trail to finish after all.
“Hold on, kiddo, I have to get across.” I find myself screwing my face into a puzzled expression trying to think how I can accomplish this task without being speared or snagged. Every few seconds my girl inches a few steps in the direction the odor pulls her towards and I have to repeat the “Wait” command. A few awkward attempts at climbing over quickly prove unwise. While the fence is strong it is also wobbly when mounted, and my knee is not in a ‘hopping’ or ‘bending’ mood, so a quick analysis of the situation has me opting to not get stitches or tetnus; I will find another way. A groan from my girl reminds me an impatient dog awaits my traverse; I need to hurry.
Ya know, I am pretty lean, but trying to squeeze inbetween two strands of barbed wire without touching them is a pretty ridiculous thing to attempt unaided. About the time I get half way through and think I am safe, I feel the ‘grab’ only a spikey protuberance can make. Uhoh.. My pant leg has gotten snared. I feel the wet ground soaking through my pant leg on the opposite knee, the querulous mutterings of my girl, and flashes of my skeletal remains hanging forever memorialized on this fence dance through my head. I slowly reach blindly over to my leg and hope my fingers don’t find any barbs but the one I want to unsnag my clothing from. I am hunched over and mentally calculating the distance my back has from one of the sharp points. The opposite side of the fence, the one I am partially moving towards, has a rise, so I have to press hard into the earth in order for the rest of my body to safely find freedom. My fingers find the snag point and amazingly free the cloth quickly, only to be snared once more upon movement.
I am about ¾ of the way through the fence, but my body is smashed into a stoic hillside unyielding in its give to my pressure, my leg and partial back and hip are still effectively caught in the middle of the passage attempt. My girl has inched her way almost the full 30’ of line in the direction of the track and my hopes of finishing this endeavor unscathed are diminishing. But fate smiles on me, and a sudden awkward twist of my body (I felt it the next day) and I am suddenly freed from the teeth of the wire. My girl seems to know this and I watch the line snake the last bit away from me and up the trail before I can even find my feet. “Wait!” The slithering line pauses for a moment enough for me to snag it, and tension is reasserted to my end and I am drug through the branches that ‘welcome’ me to the unkempt side of the forest.
Rocky hillsides surround us on either side of the valley my girl plunges down and back up, leaping over the fallen logs I scramble over trying to keep pace, most likely looking like a marionette on crack. A narrow path leads us through some young pines who get a bit too fresh with their limbs on my body and back to the barbed wire fence. Great.
Thankfully, a tree has decided it needed to lay down and picked the barbed wire fence as its cushion (ouch). My girl makes a sudden turn to dive through the fence and efficiently plows face first into the wires and bounces back about 2ft. She blinks back the pain and surprise she just had, but before I can check and see if she punctures or marred herself, she leaps over the log and fence and heads straight down the hillside. I follow, once again little grace, and before my feet hit terra firma, I am airborne, plummeting down the steep embankment.
This is not a first for me – flying through the air. Rather, it seems to be a common thread with my girl whose propulsion, especially downhill, has a vertical effect on those attached to her. I’ve learned that life can flash before your eyes many times over in those moments. Questions like: Why am I doing this? How did I get in this predicament? And how long a convalesce will I have should I survive? Come frequently. So too, does the brains amazing ability to calculate, usually with precision, the equations needed to land feet first. What often isn’t taken into consideration is what the ground will do upon impact, especially when it is water logged from snow run off and the heavy rains we have been having.
My first concussive alighting has my foot sink about 6” into the soft earth; not bad, I think before I am airborne once again. Whilst in the air, I look down to see the subsequent mudslide my landing has created. Rocks and earth tumble and slide almost at pace with my airborne trajectory and speed. Of course, my second acquisition of earth is less successful – the loose earth that has raced its way downhill with my descent has deposited itself into a nice unsecured pile awaiting my impact. My girl is still proceeding downhill, but has now veered to her right and a deer path that runs along the hillside in a downward fashion. My foot hits the ground and successfully sinks to almost knee deep immediately, although I can feel myself sinking deeper in the split seconds I am submerged, but such is the speed of my girl that I am fruitfully unplanted and launched again into the stratosphere. My prayers are that my feet land on the landing and trajectory my girl is currently on. I can hear the rock avalanche behind me and wonder if I have just created the earth movement that will be my grave.
The final landing is a bit disjointed (I am sure my knee felt the same way – disjointed) and included a lot of flailing arm(s), muttered made up obscenities (biscuits! Is an often used one although they can get a bit more creative given the circumstances), and stumbling tread and I am safely, if not a bit frazzled, on the path down to the road.
Mud so sticky and thick it actually slows my girl down greets me next, its suction so successful it nearly pulls my tightly tied 8” boot off. Safely through its grasp, my girl makes a hard left onto the road (yep, the road) for about 20ft before plummeting over a short embankment to her right and along a pasture cradling the river. I watch my girl weave a serpentine pattern, almost as if drunk on the odor, before beelining it to the trees. Oxygen starved, I gasp out some unintelligible words begging my girl to slow her pace, to which she obliges for a few strides; more than enough I am sure she figures, but way to little to do much but clear the tunnel vision that was closing in on me. Little trails once beckoning hikers to enjoy in the summer, now lay in the scorn of the harsh winter. Limbs crashed to earth by the heavy snows now block our path. Little saplings fresh with life now lean wearily, as if the weight of the world was laid on their branches.
Deftly weaving under the lowest of branches, my girl continues her quest. Numerous divergent paths plea to be walked upon and cared for, but my girl has a nose for only one direction, and at the pace she is going now, I know we are getting close to her prey.
A large occupied campground peeks through the trees, and my girl suddenly stops, pauses, and then crashes through a dense copse of fir, breaking through to a hidden gravel road. I’ve barely emerged from the dense foliage when I am yanked onto the path, for once, I am quite relieved to be on a clear road, although the joy is short lived when she selects a narrow portage complete with an uphill incline…(sigh). This terrain is all new to me, and while it is speeding by me faster than I would like for viewing purposes, I am enjoying immensely the confidence and rapture my girl is in while working this trail.
Upon a little apex, I manage to dislodge my radio and try to get in contact with my subject. I hear rushing water and see a newly formed creek of snow runoff down the path my girl is pointed towards. My forced stop allows my girl the chance to air scent while at the crest; a whine of anticipation and desire escapes her normally stoic and silent muzzle. I ask my tracklayer about how long ago it was she passed the creek and am relieved to hear that it wasn’t more than a few minutes ago..YES!! I can endure the pace of my fleet dog a little longer. With a nod of permission, my girl hurls down the hill, leaps across the creek, of which I unceremoniously splash through (brr, that was cold!), crash through some more brush and before I know it, my girl has overtaken and impeded any further movement of her subject by blocking her path and demanding her treats.
I gasp for air, trying to praise her and still retain some form of dignity and not passing out. My subject laughs at me; she heard us barreling her way and knew well the speed and force behind the line my girl generates (it has taken her off her feet on the rare occasion she tried to man the line). Almost a mile and a half, over 500ft in elevation (remember my flying lessons? Yeah…) and ‘ran’ in 23 minutes; my perilous snagging on the barbed wire included. The bounce and spring in my girls step on the way back to the car; priceless. She knew she did well. Hot tracks are almost always fun for the dogs – but once humans intervene and give bad advice, confidence can be robbed on even the simplest of trails. I will be sure to proof the scenario many times over (aged to hot) to ensure my girls continued confidence in which trail to always take. I will also be very very careful in how I present the trail to her. My boy had a fun hot trail too. He did a great job; until he decided to investigate a beaver dam on the way back to the car.. I need to work on his recall, lol. Both dogs slept well that night – lessons learned by all.
Hypothermia here I Come (part 2)
Foreword: I started this blog because there are few resources for trailers out on the web. Fewer still that will share the good, the bad, and the ugly, honestly. I hold no visions of grandeur; I fail and make mistakes all the time. That is what training is for; make the mistakes there, where little harm can come, not in the field when lives depend on it. I share as honestly as possible my successes and my errors; even the embarassing ones, which unfortunately, this story is filled with. I hope my mistakes help save some of you from a repeat performance. Sharing them help me learn more thoroughly, andkeeps me humble, lol.
Par Deux… My girl had patiently awaited her turn to run the beloved trails, and upon arrival at the PLS (the old end spot for the first trail) I began preparations. I was irked already, my trail layer had been given specific instructions to follow which would have allowed the end spot to effectively ‘rolled’ into the second trail – on the opposite side of the river. What I was wanting to emulate by this trail was a camper who walks all around the campsite, possibly taking multiple trails – all being aged except for the one ‘hot’ trail where they got lost. By having my subject end the first trail but start the second trail by overlaying the river crossing and then continuing in a different direction, I would have aged trail under a hot trail for the start. Confused yet? LOL Makes perfect sense for me and my goals; and it made perfect sense to my tracklayer, but it wasn’t done and so the problem begins.
What was done was the track ended, but because she crossed the river well before the time she should have (the river crossing was supposed to be at the end of the trail, not at any other point) the trail ended on the side of the river where the road is – the side we use all the time. My tracklayer continued this track on the same side. When she walked back to the car she ‘laid’ a hot trail from the start of the aged trail. Thus, when I walked my girl up to the PLS, she had the aged trail she should follow in front of her and a hot trail she shouldn’t follow (back to the car) behind her. Not ideal to have to start her on…Back to the story ;)
My girl leaped out of the car with joy, her harness sitting perfectly on her back, my subjects wallet was the sent article and a quick whiff was all my girl needed to embed the odor in her mind. As I walked her towards the PLS (which was not flagged or marked in anyway) I mentally tried to picture where the hot trail began, that way I could cast my girl further up the trail and avoid any confusion for her. Unfortunately, I misjudged where the hot trail began and pretty much started her exactly where the aged and hot trail (hot trail being the one laid when walking back to the car – not the one to follow) met..First bad mistake. My girl immediately pulled towards the hot trails direction, nose to the ground and tail furled in a tight coil over her back. I posted and sang encouraging words, “Good girl, but that is the wrong one, keep looking.. Good girl.” Of course my girl is confused, but casts herself, a head pop over her shoulder to the hot trail before she settles on the ‘correct’ aged trail. Already I am wondering what repercussions will be reaped by this act; telling a search dog to ignore the freshest track to follow an aged is a no no in triplicate. The steady pull of my girl tells me she is confident, strong in odor and the task at hand. She hugs the river and as I jog by I see new places where the saturated earth could stand no more against the heavy waters and collapsed with a sigh of relief into the icy tributary. A bit disconcerting when you realize you are running on those same banks that looked so secure the other day; when my girl pulled to the left and towards the road, I was relieved – and irked. I told my tracklayer NO ROADS..sigh, oh well.
The staccato of wet paws and boots slapping soggy ground had a soothing resonance and I timed my breathing and did a systems check on my endurance for such a pace. I was a bit fatigued from all the ducking and diving through sticky mud and spiky bramble, but I was more then up to the task of this trail and felt the ire I had towards the start of the track diminish. I reviewed my instructions to my track layer given when I deposited her around the end spot: “Since this trail is shorter than planned, please start walking and lay a hot trail; we will catch up and find you as you walk.” I knew my girls speed would easily overtake the normal sedate pace this tracklayer offered and I liked having a 48hr single blind trail crash into a double blind hot track; the scenario would be real enough.
My thoughts are refocused as my girl obeys the lure of odor and heads down a slope across a pasture and along the river once more. She stops abruptly, head up searching the moist air for the current carrying fresh scent. The river waters create their own swirl of air currents conflicting with the prevailing winds, but that doesn’t deter or distract my girl, she casts herself along the bank, ducks under the lowest of limbs (ugh) and continues up stream, her gaze on the other side of the bank; I know my subject crossed the river close by where we are. Once again I find myself looking for a place where safe passage can be had, but all the logs seem to look threatening and slippery. Along the bank and inlets my girl searches, often doubling over herself and sniffing at a log before discarding the thought. Looks like my subject had similar feelings about where to cross – if at all. I know I am in a predicament I don’t want to be in – my girl has told me that the trail leads across the river, which currently offers no safe traveling. I am familiar enough with the area to know that the terrain on the opposite side of the river is such that it would force my subject to hug the rivers edge for awhile before allowing any traverse away from it. So, I could allow my girl to ‘fringe’ the odor on this side of the river and ‘catch up’ to the track of her subject when she crossed back over the river. I really don’t want to do this as it may be creating a problem of ‘fringing’ (a dog who keeps one nostril out of odor and another nostril in odor at all times – can be dangerous as odor is fickle and can be there one minute and not the next) later on.
A log invites me to try and cross. It is fairly wide and flat on top –nice. Problem is, about ¾ of the way across another log impedes forward movement and would require a hop over onto a sandy bank. I am familiar with this lure as enticing as it is, I know the moment I ‘hop’ onto the sandy bank I will be submerged and engulfed in frigid mud. Not a pleasant thought, but my mind is currently thinking I am 20yrs old again and agile as a gazelle – not. I begin the crossing procedure, one foot at a time, eyes locked on the spot my foot will land next. I wobble. Gulp. No problem, extend arms and continue forward. I can feel the eyes of my girl glued on my back, she won’t proceed across until I have fully committed to the endeavor – she knows this scenario as we have had false attempts across many a time. During summer, no problem, get a little wet it feels good. In 40F weather with icy snow waters flowing at Niagra Falls volume (not really, but fast)? Not so much fun. So she waits patiently on the bank. Regrettably, I have committed to a fruitless act and have now trapped myself midway across the torrential waters...
Sliding up the log to the midway point was quite easy, although a few wobbles had me wondering if I was going to fall into the drink for a moment. But once I was fully committed, the complexity of the situation became fully apparent; not only did I have to take a hop into the mud, I had to leap first over the timber straddling my log and then, land on the log I am currently on in a spot that has occasional ‘waves’ of water spill over it. Yyyeeeaaahhh. Why couldn’t I see this before I executed this insane plan to cross? Who knows.. But now, I am stuck and the rushing waters are distorting my snese of balance and vertigo seems to be knocking at the door. I can’t just back up because I don’t have eyes in the back of head yet installed, and the log that once felt safe and solid now seems to rock to and fro in an attempt to unsettle me: mission accomplished. A whine behind me lets me know my girl is aware that I have made a potentially fatal error and she is probably telling me her sobbing and heart felt ‘good byes.’
Ack, I can’t think that way! I try to mentally project all the scenarios that can occur if I proceed forward; none of them end with a good outcome. “I’m coming baby,” I coo to my girl whose whines have begun to increase in duration. I’m not sure now if my girl is whining because of my obvious lack of safety, or because she wants to get back on the trail; most likely the latter, impatient dog. With extra careful precision, I inch my feet back into the direction of the safety of the bank. A final desperate leap to security and I am safe. My girl whines and presents herself to me butt first – her way of telling me it is time to resecure the lead to her harness and get back to work; not the most sentimental dog on the planet.
“Let’s find her,” is all I have to say once the clip is in place for my girl to haul into the harness and drag me up the hill; fringing it is. In and out of the tree line along the river we go, but head pops to our left tell me the direction (which is correct) we will ultimately head towards. I am personally done with any thoughts of crossing the river and am quite relieved when she dismisses the thoughts as well and heads across the camping area, complete with campers, and to the road and subsequent ‘end of aged trail.’ I am feeling confident and happy that we will catch up to our subject in little time, but become a bit perplexed at my girls actions. She casts herself wide and begins to head in the direction of the hot track which is still unknown to me, but she instead catches airborne odor (winds had picked up) and circles wide several times. A second head pop in the (correct) direction of the hot track but a break to odor in the opposite direction has me slightly confused.
A tight curl of the tail and hard pull in the harness tells me she is in odor. She heads towards a trail on a hillside paralleling the trail we just ran. I don’t want to make the same mistake I have in the past and second guess my girl, but part of me is already wondering if she is just getting residual displaced odor from the heavy fog and moist ground that exemplifies the area this time of year. Her answers to my questioning through the line is final; she is in odor and wants to continue this way. Since my subject has already not followed directions repeatedly, it isn’t out of place to assume she could have decided to lay trail heading back towards the car in order to save herself the extra walking. I surrender to my dogs lead and watch in fascination as she works scent pool after scent pool. The scent pools should of course been my first indication that something was wrong, but her excitement and way of working emulated a proximity alert. She would stop, air scent after detailing an area, and proceed in the same direction.
After slipping and sliding up a slick hillside I could see the road, and my spidey senses tingled; something was not right. Once again my girl pulled hard in the harness, ducking under a branch and leaping over a stump with grace and precision. I tried to mirror her moves, but the resulting actions included a full face slap by the branch and a hard knock on my knee by the stump. The string of unintelligible words and sounds that proceeded from my lips probably still hangs in the air to this day. The world went black for a moment and I wondered where all the air went. The awkward hopping as I tried to reengage any knee action from my wounded limb created a barrage of cascading activities. First, I am thrown off balance and being on a hillside and off balance is just asking for trouble. As I try to rectify my equilibrium, my girl veers off to the right aiding in my stability until the second act of the series takes place; my injured knee finally revived enough to bend and place weight on sidles to close to a broken branch and ‘kisses’ it with brutal precision. A yelp and lurch forward has me once again trying to gain control of my wayward appendage. I feel the fury of the injustice of the whole matter welling up inside me – I wouldn’t be on this horrid hillside if my tracklayer had just followed simple instructions. I can feel myself being compromised and I can’t stop the anger quickly surfacing.
It is truly amazing how one can be analyzing ones poor behavior while they exhibit it. In a flash, I have gone from human partner to my K9 bud to a venomous evil monster. I hear myself gruffly correct my girl when she sniffs some scat. I hate myself for the sudden change in demeanor I am displaying. My girl shrugs off the noxious energy I am emanating, but I know it can’t be good for her and I need to get my self under control. She heads us along the hillside analogous to the aged trail we had just run and once again I am struck by the thought that my previous action of pulling my girl off the freshest scent earlier has come to bite me in the behind. When she descends onto the road and again head pops back towards the direction we came, and I know what has happened – and I am furious.
I take the line off my girl and we walk back to the car. She is by my side and sending quick glances to me; I know she can feel my bad attitude and I am trying desperately to change it, with little luck. I know all too well that I am creating a problem. I am the weak link in this equation and my girl did what she thought she was supposed to do. She was in odor, and there were a lot of scent pools due to the fog and moisture. She was in conflict between which odor to follow (fresh, old, or strongest) and I had failed to read her well enough to help her. Now I have banged up knee, I am tired and dishonored by my bad attitude. I should stop and regroup, but I have a subject walking and laying a trail currently who knows where, and she has no radio; cell phones don’t work in the area we are in. So I have no choice but to continue.
My girl loads up into the car silently and I know I am the cause. I call her to me, kiss her nose and tell her she is good girl, trying to keep my voice light and cheery – epic failure. But to her credit, she kisses my cheek and wags her tail, she will give me all she has no matter what. What a gift from God she is. I drive back to the PLS for the hot trail (or end of the second trail, however you are following this convoluted story, lol). I offer the scent article once again, and tell her to “Find her,” and my girl cocks her head once, then dives into her work. It takes a moment for her to select a path and since I don’t know where the subject went, I am praying it is correct – my faith in myself and my dog have now been robbed, mostly due to my own bad attitude. Fatigue has raced up to me and each stride feels like I have the weight of an elephant on my back; my knee feels like a balloon of pain and of course my arm has decided now is the perfect time to escalate its normal level of agony and join in the crescendo. I’ve already caused enough heartache for my girl, so I grit my teeth and fume on the inside, lol.. (I am such a bad person, lol).
My girl, she is amazing.. I know she is doubting herself, and feels like I am mad at her – I am not, but I know my temper has tainted her perception. This fact hits me hard and slaps me upside the head, gives a swift kick to my booty and galvanizes me to make an abrupt change in how I view things. A sudden parting of the dark cloud shrouding me and I can breathe again, I still hurt and am tired, but I no longer feel the all-consuming rage that seemed to suck me under for awhile. I cheerfully shout some encouraging words to my girl, her tail wags and some bounce resumes in her stride. I’m a jerk. I know it and I need to rectify my mistakes. My girl works hard sorting through the ‘traffic’ of animal and hikers odor to select the one scent she is searching for. Numerous decision points and forks in the paths are offered and my girl studiously checks each one before opting for the path we continue on. It isn’t easy; it is a very mountainous trail we run, complete with fallen trees, slick rocks and barbed wire we have to duck under.
As we skirt a hillside I yell out to my subject in case she can hear me, to STOP! I know we have covered over a mile on the ‘correct’ trail (at least I hoped it was correct at the time) and I know my energy reserves are flagging and I don’t want a repeat of my deplorable behavior occurring. Something catches my eye and it is my subject about a quarter mile away, down the hill, across the river, across the road, and in an open pasture heading for the woods again. She has been walking with my boy (for her peace of mind and companionship) who upon hearing my voice, lunges hard and pulls away from her. Crap.. Now my boy is running full speed towards us. My girl is just sitting on the hillside, we are about 200ft up the mountain, I glance at my girl and see the weariness in her (did I say I suck? I suck). A few minutes later and my boy has joyfully found us. I snag his lead and unhook my girl. Maybe I can salvage this whole day and let my girl air scent herself to my subject? Once the line is unhooked and I give the command to ‘find her’ my girl bolts down the hillside heading straight for her subject.. Unfortunately, the continued series of mistakes by subject and myself cascade into finality – my girl comes back to me, her eyes don’t meet mine like they usually do. Crap….
It takes a bit to walk down the mountain, cross the river, and find my subject. After much (heated on my end) discussion about following directions, we walk back to the car. My furry kids run back and forth on the way and I know I can’t end this day for my girl the way it has gone. My tracklayer is remorseful and understands the implications her choices have on how things unfolded; I assume responsibility for all my stupid actions as well. A decision is made: we will do a short hot trail for my girl. We do, and she of course makes the find, the track overlay shows near perfection. She gets her goodies, love, praise and is made over like she won the Olympics.. But I can tell she is still disheartened. Crap. I said this would be a two part series, but alas, it is a three part series…
Hypothermia Here I Come..
Some days are made to be a two part blog day..and this is one of them..A recent trail on a cold and saturated morning began with high hopes and a cheery mood. As with all my trails, I pray before hand, asking the Lord to guide me and help me to learn what needs to be learned, avoid what can be avoided, and for wisdom in the unknown. He is always faithful to oblige - just sometimes not in the way I expect and often not in the way I would prefer, which would be the easy way. So when the opportunity came for an aged trail to be laid with specific instructions for the tracklayer to follow (so that a fresh and new trail could be done by the dogs), and the tracklayer letting me know that the track was laid as requested, aged to a nice 48hrs, I was excited to begin. Unfortunately, as so often occurs, instructions were not followed on the second trail (or the first trail, but the second trail is where the problems really begin) and the spiral into the realm of painful education began..
Upon arrival at the PLS, my boy who had the luck of drawing the first trail, paced eagerly back in forth in the car. His palpable energy expressed itself in whines, barks and heavy breathing that fogged up the windows so much the defroster had to work overtime. A cool 40F swept away the warmth of the car as I slid out of the drivers side. A blast of wet wind pelted my face with the showers that would follow us all day long. The flag marking the start peered out of the debris fort it was placed in; the roar of the river wild with melted snow and fresh spring rains charged its way to destinations unknown. A sharp bark reminded me that an impatient dog awaited his chance to work. I am proud of my boy, he has grown into a reliable and talented trailing dog whom I can rely on - which is ever so important for SAR. His exhuberance for his job bubbles over, and while its effervesence spills over to all who are around it can be quite thoroughly saturating, and annoying. Still, his bright eyes and furiously wagging tail great me when I open the door. “You ready to work, handsome?” A reverberating bark bounces off the car walls and crashes into my eardrums (ouch). The reply was an emphatic “YES.” Harnessing him in the car is much easier then harnessing him out of the car; he actually helps me dress him by poking his head through the harness and proffering his leg to go through the belly strap partially clipped. “Out you go, boy.” I grab the scent article and offer it to my boy who barks his acceptance and whips around allowing me to clip the line on him easily. A wide cast the length of the line twice and he has decided on direction of travel – across the river..yay.. :/
Down the slippery hillside to the river bank and I scan the area trying to see a safe crossing. My boy has no worries and plunges into the frigid waters and gets swept about 15ft down stream before reaching the other bank. I had wisely unclipped his line and he patiently awaits my advance. A log, graciously adorned with limbs for hand holds lays before me and I take the gift. Once across, I hook my boy up to the line again and he dives into the tree line and begins his quest. Drenching wet branches slap me in the face and rain icy cold droplets onto my head and down my shirt. What looks like a deer path snakes its way before us and my boy seems to be intent on following it. He is in obvious odor, nose to the ground, occasional tail wag reminding me of his enjoyment of the hunt. I am enjoying the trail and working with my dog, except for the fact that almost every branch – and there are hundreds of them, seem to be at below chest level, or right at eye level. Ducking and diving, swooping and lurching become my new dance. I try to keep eyes on my boy, but each time I come up from a dive under a low hanging branch I narrowly miss a new branch up the nostril, in an eyeball, or down my gullet. I spend more time avoiding being speared by branches then focusing on my dog – but this is where the cool part of the relationship comes in…
The line is a two way radio from dog to human and vice versa. I can telegraph a question to my dog, and they can relay their progress by tension and slack, pull and release, and changes in pace. It is a delight to have the confidence in what your dog is telling you through the line; especially when your eyes are focused on keeping you alive. Another heavy shower from a water logged tree limb and I am now soaked thoroughly. My pace behind my boy is steady and keeping me warm, but I am very aware of how wet I am even with water resistant/proof clothing on. My boy dives to the left back towards the river and scans the terrain; a scent pool. He works an annulus a couple times over before settling on a direction and path – right through the spiky hawthorne bushes…yippee..
Instead of heavily burdened pines inundating me with showers of spring rain, I am now ducking and diving inch and a half spiked limbs intent on shredding any exposed skin. My boy, as with all trail dogs, easily ducks under the danger – he sees an opening and follows the odor, besides, he has a nice dense coat to protect him from such evils. I, on the other hand, have the joy and trial of crashing through such painful afflictions, grateful I have a jacket on, but it seems that my exposed skin is a magnet to the insidiousness of the bushes. My shouts to “Wait,” “Slow down,” “Easy,” seem to be ignored by my boy who is in full odor and truly enjoying the pull of the scent. He usually doesn’t pull as hard as his sister whose freight train power is overwhelming even to men twice my weight and strength, but he is pulling hard nevertheless and invariably at the worst moments for me.
A suctioning squish begins to work its way into my mind and I realize that the ground has lost some of its security and has gained pools of water everywhere. Now each duck under the barbed limbs is followed with a cold wet dip of the knee into sopping ground and standing water. My boy is delighted; he loves water and finds the splashing his paws make with each stride, delightful, and the subsequent groans from his partner as she soaks herself further. My steady progress while impeded by the terrain now has added complications. The pools of water intermittently placed now have joined forces and formed a conglomerate of marshy wet lands. My jog has now become a series of syncopated hops, leaps, vaults and jumps from one squishy grassy nob to the next. I have water proof boots on, but as we all know, water proof is good for the outside, not the inside..get water in the boot and you now have a swimming pool for your feet on the inside of the boot – not fun.
My boy swings back into the woods and I am actually relieved to have the slapping of pine branches in my face as opposed to the evil barbs ripping at me. Another tenth of a mile or so in the woods weaving through the greenery and fallen logs and my boy dives back towards the river, intent; most likely where the subject crossed the river (not part of the instructions given to her). At the banks of the rapids, my boy dances back and forth, circles wide, nose in the air trying to catch the trail on the other side. I scan the area looking for a nice log or beaver dam, or bridge (I wish) to cross over by. I recently toppled tree, roots included, awaiting my presence and I proceed. My boy has committed to the swim and leaped midway across before landing in the rushing tide. A second leap and he is across, shakes, and smiles back at me with his goofy grin; he loves it! Once across, he dives back into the odor trail and I have a marathon obstacle course to tackle again.
When my boy pulls toward the road, I am both relieved and disgruntled; I had explicit instructions to not go on the road – at all. The point of the trails being run this day was to work on aging. The trails were still blind and with totally new terrain (well, it was supposed to be), but with the general knowledge of what should occur (everything but the end was supposed to be on the opposite side of the river). My boy heading to the road and crossing the river before the end? Not part of the instructions, but, I know my boy is in odor and working the trail well. He jogs the road for a bit and I get a moment to do a systems check of my body and equipment/clothing: everything is soaked and scratched, but otherwise quite functional. I am very much aware that the temperature, rain, wind, and the heat being generated by my exertion will not bode well for me when I stop. But, the car has a wonderful heater and my clothes dry fast, I am currently not in the least bit cold, and the anger rising in me for the lack of care in following directions by my subject is warming me even further.
A head pop to the right with break to odor and we are back into the trees and mud, summit a small hill and into a campground complete with the arrogance and laziness of man – trash everywhere! My boy is used to hearing me talk, usually encouragement when he has to slow down while I navigate through a tangled maze of pain inflicting barbed branches, but he is used to it non the less. He hears my voice shaking with anger and glances at me, then back to the trash, he gives a hard sneeze as if in disgust of the wanton act upon the land. “Good boy, let’s find her,” I fortify my boy with words more cheery then I feel. I hate it when people are so careless, thoughtless, lazy and arrogant to think their trash won’t harm the environment or others…
Once through the trash dump, uh, campground, a stand of trees acting as curators for the river loom before us and in between them, a little deer path. This is where my boy takes me and I can feel the energy of a proximity alert pulsing through him. His pace picks up, as does the pull in his tack; he is on a mission and he means business! A couple of decision points later and we crest a hill, a hard pull to the right and back down the hill we go, angling to the left and along the river, the bouncing stride of my boy tells me we will find our subject at any moment – and we do.. Joyous shouts of love and praise adorn my boy, along with the shocked words “Oh my gosh! You are so wet!!” My boy figures to add an exclamation to that statement and shakes thoroughly – now my subject is wet too. Haha..
If my day ended here it would have been a great day. A 48hr blind (double blind when you think of the fact that almost all my instructions went unheeded and thus, I had no clue what was happening) trail successfully accomplished, happy dog, happy humans.. But, alas, my girl has yet to run her trail. I ask my subject why she didn’t follow my instructions; blinking and a blank expression follow. Yeeeaahh. I know there will be a problem at the start because we are walking back to the car; a fresh trail. The start is 48hrs linked to a hot trail – not good. But, until we get to the car, redeposit the subject near the end spot of the second trail, drive back to the PLS of the second trail and begin – we are good for reveling in the accomplishments of my boys great trail…… to be continued
When Will I Learn...?
Running trails as often as I do, redundancy is a potential. Trail layers are apt to lay similiar trails (for humans are extremely pattern oriented) and certain aspects of the trails are bound to repeated. This is good, in some ways, for repetition is what helps the knowledge really sink in...sometimes.. I do always have to be on guard though, for where there is repetition, so too is there the desire to outhink the scenario and not let your dog work - a new problem caused by 'forward thinking.'
On a drippy mid spring morning such a repeat lesson occurs; my response to this opportunity requires a good swift kick in the behind. The scenario: Aged track (24hrs) laid in a familiar area (cemetary), assumption is that the tracklayer did her 'usual' type of track (although I tried very hard not to have that expectation). I had just run my boy at the airport and had an excellent trail and now it was my girls turn. This particular area proliferates deer and turkey at exponential rates and they are precise in their plan to taunt the dogs; usually when off leash post trail. This graveyard is old and seldom used, rural and beautiful in its own right, the gravestones and hills rolling into valleys adds to the originality of the place. A lone water tower is nestled behind a steep treed hill - and disgraced by wayward teens and vulgar language.
The temperature sits at bout 45F with a light 7mph ENE wind. Rain is threatening, but my girl whose excitement is encapsulated in a cool exterior has panted her steamy breath excessively causing 'rain' on the inside of my car via condensation. When I open the door for her, she stands with solemn dignity awaiting the adornment of her harness, the quick tongue slurping up my cheek being the only sign she is excited - unless you know what to look for..The moment she exits the vehicle her nose is on the ground, tail curled tight, circling for a scent she is not yet sure will be her target (although I am quite sure she suspects it is our most recent passenger), and an intense but singular focus on the job at hand - absolutely zero excitement ;P
The scent article is the car seat which is expertly sniffed, each odor catalogued and distributed into importance which is interpreted through the odor on the ground; in other words, process of elimination, only the odor in the car and on the ground will be followed: her subject. She has already found DOT (direction of travel) from her initial scan and we are off, up the hill and on an old deer path. As much as I don't want to interfere with her work, my mind is already screaming at me the possibility that her intensity is because she is on a fresh deer track. Everything her body language is telling me is that she is in odor of her subject, but my mind, that fruitful isle of skepticism has me reanalyizing her every move due to past experiences. She has never crittered while on line (outside of occassional sniff of a carcass etc) but she has definitely had fun with her 'brother' off line when a deer flaunted its availability for a game of chase (she came back once I called her, but the deed was done and imprinted in my mind). So now, when I need to trust her, as she heads towards the area the deer like to hide in I am suspicious - and I am mad at myself for this suspicion.
A home 300 meters away can be glimpsed through the grove of trees, and the breeding ground of supposition has new fodder. Is she on the home owners tracks? Why oh why is my mind playing these tricks on me? I know my girl, and she has rarely and I do mean RARELY, ever given me a reason to doubt her motives while trailing, in fact in most things she is honest. So now I wonder why I am questioning her... Reason: a little knowledge of the trail can be disasterous for the team. A new app for my phone allows me to download the trail my tracklayer has laid and when I start my track with the dog, it will overlay the trails. I don't look at the track until I am done and can see how close to the actual laid track we were, however, the moment I select the option for 'the dog' on this track, the 'runner' track s shown for a split second. The vast majority of the time that little flash is nowhere near enough time to even get DOT as it has no terrain features. Unfortunately for me this day, that flash was enough for my mind to grab a hold and think it knows where we should be going despite my dog telling me otherwise.
So here we are summitting a hillside on a deer path towards a home in an area I know is frequented by egotistical deer and my girl is working scent pools and the trail beautifully...and I am doubting her.. ARGH!! The more excited and tighter her tail curls the more I doubt her, the absolute reverse of what should be..My analytical mind rationalizes that the tracklayer, who normally shys away from any homes or people, would not have come this way; the house can be seen through the heavy branches and dense copse of trees.. I post myself and question with the line. Are you in odor? My girl leans heavily into the harness and says, 'YES'!!! I ask again.. (slapping forhead hard).. Once again she answers with a resounding yes.. I change tactics, "Honey," said sweetly and obvious cohersion in place, "Don't you want to check over here?" I signal with my hand the area to the left of us I want her to head for (I hate writing this as I know I was soooo wrong..Thankfully, all the subsequent trails proved my insanity didn't muck her up...too much), she tells me 'no' by pulling harder in the direction (of the trail) she has odor. This painful dialogue continues several more times, before my girl, obviously perturbed by my insistence, surrenders to my ploy and casts herself in the direction I have indicated. Her tail which had been previously tightly curled, unfurls half way, but she finds odor and continues along the hillside.
Now I am 'feeling' like we are on track because of that little glimpse of the trail I had for a nano second has more pull on me currently then my dog who has proved herself countless times over.. If only lifes lessons didn't feel so crappy afterwards, ya know? I notice that while my girl is working the trail well (better then me), she has lost some of her thunder. I think she is irked as she leads me over some treacherous ground, ignoring me pleas for her to slow down. A low metal cable looms before me and is just the right height to decapitate me at the speed my girl is trying to drag me. Mental note: don't tick your dog off while trailing, especially when dangerous elements impede safety. Thankfully I have ample time to conduct an appropriate ducking move and avoid the cable. We continue to skirt the hillside, and while a steady jog is not speeding bullet fast, it is still a bit faster then I would like to do on this slick hillside. My eyes scan the ground in front of me mere moments before my feet land, narrowly avoiding the lurking branches concealed and discarded by winters fickle moods and intent on seeking revenge for their rude dismissal.
A sharp turn to the left and my girl breaks to odor and straight down the slope to a path strewn with the trappings a harsh winter provides. She head pops to her right and I can see that she let go of the unintended slight I had done to her; very glad she doesn't hold onto grudges (for long ;)). Her energy level is rising and as it does so to does her animation. I take a deep breath knowing that speed , even if just a mile per hour or so faster is coming and that can be taxing on endurance - especially up hill. A fallen tree blocks our path, a problem for me, but not for my girl; she ducks under it..I manage an awkward and contorted navigation through it. My last halting step is greeted with a hard pull on the line generating a movement I can only imagine looked like a drunk jester, hopping on one foot and then the other all the while trying to stay perpendicular to the earth. A sharp turn slows my girls impetus and I am able to resume my balance and pace with her. She casts herself in a wide circle detailing the decision points and eliminating possibilities; a deision is made and up the long angular path to the water tower we go. My girls tail has curled again and I know she is getting pockets of fresh scent when the breeze reaches us.
A narrow and guarded entrance to a deer path beckons my dog. Odor sits heavily in a dense growth of brush and she carefully works her way through the rabbit hole scent pool and finds her exit trail out. A nice vertical hillside awaits us and my girl doesn't hesitate in tackling the evervating job. I do my best to not add weight to the line, but occassionally she is used as purchase and momentum..good girl!
Once summitted, the expanse of the graveyard (actually two combined) is laid out before us. The wind that was so effectively stopped by the hills now blasts us with pelting rain - and odor. My girl pulls to the right and skirts a rocky precipice allowing the tendrils of odor riding the winds, to stroke her sensitive nose, but not succumbing to their wayward direction - she knows the difference between where the odor came from and where it is going. She turns to her left and heads down the rolling hillside. She trots along the antlered paths leading by grave sites and tombstones, her pace picking up as she 'catches up' to the age of the odor. Occassional head pops notify of where pockets of odor may lay but she stays obedient to the strongest source of odor and we weave a serpentine pattern through the necropolis re emerging near the hwy. A sharp head pop to the left with break to odor following and I am now running behind her as she has full proximity alert in progress and is pulling with tremendous force. I hop over a couple of graves, silently sending mental apologies for the trespass, climb over a small rise and descend in short order. A building stands in front of us and before I can reel in the line I hear the praises being lauded on my girl - but I see no one...ghosts? Nope! Just a well hidden subject sitting flush with the building.
Of course I have to check the trail run with the track laid, you know, be sure I was right...Nope, I was absolutely wrong.. I should have stopped using my obviously flawed mental abilities and allowed my dog to work - she was 100% correct when I 'encouraged' her to 'look' for the track...grrr..when will I learn?! Outside of my mistake, the track/trail was pretty close to perfect.. I wish I could say that this trail has kept me from repeating the same mistake..and to an extent it has, I am more apt to wait on my dog and not 'force' my 'knowledge' on them..Unfortunately, I am still prone to insert my own expectations on them at times, and truly why I prefer double blind trails over any 'known' or assumed aspects of a trail. I am the weak link in the partnership at times, but since I know it, I can work on it - and I do..Keep reading, lol, you will continue to see my trial and error and successes.
Spring is SCCCAAARRRRYYYYY....
Spring is a wonderful season filled with the hope and wonders of new life and beauty. The heavy layers we shroud ourselves in to protect us from the bitter cold of winter are shed, and lighter more colorful outwear is worn. Unfortunately, this is also the season the dogs love to shed their heavy coats and unceremoniously deposit tuffs of fur in all the wrong places. I think my fiber content is increased exponentially during this season with the wayward hairs that find their way into my mouth, and I could weave a carpet or rug with the 'fur bunnies' that collect in all the corners. Brushing daily is a must, and the dogs love it - so I guess it is a joyous season for them. The joy is amplified by the fact that traillayers that hide from old man winters frigid grasp are now willing to venture out in the bright sunshine and lay trails. WHOOPEE!!! Finally! :)
This seasonal passage is now routine and it seems the excitement of the opportunities to learn and grow is always present. The bad in this, is just like the pangs of child birth that is forgotten so that reproduction can occur again lest the human race become obsolete in fear of the pain, so too is the memory of the dangers spring holds for the trailer. Ice carefully cconcealed under new growth or old pine needles becomes a treacherous trap for all who cross it, raging waters pregnant with the melted snows of winter greedily consume dry banks in the hunger and rearrange the landscape in their rampage. Safe passage across trusted logs may now be a nefarious trap awaiting the innocent footfall and plunging them into the icy waters...This is trailing in the spring...FUN! :)
This trail day began with rain, but the sun seemed intent on burning off the morose clouds..and melt more snow. Both dogs would be run, but this trail is about my girl and her locomotive pulling power. The trail was a 24hr aged single blind as I had to deposit the subject at the general end spot location, but every other aspect was unknown. It was about 37F when we started with about a 6mph ESE wind. I had left my boy with the trail layer and my girl was vibrating with palpable excitement. Both dogs had been on a 3 day search the previous week and covered countless miles; I figured she would be eager to run trail like normal, but perhaps subdued a bit due to fatigue...WRONG. This trail was about 1.05 miles long laid - a good distance for an easier day...yyyeeaaahh..
My girl stood with her typical dignity and decorum as she was harnessed. She awaited the permission to disembark the car and waited patiently for me to scent her with the hat and snap the line onto her. She had no sooner started to cast herself when two rebel deer taunted her thirty feet away. A flip of the tail by one as it bounded away was an insult, but for the other deer to stare at her, stomp his foot in defiance and challenge was another. "Focus!" I spoke with authority. "Find her," I tried to entice her out of the indignity she felt by the deers challenge. She dropped her nose and found the direction of travel (DOT) - which conveniently for her was parallel to the deers choice of travel; she of course felt it necessary to swerve twenty feet over to the deer side of the path "to make sure her subject didn't, you know, get kidnapped by said deer." "Get to work, focus," was quietly but firmly spoken. A flip of her tail in dismissal to the enticing prey who taunted her was my girls final response to the matter, she dove onto the scent trail of her missing friend.
Snow patches of varying depth and breadth lay scattered throughout leaving the choice of soggy sticky mud, or ice cold puddles to traipse through - the later being what my girl chose. Her steady jog meant that I too had to maintain a faster pace and splashes of the frigid water soaked my lower pant leg. The atv path we followed was quickly replaced by a narrow hiking path with friendly pine trees with limbs intent on being right at eye level. My girl, agile and adept at weaving under and through the maze unscathed, kept her pace steady.. I, as always, felt like the lumbering elephant, crashing through the branches and looking the fool in feeble attempts to duck 'cleanly' under the low ones. My shouts of "WAIT!" would cause only a momentary pause on my girls behalf, sometimes a glance back if she felt the hard tug of a line being used as purchase to steady my unbalanced self, but inevitably the pace resumed and we jogged on.
At the edge of a rise we were on, a pasture opened before us, my girl circled the top, obviously in a scent pool of indecision left by our track layer. She worked through this quickly and descended down to the pasture. A couple of head pops to the right where the road lay on a downward slope told me odor may have rolled that way, but my girl broke to odor to the left and towards the treeline..and river.
The rumble of the swollen river weaved through the trees and reminded all who listened of its great strength. My girl followed a scent trail complimented by the moisture of the river, snow, and icy runoffs. Her steady pace was hindered by my bipedal inefficiencies; my boots got stuck in the mud causing the split delay in calibration of foot over log culminating in a momentous forward movement of uncontrolled velocity... In other words I tripped. Of course mud is the cushion that awaited my body, so I struggled with every once of skill I had in me to stay upright.. A knee on this occassion is all that met that cold and dirty end. A backward glance from my girl to make sure I was still alive and able to continue was my reward. "Slow your roll, girl." This was one of many mantras momentarily heeded but soon discarded on this trail by my sporty girl.
I am one to talk to my dogs as they work - not always, or in annoying fashion, but definitely when I am being drug thru brambles, sliping on ice, getting boots sucked off by mud, sliding down a hill in an uncontrollable fashion or having my brains knocked out by a branch - you know, insignificant stuff ;) On this trail, my running chatter went something like this: "Easy girl.. I don't want to..(yelp) die sliding on the ice (said while sliding towards a tree)... Slow..WAIT! Good girl, eeeaaasssyy, you have 4 wheel drive and can duck under the trees.. WAIT! Ouch, ok, knees aren't meant to collide with wood..Slow down, baby, or you will be dragginng my corpse behind you..." Interspersed are the occassional filler words for presumed obscenities "Biscuits!" seems to come up often, usually when a branch smacks me in the face, or I trip on a tree root.. you get the picture. On the nice easy straightaways, I am silent and enjoy the commraderie that is so prevelant between partners.
A sharphead pop followed by a break to odor on the river side and I am (drug) down hill to the rivers edge. Residual snow lays heavy in this area and I see small footprints indicitive of our prey. My girl casts a large cirle, obviously in a scent pool and looking for the exit trail. Occassional lifts of her nose to 'taste the wind' informs me we are most likely in proximity of our subject, but the tendrils of odor only tickle her nose, never giving up their location - so she continues to look for the ground odor. I scan for safe passage across -for me... My girl, while not overly fond of water on any other occassion, will swim when on the trail of her prey. Repeatedly she starts across, getting elbow deep before losing the air scent enticing her. I see a possible way to leap frog myself safely to the middle of the river only to strand myself with no safe passage back to land. The roaring waters, turbulent and cold are chilling reminders of what I don't want to enter.
This of course, is the perfect time for my wonderful girl to once again opt to cross. Only this time, she is indecisive of where to finish the second half of the river having found a small sand island with lovely tree roots to snag the wet leather line around. When she realizes her choice is still the same: 20 ft of fast deep moving icy waters, she wants to return to my side - but can't, she is soundly snagged. A look of disgust crosses her face as she realizes her predicament.. I am quite sure it reflects the mirror image of my face as I realize I have to find a way to unsnag her! A pristine choice on my girls behalf has her about 20ft from shore on either side. A precarious obstacle course awaits me; logs slick with moisture and moss, little sand piles peak their heads above the frigid waters beckoning me to jump to assured safety, but I am no fool. I know these sand piles are like quicksand and the moment I leap to them I will be knee deep in their polar grasp embracing hypothermia with open arms..Uh uh.. Not me..
I pace back and forth trying to formulate a way to disengage my girl from the safety of the shore - a laughable prospect. Little by little I resign myself to the dangerous plight I now halve to engage in: Rescue 911, SAR dog in progress. I sing encouraging words to my girl who is now very impatient and wants to be freed. She watches my every move with an eagle eye, little attempts to dislodge herself only aid in furthering her prison time. I find a very slipppery log stable enough and generous enough to offer branches for balance. Slowly I creep across, muttering frustration and sending SOS prayers to the Lord, all the while trying to spy the next safe place to place my feet. A boulder offers its crown and I take the proffered option safely. A final measured leap and I am safely to the island and my tethered girl. My first step towards her right into that little sand bar that tried so hard to encourage my jump from the bank. Thankful for the wisdom and common sense God gave, my foot immediately sinks to ankle deep with just the half weight I offer it. A neat little weave pattern of the line through protruding roots has my girl pronouncedly stuck. Ignoring the cold seeping through my boot, I quickly unravel the line, unhook my girl and set her free. The smile in her eyes and wag of tail is all the thanks I need to know the risks were worth it. My precious girl takes one perfectly timed and graceful leap to the bank and turns expectantly to me to do the same.. Haha, yeah right.
Believe it or not, the return trip back to the bank was just as scary and dangerous as the ingress in..and just as rewarding because I was safe...for the moment. My girl, true to nature, immediately resumed her search, found the exit trail and abandoned the fleeting pockets of air scent for the assured odor of the trail (good girl!). Back up the hillside we go, ice carefully concealed awaiting each step, my girl pulling with the intensity a proximity alert infuses her with and me flailing behind like a rag doll, occassionally doing my best Bambi impression without killing myself. Another tenth of a mile of slippery navigation and my girl takes me down through a grove of trees back to the rivers edge. Directly across the flooded banks awaits our subject. My girl, so thrilled to have found her elusive prey attempts to cross the breadth of the river. Her first attempt gets her dunked full force into the icy arms of the raging waters - it is deep and moving fast. I let go of the line, a nice long and very slippery looking log is what awaits me, but I am more concerned about the advancement of my girl across the deepest part of the river. Two more attempts occur before success! My girl reaches her subject, soggy, cold, but very very proud of herself. Treats, praise and adoration await her..Now I get to cross..ugh
Longing for my youth and sure footedness, I slowly begin my crossing. I never really realized how disorienting raging waters can be when you are looking down at them while trying to maintain balance on a 6" log of slippery icy wetness. It is very disconcerting to say the least. Each minor bobble made my heart pound harder and my thoughts raced to the distance my warm car would be if I plunged into the frigid waters. Grace of God, I am across and wagging tails await me. GPS comparison and trak overlay shows my girl almost on top of the track the vast majority of it. Several times she has drift odor, but crosses back onto the track. At the notorious hang up in the middle of the river, my subject had indeed attempted to cross only to be vexed and wisely choose a safer crossing. A tired pup, a happy handler and a good trail...not bad for spring..
Double Blind Is Double Fun...
As I have stated many times, finding tracklayers is always a difficult process; finding proficient tracklayers, a monumental project. So when the opportynity arises to work with a fellow teammate and K9 handler, I jump at it! Logistics are always a juggling act between schedules, location, and ensuring all dos get worked. Sometimes the location requires fine tuning so tracks aren't overlayed and 'contaminated' by the tracklayer who will later run a trail with their dog (thus contaminating an already existing track with their fresher scent). This particular handler and friend is phenomenal at working out the logisitics; and she is a great tracklayer too :) :) :)
This day started out with a sunny outlook - literally. After days of sleet, rain, wintry mix and dense fog, the suns warm rays gave more then warmth, they gave hope. The trip to our location was about an hour and a half in length, but it was a nice drive and the dogs were raring to go. Once we arrived they were let out for a quick potty break (this would be an urban training and I do not like running a trail holding a poopy bag laiden with , well poop, while I run trail...ewww) and raced around the vacant acreage like mainiacs. Jumping, twirling, they darted about with intuitive precision, somehow always knowing where the other was and syncronizing each movement into a beautifuly choreographed dance of joy....and mud...lots of mud... I need to pick my 'potty stops' better..ugh..
Awhile later my friend arrives and we discuss the day. I lay a trail for her dog and it will age while I run my dogs on the trails laid earlier. The temps hover around 54F, a bit warm for me when running behind a dog and still adorning winter gear, so I shed some bulky threads and and settle in with a short sleeve shirt and light reflective jacket. The winds are steady at about 7mph, but they are quite indecisive in which direction they would like to blow. Typical for the high plains location we are at and the current season we are moving into - but a bit of a pain for trailing. Both dogs are eagerly panting in anticipation, pushing forward with eager expectation, praying they are the one selected for the trail. I love their excitement for the 'game', but know all to well that to work my girl first is to possibly end certain niceties in my car I would like to keep. It has been well over a year since my boy wreaked havoc on my seatbelts, and I have worked my girl before him and not had repurcussions, but it is ever present in my mind, so selecting him first is a natural process. My girl blinks back the dissapointment evident through her eyes and body, but she settles back in the car - I know her, she will turn this time into studied focus when it is her time..Intense and ready..
As I tried to put the harness over my boys head, his enthusiasm took over and he practically 'dressed' himself, putting his leg through the appropriate hole in perfect synchronicity with my movements. A buckle under the belly and he leaped out of the carlooking for a scent article. We were in a parking lot of a shopping center, but in a very quiet section; a bank drive through would be our PLS, so I wasn't too worried about cars running my exhuberant boy over. Nevertheless, I called him to me, prepped my GPS with final touches, grabbed the line, closed the car door, grabbed the scent article and offered it to my boy. His typical bark followed and an attempt to toss the item in the air, which I stopped. Clipped the line to his harness and we were off - he had DOT already selected, so casting him would be redundant. He pulled to the overhand og the drive through, turned to his left, across a street and towards a vacant lot that looked like a lake. He bounded back and forth, very keen and in odor, his first dart forward looked like I was going to get very wet as he pulled towards the shimmery liquid. Thankfully, he opted out of that thought and looked forward where marshy ground awaited us, but not deep water. Instead, he doubled over himself and back to the sidewalk, and south towards the residential side of town. A couple of dogs in a yard to our right barked out a few insults, my boy wagged and smiled at them, a silent taunt back if it were human ("I'm working..I have a job.. you are stuck in your yard.. Have fun").
Once across the street his nose pulled upwards, a gentle drifting to the left and towards property restrained by a tall chain link fence. His tail set told me he was working, but a distracting odor was tantalizing his nostrils and pulling his focus from his job. I looked around, and sure enough, there were three fuzzy deer watching us, safe behind the perimeter. "Focus." A singular word that has so much pull in my dogs world, it seems that one word has the ability to yank their mental wanderings back to their metier with finality - but with zero loss of drive. It is my go to word when I see my partner drifting, and it works like a charm. Back to the odor trail my boy goes and we skirt the fencing until it opens up to a parking lot of a school. My boy had pops to the left and considers going in, but then pulls back out to the sidewalk, only to repeat the performance several times. I see a gentleman walking his chubby dog to our left, and I wonder if once again my boy is being pulled by the fresh odor only to return to obedience of his given odor. A final decision is made and he pulls into the parking lot and drops his nose, a hard lean into the harness reminiscent of my girl, and I am suddenly uncertain if I am reading him well.
For anyone who has run trails in a double blind setting, you know the desire to 'outhink' your dog. It comes from, well, usually, stupidity if your dog is as consistent as mine are (in general - they aren't perfect). I know how to read my dog (most of the time) but my own insecurities come into play and I hate myself for it. My boy is working hard, and his tail set, the way he is performing, and the hard pull tell me he is 'on' - but my own mind and imaginery tales tell me 'his following the dog and man'. I break the blind and look up the laid trail on my phone.... Yup, we are 'on', my boy is doing his job..I am an idioit... lets move on..
Through some buildings, into another parking lot and out onto the sidewalk once more, my boy takes us. As we near an apartment complex, he starts weaving through the narrow aisleways and up an alley; he seems to be in strong odor and a proximity alert. A lady wheeling a wheelchair and a couple of kids come by, and my boy beams them his special smile of love; they giggle with delight and my boy adds a little flourish to his strut; he is such a ham. He continues down the street and at the intersection pauses, tests the air and seems a bit confused. For me, this information is important, it tells me he is most likely off the track and into fringe odor...but where did we leave the track?
This is one of the most crucial aspects of trailing for a handler to master (or at least be very good at): remembering where your dog was in definite odor (close to track) and how to get back there. Odor is so very tricky, it can be strong and pooled in an area that isn't even close to where the actual path of travel was taken, but wind, terrain, buildings, all factor in to how the odor wanders and where it finally rests. Thankfully for this trail, I was well aware of the last place my boy seemed to be (and was confirmed to be) on track odor, and that was the school. So I encouraged my boy to check up towards the west side of the intersection (normally I would hand walk the dog to the area I would recast them over, but since we were so close - about 2 very short blocks away, I didn't see any reason to not allow him to 'catch' the trail on his own) and he worked up towards the school, turned left and continued in the same direction he had been going, just two blocks up now.
A couple of kids came running up eager to pet the 'working dog', and unfortunately, I had to keep them back while he worked. They understood, although seemed a bit disappointed. My boy continued down the street, but he no longer looked like he was in odor; he looked around, and started 'K9'ing' (a phrase used when the dog starts 'being a dog' when they are supposed to be working) a little. I scrambled to pull my GPS out and check the track to confirm we were in the proximity... As I try to juggle phone, line, eyes on my boy, and alert to cars and other potential dangers - with one hand, my eyes fall upon a figure sitting about fifty feet away on the steps of a church...it is his subject! I laugh and shrug because it is obvious my boy is on a walk and enjoying it, but not working. Suddenly a waft of odor carried on a friendly breeze caresses his nose and he head pops in the direcion of his subject, his body tense and obviously back in working mode. He bolts forward and towards the church, his body begins the waggle dance he is so known for, he sits and enjoys the praises and treats for a good find.
As the day continued and other dogs were run on different trails, all the dogs seemed to be about 2 short blocks off the track when the track went towards the west. My friends girl ran a great trail, and my girl did a beautiful job on a double blind over a railroad junction. My friend laid some great tracks and it was a wonderful day. Her air scent dog got worked as well and all pups were happy to sleep blissfully in the car on the way home; a job well done.
Snow is Fun, Until It's Not...
The beauty of a world swathed in snow is a sight to behold. The gentle blanket of flakes woven together into a quilt of fluffy white, drapping trees and covering any ugliness the sleep of autumn left. The dogs love it too. Scooping mouth fulls of the cold white substance into their mouths as they run. Rolling and making 'snow puppies' they race about, intent on seeing who can bury their siblings head under it the deepest. It is a time of joy and wonder, beauty and majesty; the summer stores of water held in a form perfect for fun and play....and for hiding evil wood gnomes intent on beating my knees, shins, and anything else in their path into submission...And thus, snow has a season of adoration soon replaced by the strong desire to see it melt...
During the joyous period of snow, trails run are travelled with a fairy tale outlook; all will end well, and any hardships just add to the story. During the bane of snow, every step becomes a treachorous trap, insidious in it's attempt to suck a boot off, plunge a leg hip deep into the white depths of untold horrors, and trip you with ghoulish delight. This is the time this trail was run, another 4" of the cold sloppy matrix had fallen and carefully concealed the booby traps the sun had exposed. It was a technical trail; one laid with the desire and intent to run the trail close to the track, so known. It was a 93+ hr trail, and while I prefer to run blind to double blind trails over known, there is a prudence in running known/technical trails to help 'clean up' areas where the dog may be 'cheating' the scent. Also, I had no other way to lay the trail but to walk it with the young subject...so sagacity got pushed on me; a known trail it would be and almost 3/4 mile in length. I usually prefer longer trails for conditioning and 'nose time' for the dog, but snow has its own conditioning program and I was very glad it wasn't longer by the end of it.
I had run a trail with my boy just a few minutes prior, same conditions, a bit shorter in length (a half mile), but the snow for his trail was quite cooperative. Even a scary river crossing over ice groaning under the burden of our trespass, had good tidings. My boy was in great form, and while his start took a moment to acquire the DOT, he was keen on every turn and sage in his decisions. He was a little less thrilled to find a jacket instead of a human, but the owner of said jacket was still in school, so I gave the goodies and praise, and he was content. So why I expected my girl's trail to go as blissfully you can understand...fate is ironic..
My girl was harnessed in the car and driven to the PLS, her gentle whines of excitement being the only clue she was raring to go. Out of the car she plopped and had DOT before I even scented her or had the line clipped. I chased after her, the caribener primed in my hand and ready for attaching. She found the shoe, her scent article, and out of character, gave it a light toss reminiscent of her brothers antics. She glanced to the right, where the trail would ultimately drift, and I knew her ability to deduce odor deposits and its source might draw her to the end before we even began, so I held the line until she returned to the original DOT and committed to it. A, "Good girl" followed quickly, encouraging her to pledge her efforts to the trail before her. My girl can be very 'clean' and run a trail close to the actual track, but she is very adept at circumventing a trail and leaping to the strongest source of a scent, an intelligence based gamble that usually has us find the subject in record time. But I wanted to 'clean up' some of this behavior, as it can lead to some scary problems down the road if allegience to the odor is not present, or you lose track of where the odor trail is actually at and can't get back to it. She swore her loyalty to the path before her and dove into the odor with luxury, dropping close to the river with a moments pause before heading up the low hill and across the pasture.
The begnning of the trail felt solid, the snows deceptive firmness was obedient in its buoyancy of my weight, a good sign. It wasn't more then a few seconds after this assessment of the snow that my girl suddenly disappeared before me. Once a view of a shepherd butt, tail tight and stride steady, and suddenly nothing. I wasn't too far behind her and came across a crumpled ball of fur trying to disassociate itself with the snowy trap she had fallen into. With a skill far my superior, she extracated herself with an upwards bound and shook, a neat teepee of snow still perched on her nose. "You ok girl?" My concern was brushed off as my girl continued forward, if not a bit more cautiously. My vigilence was raging and each step was tentative and said with a prayer. I followed my girl into a summer camp ground area now deserted, the rocks laid in a ring for a campfire wore their snow caps well. As we went further into the treeline, the snow became much softer causing each step to drive my leg into the snowy depths like a posthole digger. This happenstance of course placed drag on the line for it was no small feat to stay upright and moving forward. My girl however, felt my lugging bodys weight coupled with her own struggles to stay aloft the snow, and promptly stopped and gave me 'the look.' This is the one she wears often when she is made to help haul my lumbering frame up a steep hill. It clear says "Come on now, I'm doing all the work..What part of 'team' is not understood?" I make my apologies to her as I plunge once more mid thigh deep into the snow. Her disgruntled look is quickly replaced by surprise as the snow gives way beneath her tush, and she drops silently into the white grave - the tips of her ears are all I see. I would laugh, but I know my time is coming, this stuff is teacherous!
My girl springs out and lands on equally deceitful snow and disappears once more. I feel my heart rate climbing in the exertion being applied and am quite grateful this is the last trail for the day. With grand effort, we both make it to where tree roots and a canopy of pined limbs have united together to keep the snow out - or at least not as deep. My girl is still working well, I can see her stop and test the wind, do a small cast and reaquire the track before us. Our grace period of shelter is quickly over and we once again step onto the weaselly snow, so quick to draft your confidence by being firm and steady for a few yards before dousing your trust with cold soggy whiteness. I know the fire road is only a few yards further and my girl has already summitted the deep cast off the snow plows have created. A few more disjointed strides and I too have made it to safety..for now..
On the road, my girl pauses and I can see her working both sides of her nose; a trait I so admire in the dog - the ability to use each side of their nostrils independently and determine the freshest scent. She chooses the right and trots along the road a ways, which is correct, and while she looks to the left and the treeline, she maintains the road which I am glad. I know the path the subject took, and it was in the treeline not more then the 30 or 40 ft from the road, but it was in deep and super soft snow, not what I want to do..At a bend in the road, my girl opts to go to the left and over some gravelly burms grandly adorned with snow, made to keep off road vechicles out. She climbs over them with an ease I envy, my ascent is less then graceful, especially the ending of the last burm. I have about two more steps before being flush with the ground but I know how deep the snow is and want to be careful how I make my last step. My girl , who can conveniently displace her weight over a broader range having four legs instead of two, is not in the least bit ready to pause while I discern placement of my feet. I feel the hard pull just as I select placement, but the pull is so strong it overshoots my selection and my foot comes down exactly where I didn't want to go - and I sink to waist deep. But that isn't the end, her momentum is such that it yanks my upper body forward, the mock firmness giving way to a hollow honey combed type snow cave which my face and torso descend into.
For those of you who have never tried to get out of snow that has no buoyancy and is especially deep, there is no purchase you can get hold of to aid yourself out of the predicament. My left leg is trapped in the snow behind me, snow I might add that has just enough strength to effectively hold my leg there well. My upper half is submersed in a cold coffin, my left arm as always, is tucked close to my body for protection, but my right arm is extended forward due to the pull of the line - which has now stopped (perfect timing, not). Every attempt made to push myself up out ofmy snow tomb is to drive my arm further into the depths and add snow cascading into my jacket and down my shirt. The humor in this is not lost on me, and I find myself laughing even while the ludicrosity of my situation is being processed and I recognize the seriousness of my predicament. I am quite effectively stuck in my snow crypt, carefully preserved until spring when my half frozen form will be found in a contorted shape, the line still clutched in my chilled fist. The image of this has dual effect: a maniacal laughter erupts from me, even as snow falls into my mouth - the image I have seared into my mind is proposterously funny, in a morbid and finale way. The second action is to galvanize my girl into movement; she leans into her harness and I am quite productively furrowed through the snow and out of my sink hole. Good girl! Good Girl!!
My first visual is of snow falling from the sky, as if it were to fill in the little trap my body now dug up. I roll over and smile at my girl who seems quite pleased with herself, and anxious to finish the trail... I both love her one track mind, and am annoyed by it. I push the near death experience from my mind and carefully find enough purchase to get to my feet.. A narrow path lays before us carefully guarded by trees on either side. Thankfully, the snow is quite a bit more solid and both of us can make strides forward with less effort. At a Y, my girl picks the left side (correct) and heads uphill, deer tracks are evident. I observe these carefully, for where the tracks are light imprints in the snow I know I am probably safer to walk close to, but where the imprints sink deep, I avoid like the plague. This works for awhile until my leg punchs through the unforgiving snow and is trapped there like in concrete. I quite literally can't get my leg out, and when my girl pulls I feel my leg is going to break. "WAIT!" I practically scream, the urgency not mistaken by my girl who promptly stops and sits..good girl. With intricate twists and shakes of my sunken leg, I manage to work it out of the pit and tentatively test my knee; it functions. I don't want anymore of these steps, they hurt!
Once again, I find myself wondering why I am doing this.. I love SAR, and I especially love trailing. I could give quite the soliloquy of the virtues of both and my devotion, however... Battling the physical difficulties I am faced with daily, the pain (which is constant), the frustration in finding track layers to keep dogs and person ready for 'the call'. These are hardships I take in stride , although not always gacefully, but what chaps my hide more (at times), is not having the tools to do what is necessary, effectively. Snow shoes, a useful tool for only one season, and that only occassionally, is now of utmost importance. They ae are other "MUST GET" items on mylist for SAR, but snow shoes are currently at my number one spot! A side rambling: For those interested in doing SAR, please know that it is a very admirable desire and gratifying in many ways. It is also a very expensive endeavor: to save a persons life for free, is a definite misnomer. We pay for everything: all equipment, gas, wear and tear, trainings, missions, classes to learn how to save a persons life, etc everything.. For those flush with money, perhaps not such a big sacrifice, for those like myself who have to save for months to get any piece of equipment, more so... So suddenly being in a situation where not having the proper tools to do the job, like snow shoes, is now being driven home with great force.. rant done :)
My girl leads me to the top of he hill and I wait breathless, literally.. That was a steep hill with mean snow bent on holding me there forever. She pauses and heads to her right, down a hill and to open pasture. To our left is a treed mound, and surrounding the pasture are trees guarding entrance to the gravel road. I watch as my girl catches fleeting tendrils of odor being emitted from the jacket serving as a substitute for my subject. She starts to her left, but opts for the right, but not the hill, no she prefers through the trees, ugh. A few more post holes dug through the snow by my legs, one grand face slamming to the snow, and a few slaps by branches later and we reach the road where a new traitor awaits. My girl, ever before me by 30ft or so, reaches the road first, she takes a few strides into the new white fluff and promptly does a perfect Bambi impression; all four sliding out from under her. ICE!
A true nemesis for all who venture onto her path.. Ice is sneaky and hids in wait, gently cloaked by snow or mud, patiently stalking her kill until the unsuspecting finally arrive.. Unfortunate for my girl who stepped into the trap first, fortunate for me.. I carefully placed my feet and tested each step to make sure I didn't do an encore performance. The jacket lay in a grove of trees next to the river, and my girl bounded up to the area with great delight, only to be disappointed by the clothing and no flesh. She sat by it with a frown, a singular glance at the item told me of her displeasure. For truly the dogs delight is in finding the person, not the clothing.. But I played it up with great pomp and circumstance, treats, praise, pets, all the good stuff.. We carefully made our way back to the car and to my boy who had fogged up all the windows in his waiting. While I do love snow..spring can't come fast enough.. or maybe I just need snow shoes...
Smoke Is Not Fog....
When I moved from CA to where I now reside, I had hopd I had put the nasty wildfires that seemed so prolific in my former state, to rest. But, as with most things in life, you can't outrun problems; they seem to follow you. Thankfully, my current dwelling, while still having fires at times, does not have the smog and staunch dry conditions that SoCal seems to invite. Nevertheless, fires are not my 'cuppa' and learning how to run trails in them was new education, both for me and my dog.
This trail was run when my girl was about thirteen months old and she had been trailing for only a few months. I was training with one of my teams and we had had an extremely dry year; fires were abundant. The smoke in the air was thick and winds were predicted to pick up soon to dangerous speeds. No fires were close to us so we were safe that way, but the fires that burned belched out enough noxious fumes to darken the sky. A teammate had laid a trail for me earlier, so when I arrived ( I got lost getting there, lol) I had a 3hr aged track, which would be double blind. It was about 3/4 miles and I would have a flanker learning to us the GPS.
While I prepared my gear I noticed a group of people standing around chatting away, some a bit familiar from the most recent academy and young looking. Found out they were a part of the ESAR group which is for youth wanting to do SAR. They wanted to accompany me on my trail, and while very nervous at the prospect, I agreed; it would simulate actual trails where more then one flanker is available. I had never had more then one flanker at a time, and that rarely. Couple the stress of the winds, smoke, aging of the double blind trail, and the fact that my subject was away on her own practice air scent problem so I was left waiting her return- a terrible place to be in when you have a vivid imagination, and I felt like a chicken in a pressure cooker.
When the time finally came, and I was notified my subject was in place, I pulled my boy out and tied him to a tree. He was still very young and 'overly enthusiastic', well, resentful is the proper word, when he was left out on a trail...so he took matters into his own paws and destroyed things, like seatbelts. Not cool. As I pulled my girl out and lead her to the PLS, my boys frenetic barking and heavenward leaps serenaded from behind us. I tried to stay focused and dignified, a difficult thing to do when your dog is making an utter and complete fool of himself. Not more then ten seconds after clipping the line to my girl and scenting her, and in the middle of her cast, a black bullet zooms by - air brakes, whirls around and with the goofiest smile plastered on his face, my boy waggles his way towards me. Obviously proud of himself. I hear the sighs behind me coupled with a couple chuckles - I am not happy. I apologize, hand my girl off to my flanker and navigator, grab my darling boys scruff and try not to drag his wiggly frame to gruffly, back to his tree. His death defying leaps had snapped the clip so I had to make do with tying a knot.
Feeling a bit perturbed that his fight for freedom was so quickly squashed, my boy redoubled his efforts, and half way back to the PLS a speeding black dog, with twelve foot of line trailing behind him, bolts by me once more. People, I had about had it... I was fuming and the sparks flying off my body in my rage were about to start another forest fire! Of course my boy did not want to come back to me; he knew what woes were awaiting him. But I am an actress and can turn the charm on pell mell and that is just what I did.. Wooed that sweet little scruffy body to me and once in my possession, fought every evil inclination to choke his cute little brains out. I think he intuitively knew, that or the firey glow in my eyes and steam pouring out of my nostrils, that he had pushed this game a little too far. He trotted by my side like a proper gentleman, sat for the fastidious knot tying that anchored him to the tree, and even refrained from barking and jumping....for thirty full seconds - a record at that time.
Once back to the PLS and my girl in hand, I mumbled a quick apology and cast my girl. The area she crossed over had three trails, and she seemed intent on going straight, but had head pops to her right. The wind seemed to have gotten bolder in its quest to topple anything in its path, but like a child unable to choose which piece of candy to pick in a jar full, it changed directions with equanimity, and force. Blinking hard through the gritty air, I questioned my girl through the line by applying pressure. She leaned into the harness towards the path, but would stop and look to her right. My flanker tried to make heads or tails of the track on her GPS, but being new to the technology, had difficulty finding the track. "Which way girl?" I queried verbally. I was feeling the self induced pressure to perform, and so found myself narrating to the herd following me what my girl was doing.
Post question, my girl turned to the right and pulled hard heading over a leafy hillside that seemed to magically change appearance with every blast of velocitous wind. She made her way to a wide, deeply riveted atv trail and wanted to go down it, but then she would stop and head pop back the direction we came. I reasoned this out with my flanker and those who had not been left behind (my girl moves fast). My flanker, who had now been able to acquire the trail informs me that the track is behind us, and that my girl had the correct DOT in the beginning. She asks if I want more information, and I tell her no, although I do ask if my girl is in odor, because she seems like she is giving me proximity alerts and demanding to go down the hill. She is unable to confirm this, and so, feeling once again the prison of 'necessary' performance, I decide to restart her at the PLS and see what happens.
Mentally I knew, that the winds are wreaking havoc on the odor trail. The smoke in the air is thick, and is actually compromising the GPS's ability to grab a signal, (which factors into the latter debriefing and understanding of what happened) and I know my girl is getting hot and dry - not good for keeping a scent trail viable. Even with this knowledge, and the judicious cognizance that my girl was young and new to this level of difficulty, I found myself battling the self beratment that I assumed I would receive from others. Unbelievably stupid how easily ego can creep in and rob you of good sense and judgment. The conditions were insanely difficult for the most experienced dog, let alone a green one, but I suddenly had my self esteem wrapped up into my dogs performance, but wouldn't listen to what she was saying..Believe me, this was an important lesson learned - and one I hope I don't repeat again.
Back at the PLS, my girl once again selects a forward trail, but this time, despite a head pop to the right, she continues on forward and seems to have 'grabbed' the trail. She works through the trees and up and over hills, giving beautiful negatives when the trail doesn't continue in one direction (despite some drift scent which she would stop and look that direction before abandoning it) and guiding us along a deer path. My flanker chirps in when it seems like we are 'off' the track...she is doing her job, but my job was to listen to my dog, and I wasn't doing it very well. She would head popped to the atv road, which seemed very close to us often, but a word from my flanker about where the track was, and I would dismiss the head pop for the 'known' information. The group behind us had thinned, and I radioed back to make sure all was ok, it was...my girl just covered territory fast.
It wasn't very long before a sudden proximity alert and the speed picked up, my girl pulled so hard I could barely stay on my feet, and I could hear my flanker begging me to slow down.. I tried.. I didn't have any speed governor on my girl yet, so I literally had to 'drop bum to ground' and anchor myself to get her to stop. Out of breath but alive, my flanker caught up, and told me we weren't on trail anymore, but she believed we might be close to the subject. Another solid blast of wind had my eyeballs feel like they had dried out of their sockets, and I was motivaed enough to shake ego off and trust my dog -she was in odor. Once back on my feet, my girl plunged into her breast collar and drug me down a hill, sharp left, and along another atv trail that ran perpendicular to the original one. At the junction where they met, she stopped and glanced up the first atv trail, doubled back and jogged back about 200ft , turned to the right and crashed through some brambles (boo) and practically landed on top of her subject! The cheers I sent up (and my flanker) were loud but subdued by the aggressiveness of the winds own oratory, which was becoming deafening. Bathed in praise and goodies, my girl sat proudly, beaming up at me - my heart swelled, even as I felt the prickles of guilt for doubting her.
Upon debriefing, it was found that my girl was 100% correct wanting to go down the first atv road. My subject, who had difficulty getting her GPS to pull up the track, could not find where her end spot was, so rather then contaminate the track, she walked down the fire road to get back to her end spot, which was moved from the original end spot.. Thus, the freshest track, was indeed the atv trail. My girl tried to tell me this, but I was so worried about 'being right' and 'on the track' that I ignored her, usurping her talents for my own 'knowledge.' In trailing, it is very true, that a little knowledge can cause alot of harm.. Thankfully, this trail turned out well and my girl did great, both on the 'fresh' track, and the original trail, which she was very close to being on top of. I learned alot and unfortunately, still have to battle the ego demon that pops up at the worst times.. I am getting better though, and listen to my dogs more, learning to read them much better has helped immeasurably, and our relationship has grown immensely.
The dog is Willing..The body is Weak..
The first time I trailed with my dog, my first GSD Lishka, I was hooked. I was training with her for SAR in another state. She was awesome and I loved her dearly. Just before we could test for certification I moved and she passed on suddenly not long after. It took many years to finally get back to a place where I could train and do SAR. Still, it is not unhampered by problems. I have a serious condition with my left arm that causes constant pain and swelling; sometimes the swelling so severe it requires surgery for it to abate. So it is a continual battle to find the energy and drive to train - knowing the cost could be quite severe. It is however, one of the few things that brings total edification; knowing that the training done could (will) result in the aiding or saving of someone's life. That is a risk well worth taking and a price paid with great returns.
The day this trail took place was a 'bad arm' day. I really wasn't in the mood to trail because I hurt and the spasms in my arm foretold a night of misery. I did however, have some wonderful track layers who had taken the time to lay me aged trails in the deep snow, now covered in even deeper snow, and they were only available for that day. So I would run the trail.. My poor boy drew the short end of the straw and got stuck with me and this trail. His effervescent spirit bubbled out of the car as he leaped into the snow with grandeur. "Come here you goof," I said trying to hide the smile that inevitably creeps up when dealing with my boy. The usual struggle of saddling a writhing snake of a dog followed along with my boys barks of jubilation for each clip and buckle made. This was a single blind trail, about 3/4mile in length at it was a very cold day - about 4F with a bracing 8mph wind from the northeast. Snow was in abundance this year and we would be working in knee deep soft snow for the duration of the trail.
"Find her," key words to start the dog were uttered. The scent article is sent flying in the air; a tradition my boy has started in his elation to work that I have difficulty breaking him of. He casts himself a wide circle, mostly because he has energy to spare and less because he needs to, and selects DOT (direction of travel). He bounds through the snow like an Ibex leaping to new perches, not linear, but definitely purposeful and unique. I find myself mesmerized and delighted by his antics for I know he is working odor in his own idiosyncratic way. I trudge behind him, mentally testing my endurance for the days work ahead. He ducks under a wood fence blocking atv travel and heads up a hill. An occassional pause, nose in the air, perhaps a tickle of odor temps him from the trail before him, but he opts to maintain his direction and I yield to his expert abilities of scent.
We travel up a hill, turn right at what might be an old atv trail and summit another steady incline. My boy is having fun and picks up his pace - something I am a bit abhorrent to do as each jar is sending stabbing pains through my arm. I know I am a bit gruff when I tell him to slow down, but he flips his tail and beams me a smile and continues forward, a little less pull in the harness. At a junction between three trails, he casts himself to the left, doubles back and bounds forward on the path we have been following. Some overgrown branches, doubled over by the burden of the snow block our way - well, it blocks mine. My boy ducks under smoothly avoiding the cold deposits that will surely annoint my head when I go under; and they do with grand ceremony, rebounding back to their summer position above the ground. "Nice," I mumble as I shake off the frosty fluff adorning my hat and jacket, trying to dislodge it before it takes a trip down my shirt. We continue on down the path that seems to be narrowing into obscurity with lightning speed.
Another desicion point: trees in abundance before us, trees in abundance to the right of us but with a hill, which of course he chooses. I follow obediently if not a bit crabby. The branches are obnoxious and seem intent on stabbing my eyeballs out and using them for oranaments. A particularly precocious tree even gooses me while I pass by. My boy is weaving through the trees with intent and while I am observing him as best I can, alot of my atention is on not getting snagged, stabbed, scratched, or ripped up by naked limbs and boughs. When we get to the bottom of a gully, I feel the odd sensation of being disoriented and the first bubbles of panic are snuffed out soundly by frustration. It seems like we weave our way through the same trees a dozen times. The final straw for my shortening temper is when a sneak attack from a pine tree snags my jacket and pulls me back with such force, my feet fly in front of me and I land on my can in a deep drift of snow. A primal yell of utter contempt erupts from deep within and my normal analytical mind is dismissed in lieu of a raging monster of vexation. Even while I am doing it I am hating myself and chastising myself for my behavior. Once my tantrum is done (so embarrassed) I look for my boy who is sitting quietly, if not a bit amused by his mistresses outburst - or perhaps because of the amount of snow I have all over me causing me to look like a sasquatch in winter attire.
Composure reaquired (for the time), I speak quietly to my boy, "Find her..please, quickly." I know I have pushed my limits for self containment, the pain in my arm has robbed me of any semblance of equanimity and I am compromised. I have worked through pain for well over a decade and I am usually adept at knowing my limits and avoiding them. The desire to utilize the very limited resources of trail layers has put me in a dangerous position. I take a moment to pray, asking for the Lord's help in keeping the volcanic emotions so near the surface, buried. I feel the peace only He can give rush over me, and since I have to make my way out of this nightmare one way or the other, I conclude it best to finish the trail. With the decision made, my boy launches off...back into the freaking trees! I stifle the immediate anger I feel and exchange it for a laughter nearing hysteria (not really, but it felt like it). About the time we are skirting the side of a steep hill like a mountain goat, I have once again reached the confines of stable thought. I have been watching my boy work the odor. I've even let go of the line numerous times as he worked through low hanging copses of trees hell bent on hurting my arm. This of course backfired on me because the line would inevitably get snagged, causing me to go in after him anyways. Cogent thought says he is working odor well; leave him to do his job. Unfortunately, pain and my tittering endurance usurps rationality, and as I am about to stop my boy and hand walk us out of there, my eyes land on something out of place... a scarf.
I must admit, this is not an easy trail to confess. My failures as a handler and partner for my dog are glaring and pronounced. The truth is, these type of trails happen to all of us at some point. Somehow, we get compromised and our ability to handle even the simplest difficulties seems monumental, if not impossible. I had inadvertently put myself in one of these moments. My body did not want to cooperate, and my emotional stability abandoned me when needed most. Now, here, in front of me is proof positive my boy is working his heart out, despite my outbursts and his sensitive nature. That scarf brought me face to face with the monster I was dealing with inside and gave me a good spanking. I deserved it..
"Good boy!!!!" These words gushed out over and over. My boy shrugged it off and continued on his way, perhaps with a bit more pep in his step. He brought us along the side of the hill, of which I slid down numerous times. The first couple of times I chided myself with a 'you deserve that' outlook. The next couple of times the good humor got bounced out and my ever present short fuse and vitriol went out on the mountain (I will apologize to it the next time I see it ;) ) and the logs I came in contact with. Back up a hill we went, once again I am diappointed by my boy whose ancestroy is known for pulling heavy sleds, seems remiss to aid me up the mountain. He feels more pull then normal on the harness, and he stops and smiles at me, patiently waiting for me his bumbling elephant mama to catch up. Not cool!
Once atop, he continues forward, occassional head pops to the right tell me where we will end up at some point. My flagging energy seems to be absorbed by him, and his pace increases to a jog. I've mumbled and grumbled my way to this point and I figure it would be wrong to quite now, so I mutter under my breath and shout encouragement to my boy intermittently. A sharp right has us at the summit of a very steep incline. My boys perked ears and taunt body tell me his subject is somewhere at the base. I envision myself tumbling down the hill, pin balling between the trees, perhaps being enveloped by the snow into a giant snow ball like the cartoons. I think I am delirious, lol.
The gift of a second wind envelopes me, and we start down the hill. The snow gives way beneath my feet and certain points, actually has a wave like effect that pushes my boy further forward. It would be funny if watching from a safe vantage point - not so funny when that 'push' of snow and momentum puts a pull on the line and drags me forward faster. Not sure how I stayed upright (thank you Lord), but we hit the base and I let go of the line; my boy was suddenly pulling hard and hauling freight! A little ravine lay before me and as hard as he was pulling, I knew I would land face first in it if I didn't 'free him'. He raced across, flew over the ravine, and turboed his way to a grove of trees a hundred meters away. Cheers went up and my boy was handsomely rewarded with treats and love. I wearily made my way over and rubbed his head, kissed his nose and self flagullated myself verbally. GPS comparisons showed we did not go around in circles at all, so my feelings of disorientation were accurate..the only feelings I could trust that day haha
Each trail holds a learning component, if we allow it and are observant. Some lessons are easily learned and applied, others take a rude awakening and alot of self discipline to overcome. I always have to be careful. Constant pain has a way of making nerves raw and depleting energy reserves. While this type of trail is rare, it is one that I remind myself never to repeat - if possible. No residual effects were left on my boy.. he is as gregarious and self confident as always, and works with the same delight and joy each trail...now to get him to pull me up hills...
Tarantulas In the Forest...
The summer months where I live can get hot. The sun is relentless in its quest to erase any memory of a cold winter. The farmers growing crops are delighted, and often can get many harvests in one season. The lakes warm up from their frigid temps and beckon all sorts of water sports to be had on their bountiful shore. Unfortunately, running behind trailing dogs is a heat generating exercise for both quadraped and human aike. I try to work where fresh bodies of water abound so the dogs can cool themselves, that is not always a possibility - so I carry an oceans worth of water with me where ever I go (great for conditioning, horrible for conserving energy). The mountains are my refuge. They hold rivers, creeks, and ample shade with a damp coolness that is refreshing. They also hold hornets, wasps, bees, bears, mountain lions (thankfully none I have seen), and a wood armada bent on destroying my shins and face... I love the woods :)
This trail day started like most - somehow, my dogs 'know' they are going to run trail and hound me everywhere I go. Go to the bathroom in private? NEVER! Drink coffee with peace? That is a joke! They usually pester me enough that I rush through my usual chores just to get some peace in the car...for a time. Windows down blasting warm air into their nostrils, ears blown back by the speed and excitement that the destination we are going to holds for them. But as we approach familiar territory, or the blinker from the turn signal clicks a leave from the highway to an off ramp, the whining and pacing begins. My boy is the first to start the song, slowly crescendoing into a whine that sounds like a cooing dove with piercing octaves of sharp chirps intermittent. My girl, never to be outdone, begins with a slow barely audible whine which climbs in volume to finally harmonize in perfect pitch with my boy. There are permenant indentations on my steering wheel from the grip my fingers make.. Funny at times, annoying mostly, my 'singers' are loud and obnoxious...
Upon arrival this warm late summer day, both dogs are worked on HRD (human remains detection) and my boy runs a trail that deserves a reminisce all his own - but not today. This retelling is of my girl and the trail I found out how limber I am..or need to be... It would be a slightly aged trail no more then an hour or two, about a mile and a half in length and with a fellow SAR K9 handler as her subject. So basically, I knew it would be a great trail :) I harnessed my girl well away from the PLS general area (I wanted to practice walk ups to unknown exact PLS). As is her typical fashion, the moment she gets out of the car she has her nose to the ground and is 'searching,' detailing the ground and taking inventory of the smells. She takes her work very seriously. About 75ft from the PLS I scent her and begin to cast her, but a sneaky breeze undermines my attempts and tantilizes her nose with her subjects odor and direction of travel (DOT) and she leans into the harness hard and heads down the grassy embankment. Mentally, I gird myself for the arduous trail I have before me; the ground is uneven, fallen trees and branches block entrance to the forest but I know that won't stop my girl. She pulls to the right and finds a slight opening between trees and branches, deftly hops and ducks under the intertwined debris and is on the other side of the barracade before I can get to the opening. "Wait girl, wait." My permenant mantra is chanted as I untangle the line from protuding branches and the maze she has navigated through. I am quite pleased with myself for extruding myself in rapid time, from the barrage of sticks, limbs and branches that had blocked my way. This might be an easier day then I thought. Ah, such is the imagination in blissful moments..
Deeper into the forest my girl worked the odor. Occassional pauses as she tasted the wind, confirming a direction or nixing another. The heat that had been our ever present pest is now reduced to a memory as the cool damp forest swathes us in shadows, the ground filled with moisture from creeks gossipping of the snows they once were. My girl continues her steady jog through the trees (with the pauses necessary for my clumsy navigation) and up and down the hills trailing to an opening and what looks like a path. As soon as she head pops to the right and I see the trail, I know speed is coming.. You can almost hear the turbo charged engines she keeps cloaked until appropriate times, revving up in the stillness of the forest. I don't think my feet hit the path before the pull had me long jumping the last ten feet down the slope and onto the trail. The dank woods expand the odor trail and fill her with drive for her prey. Since the path is quite clear of eye gouging branches and knee smacking sticks, I allow the speed to increase to a very fast jog for me - she wants to go faster but experience tells me this would be bad. The difference in light in the forest compared to the open pastures is startling; one might think it was evening and not midday. As my girl leads me along the mossy passage, my eyes scan the area, the line telegraphs my girls actions and I want to see where we are. A dark and hairy outline on a tree brought me up short. My girl strained hard in her tack to move forward, but my eyes had locked onto something my imagination exploited with great delight.
In the dark shade of the trees, thin streams of finger like rays beamed from the sun forced their way in only to be gobbled up by the heavy shadows surrounding us. I blinked hard, trying to gain a clear view of what held my focus so intently. Rationality tried to bang through the shivers of fear and apprehension that raced up and down my spine and made me grow roots in the forest floor. My girl turned and looked at me with a questioning cock of her head. I waited for movement from the black hairy limbs I saw spread so menacingly on the tree - the things was freaking huge! I looked around me with a sudden realization that if there was one, there would be more. Again, judicious thoughts pried their way thru the terror I felt and gained entry, slowly my mind pieced reality back together.. We don't have giant tarantulas or spiders where we live, I theoried. It isn't moving...I don't live in the Amazon, so giant spiders aren't possible...Are they? That last thought stopped the slow creeping forward I had begun as my courage was slowly bolstered. Once more I absorbed every detail of the hairy being. My girl kept hard pressure on the line and I knew she wanted to continue on her quest, but I cound not shake the unbiddened images of an 18" spider leaping for my face as we passed by.
A deep breath, a quick prayer and I moved closer, my eyes never leaving the monster of my mind. Peripheral vision told me my girl was turning due to a head pop, right towards the freaking creature! It honestly took all I had not to pull her up and circumvent this fear by a large margin. Instead, I hitched my big girl pants up and followed her right by the...... Ok, It wasn't a gigantic spider, haha, it was an odd shaped black moss.. Ha ha, forest played a practical joke on me and I fell for it, hook line and sinker. Relieved, I followed my girl up the little path, over the creek, thru the squishy marsh that tried to suck my boot off (yay, not) and back onto dry land. A couple quick glances back to make sure the moss monster wan't truly following us, and I was satisfied to pick up the pace to my girl swinging trot.
I began to enjoy the trail again even if the speed was a bit fast for me to endure long. I notice some strewn logs a short ways before me and quickly do the mathmatical equations necessary to time my stride perfectly, enabling me to bound and land over each obstacle in perfect fashion. The first log was beautiful and I praised God for the ability of the body and amazing powers of the mind. The second log came up a little faster then expected and required me to take off a little further then planned, my girl seemed to be building up speed with each jump, so her momentum through the line actually aided in my telemetry and landing. The last log lay before us, and already I knew I wasn't in position to deftly jump it, so when the time came, I jumped atop the log and...
Ok, here is where it all fell apart.. Actually, it probably happened years before this imminent moment as it required the exact placing of moss, moisture, and my footfall, coupled with my girls momentum and tug at the line. As my foot landed on the slippery-slimmy-varnished log, it slide laterally to the left side - how this is possible, I don't know, as I was going forward, not sideways - but sideways it went. I knew I was in trouble when everything went perpendicular to me, but I had no control, just the realization of impending doom and a painful outcome. I pulled my left arm into me as tight as possible, the one thing I have had years of experience in guarding and do with automatic response, as my right arm extends in front of me I am propelled forward (the correct direction I might add) as my girl drags me along like a lead balloon. As gravity calls me to earth I am quite aware that my head is in the position to impact the ground first, not a delightful thought, so I arch my back as much as possible figuring my chest can absorb the impact. The sudden force of earth meeting body is quite brutal, even without much altitude, although I believe I gained a few feet in my oblique slide on the log, the concussion caused my teeth to clack together and my vision to blur. In the split second of time from impact to thought, I actually believed I had survived quite well - my arm was protected which is always of huge importance, and I was still concious, this was a premature conclusion - the thought that I had survived well, as the impetus was not yet quite concluded. My girl was still pulling, despite the dead weight behind her, and that force was enough to allow my legs, which I guess had been still suspended in midair whilst I did a head stand, now came back over the top of my arched back and soundly kicked me in the back of the head. If that weren't enough, and I believe it was more than enough, I was then drug several feet in that 'wheel' position by my ever loyal-to-the-scent dog!
I am not sure what caused my locomotive canine to cease her pull, but when she did, my body, having been in a back bend position, now came back to rest on the good ol' terra firma, without ceremony, and with pain. I truly am not to sure what transpired after this point. I imagine I rolled over and spit moss out, did a systems check, reboot the ol' noggin' and assessed the damage, I am here after all, something went right. I do remember ambling along a 'path,' a bit foggy brained and pulling dirt out of my bra, and mumbling things about my traiterous girl who had absolutely no problem resuming the trail despite my mishaps. To her credit, when I stopped to recalibrate my neck, she came over and licked my hand, her gentle eyes rolled up to me in such a way I couldn't stay mad - a kind gesture, and probably her way of saying she was sorry for my clumsiness.
We conntinued up a hill and to a path that looked like atv's used on occassion. My girl swung to the right, her tail tightly curled signalling a proximity alert. She gently leaned into the harness, and when I was delayed in picking up speed, she didn't pull harder, although the tension through the line was evident; she wanted to make the find, now! I practiced a jog, and sense a rhythm came, I continued with it along the road, down a hill, around a bend, and when she darted into the treeline - I let go... I learn from my mistakes - the ones I can remember at least. A few meters in and the loud praises of a subject found broke the shroud of silence, warm rays of sunlight doused any shadows and my girl proudly sat for her treats. My friends questioning look told me she knew something happened. A smile lurked beneath the trained concern she tried to offer, but some laughter leaked out anyways. I had moss in my hair, mud in streaks on my shirt and pants, and even my teeth held a few prized pieces of grit and silt. I relayed the story to her, the parts I could remember, and a good laugh was had by all - especially the tarantula part.
The Blair Witch Forest Trail...
As I went through the site correcting typos (yes I know there are still more - they seem to magically appear) I realized there seems to be a running theme of injury to my body. You aren't getting the whole picture, because there are hundreds and hundreds of trails to choose from - but usually, the funniest or most interesting come from some happenstance and misfortune to me. Well, for all you trailers out there, you know the terrain we cover, that where the dog goes we go, which means into some painful areas sometimes. It is what we sign up for when we begin trailing with our dogs, especially for deployment. Thankfully, and by the good Lord's protection, no serious injuries have (or will ever) occur.
An interesting thing can occur when out in the woods, even in areas we are familiar with - it can happen without warning and leaves you disoreinted. The sudden feeling that all is wrong and the woods have changed on you. Known landmarks suddenly seem different and 'not right', no matter what direction you view them from. Itdoesn't usually last long before the ol' brain box kicks into gear and rationality returns. This odd phenomenon is extra spooky when trailing behind a dog, in winter.
It was in late December and the arctic winds had decided to winter here. A high of 0F was to be the temperature this trail would be run in, with a nice frigid 8mph wind from the SSE to add the motivation to keep moving and stay warm. It was an 18hr aged trail, about 3/4 mile long and blind. My boy had drawn the short straw and this was to be his trail (he loved it actually, I was haunted by it for quite some time after). The PLS was by a vacant campsite nestled comfortably by the river and surrounded by forest. Mountains to the east and west guarded this spot from much sunlight during the dead of winter.
I opened the door of the car and my boy leaped out and face first into the snow. when he re emerged, he wore a beard Santa Claus would be proud of. A stiff shake, a pause, a quick roll in the deep snow, shake again, and my boy is ready for harnessing. Not my favorite thing to do with him because he is such a wiggle worm and requires me to take my gloves off to 'dress him.' "Hold still you turkey," comes my frustrated plea, it is met with eyes so bright and warm the snow melts a little; my boy loves this game. Final buckle of the line to harness and my boy dives for the scent article, tosses it high, and with baited breath that is left frozed in the air with the cold, he heads towards the trees lining the river. I am relieved, I was so not wanting to climb mountains in these temps.
He heads across a pasture and into the trees that seem to have formed a nice little opening to pass through cleanly. It is a nice pace, the snow is about 18" deep and I marvel at the beauty that is frozen on the trees. It had snowed the night before and any footprints made by creatures travelling through the area, now looked like little snow dome topiaries - useless for clues. My boy didn't care, he was in good odor and working well. He headed to a fork in the path; to the right was the river and to the left a deeper entrance to the forest. He headed to the right and I braced myself for some river hopping, but a quick negative and he doubled back to the left. I knew this area produced alot of morning fog/mist, so heavy at times you couldn't see but a few feet in front of you. That moisture laden area can carry odor a good distance and generate scent pools to confound your dog. I hoped the cold aided in preventing this scenario this time.
I was led on what seemed like could be a path in summer, along the river for a bit, before my boy turned left and headed into the woods. While it was deep snow, it was fairly easy to move through in its powdery state, and I could feel myself warming up nicely under my layers.. I smiled as I watched my boy work - he was made for this weather what with his malamute and german shepherd heritage. He jogged lightly through the drifts and pulled hard under a heavily laden tree. I ducked under deftly and as my head popped into the clearing, this gracious tree decided its burden was too heavy to maintain any longer and kindly shed its load onto me. The yummy warmth I was enjoying was quickly replaced by the icy fingers of snow down my shirt all the way to my belt line. The snow closest to my body immediately melted and cascaded down my back into my pants, while the outer layer of snow quickly froze itself to the inside of my shirt. A whoop of biblical proportions escaped my lungs, before they froze, and I pranced like a show pony trying to shed the protective layers that were now doing a good job at keeping the snow close to my freezing body. Forget dignity or pride, cue striptease music because I was stripping down fast! The brumal air actually felt warm on my skin compared to the glacier I had in my shirt. Some stiff shakes and the snow was dislodged, and the rapid redressing commenced. This time I made sure to batton down every area the snow could try to hide.
As I shook out the snowman worth of snow in my hoodie I glanced over to my boy who had been patiently waiting for me.. In fact, he was rather enjoying the show! His merry eyes danced with laughter at my antics. "You think this is funny, don't you?" A false sneeze to hide the laughter he was doing was enough to unload a limb above his head. Moments later and my boy was imprisioned in a tomb of snow. He leaped straight up and shook, a shocked look on his face told me I now had his empathy. "Get to work, boy, I need to warm up" and he was off back on the trail. A maze of trees and little hills took us on a journey into a frozen world of beauty. I loved that most fallen limbs were swathed in snow cushioning any impact from my limbs. My boy swung to the right and down an embankment and into a graveyard of wooden toppled giants. The silence was deafening. Once through the obstacle course of fallen logs, he veered to his left - which I thought odd, but he was in obvious odor, so back into the forest we went.
An eerie sensation began to whittle at my confidence. While I had only been through this area once before, I had been all around it often enough to feel well situated to our location. But as my boy worked out the puzzle of odor, I looked around while atop a rise, and the trees I was seeing seemed to have changed from friendly to malevolent. I strained to hear the river, my conduit to civilization, but all I could hear was the ever louder drumming of my heart. Uninvited images of hanging wooden characters akin to the Blair Witch forest traipsed through my mind shattering my calm. I felt the pull of my boy to head west, back into the nefarious woods. It honestly, took all my courage to follow and I found myself praying for protection from the unseen forces that so quickly replaced a fun trail and turned it into a nightmare. My boy did not seemed ruffled in the least, so I borrowed some of his strength and grit and followed...quickly.
Every rise and descent into what seemed like the exact same grove of trees kept the egregious feeling alive in me. I tried to focus on my dog, who thankfully continued working like he should, faithful to the odor of his quarry. I mentally ticked off the distance we had covered and truly felt like we were doing circle upon circle. Mounting panic bubbled over and replaced rationale thought, and I was prepping to tuck tail and run , when my boy brought me to a familiar tree bowed in the humility of being overburdened by snow. A few yards further and I fully recognized where we were: close to the entrance of the tree line where we started! My boy was leaning hard in the harness and wanted to dive back in...I was still trying to shed the trepidation that encased my heart. But, I am a trailer, so I hitched my big girl pants up and followed...wishing more than anything I had brought a gun, or an army with me.
My boy followed almost the same path as before - including another unloading of snow from my hoodie generously placed by the 'giving tree.' The difference came after the graveyard of fallen giants. As he headed back towards the Blair Witch forest, he head popped to the right and didn't go as deep (yay!) he travelled parallel to the spooky forest and then back towards the river (double yay), thru a few more necropolis of wood behomoths, across a land bridge, over the road, up a hillside and to a 'quick' find of his subject. If my eye lashes weren't frozen over I probably would have cried in relief. What seemed like an eternity and miles of circuitous trails turned out to be 1.21 miles in length (actual trail was .82miles) and forty five minutes long - waaayyy longer then I ever normally run a trail of such short distance, but well within the time frame for the snow, cold, and evil vortex forest. Upon GPS comparison, my boy wasn't all that much off. He did make a loop back to the start, but the way the track was laid - parallel to the odious forest of doom (which had its own creek and valley to 'trap' odor and unsuspecting tourists) and it was obvious he hit a huge scent pool and found the exit trail which was the 'entrance' trail, thus a circle. Once he got back on track he was very close to the actual track laid.
I was very pleased with him, and gave him extra goodies for being so brave. Of course, he just ate the goodies - the Blair Witch didn't want a dog ;)
Watch Out For The Quicksand...
Running trails as often as I do, it is natural to come across a host of different situations, terrains, and adventures. It is one of the things that keeps things so interesting and exciting, for while trailing is amazng in and of itself, it is also a great amount of work and requires an enormous amount of dedication. I try to vary the locations as often as I can, exposing the dogs to as many diffferent climates and territories as possible.
This particular trail was in a national forest, deep into the heart of it with new mysteries and puzzles to solve. It would be a 16hr aged trail, double blind, and began on a crisp and refreshing summer morning. About 45F with the suns warming rays promising a scorcher once the nights coolness was burned from the ground. Birds happily sang while doing morning chores of 'catching' the early worm and house cleaning. My girl had the honors of running this trail and while she retained a cool serene exterior, the vibration in each muscle coiled and ready to go betrayed clearly the excitement she was feeling.
The PLS was in an open pasture surrounded by majestic trees and an ambling river, and the distance of the trail laid was about 1 3/4 miles. The mornings fog was being burnt off by ever stronger rays from the the sun, so I hurriedly got my girl harnessed and ready so we could run the trail in the cool of the morning. A kiss on the bridge of the nose for my girl, and she jumped out of the car ready to be hitched to the line. She had already spied the scent article laying about twenty feet from us, and the twitching of her nose told me she pobably already had DOT. Obedient to the process, she dutifully gave a 'sniff' to the scent article, but it was cursory at best for she was already swinging to her right and the closest tree line that cuddled the river like protective guardians. At the rivers edge she head popped to her right, but a snuffle like sneeze and it was dismissed as a negative, and she continued moving along the rivers edge. A narrow trail made travel fairly easy, and her pace extended to a steady jog; mine was a fast jog, but maintainable. Occassional roots rose from the ground like sea monsters capping the waters surface, we jumped these easily, thankful they were obvious and easy to negotiate, unlike their sneaky stealithy partners. My girl was working the odor with intensity, her tail curled and elevated to just about her back, occassionally a wag let me know odor was concentrated and she was enjoying herself.
The ease of the trail quickly changed with the landscape as my girl turned right and deftly hopped over the deepest pools of the river. This quick action was followed by my shouts of "GOOD GIRL, WAIT!!!" As I tried to find safe passage over the watery depths in front of me. Thankfully, some nice boulders lent their heads to my endeavor and I bounded from one to the other and splashed the last of the way across. Needled limbs greeted my face making it hard to spot my girl at the end of the line. She was able to duck under all the danger, and thus keep a steady pace, that is until she hit the end of the line and felt my anchored body. "Slow down, girl.. I am not getting my eyes poked out." I felt the line slacken as I worked my way through the maze of interlaced tree limbs. My astute girl, once a visual was placed on me, immediately took up the trail again, thankfully slower and with care to her hominid 'mama.' Over the flotsam and jetsam the river had belched out during its flood stages of spring, my girl worked odor that tried to hide in the cool damp cubbies the forest birthed. A second crossing over the river and my girl bounded up the steep embankment like a graceful deer.
Now this is especially where I appreciate the strength and speed of my girl :) She is a work horse in the harness, and while she has helped me to get in tremendous shape, I also wear the battle scars generated by her speed and pulling power. But when going up steep hills, this is an asset for she doesn't shirk the duty of the weight her lumbering partner creates. Rather, she leans hard into the harness and muscles me up...not always gracefully - there are the occassional face plants and nose dives due to her force, but she is always gracious about it - and while she may sit at the top of the summit patiently, she doesn't wear the smile my boy would have that adds insult to injury, even if it is in good fun.
At the top of the incline I am givin barely a gasp of air before she is off in pursuit of her quarrry. We jog a gravel road for about thirty yards before she pulls to the left where a white truck is parked. I wait while she sorts out the new odors, probably fresher then the one she currently pursues, and when she decisively tells me to head up the hill the car is parked at, I don't question it. I know my girl, she is obedient to scent and loyal in her job. Up the hill we go to a wood fence blocking atv's and other motorized vehicles, and back into a canopy of trees. She is pulling a bit harder in the tack and I know we are 'catching up' in the trail. We continue down another path strewn with little boulders exposing their craniums just enough to make footing precarious and she swings right down a gully and then into an open pasture.
The morning is warming up quickly, and at the pace we have been going I have worked up a sweat. I pull my sunglasses down over my eyes to block out the bright rays and enjoy the clear path in front of me... a pleasure short lived. A sudden pull to the left and my girl is heading up a short steep hillside. She, with acute dexterity, navigates the slash and branch debris and summits the hillside. I struggle ducking under one of the branches and as I raise my left leg to step over another log strewn before me, my knee impacts a large bough that seems to magically have appeared. Immediate nausea sweeps over my body as the searing pain kicks the breath out of me. I feel the pull of the line in my hand, which has now become so weak in the fight to control the pain in my knee, I can hardly hold it. I have had surgery on this knee, and have a metal plate in the trochlear groove, which I am sure I just dented and have tree branch impression in it. My girl glances my way awaiting direction. A wave of my hand is about all I can manages, and she takes this as instruction to continue searching..At this point, I am fine with that.
As the blinding pain resolves itself to diminish to a loud throbbing, I become aware of the rustling above me as my girl works through the scent pool. Her head pops out, and with bright eyes smiling back at me as if to say, "All clear! False alarm," I a tempted to wring her cute little neck. It is a fleeting thought as I know she did her job following the odor, and it isn't her fault I am destined to whack every freaking limb or branch in the forest. She lopes over to me and continues along the river. It is very interesting the keen insight dogs can have of their owners. She knew I wasn't going to be willing, or able, to keep her normal pace, and without any further pressure on the line, she slowed to my disjointed hobble.
She ducks under a few more limbs; me paranoid of anything resembling wood, and started head popping towards the other side of the river. The side we were on was becoming heavily forested with dense branches and fallen logs. At a nice place of the river for me to cross, she skipped over and I splashed across - I wasn't rock skipping with this knee. Up a little bank into a shaded copse of trees, and she disappeared around a corner. I noted that her intensity had picked up, as well as the proximity alerts she was giving, so I wasn't overly aware of how she 'disappeared' around the corner. With relief and pain medication in sight for my wounded limb, I picked up my pace to a jog... Too late did I notice the change in how the ground looked - from solid and secure, to 'light and fluffy'. It took but one step for me to sink hip deep into the bog, my face being given a mud bath most spas would be envious of. Of course there is no traction to get out You put one hand in front of you and it sinks. The realization of my predicament does not stop me from mentally replaying how my girl looked before and after this area..she was clean! That little turkey didn't telegraph through the line that a quagmire of icky sticky mucky mud was awaiting her partner in the next couple of steps.
I have one leg behind me on solid surface, the other hip deep in mud and I am spurting out mud and moss out of my mouth. Comical if it weren't for the fact, that at that moment, my girl decided I had taken long enough (and probably should have jumped the swamp in the first place) and gave a solid pull in the line. I haven't ever water skied before, but I know mud skiing is NOT going to become an olympic event anytime soon. Forget having one leg with any purchase, my girl pulled with such force she drug me pretty much thru and out of the bog. "Wait!!" The one word that is used so often in my workings with her, got choked out. Thankfully, she is loyal - if not impatient. She stopped and sat with a disgusted look on her face at the interruption of her search.
Once again I was at the river, this time it was to scrape off the pounds of mud I had on me. After a thorough washing with icy water, I was more than ready to get back on the trail and warm up. The highlight was that my knee had probably lost some swelling while in the freezing river being washed. "Let's find her" was all that had to be said to send my girl back into the copse and onto the trail. Another couple tenths of 'uneventful' (the kind I like) mile and hidden in a ditch guarded by tall strong trees, and my girls quarry is found. One glance at me is all it took to send peels of laughter through the forest from my sister. I have a good sense of humor, but I honestly wasn't feeling very generous at the moment. My knee throbbed and my mouth tasted like lichen and moss. A chagrined smile was about all I could come up with.
My girl ate her goodies with pride; she did deserve them. The walk back was slow, with giggles interjected by a tickled tracklayer whenever a moan escaped my lips. I usually run both dogs the same day, but was exceptionally happy that this was a one dog day. A shower, ibuprofin and bed was my reward.
Blind Leading the Blind.....
Personally, the most frustrating part of trailing, especially with a SAR (Search and Rescue) objective, is finding willing participants to lay trail. Few understand the magnitude of this important roll and assume any distance, area, aged or hot trail is enough to further a dogs education, or at the very least, keep them sharp and ready. When a willing contributor of scent avails themselves, it is appreciated and received with excitement. Often though, the volunteer is unable to follow even the simplest of instructions, and makes what would have been a technical trail or single blind trail into a 'real world' 'find the lost' double blind with, backtracks, loops, scent pools, and unending brambles or other obstacles of danger. While the willingness to help is always received with gratefulness, it often consternates what could have been a peaceful trail.
I have two sisters that came to us through the foster system. They are a wonderful part of our family and have been key assets in trail laying for me. Most of the time, their willingness (especially one in particular) to sacrifice their time and energy towards such a noble cause, has generated many a wonderful trail and learning experience. However, they are funny birds, and think alike in the oddest ways, reversing directions specifically requested by me for training, and making decisions that leave most scratching their heads as to the 'why.' That being said, they probably lay some of the most 'real' life scenario trails I could imagine...
On a warm summer day both girls decided to lay a trail for my girl. Emboldened by each others company they boasted of giving me a trail I would be proud of and ventured off happily chatting away in their 'sister code' language. This trail would only be an hour or so old when run and was double blind (I had absolutely no idea which way they went, how they got to where they ended, or where that spot was). At the appropriate time I arrived at the PLS (place last seen) and began my routine of gathering equipment, setting up GPS for trail comparison later, setting out scent article (if there is one), and when ready, harnessing the dog and beginning thetrail. The PLS was a large camping area, campsites dotted the area mostly hugging the river that lay behind me. My girl was raring to go, and the moment the line was clipped to her harness she already had DOT (direction of travel) for she was very familiar with the girls odor. Nevertheless, I walked her up to the scent article of the chosen subject and gave her the command to 'find her'and we were off to the races, the one she was intent on winning.
We crossed the main fire road, a head pop to the east (right) forshadowed the direction we would soon follow, while a blast of summer wind swirled dirt in our eyes. With the authority of a confident dog, my girl pulled to the right intent on a steep sandy hill, already my running dialogue with her, something I had begun early on in her training to emulate the chatting, radio squaks and other distractions she would face on an actual mission, began with a, "Really girl? You think these two exerted that much energy? Ok..." I knew my sisters, they were willing - as long as it didn't take much energy, anything physical seemed to quickly be aborted in lieu of the easier route. Nevertheless, my girl didn't know this, or care quite frankly, she pulled with amazing force and headed up the sandy embankment. About thirty feet up, she stopped and nosed the ground intently, a paw at the dirt turned up a shiny but dusty object. "What did you find, girl?" A flip of her nose to my face and a shot of tongue up my nose, so fast and accurate that any quick draw sharpshooter would be proud of, and I can see, albeit through a slobbery haze, that they are glasses - familiar glasses.
"Good girl!" A wag of the tail and she is off up the trail with me frantically flailing behind, trying to stuff the glasses into my pocket and man the line, all with one hand I might add, while running up a steep sandy hill. She was in strong odor and she worked it with a refined finesse that kept me captivated, if not out of breath. We moved up the hillside flanked by trees that reduced the temperature to an enjoyable level. The breeze rustled leaves and occassionally caused my girl to double back a moment on a non discript game trail, but continually moving forward on the windy path.
At the top of the hill, the trail became a bit more snaky and rugged, fallen trees beckoned bruised shins, but did little to impede my girls pace. I leaped over trunks and skipped along the rocks that rose their hard heads beneath the surface of the sand. I was enjoying the relative ease of the trail when my girl darted into the new growth tree line that had been standing guard along our portage. It wasn't but a few steps in and she had disappeared from view and I could feel the line snag. I hesitantly entered the thin interlaced fingers of branches, they were conveniently at eye level and even with sunglasses on, I wondered what contusions I would incur. I found where the line was wedged under the root of a tree and unsnagged her. My girl immediately began working again and with each jab, stab, rip and smack of a branch to my body my girl worked the odor. From what I could see, she seemed to be right on top of the footprints of the girls, for she worked with her nose to the ground with precise movement. When suddenly the spikey blanket of forest openend up, I breathed a sigh of relief..to soon.
My girl broke through the tangled web of limbs and branches well before I did and picked up speed again. I put my arm up in front of my face and hoped all I plowed into gave way. I suddenly felt the line drop with force and with a pull that was immediately interpreted as a downhill descent, I received the last slap of a branch and I was clear to see what lay before me. At the base of a sheer drop about 75ft down was a road - about twenty feet down from me was my girl precariously perched on the one jutting rock that would slow our careening declivity. I wrestled with the confilcting thoughts I was having, on one hand I knew my girl was working odor well and every indication was that she was in track odor vs. blown odor. The rational side of my mind, however, was struggling to comprehend the girls doing such a trail, especially the cliff, for they flowed likewater, always taking the path of least resistance. My girl looked at me intently and I could see her desire was to continue down the hill of death and destruction. "Are you sure they went down this way girl? I really don't think they would do this..." As I gently tried to persuade my girl to see 'logic' in this ludicrous direction and see if I could find any doubt in her, she resolved herself, and me, to the answer she knew to be true: they went down this stupid hill.
With a single bound down the hill she had covered another ten feet, which was conveniently the end of the line, her momentum jerked me forward and my next 'step' seemed like an eternity in the air, no sooner had my foot hit the slope and slid a bit, did I suddenly get launched forward again.... It is a perculair feeling being in midair, exhilerating while being terrifying at the same time, while everything is happening all at once, it is also slow enough for me to envision a humpty dumpty version of how I will land if my girl doesn't quite pulling so blinkin' hard. The next landing of my foot is awkward, for my knee gives way and as I slide, my grounded foot goes back and kicks me in the butt. I would normally find this humorous, but I am already being catapulted forward by this unplanned action and careen down another fifteen feet or so. A moments slack in the line gives me time to locate my dog, she has reached the road and in horror I see the line going taunt again before I feel it. A choked, "Wait!" is all I can get out before once again I am airborne and know the next landing will most likely be the ditch that skirts the road. I have a good imagination, and so uninvited images of my broken body lying face down in the ditch, only to be drug down the road and to wherever the girls are now hiding, by my deterimned girl come unburdened to my mind. By the sheer grace of God, I land, a foot from the ditch, and with the velocity my girl is towing me by, the next hop has me across the trench and in the center of the road, a glance back by my girl, tongue lolling to the side and eyes twinkling, and I am convinced she did this whole thing on purpose because I dared to question her judgment. I don't have long to ponder this thought, when she once again dives toward the edge of the road which is another steep gradient adorned with large trees to break my fall (and body).
"Oh no, WAIT!" I set my weight back and reel in the line with as much speed as I can. My girl stands at the summit and air scents, before I can finish prepping myself for the inevitable downward skiing I will be doing, she has opted to continue on the road, and the line I had coiled with little ceremony is trolled out and I dangle behind like a flailing mackerel. A few strides later and I have my tempo again, my stride matching my girls. She keeps head popping to the right over the side of the cliff, and I am pretty sure the girls either went that way, or are there now. The river flows opposite the direction we are going and I know how easily scent can be carried by water. Another quarter mile up the road, and a proximity alert is given; my girls pace picks up, tail wags occur, and the pull in the harness makes me feel like a kite in the wind, my feet barely strike the earth before they lauched forward in gargantuan strides. A sharp swerve to the right and down a short but steep gravel side, and my girl is bounding across the river. I glance up to see both girls, seperated by forks in the river, each on a bank their own. The girl whose scent article was used is on the furthest bank, and I am delighted when I watch my girl, now free of the anchoring my body was doing to her while holding the line, shoots a wag and smile to the first girl, but passes her and presents herself to her subject on the furthest bank, sitting with pride and delight she is greated with praise, treats and love.
As I recover my air and watch the girls splash their way back towards me, I ask "What the heck was up with the steep cliff?!" Peels of laughter follow, and I notice the older sister, the tracklayer is a bit wobbly and tentative of her footing. "I lost my glasses, and couldn't see a thing!" "Yah!" says the younger, "She was leading and took us through some awful brambles, didn't see the edge and slid the whole way down! I had to lead her the rest of the way, or we would have died." Giggles ensue as the two make their way back up to the road. I hand the glasses to the blind.. "I am glad you didn't lose your glasses.." I say to the yonger sister who also is blessed with poor eyesight, " Did you go down over the other side of the road?"
"We started to, got about half way down and realized we were likely to get hurt, so came back up." Explanations for how my girl worked and why were bantered back and forth as we made our way to the car, and while I may still get frustrated with them when they don't follow directions, I was once again reminded of the sacrifice and dedication it took to continue laying a trail when one couldn't see. So, to all tracklayers out there, THANK YOU (and good luck)!!.
Hauling Freight..On Ice
As I have stated many times, I love winter... I am sure many of you groan at that thought and perhaps, think me a lunatic - that is ok, I probably am. It is the cooler, if not cold temps and the beauty of snow draped trees that makes winter so delightful. While enamoured with winter, it unfortunately denudes another side not so beautiful: ice, then mud. Both these substances are a bane to society and a hazard to those exposed to them; especially when being drug along by a freight train dressed in a German Shepherd body.
Urban trails are challenging in many ways. Air currents that might be straightforward in a rural setting now become complex, interrupted in their flow by buildings, passing cars, alleyways, and the like. Odors once crystal clear are now muted and interlaced in a labryinth of scents, both intriguing and noxious to the dog. Dangers lurk everywhere, for few pedestrains are savvy enough to step aside and allow the dog to work unabated, rather they stand in the way blocking forward motion, attempt to pet or distract, or worse, oblivious to the dog in full pursuit of an elusive odor. Cars are of course the largest threat, for the dog loyal to its redolence of its prey, is unaware to the dangers it now faces as its vision is relegated a secondary position, overruled by the nose and its task. Running (often literally) these trails solo, which is my usual routine, presents these difficulties in spades. Throw in some black ice and you have a recipe for, well, you will see...
My boy had been worked and put up, a clean trail run. His casual way of going allowed me the opportunity to pick my footing carefully when I thought (or knew) ice was present. I do so appreciate this about him. It was now my girls turn and she was presenting herself to be harnessed with her usual stoic and studious look. A quick as lightning kiss up the side of my cheek, which was quick to freeze into crystals making my face feel like concrete, and she was ready. It was a cool 19F with a 10NW mph wind, making the wind chill factor about 0F. An 8hr aging was present, and the start of the trail was the high school parking lot, empty for the day, except for a few teachers loyal to their trade. The scent article was dropped in the center of the parking lot, and the first few steps towards it felt secure with no slipping. My girl, now harnessed and attached to the line pulled hard towards the article, and with a simple "Find her," proceeded to eliminate all directions except the one her subject had taken. She leaned hard into the harness and jogged off, nose hovering about 6" off the ground, an occassional head pop forshadowing the direction we would soon take.
While the pace was faster then my boys, it was actually quite enjoyable as it was a pace I coud maintain for long distances. Our rhythm had cadence and I could see my girl was focused and intent on her job. She swung us down a gravel road, the schools soccer field, tennis courts to our left, and a vacant lot to our right. A quarter mile or so down the road and we came to the hospital of our small town which is where she turned right, and the 'ice capades' began. An appropriate place to fall on your face if you are so inclinced, thankfully, as my feet lost traction and I did my best to avoid a prat fall in front of the onlooking audience of nurses and dr's starting their shift, I was graced with taction and resumed my pace upright and on my feet. A spattering of applause trailed behind me as I applied some weight to the line in an attempt to slow my girl down. "Easy girl, slow down," was the mantra I found myself chanting. Thankfully, at the cross walk, she did just that and I reeled in the line as I checked for cars. This break in speed was brief, and is is her custom, she selected her DOT and proceeded forward, resuming her speed.
Now, for those of you who trail, you are very much aware of the multitasking involved. There is really never a moment you get to 'just' read your dog, especially if you trail without a flanker to help with traffic, loose dogs, navigation/comms, etc. Rather, you are always aware of wind direction and speed, terrain changes that can influence how odor flows, obstacles that love to snag, jab, pierce, trip, or in the case of urban, runover you or your dog. Footing and traction, while not irrelevant, are often left to auto- pilot and a prayer. While traversing ice, it should be a priority and not a second thought, a lesson learned quite painfully.
My girl continued down the street, passing barking dogs, snow blowers, and a woman smoking a cigarette - this was an interesting moment, as my girl decided to sniff the butt end of said cigarette at precisely the wrong time. She was in mid stride, the lady to her right, as the lady lowered her hand to tap the ashes off the end, my girl placed her nose on that end. Both lady and I shared a shocked look, as my girl jerked her head back, sneezed about three times and continued on without breaking pace. I tossed a look behind me and shouted "Sorry," as the lady looked at the now lifeless cigarette in her hand. Her laughter carried in the wind, hoarse and merry.
Several more turns and streets crossed, my girl keeping a steady heavy pressure on the line, something I try to keep light but commutative. She intent on her purpose, me trying to keep my feet under me as it seems every step is now ice. I can't apply enough weight to the line to slow her to the pace I feel safe, which at this time would probably be a dead stop. She hears my pleas to slow, and accommodates for a moment or so before the pull of the odor is so strong it lures her out of obedience, and back into speed. By the sheer grace of God, we leave the icy street without any bloodletting. As we approach the very busy street/hwy, I once again gather my line and pull my girl in for safety. She indicates that we need to cross this busy thoroughfare, and at the opportune time, we cross. Once safely to the other side, my girl casts herself and off we go up a quiest side street into the residential side of town. The sidewalks here seem much more secure and I feel my boots finding traction with each step. So confident am I, that my thoughts of footing are relegated to an automated response and I am able to once again focus on my girls body language.
At the corner of a street, she suddenly swings wide, her nose capturing every fetor of her charge. I see a truck coming down from the north to my right, and as I roll the line in and step off the curve my foot finds the one segment of black ice hiding in ambush.
It is truly amazing how things can happen in a split second and yet seem to go in slow motion. I actually have this all videoed through my GoPro, which I was conveniently wearing at the time of this incident. As my foot hit the ice, my girl pulled with such force, any draft horse would be left impressed, I was already setting my weight back in anticipation of the pull I would receive as I gathered the line and subsequently, my girl; however, I was not anticipating the slip, vacancy of earth underneath my feet, and the lateral motion my girls tow would take me. Somehow, my GoPro captured the amazed look of the traveller in the truck beautifully. The altitude I got was quite impressive, as I am almost parallel with his side door window. My collision with the asphalt was equally impressive, and painful...
It is truly amazing the prediliction one has for pride when embarrassed. Even pain and injury can be muted for the moment when attempting to salvage said pride. Such was the case I was in.. I would like to think my first thought was for the safety of my girl, who had been after all, in the middle of the street in front of an oncoming car. Maybe it was, and the act of picking my bruised body up quickly without a systems check to assess injury, was valiantly made to ensure her survival. But the plastered smile through clenched teeth, probably quite lopsided due to the concussion, and the shaky wave to the driver was done in an attempt to show all was 'well' and my pride was still intact and not left splattered on the road. My girl, having not missed a beat, gave a singular nod to the driver, dismissing his intrudence into her odor trail, and continued on with a jerk on the line in a northly fashion.
I must have looked like a rusty tin man trying to jog behind my girl. My right hip and butt cheek were laced with pain, and my left shin felt wet and warm from the blood flowing unchecked. Thankfully, my stupid left arm was cushioned by my body and the neooprene braces it is always adorned in, yet it still felt it had rights to scream its displeasure at the harsh treatment. I hobbled behind my girl, no longer matching her stride with rhythm, but quite disjointed and the "Slow down!!" was now stated in a growl. My girl glanced behind and saw the scepter of death trailing her and decided a slower pace was in order. The freight pulling contest she was so intent on winning was now replaced with a light pressure to the line. She kept her focus on her job, despite glancing back each time at her broken partner. Whether she knew she was at least partially responsible for the shattered state I was in, I don't know, but she maintained the easy stride the rest of the way.
As she swung into the Safeway parking lot teaming with cars..and ice, I picked my way carefully through the treacherous footing, and was relieved to see our subject sitting amongst a throng of employees on break. They all seemed to be watching us move forward, cautiously, slowly, as if they expected some spectacular show I was intent on not giving them. A few minor slips and my girl reached her subject and gave her trained response, a sit, in front of her person. I crept to safer footing under the overhang, and the sympathetic looks I got told the story of how bad I must have looked.
Goodies, praise, love and a job well done for my girl. I got to hobble back to the PLS and retrieve the car. Several visits to the chirpractor and I was back to some semblance of normal. My arm gave me fits for several days thereafter and required pampering, R.I.C.E., and good painkillers. As I reflected over the trail run, I was reminded that trailing is an excellent way to keep oneself humble. My girl slept with a protective paw on my shoulder for several nights thereafter, as if to promise she wouldn't repeat the mistake... She has yet to keep that promise :)
I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumble Bee..
I so adore the area where I live... I grew up in a highly populated desert city and hated it with a passion fueled from an innate need to be in nature, especially mountains and trees... Fleas were a bane to any dogs existence who dwelt in the area of my birth... Those evil blood thirsty little vampires seemed to survive and multiply exponentially, growing from almost microscopic to the size of a small pony... When I moved out of there and to my current and beloved location, fleas were not (and are not) a threat...
As with anything in life, when you 'upgrade' something the old problems may be left behind but you inherit new ones... Hopefully the new problems are ones you don't mind dealing with, and for me, this was/is the case..unless 'they crawl down my back and sting the bebuggers out of me!'...
It was a gorgeous mid summer day when I ran this trail with my boy.. Once again the ski resort was the perfect setting; higher altitude, so cooler, tall and thick trees yielding abundant shade, and crisp streams gurgling with the melting snows of a winter now forgotten... It was a single blind trail, as I had to deposit my subject in the general area of her end spot.. Aged about 6hrs, the trail promised to hold some really tough terrain to navigate due to the fallen trees and debris, post winter... I was very happy I would have my boy on the line and not my girl, whose love of speed is why I perpetually have scrapes and bruises...My boy, never one to keep his words to himself, barked happily, his high pitched bark reverberating in my head. I got my boy out and tried to harness him. Have you ever tried to saddle an inch worm? No? Well, frankly neither have I, but it couldn't be any harder then trying to saddle my boy when he is excited for a trail. He wiggles, writhes, squirms, and flops around - all in an attempt to 'help' me get his harness on. This never fails to both tickle and consternate me at the same time.
A bark for the last buckle (there is only one, but the bark is 'necessary') and a bark for the clip of the line and he is ready to go. The PLS is along the main road running towards the ski resort. It is usually a quite road, although logging trucks and those in the know, use it as a short cut to the neighboring state, so I am careful while casting him and am also aware that the odor has probably been blown a good distance by the vehicles. My boy swings wide into the street, up to the hillside we are parked next to, and back to the street; a head pop during our wrestling session had me guessing this was the direction of travel. He darts across and down into a narrow archway of trees, the immediate difference in temperature is a nice change from the heat radiating up from the asphalt. The cool damp air embraces me in a hug that is rejuvenating and I can see my boy is enjoying the climate as well. A creek can be heard trickling through the maze of fallen lumber. Winter had done its damage, and toppled gentle giants have crashed to earth in such a way any tetris affeciando would be proud - I on the other hand, while intrigued at the display, also see every area where the line willl snag, knot, snare, and trip me up. This should be fun...maybe...
A gentle jog is what my boy selects, an easy pace to maintain safely. The trickles of sunlight that fall through the thick canopy of limbs casts shadows that seem to come life as the wind sways the branches. My boy is in solid odor and continues down a narrow pathway to a three pronged fork in the road. With confidence and his own personal flair, my boy casts himself over each neck of the prongs, eliminating each one until he decides the left is the way to go. A flip of the tail and he is jogs off happily endulging himself in some of the interesting smells the forest has to offer.
A break in the armour allows sunlight to pour down. Immediately the sweat begins to form and run down my shirt and I long for the protective arms and shade afforded by the trees. Up ahead is a wood bridge, and my boy trots up to it cautiously, 'annoints' the side with his 'approval,' and jogs across back into shade. A steep but clear hillside lays before us, and while I am not eager for the steep climb, I am happy it is clear of lurking branches that ambush my shins with precision. My boy, however, in full odor, is lured again to the left into the snarl of fallen wood, chattering creek, and dark mystery. Scampering over mossy trunks and under wooden forts, my boy followed each whiff his prey had let behind, with the skill and grace of an elite athlete. I of course, lurched, scrambled impacted every available protruding limb with my shins and about knocked myself senseless on a sneaky wooden appendage suspended above my head. While I rubbed my wounded cranium, I glanced up to see my boy perched securely on a tree trunk awaiting my advancement. His goofy expression - tongue lolling out to one side, eyes bright and ready, was a mixture of delight and intelligence. Although, at that exact moment it felt like he was laughing at me and my clumsiness. "I'm coming, I'm coming. I think I left some grey matter on the limb." My casual words were met with a joyous bark, and an obvious assumption it was time to get back on task.
A couple of creek crossings and rock skippings later and the dark woods opened once again to brilliant sunlight streaming into what looked like an overgrown orchard. An easier pathway beckoned; less logs and more grass and standing fruit trees. My boy scented the air in that direction for a moment, perhaps a passing wind carried his subjects odor on its flight through the trees. A sound that had bended in well with the bubbling waters of the creek now stood out pronounced... A hum that seemed to surround us and enduce fear and caution immediately. I looked around for any flying insects of the stinging variety and saw none...this made me even more worried. A sudden head pop and decision to go left back into the shrouded forest by my boy was met with relief from me.
Another splash across the creek, this time with my boy endulging himself, laying in the cold waters and dipping his nose in as if to blow bubbles. A few moments later and he was all business, navigating the tangled masses in front of us. Suddenly he was shaking his head, one ear crimped and his head tilted to the side. The pulpy wood we were crossing over made me think he got some in his ear, that or a splash of water from his bath.
"What's wrong boy? did you get some water in your ear?" The question was met with a worried gaze by my boy and some more shaking of his head. I walked over to him and bent over to examine his ear, as I did the sharp stabbing pain of someone eviscerating my kidney occurred. I yelped and tried to get whatever beastie had crawled down my shirt to my belt line and was stinging me, out. The savage kept stinging, not once, twice, or thrice, but six times!! When I had finally merengue'd my way to enough to get the monster out of my shirt, the little runt stung me on the thumb then emitted profane buzzing in my ear before zooming off, perhaps to gather reinforcements. My boy and I weren't going to hang around for an encore performance! He, head askewed to one side and me hobbling with fire in my kidney, continued on the trail. A head pop and a hard pull in the harness told me he was in proximity. Up a steep rocky incline to the road, me groaning at the searing pain licking up and down my back and hip, and he, suddenly rejuvenated by thought of treats we climbed. At the top he pulled to the right, his tail wagging and a bounce in his step. I knew he was in full blown fresh odor and seeing no cars around let go of the line. I found it hard to walk let alone jog/run at the pace he wanted.
A sudden giggle filled with "Good boys" filled the air as I haltingly slogged over towhere they were. Off the shoulder of the road and down the embankement on a large rock surrounded by tall grass, sat my sister. She grinned at me and fed my boy his treats and lavished him with praise. My boy leaned heavily into the ear rubs she gave. "He has an itchy ear," she laughed. A sudden shriek told me the reinforcements from the evil flying armada had arrived and were bombarding. "Let's get out of here!" No complaints from either dog or human, just immediate retreat to the car. I turned on the air conditioner full force and treated my injuries with oils. My girl sat in the car, anticipation ad expectation oozing from every pore. "Sorry girl, not right now."
My boy had been just 'buzzed' in the ear and had no ill effects. I on the other hand had swelling, pain and you could count the punctures from the evil monster. It took two weeks of ointments and care for the effects to abate. My girl did get her trail that evening, despite my infirmed condition, but it was in the evening when the pests werent flying about. i was very proud of my boy for his dedication in the line of duty. He stayed focused and committed to the trail despite physical assault. We tread very carefully now during the summer months, they may be small but they pack a powerful punch, them hornets.
Nice Trail...Wrong odor..
I run alot of trails, always x2 as both dogs need to stay sharp and love it so dearly... This requires an enormous amount of planning and effort on both handler and subject(s) part, as two distinctly different trails are laid...The logistics are mostly handled by me and the execution by the tracklayer...Unfortunately, often these 'best laid plans' are not conducted with the precision I hoped for, and thus, the often comical occurrences reported, collide with my own mistakes making the learning process that much more impactful and permanent....A narrative of first person follows:
On a cool September day I planned our trails up at a ski resort... This would allow for contamination (preparations were under way for the upcoming winter), difficult terrain, variable surfaces (asphalt, concrete, mixed with grass and wooded terrain, and aging)... My boy had just run his trail quite beautifully; an 8hr aged trail about a mile and change in length.. He had done such a beautiful job flowing with the odor, his tail wagging in rhythm with the song of 'scent' that when he made his find I was pleased to let him stay with his find/subject as she relocated to the end spot for the next dog.. I had walked back to my car confident in the progress 'team boy' was doing and envisioning the lives he (we) would save by his skill...
I drove to the new PLS for my girls trail - she vibrating in the back with energy and intensity that is barely shrouded in self control... She let me harness her in the car with a thinly veiled act of calm as I can see the focus on her face and catch the sneaked snuffles she places over my shoulder...I had asked my subject to place the scent article at the PLS; a casually dropped hat, a pink flag about 30ft from the hat let me know that this is the scent article (no other clothing lies about)... Now, when an aged track is laid, it is often in different conditions then when it is run.. I have had campsights spring up over the top of my PLS (quite frustrating albeit realistic), and empty parking lots suddenly overflow with cars - this is the scenario I am now in.. A once empty parking lot has now a work force worth of cars..
As I clip the leather line on my girls harness and as she makes her cast, I take note that several cars have open windows, including one close to the scent article... My girl sniffs the scent article and I anticipate DOT, but for some reason, she doubles back and sniffs into the car close to the hat through the open window.. An ill timed 'good girl' sets our lesson into full swing.. Like a jet engine finally realeased of the burden of a governor, she revs ups and shoots forward, a sharp right to the buildings that house the tractors and other equipment, by the workers enjoying a lunch and respite from work, and up the steepest hillside she could find... Once crested, I gasped for air and she banked left, already my doubts are in full swing as I know my subject well and she would not pick a trail requiring exertion, which this was... Besides that, my girl is working an aged trail with the acuteness and force a hot trail yields... She head pops in the direction of cross country trails obviously being attended to by heavy equipment, testing the air with her nostrils she surrenders the idea of pursuing the uphill direction (yay) and continues on the primitive road we were on...A head pop downhill into a densely wooded grove makes me feel a little more secure we could be on the correct trail, but a message from my subconscious is pounding away into my consciousness with precision force.. SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT... I know my girl is working odor voraciously, like a crazed Tasmanian Devil, she consumes every molecule of miasma lurking about, inhaled and processed with succinct authority... But I can't shed the imposing feeling of doom that is creeping over my body.. When she leads me to a road that dead ends but looks recently tended to and does an about-face intent on pursuing her prey, I cave, and break the blind...I radio my subject and ask if they went up the steep hill behind the mechanics shop... I wait in anticipation and dread for the inevitable words I would hear, "Nope," came a more cheery reply then my mood was ready to receive with grace, "Why?" REALLY??? She is asking 'why'??? If I could have reached through the radio and strangled her, I probably would have.. my girl had just drug me on a steady ascent for over a half mile on a trail of a mysteriously elusive person - not my subject.. My legs feel a bit shaky due to the exertion and barely contained anger I feel which I know is stemming from embarassment..I screwed up...
As I walk back to the PLS stewing in my ill placed fury, my girl trots by my side a bit shagrined.. I realize once again, my attitude is influencing my girls perception and evaluation of her performance.. She did no wrong, as the full comprehension of what had happpened overwhelms me.. During the cast my girl did to start the track, she had captured the scent of her subject, but was given a very ill timed 'good girl' when her nose tipped into the window of a workers car, giving her a full blast whiff of a new subject whose trail was obviously fresher and more stimulating.. Amped up on the new challenge, she accepted the odor as her new charge and immediately, did her job: find the missing person... Of course it was the wrong person, and one who was probably on a tractor of some sort explaining some of her behavior... Once back at the PLS, I carefully recast her being sure to 'find her,' and 'good gir' her on the corrrect scent article...
This time, my girl elected a more downhill trail, her drive and focus as clear and precise, but with a little less speed and intensity; more akin to an aged track... I don't actually remember alot about this trail other then the fact that my shins seemed to o be very astute at slecting the most painful log and branch to collide with.. My girl, probbly a bit annoyed with me and my attitude earlier, gave a simple shrug of her shoulders at each groan and yelp I gave...I could not control the mental review my mind insisted on playing while I ran the trail.. Everything was crystal clear how I screwed up nd set my girl on a path she would not be able to finish.. How I once again, allowed my emotions to color the experience and taint the joy she had felt in the hunt.... I made sure to shower her with praise and adoration when she made the find of her subject.. Lauding her prowess and willingness to work with an imbecile partner.. She, gracious in nature, allowed my grovelling to go on just long enough, before she surrendered to the love and devotion of her 'mama', and ate the proferred goodies she loves so much... A moment later, she and her 'brother' were off running and playing together, an added reward for running two trails with skill...
As we walked back up to the car, my girl became quite animated all the sudden, tail wagging, head up sniffing an odor she knew... A young mexican man walked to the car my girl had scented herself on, and got something out.. Walking back to his job: Bobcat driver, he climbed in and away he went... My girl swung her head up at me, and I swear she winked! Lesson learned..
Sable is the New Camofloge...
I love working with animals, it is truly amazing the bond and understanding that can be met between species.. Loyalties and talents shared, and often the animal being worked with has a delightful sense of humor.. Now I know there are some of you who will take issue with the concept of anthropomorphism in any way.. And as far as training is concerned, I would agree as it can get you in trouble fast... However, if you have worked closely enough with animals, especially dogs (and horses), and truly see them as the sentient, intelligent, mischievous entities they are, you know that the emotions they can show and the drives behind them, are not as straightforward and simple as one might want...
As I reflect on the many trails run, I find myself analyzing to the extreme, stripping apart each aspect with a rationalization for a mistake or missed cue, until all that lies before me is the naked truth.... As I mentally flagulate myself for my flaws, I usually run head long into the giggles as I see so clearly now, in hindsight, what I couldn't see then: my dogs sense of humor displayed in the oddest of moments...
My boy is joivial at his core.. He wears his heart strapped on his paw pretty much everywhere he goes and has even learned to isolate the musles around his eyes, tightening them in such away that the lips at the start of his muzzle are drawn up into a macabe half smile... This of course illicits edible goodies from those who experience it, rewarding him for his skill and attempts to relate to his human pack... My girl finds this sort of thing rubbish, and refuses to be drawn into such antics.. Rather , she finds something more practical to do, like grabbing my slipper and carrying it around as if she uncovered a treasure so rich everyone must be apart of its discovery... She doesn't let anyone take it from her, but garners pets and loves for her valuable find...
On a trail during a crisp fall day, I was working my girl in her typical long jog on a trail several miles in length and aged about 18hrs... It was a double blind trail and radios had been doled out in case trouble was had on either end... The start of the trail went smoothly, my girl locating DOT quickly and with the precision earned over hundreds of trails, she drew out a clear picture of what the subject had done the day before.. Dancing on deer paths narrow and snaky, crossing streams chilling ever faster as the suns warm rays lose their strength, and weaving through skinny trees with branches that scratch, rip and tear in vengenance to any who trespass around them... This is where my nightmares begin and end... The constant weaving, ducking, and the perpetual prayers being sent that I don't lose an eye (even with protective goggles), get a spiny finger of a branch up my nose, or trip and rake my face down one of the murderous little sapplings... I usually ask my subjets not to go through th 'brambles', especially when working my girl; they are a necessary evil to endure on occassion, but truly put life and limb on the line (literally and figuratively) every time they have to be negotiated through..Unfortunately, my subjects often don't have a plan (how very realistic) when laying the trail and so, run into these obstacles we do often...boo..
We weaved through the grove with alot of grumbling on my end, my girl working the odor well below the danger.... I know she knew I was being hung up by the relentless branches grabbing my clothes and scratching at my body, but she didn't stop - in fact, she thought it more fun to work the scent pool that the shaded and damp copse of trees had created.. This meant that she worked the trees like a seamtress weaving a rug, the leather line which normally doesn't snag is now being tied in knots as she works a pattern only she can 'see'... I try to follow this for all of about ...30 seconds... The last straw for me is when an evil limb slips out from its hiding place and stabs me in the thigh above my knee with astounding force...that will leave a mark! I let go of the line and tightly telll my girl "To work the pool, when you find the exit, let me know.." and proceed to rub my injured leg furiously in an attempt to end the stabbing pain... My girl does as she is told, and quickly disappears from view.. I can hear the crashing through slash, and as I have my first real look at the location I am in, both beautiful and dangerous, I am taken by how quickly the fall colors so brilliant and wondorous just a few days before, have turned brown... There is almost a sadness I feel as if a show so amazing and magnificient the universe stood up and applauded in adoration, has now come to a close.. While I ponder these things a realization begins to seep into my consciousness, slowly it pushes the distracting thoughts of life and death of leaves out and pushes the information that the crashing sound I had been hearing has stopped...uh oh...
Now my girl is not one to leave me... She is a shepherd through and through, and so the distance of about 50meters is about as far as she will venture without at least a look back, and usually a jog back checking in with her 'mama'.. So when I hear no snuffling, no crunching of leaves or crashing of branches, I wonder where my girl disappeared to.. I hadn't been in reverie that long, I thought...So I call my girl and await a return... nothing... I call again, adding the command "come"...nothing.... I scan the cloistered army of woods to no avail.. I strain my ears to sound...nothing... I call again, this time with authority and the intensity that comes from bubbling up panic.. "COME! NOW!!" Like adding, "NOW" will make her materialize promptly....nothing... I start weaving through the trees, my mind racing with scenarios at first plausible but quickly colliding with the inconvieable and ridiculous... Where the heck is she???!!! My repeated calls go unanswered and I even go as far as to break the blind and radio my subject.. "Did my girl show up?" I am expecting the answer I receive even though I am mentally rolling a different tape in my head: "Yes," would come the answer , "She found me and is greedily eating her treats, shall I send her back?" I would gently scold my subject for giving treats to an unpiloted dog and not letting me know she had found her... When the stark, "No," squaks out of the radio I am jerked back to reality...my girl is missing..
I am now sending S.OS. prayers up to God as fast as I can... I begin a circuitous route around the scent pool my girl had been working, my head on a swivel, I call repeatedly for my girl alternating stern and panicked with encouraging and loving... About the point I am ready to explode my eyes graze over something slightly amiss in the scenery... It takes me almost a minute for my eyes to 'find Waldo' in the camoflage that is the forest.... There, in between trees, surrounded by slash and fallen logs is my girl... She sits tall and proud, a glint of laughter twinkles in her amber eyes as she watches me... I call her, quite perturbed by the comedy I see she has found in this moment.. She gives a half attempt to show me that she is snagged and can't obey... The relief I feel in finding her and knowing that she didn't disobey is immense but quickly displaced by the frustration that has been mounting.. "Why didn't you answer me??!!" I shoult as I pick my way over to her, "Seriously! Your brother would have barked out an S.O.S. the moment he got snagged! Why didn't you?" I am serious in my interrogation of her although I don't really expect a response (or do I?)..But I can clearly see in her eyes her response, "Well I didn't want to insult your intelligence and search and rescue skills as I watched you walk by me four times..I figured you would find me eventually" .... It takes several minutes to find every root and tree she wove the line through, under, over, and into in an attempt to follow the trail (and yes, my subject had gone through the exact area my girl found herself prisoned in)... I rub her and hold her face in my hands, the fear and panic I felt now effectively drained in the actions of freeing my girl from the shackles she was anchored to.. "Next time you get snagged..Say something!" I kiss her nose and peer into her eyes hoping for an understanding twinkle, nope, I still see the laughter dancing in her eyes... The little stinker...
I wish I could say this was the only time she has pulled this act...It isn't.. My boy always a talker, happily barks his location in a timely fashion... My girl? She sits and observes me from her concealed hide, shrouded in her sable camofloge that seems to go well with all terrain, a smile twitches at her stoic lips content in awaiting her salvation and freedom when her 'mama' finally finds her, but thoroughly enjoying the panicked show that precedes her release... To her credit, she always re engages the trail with vigor and purpose, finding her subject with the precision a professional should have - this trail was no different... When my girl finally lead me up to the final resting point of her subject another half mile up, I was quietly asked, "What took so long?" I could have buried the body deep in those woods and nobody wold have known.... Instead I smiled and told her "Sable is the new camoflage" and left it at that...
Up Up and Aaaawwwaaaayyy......
One of the most frustrating aspects of being a SAR trailing dog handler, is the logistics of track laying... Finding willing participants is hard enough.. Finding willing and proficient participants is quite another... You see, as the dog becomes skilled so too the track must become more complicated, enticing the dog and handler to reach deep within themselves and attain a level of communication and symetry that is beautiful, and saves lives... This nugget of truth means that the tracklayer is as important in the ultimate training of dog and handler, and shares an equal share of responsibility in the lives saved.... Few and far between understand the magnitude of this statement, but its veracity cannot be denied...
So what complications can there be in laying a track? Well, there is distance that some find appalling.. There is location: urban, suburban, rural, wilderness, mtns, even buildings.. Aging is a huge component, as most often the dog teams are last to be called out (which honestly makes NO sense at all) so the age of trail is usually at the minimum of several hours old, often much older... Unfortunately, this aspect is one of the most difficult to plan for because the tracklayer usually does not stay in place while the trail ages (no need to torture the wiling subject).. So the ending spot has to be in a place that they can be easily repositioned without disturbing the original track (remember, the dog is supposed to follow the freshest scent, so if fresher odor is close to the aged track we want them to follow, they are naturally going to want to follow the crisp scent vs. older).. The complication that usually accompanies this is that the tracklayer follows easy paths hugging roads and outlets.. Why is this bad? Well it isn't, unless you are trying to train your dog in the deeper woods, or where there are no paths to follow... In the city it is not an issue, but definitely for rural/wilderness trails.. Then there is the logistical planning of having your subject repositioned without your knowledge if trying to double blind , unless you are fortunate enough to have someone who has their own car.. There are other difficulties, but this is enough to explain my gratitude for the trail I will now acquaint you with...
It was a warm summer day and I was grateful my sister was willing to play hide and seek with the dogs and me... She was about 16yrs of age and nervous to be in the 'woods' by herself, as she usually hide with her other sister a little older then she... This time she would be alone, so to help ease her concern I invited her to take my boy along for 'protection'.. I was extremely familiar with the area of forest we were in up to about a half mile deep, as that was as far as I could ever get any one to go before they worked back out... My sister was normally a very timid tracklayer and embraced roads and any form of civilization with fervor, but this time, emboldened by having my boy along to seal her immunity against all woodsy enemies, she ventured well off the trails and into the deep canopy of tall trees.. This would be a double blind trail, and while still considered hot (fresh) it would age up to 45 minutes...
This was early on in my dogs trainings, and at the time, I had no radio to communicate with my subjects.. We just set a time for the track to be laid layered with any 'aging' that they were willing to wait for, and off I would go.... Not the most savvy of my plans, but it sure made me learn to read my dog(s), and I never had a lost soul (thank you Lord!).... So at the prescribed time, I got my girl out, harnessed her, scented her with the scent article, and allowed her to cast herself about... She circled like a land marlin caught on a fishermans line before diving into the harness with such force I was just about yanked off my feet... She ducked under a wood barrier blocking atv traffic and followed a short opening through the trees into a wider open pasture, a hard pull to the left and she was running (we had no speed control at this time) uphill with the agility and grace of a bounding deer... I on the other hand, galumphed behind her flailing my legs in sheer faith that they would land with precision, avoiding the boulder littered landscape, and keep me from face planting into the hillside... The ever steady pull in my hand threatened to yank my shoulder of its socket and, through the oxygen deprived haze creeping over my eyes, I could see the perturbed look of my girl as she waited unwinded for me to catch up, a look that screamed "Come on slow poke, keep up!".... After a few less then elegant attempts to summit the hillside, I fnally reached my girls side.. She felt I had 'rested' enough and immedately proceeded to head up the next hillside.. Thankfully, gravity was on my side at this point and when I anchored myself and gasped out a, "Wait!" she hit the end of the line and was transported a few feet back towards me.... My eyes must have told a story of life and death to her because a truce was made; she was to proceed as fast as she wanted, as long as I could safely survive... When I needed air or to slow up, she was to accommodate the request..or else...
After a few minutes we continued on the uphill trek... I was beginning to have doubts my less then fit (at the time) sister would have done such a climb, but my girl was more than adamant that this was the direction... I hadn't developed the bad habit of second guessing my girl yet, so I trudged up the mountain with expectation and hope... Soon the uphill ascent leveled out and the light that shone brilliantly before, now trickled through the laced fingers of large tree limbs... It was eerily quiet and I felt myself fighting the images of rampaging bears and murderous yetis lurking behind every tree... The swinging gait of my girl kept a staccato on the leaves drapped over the gravelly floor... She jogged on, occassionally stopping to peer over the edge of the steep slope into an even heavier populated forest... An old atv path bekoned her to the left, but a few paces up she doubled back and continued along the narrow path deeper into the cool shroud of green...
About the time I really really started to wonder what my girl was doing and if she was 'on' was about the time I began to eat my words...I do this alot...A proximiy alert was given and a surge of energy propelled my girl forward and down the hillside, she deftly avoiding the treees, me pinballing between them...another couple tenths of a mile and a sharp bark from my boy who was bounding up and down and practically dragging my sister in exhuberance to see my girl and me, shattered the silence that had prevailed... Compliments were given to my sister for such an amazing trail, about a mile in depth with risdual distance weaving along the hillside, and for her bravery... Treats were doled out and praises galore....
As we traipsed back happily chatting away, I had coiled my line and held it in my right hand...I had a backpack on with water, first aid and other potentially needed supplies, and my dogs, still very young (about a year and change) were racing about meerily... As the rhythm of my arms swung to meet the cadence of my feet, my dogs raced to a beat all their own.. they zoomed by my right side and with only the accuracy fate can allow, lassoed themselves into the coils of the leather line... Their momentum was so great and the timing so perfect, that I had not a moments notice before I was catapulted off my feet and parallel with the ground - my right arm extended in a classic superman pose as I am hurled a solid ten feet forward.. the grace of the moment was quickly shattered as I colllided with the earth in an unceremonious heap...my sunglasses laying where my feet once strode and before the pain fully enveloped my body, the shocked look plastered on my sister sealed the reality of what had just taken place...
From a distance, I could hear concealed laughter, my eyes were tightly shut trying to swallow the ribs that threatened to jump out my mouth and holding my stupid left arm that always hurts due to its disease but was in the upper threshholds of agony.... I cracked an eye open to see if i was alive and who the traitor was that was laughing, a cold nose pressed into my eye socket followed by snuffles fast and furious, then a tongue laced with salve for my, what, pride, followed? The comedy of the moment wasn't wasted on me, despite the pain, and once a systems check of my anatomy was mentally ticked off and nothing was broken, and the sharpest of pains abaited, I tested a laugh... It wasn't purposeful, but the whole scenario was repeating in my mind like a ticker tape parade and I could see myself flying pristinely through the air by my herd of charging steeds and amidst the utter shock and dismay of my sister..."Are you ok,?" came the question so carefully cloaked in giggles that I had to admire the restraint it took... Are you ok? Why do we ask these questions when we know that the answer is a resounding NO! I guess the correct question is "Are you going to die?" If the answer is no, then all most likely will be good, because honestly, if you see somebody's leg facing backwards and blood spilling out, you aren't likley to ask "Are you ok?" you are calling 911...
After about five minutes of laughter, I painfully picked myself up and we proceeded home... Another important lesson learned, painfully, but forever sealed into my memory banks... Keep the coilded line gathered into a tight bunch, especially if torpedoing dogs are around...
One More Time Around Mt. Sinai...
One of the most marvelous experiences about owning a dog(s), is that they can and will teach you alot about yourself and how to see the world in a new way.. We view the world through the lenses of each days happenings and the feelings we are currently dwelling; feeling good? Rose colored lenses.. Had a bad day? Perhaps the dirty dark lenses... Judgmental? Black and white will only do.... Dogs incongruously, take in life with their noses first and accept it in the moment and as is, happily abosorbing the nuances of each moment..
Dogs also teach us to listen and be more observant of things around us and how it translates to the dog.. This trail was one of my earlier ones, a few months before my girls first cerification and I hadn't quite learned to understand all my girls body language.... It was a nice spring day with temps in the 50's an a wind from the SSW at 10mph... The location was a rural airport with aver 60 acres of woods teaming with deer and the trail was aged 2+ hrs.. It was a double blind scenario (meaning I have no idea DOT, end spot or any other component of the trail) and the distance was requested to be at least a mile and a half...
When I arrived at the PLS (place last seen) I got prepared... I noticed my girl testing the air with her nose and could see the studied intense look and knew she was already zeroing in on DOT... She looked to the right, head popped to the left, moved to the right then changed and headed left onto a path..She pulled hard and acted like she was in proximity, her tail whirling like a helicopter blade and her hind end doing the bunny hop dance she does when closing in on her subject... Perplexed I scanned the treeline and looked to see if I could spot the subject, but nothing stood out and my girls exhuberance toned down to her usual simmering energy and long trot... She followed the path up to where the trees blocked our way and veered to the right parallelling the runway.. She would head pop that way and occassionally skirt the asphalt before diving back into the trees littered with slash and stumps (my favorite..not)... She kept her nose about six inches off the ground and worked along a little culvert her pace never changing except when I stumbled and used her as a balancing point (hehe).. I noticed that she would occassionally look behind her, not at me per say, but behind our travelled path - communication to me I failed to understand at the time, so instead I encouraged her with a 'good girl'....We came to a picnic table and she circled it a bit before crossing the road leading to the runway and heading back into the trees and landmines of small stumps and fallen branches that grabbed at my ankles in an attempt to pull me to the eath...something my girl deftly avoided and I seemed intent on doing...
She fringed the main road and I felt the electrical current up the line when a small grouping of deer bound into view and taunted my girl with the flipping of their tails... To her credit, a simple "focus" was all that was needed to keep her on task.. As we weaved through a crowding of small sapplings I mentally ticked off the distance - we had to have covered a mile at least.. An opening brought us to the road we came in, my car, and the PLS... Wait...What???!! My girl didn't slow down, she crossed the road and again got revved up and exhibited proximity alert parlance... Once again I scanned the scenery intently..nothing...I slowed my pace applying pressure to the line in an unspoken, "Are you sure of the odor and direction you are on?" She slowed her pace and tested the air with her nose, a moment of intense interest disappeared to an annoyed look at me... "Well I don't know girl! You're the one with the nose, find her" and so she dove into the harness and we circuited the exact same trail we had just done, again... I noted that this time she didn't give backward glances, but worked the trail with feverish intent... She pulled harder into the harness with an urgency filled with purpose and hope... Passed the picinic table; something I sorely wanted to use as my legs were beginning to feel a bit leadened and bruised, and along the road back into the saplings that scratched and clawed at my face (stupid trees) and back to......my car :/
This time my girl wore the confused look... I had the exasperated look with a blue tinge that comes from oygen deprevation... When the tunnel vision opened up and I could see clearly, I cast my girl in the general area off the path, she bounced in and out of shrubs and weeds slowly working up the same path, occassionally she would stop and catch some mysteriously elusive particle of scent and the tail would wag, but it would disappear as quickly... I knew our subject had to be close by, so I expanded the cast and as we logged through some tangled underbrush I spotted the slightest movement in a ditch beneath a fallen tree that created a teepee like effect...Relief spread through my body renewing the flagging energy reserves that had had me considering breaking the blind... I smiled as I redoubled my focus on my girls body language which suddenly seemed so much clearer then when we first started.. Pretty much because I was finally, listening.. At the beginning of the trail I had preconceived ideas of what the trail would hold, including distance... So while I was observing my girl, I had put on the motherly cloak of astute feigned interest, allowing her running (literally) dialogue to wash over me like a warm summer rain, with little sinking in.... Now, at the conclusion of the trail, I was extremely motivated to read my girls every word, listening with rapt attention and truly only hearing her words for the first time on this trail...
She cast herself the length of the line passing her prey twice... Odor is peculiar and does not follow logical line of thought... Most likely a chimney effect had occurred which drew the odor up into the tree line and redeposited it a good distance up the path.. The third circuit around the subjet brought a head pop and a sheepish wag of the tail as my girl coyly smothered her prize with kisses and received her just rewards of goodies and pets..... My subject laughed heartily as she told me how she watched us pass each time... What I found more interesting is that, we ran the trail backwards.... My subject had started to the right (remember when my girl started that way, but changed directions?) and ended where she was at, but when she was redeposited after the aging of the trail had been done, she came up the left side... Thus, fresh odor and the proximity alerts my girl was giving at the start of the trail.. Also, the backward glances she kept giving on our first circuit around, had I been listening, would have told me that she knew something wasn't right - she was moving into older odor instead of fresher odor once she passed the hot trail laid as the subject repositioned herself, and wherever the chimney effect had redeposited the odor....
I learned alot on this trail... One, it is ok to have expectations of a trail; that is normal... BUT, I need to make sure that those expectations don't inhibit or stop my listening to what my dog is saying, because they are the experts... also, it was the first time I had run into the chimney effect and it was intriguing....I learned that a backward glance from my girl can have more meanings then just a shepherd 'checking in'... I need to make sure I interpret my girl better and really hear what she is trying to tell me... And finally, you can never be in 'too good a shape' in SAR... just when you think you are rockin' the cardio, you take another turn around Mt Sinai..
Tracking vs. Trailing Real World
The question is often asked, "What is the difference between tracking and trailing?" The answer is pretty similiar across the board, however, what is usually failed to take into account is that for all practical purposes, tracking is a human perspective on what a dog naturally does: trail.
So what does that mean? Ok, tracking in its strictest sense is the dog following precise footsteps, exactly as laid. This is most often used in sport (IPO/ScHh) and is solely on soft surface. The dog follows the crushed vegetation scent mixed with human.. Scent articles are not usually used as the dog is not scent specific/discriminate. In sport tracking, strict adherence to obedience (following footstep for footstep with little to no deviation) is expected. Trailing, on the other hand (or paw), is the dog utilitizing every aspect of it's innate abilities to hone in on and follow odor, be it ground, air, on or off the originial laid path.
While tracking has its place in real world work, it is ultimately trailing that the dog reverts to and uses to 'find' its subject. Scent/odor is not obedient to the guidelines we as humans set for it. It does not just 'sit' in footprints or lie where it falls. Nor does it fall in a regular predictable pattern. Wind currents, obstacles, temperature, clothing and a host of other factors influence how odor falls and lands. We shed our cells and gland waste predictibly and consistently - that is about all the fortune telling we can do :) Following odor/scent is not linear, rather odor pools and drifts in ways our visual mindset finds frustrating... But not to the amazing powers of the dogs nose.
Trailing uses a scent article (an item with the particular humans scent the dog is to follow) and allows for more freedom of movement from the dog to follow the scent. It is usually quite a bit faster then tracking which is slow and deliberate focused on the individual footstep, and allows the dog to follow the strongest source of odor. Because of the ease in which the trailing dog is allowed to utilize ground scent (wherever it may lie) and air scent (if the winds blow in dogs favor), it is the most practical for search and resuce and law enforcement.
Now before any devoted trackers get upset.. I am not bashing tracking. There is a focus and discipline that makes former trackers amazing trailers... But very hard to make trailers into that disciplined tracker! And that in itself speaks volumes to the discipline and attention it takes to make a great tracker. And yes, it does aid in real world scenarios, but for all who have deployed and used their dogs in life and death situations, know that their dog(s) will catch their subject, or find the lost soul using trailing (and perhaps some tracking foundations ;) ). Tracking in its strictest sense takes too much out of the dog for long distances. Trailing allows the dog to follow the strongest source of odor rather than specific footfall, allowing for faster and easier (which translates to covering the longer distances, often miles and miles) progress to the final outcome: a found person!
Having searched the internet far and wide multiple times, I have been unable to find many (ok, one) blogs devoted to real world trailing. Why? I am not sure, perhaps it is because of the demand on the human as much as the dog leaves us trailers exhausted :) But the goal of this blog is to share what I have learned over 1,000+ trails, with multiple dogs, deployments, mistakes and successes... I do not claim to know it all...or even half..probably not even a quarter... I am learning all the time and loving most every minute of it...even when I am hating it because I am being poked and scratched by briars and branches, my boots are slogging full of water because of the fifth water crossing (and my dog is laughing at me), it is hot/cold/freezing/uphill/downhill (usually sliding) or because I hurt and am tired... Nevertheless, the joy of watching the dogs paint a picture - filling in the blanks with each head pop or smooth negative, bring to life the journey of the travels the person sought has taken, is a delight I pray I never loose... Soo... here are some trails:
I am the Weakest Link... Goodbye!
Well I guess every trail is a learning process... Sometimes it means checking internally and making sure that you are operating as your partners best partner... I kinda screwed that up on this trail...
So the set up is this: 48hr aged track.. It is semi known in that I know of the big freaking hill (read mtn) that my subjects climbed and their general end point.. But it is a 2.59 mile track, I begin it in - 4°F and end it in 4°F..there is about 9-12" of fresh snow that have muted any footprints to depressions that could be deer, etc... So I am relying on my girl... Oh, and I have snow boots on that are 2 sizes to big.. Warm as all get out but they feel like bowling balls on my feet and I am clumsy with them on.. But I don't miss the opportunity to run trails, especially when my subjects have given my distance and age.. It is in a wilderness setting..
OK, so my girl is scented and gets DOT (direction of travel) without any problems, she seems confident and while she initially gave me the 'hot (cold) foot routine, I knew she would warm up as she worked the trail and she did... (she got a wonderful foot massage afterwards, one of her favorite things) she found a spot where the river brought fresh blasts of subjects odor and considered taking the air scent.. Because I wanted to know how she would run older aged trails in the condition we were in, I asked her to cast herself and reaquire the trail vs the air scent (note, my boy had done just this when the trail was 24hrs old and I let him as it was a blind trail at the time, well, this one was too, but I knew up to this point).. She found the turn that went over a barbed wire fence and she was back on task.. Up the freaking huge and long mountain (it really wasn't a hill) we went... And here is where things start to go south.. For me... She wants to follow the odor, which I encourage normally, except when it is Billy goating along the edge of this freaking steep hill.. She is in odor obviously, and when she runs out, she doubles back to what I assume is the footfall (later confirmed by gps, which at the end, she was extremely close to except when I pulled her off because I am human and thus 'know better' NOT).. But I have gone from chilly to hot Hot hot.. I am in pretty darn good shape, but the bowling balls on my feet, new snow, and ascension is taxing my strength, let alone the side tracks where scent has pooled... So I am becoming less patient (so embarrassed) and yelling at her (shame)... What am I saying? Uh, well, stuff like, "if you want to go sherpa the mountains go ahead, I will wait here.. Tell me if you find anything because I KNOW they wouldn't do that"(of course they did later on ubeknownst to me and to my shame)"..Well I guess every trail is a learning process... Sometimes it means checking internally and making sure that you are operating as your partners best partner... I kinda screwed that up on this trail...
So the set up is this: 48hr aged track.. It is semi known in that I know of the big freaking hill (read mtn) that my subjects climbed and their general end point.. But it is a 2.59 mile track, I begin it in - 4°F and it in 4°F..there is about 9-12" of fresh snow that have muted any footprints to depressions that could be deer, etc... So I am relying on my girl... Oh, and I have snow boots on that are 2 sizes to big.. Warm as all get out but they feel like bowling balls on my feet and I am clumsy with them on.. But I don't miss the opportunity to run trails, especially when my subjects have given my distance and age.. It is in a wilderness setting..
OK, so my girl is scented and gets DOT without any problems, she seems confident and while she initially gave me the 'hot (cold) foot routine, I knew she would warm up as she worked the trail and she did... (she got a wonderful foot massage afterwards, one of her favorite things) she found a spot where the river brought fresh blasts of subjects odor and considered taking the sir scent.. Because I wanted to know how she would run older aged trails in the condition we were in, I asked her to cast herself and reaquire the trail vs the air scent (note, my boy had done just this when the trail was 24hrs old and I let him as it was a blind trail at the time, we'll, this one was too, but I knew up to this point).. She found the turn that went over a barbed wire fence and she was back on task.. Up the freaking huge and long mountain (and it really was a mountian) we went... And here is where things start to go south.. For me... She wants to follow the odor, which I encourage normally, except when it is Billy goating along the edge of this freaking steep hill.. She is in odor obviously, and when she runs out, she doubles back to what I assume is the footfall (later confirmed by gps, which at the end, she was extremely close to except when I pulled her off because I am human and thus 'know better' NOT).. But I have gone from chilly to hot Hot hot.. I am in pretty darn good shape, but the bowling balls on my feet, new snow, and ascension is taxing my strength, let alone the side tracks where scent has pooled... So I am becoming less patient (so embarrassed) and yelling at her (shame)... What am I saying? Uh, well, stuff like, "if you want to go sherpa the mountains go ahead, I will wait here.. Tell me if you find anything because I KNOW they wouldn't do that!" (of course they did later on, much to my shagrin)....This is said in a less than kind voice...my girl, well Shepherds have a great ability at perception and she knew I was hot and thus blowing off some steam.. Literally.. She ignored me like a good girl and continued her job... Once we made it up the stupid mtn, uh, I mean, we gracefully ascended the steep hillside :)...she gets DOT again and continues at her typical jog (ugh)... Once again we come to a summit but all evidence of any type of trail system is gone, and of course she wants to go down hill, then back up (which they did)... Me? I am mad at myself for being mad at her... I know she is doing her job and I believe she is doing it well, she shows all signs of being in odor and on task.. But I have been tripping on every buried branch, twig, and gopher hole with my sideshow bob size boots and I am less then zealous to yoyo up and down the mtnside... So my attitude is less than supportive... I am so embarrassed.. My girl deserves SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much more than that...
Anyhow, we sherpa the side of the mtn for what seems like forever.. Me slipping, sliding, tripping, and turning the air a little blue with my bad attitude (sorry Lord)... I have my moments of absolute control and restabilize my attitude.. And then trip, bash a shin, and there it goes over the hillside.. My girl takes it like a trooper, occasionally looking at me like I have horns growing out my head (probably did) and then shrugs it off and continues... So in my infinite wisdom, I feel she has lost the track (she hadn't) because no normal person would do what I am doing let alone my subjects (they had, in like 2" snow when track was laid).. So I generously tell my girl she has 5 minutes and then we are heading down... Well she keeps going sideways, up and down, me just sideways and occasionally uncontrollably down... I work 10 minutes and then start heading down.. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the line is snagging constantly... Making me have to go up and down the mtn more than I cared to... Finally grow a brain and take the line off and she works well ahead of me.. Anyhow, we head down, me positive we have overshot the trail by a mile.... My girl wants to keep going sideways.. I'm in a sour mood... And then, the good Lord reminds me I am an idiot and I should trust my dog... We cross the trail.. Footsteps that have to be human (because no other animal would be so stupid as to be doing what we were doing) coming from the direction my girl wants to go, and heading the way I think they should go ultimately... My girl trots up to me and the look was 'told you so' I pet her, tell her good girl hook her up again and we continue.. Me shagrined and berating myself for being such a jerk, my girl happily following the odor of her subjects...
We ended up doing a mile over, mostly due to my doubling back to untangle her and her scent pools, then doubling back.. When looking at the GPS she is almost dead on the whole time, until I drop her down and we run into the track again... Thankfully my dogs are used to me talking during the trail, so even my embarrassing attitude didn't phase her... She was rewarded well and I have been extremely careful to watch my attitude (and got a pair of boots that fit)... Each trail is a time to learn.. Sometimes frustration is possible... I never thought I would get so mad over something so stupid... So unfair and not cool... I learned a lot about myself and what I need to work on as a human and a handler... My boy probably would have continued working, but he is more sensitive and might have shut down due to my stupidity... Also, I learned I need to trust my dog more... Even when I 'think' I know best, I don't.... I was deep in the wilderness and had no clue they would have done what they did... Lots for me to continue to mull over and learn from... And change.. This is said in a less than kind voice...my girl, well Shepherds have a great ability at perception and she knew I was hot and this blowing off some steam.. Literally.. She ignored me like a good girl and continued her job... Once we made up the stupid men, she gets DOT again and continues at her typical jog (ugh)... Once again we come to a summit but all evidence of any type of trail system is gone, and of course she wants to go down hill, then back up (which they did)... Me? I am mad at myself for being mad at her... I know she is doing her job and I believe she is doing it well, she shows all signs of being in odor and on task.. But I have been trippingon every buried branch, twig, and gopher hole with my sideshow bob size boots and I am less then zealous to yoyo up and down the mtnside... So my attitude is less than supportive... I am so embarrassed.. My girl deserves SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much more than that...
Anyhow, we sherpa the side of the man for what seems like forever.. Me slipping, sliding, tripping, and turning the air a little blue with my bad attitude (sorry Lord)... I have my moments of absolute control and restabilize my attitude.. And then trip, bash a shin, and there it goes over the hillside.. My girl takes it Liora trooper, occasionally looking at me like I have horns growing out my head (probably did) and then shrugs it off and continues... So in my infinite wisdom, I feel she has lost the track (she hadn't) because no normal person would do what I am doing let alone my subjects (they had like 2" snow when track was laid).. So I generously tell my girl she has 5 minutes and then we are heading down... Well she keeps going sideways, up and down, me just sideways and occasionally uncontrollably down... I work 10 minutes and then start heading down.. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the line is snagging constantly... Making me have to go up and down the min more than I cared to... Finalized take the line off and she works well ahead of me.. Anyhow, we head down, me positive we have overshot the trail by a mile.... My girl wants to keep going sideways.. I'm in a sour mood... And then, to the good Lord remains me I am an idiot and she trust my dog... We cross the trail.. Footsteps that have to be human (because no other animal would be so stupid as to be doing what we were doing) coming from the direction my girl wants to go, and heading the way I think they should go ultimately... My girl trots up to me and the look was 'told you so' I pet her, tell her good girl hook her up again and we continue.. Me shagrined and berating myself for being such a jerk, my girl happily following the odor of her subjects...
We ended up doing a mile over, mostly due to my doubling back to untangle her and her scent pools, then doubling back.. When looking at the GPS she is almost dead on the whole time, until I drop her down and we run into the track again... Thankfully my dogs are used to me talking during the trail, so even my embarrassing attitude didn't phase her... She was rewarded well and I have been extremely careful to watch my attitude (and got a pair of boots that fit)... Each trail is a time to learn.. Sometimes frustration is possible... I never thought I would get so mad over something so stupid... So unfair and not cool... I learned a lot about myself and what I need to work on as a human and a handler... My boy probably would have continued working, but he is more sensitive and might have shut down due to my stupidity... Also, I learned I need to trust my dog more... Even when I 'think' I know best, I don't.... I was deep in the wilderness and had no clue they would have done what they did... Lots for me to continue to mull over and learn from... And change..
Know how to read your dog..
One of the most important things a trail dog handler can learn is to read their dog, especially when in (and out) of odor.. Every dog I have handled has some nuances and subtleties that differ from each other, however, they also have many similiar responses. Head pops (often subtle), tail wags, tail position (from high and curled to low and relaxed), breathing, pace of gait, and pull in harness are all quite common language for the dog, the trick is learning the 'accent' each dog has for this communication to us and what they are trying to say.
I often use a GoPro, or some such recording device to review my trails post run. This allows me to see little changes in my dogs behavior I may have missed while in the heat of the track. One such trail recorded brought this home to me in spades...
It wasn't long after I first certified my girl, and her first working trails in snow... The deputy sheriff in charge of SAR for a county I am on a team with, hide for me. He laid the trail a couple of hours before I arrived, and it was a double blind trail. He laid his scent article on his truck. When I arrived, it was snowing quite heavily (there was about 6" already on the ground) about 34F, and the snow plow was scraping my subjects footprints, odor trail and DOT away and over the hillside... I met with my teammates and they got started on their individual plans; a flanker was assigned to me. Now, I usually run my trails (except on deployments) solo, as I rarely have enough people who are willing to hide as it is, so rating my speed (my girl is a fast mover) to accommodate a slower flanker was a new experience.. Also, this particular flanker (an experienced and kind person) was just coming off a serious illness and wasn't fully back to working energy levels.... This will all factor in to me missing some key body language from my girl later on..
I harnessed her, scented her and cast her.. She immediately head popped in direction of travel (DOT), but opted to scout around the truck first (spilled scent odor from person opening door) and headed towards the restrooms (suject made a pitstop before heading out), doubled back and started on previously stated (remember the head pop? That was her telling me where the freshest track lay) DOT. She would often weave to edge of hillside and look over the hill... At first it bothered me, as I was quite sure he did not bonzai over the hillside, but it did dawn on me that the snow plow had gone by and basically, scooped the odor up and redeposited it over the hill (See? Humans naturally want to understand everything through OUR perception of how things are...not how the dog 'sees' it.. So it is always a balancing act of how much we use our intellect and intiuition, and how much we just trust the dog)...
We descended down into the trees and hugged the hillside edge close to the river (water currents create their own wind turbulence and odor is drawn to moisture and shade); my girl at a steady jog, which means I am at a fast jog... My flanker? He is walking, which meands I have to stop often and make sure we stay within visual range... The trail meandered all around the woods, out into an open field with power lines, multiple footprints in all directions could be seen, but were rapidly being filled in with the falling snow... I watched my girls every movement - tail tightly curled and elevated to about even with her hips meant she was in odor and locked on working the scent, her pull in the harness was strong and hard (ugh) also indicating her committment to the odor... Unfortunately, this is where having a flanker unable to maintain a steady pace came into factor, and taught me several valuable lessons: 1.) Teach your dog to rest and pause on the trail. That way, should the need to stop occur, the dog doesn't decide it means they can 'quit' or 'jump track' or get frustrated..patience is a virtue in all aimals 2.) While a GoPro is a valuable tool AFTER the trail, it is not so valuable in the moment and you still need to keep eyes on your dog, even while resting.. Why? Because wind shifts can bring new information and your dog may head pop in the correct direction and you miss it... I did... 3.) While your dog is key in finding the subject(s) and you need to trust them and limit your influence along the line.. There is still a point where deductive reasoning and reading your dogs fractured language is necessary...
While waiting, again, for my flanker to catch up (remember, this wasn't their fault - he was/is normally in very good shape) I noticed my girl head pop to the left, and even tried to go that way at first... I had to stop her becasue if we had gone, we would have been totally out of sight of our flanker for several minutes and he would have been 'lost' to this trail....Whil I waited, I took my eyes off my girl (big mistake) and she found a 'fresher' more 'interesting' trail to follow... When we finally began moving again, she started to go left, hesitated - and I thought right then that was the correct track (it was) due to her previous head pop - but she continued straight along the river and what seemed a logical course/path... She pullled hard in the harness and had appropriate body language for following odor.... unfortunately, it was now the wrong odor...
My girl took us on a nice run/walk on a beautiful trail... It was the wrong one, but, I did learn what a car pick up response from her would be.. When we got to a road and she shrugged her shoulders and looked at me with a "Where did they go?" look, I correctly assumed a car pick up...and a jumped track..BISCUITS!!!! On review of the GoPro, it is obvious her intent and interest is on the left side, for about 5 minutes... Then, it changed... Her young mind (she was a little over a year and a half) got bored and she figured she would find something more interesting to follow.... One thing your trailing buddy will do is keep you humble!!! Of all the subjects I don't want to screw up on it is (an actual victim of course) the deputy in charge of SAR!! It was my bad... My girl had spoken and I had not 'read' her correctly at appropriate time... I wasn't the leader I needed to be in the partnership, and we did a nice loooong trail - that was wrong..
Thankfully, I have learned to read my girl much better, and she is much better at waiting and restarting the trail she should be on (not one she picks).. She is pretty easy to read overall, as opposed to my boy whose GSD/Malamute cross makes his 'accent' a bit more difficult to interpret...
Maturity is the glue that holds it all together....
I have trained horses and taught humans for well over 20yrs... One thing I have learned is that while we can teach the animal (humans included) the physical aspects: walking, jumping, etc, the mental aptitudes: speech, what to do and why etc, and train the emotional fortitude needed: don't buck me off because you are scared (or punch someone in the face because you are mad).. the glue that meshes all these components together into a functional being, is maturity... And unfortunately, that cannot be forced or made to happen at any given time.. It happens when it happens, often, seemingly, overnight..
My boy is that way.. He is a goof ball! He smiles with his whole face and every part of his being...His malamute ancestory has food first and foremost on his mind, as well as the independent "I don't hear you.." (said in a singsongy voice) mentality... This wars with his Germand Shepherd ancestory that demands strict adherence to the law.. Decorum and responsiblity! Such is the quandry my now, coming 3yr old boy has had to endure... When I got him, I had just lost my last shepherd to a brain aneuysm and already knew the litter my girl was coming from (and had plans to do SAR with her)... I figured he would be a great companion for me and my girl... Little did I know he had other plans..
The first time I hooked my girl up to a line was her first trail at 10mos of age... Normally, such trail would be a 'fire trail' or a 'hot trail' which means an excited person amping the dog up, waving bye and making high pitched happy calls to the dog while hiding a short distance away... This gets the dog intrigued and taps into their prey drive, and hopefully a quick joyful 'find..' WELL, I had other plans and had my hider hide about 300yds away from the house, with 2 turns and totally out of sight of the dog(s)... I brought my girl out of the house, gave her the scent article and said "find her" and pretty much flew behind my moch 2 speeding puppy!!! She found her so fast and accurately, I was floored (and out of breath) and knew I had a future SAR dog... In the meantime, umbeknownst to me, that is until I came back into the house and found my normally happy boy, absolutely unglued... He was practically frothing at the mouth... He had jumped on the kitchen table in futile attempt to see what was happening... I calmly explained to him that he really didn't want to be a SAR dog, that this was not in his nature and I didn't think he could/would do it... But his pleading eyes got to me, and I patronizingly brought him outside, clipped the line to him, gave him the scent article and said "find her"... To my absolute surprise and delight, he calmly dropped his nose to the ground and like a seasoned vet, tracked his person to her hiding place... Ok, I have TWO SAR DOGS!!!
He was 11mos old... Over the next 6mos, my girl matured into a seasoned and trustworthy trailing dog...My boy? Oh, he had briliant moments..and he had embarrassing moments... I waffled back and forth, seeing the brilliance that could be there, but not the steady reliable discipline I and those lost, NEEDED to be there... I put my focus on my girl, allowing my boy to have the 'leftover' trails; easy and quick.. He loved every moment of it...So much so, that I could not leave him in my car alone and work my girl without my seatbelts being devoured...burp.... Once my girl certified, I decided I would test him on some harder trails and see if he understood the necessity of devotion to the given odor... He was close to 2yrs now, and still the moments of shining brilliance would be overshadowed by the clouds of ditzy airhead moments... But he would still take each trail with his good natured, overly excited at the start, eagerness to please way...
I had taught the mind (follow a given scent) what to do... I had trained the body (nose and conditioning) to cover countless miles while in odor... I had tried to teach the emotional containment (he still has to toss the scent article in the air at the start, and bark once the harness is clipped on and again when the line is clipped on - but that is more endearing now) that was necessary to endure rough terrain and elusive odor, but when the maturity came... It was still a shock...
I had signed up for testing for both my dogs; my girl being dual certified in trailing (redundancy is good, especially when people's lives depend on how good your dog is) and my boy for his first cert... Training up to this point had been going pretty well, but I wondered if the brilliant side of my boy would show up, or the goofball... The day of testing came and we drew a 1.5mile suburban/urban trail... The start was highly contaminated (it had been used for the HRD tests) and in someone's back yard.. I pulled my boy out of the car and he was dancing on his toes..Uh oh, overamped I thought... I harnessed him and waited... The evaluator tells me that others want to watch and we are waiting for them... Now my nerves are getting raw and my boy is confused... I put him back in the car and we wait for another 15minutes until about five other people show up.... The most he had ever had follow behind him was two people....Me and a flanker.... But, he is either a SAR dog or he isn't, so I pull him out of the car, reharness him and he is still amped...I give him the scent article and cast him........Deep breath...holding..holding..holding...
Honestly, the brilliance (yes, I use this word with him alot because when he shines he shines brightly) of this dog, especially in urban settings is understated... He lifted his nose, tested the air, dropped it to the ground, cast a big circle, once, twice, and we were off at his, wonderfully easy pace (as opposed to my girl which keeps me trim and in shape)... He ducked under a barbed wire fence, waited for me to follow, and worked a very difficult trail in tall (I mean like 6ft tall) reeds, stagnate river water pooled on either side (traps odor and creates 'pools' of scent) and treacherous footing (alot of those wonderfully tall reeds grew on top of toppled tall reeds and fallen logs,which of course you don't know are there until you bash a shin on one, or trip over another)... He worked over the river land bridge, onto the gravel road and open pastures, gave beautiful smooth negatives (basically, the dog starts one direction and in a fluid movement filled with grace (usually), change direction following the odor) onto the asphalt roads, ignoring the bikers, walkers, and cars, and brought me to the community garden and wiggled like a dancing worm when he found his subject!!!
This was the day maturity was born into my boy...Subsequent trails have brought a steady and reliable partner...He is amped at the beginning, but his brains don't fry at the prospect of the game, rather, he uses that abundant energy to find his subjects time after time in his typically goofy, yet mature way... That's my boy!!
Captain, Iceberg Ahead!!
I love winter... The quiet serene beauty.. Strong tree limbs graced by blankets of snow, mountains boasting the next summers water supply, and yes, even the cold... I enjoy all the seasons, although fall and winter are my favorite; I have had heat exhaustion too many times to enjoy the outdoor activities close to my heart, and not suffer for it... My dogs enjoy the cooler/colder weather too... So winter does not mean training stops - we just adapt... When jogging behind a dog determined to be first to some imaginary race, you overheat quickly if layered to heavily.. don't layer enough, and the pauses while one works out a scent pool or DOT can get you hankering for a heat wave toot sweet...This particular trail had me wearing my ever warm 'sidehow Bob' sized boots, thankfully they were kind of floatation devices as well...
This was a wilderness setting (urban trail stories will follow soon, as well as deployment stories (names, locations withheld for privacy)) and aged about 24hrs...It was a balmy 0F, warmed up from a glacier that seemed to have moved next door and dropped our temps down to negatives for a week... I harnessed my dancing boy, a job in and of itself - man can he wiggle!! Scented him (typical bark and toss scent article in the air over his head) and gave him the line allowing him to cast himself and select DOT (direction of travel)... His start was by some restrooms and he added his own deposit to the side of the wall (boys!), he jogged off strong in the harness and happpy to be working.. He followed a gully, crossed a fire road and dove into the trees with great glee; he truly is a joy to watch work as he does not let the seriousness of the endeavor to slag his enjoyment of the game.... My bowling ball boots are already feeling heavy - but toasty warm - and I am glad my girl is not at the helm or I would be tripping over the many snow covered logs and branches waiting in ambush for my sensitive shins, at moch 2.... My boy skates over a frozen creek bed with dignity and grace, I, on the other hand slip and slide like an albatross coming in for a landing..on ice... He glances back at me and smiles - an inside joke to the dogs I am sure.... Up the hill he goes confident and in odor... Here is where I wish I had my girl.. she pulls me up the hills with intent.. My boy feels the added weight of a laboring elephant behind him and stops and waits (I am actually lean and in good shape, but dang it! They have four wheel drive and can move up the hill fast! I'm trying to keep my eyes on him and read his body language, dodge eye level branches begging to rearrange my face, keep my battered tibias unbroken from the endless supply of appropriate sized logs determined to make a permenant mark on them...and yes, I sound defensive :) ) like a gentleman... ugh...
At the top of the loooong hillside, he weaves throught some small sapplings... I crash through them... He makes a sharp turn and finds a path.. I sigh with relief.... A sudden spattering of human sized footprints appear and I am given added confidence he is in odor.. I see that these footprints continue on the path and am thanking the Good Lord for the easy pace when my boy dives off into the dense - and I do mean dense, trees... I am tempted to let go of the line and let him 'sort out the direction..' shoot, I can see the footprints and know they are my subjects and know th direction they go... But, a good trail handler follows their dog, and I know my boy has gotten a blast of fresh odor from the wind change... his body practically vibrates with the excitement of fresh odor... So I push through the seemingly undending branches and briars to, ah yes, a nice steep descent on slippery ground..yay... My boy has picked up speed when we hit the fire road, and I am quite surprised when he deviates from the road back onto a trail path... He stops, air scents, and hugs the rivers edge... My mind is already processing my water loving dogs thoughts and trying to pick a place whre the ice is thick enough to cross... Of course the place he decides is NOT thick enough for a bipedal with galumphy boots on to cross but is just thick enough for an agile quadraped to gracefully gazelle his way across.... My line is 30ft, the river 20ft and a steep uphill descent back to the fire road... I have no choice but to let go of the line and find a safe place to cross....yeeeaaahhh.....
My normally clingy boy has gotten fresh odor caressing his nostrils and my shouts of "STAY" hang frozen in the air... He takes off to find his subject... Now, I have no clue where they are, for all I know the wind has carried the odor a half mile away and having my dog running the trail all on his own is not good... I try to find the safest and quickest path across the river - one that is supported by a fallen tree and a branch I can hang onto... Unfortunately the branch wasn't very supportive, and of course picked the time to crack when I was committed on the ice... and the ice choose to break when the branch did... That is also the time my radio chirps with the voice saying, "Dog in!" My sideshow Bob boots have held me up despite the iceberg I am standing on is drifting down stream with the lower half of my body, but I feel the icy cold grip of water pouring into my boot... I have one good arm, the other is pretty much useless and very painful to move, but at this point I am picturing my frozen corpse bobbing along the shoreline come spring, and I reach another branch through divine inervention and manage to claw my way back up onto the bank... When I turn around what do my eyes land on ? My boy!! Peacefully sitting on the bank watching the life and death drama unfold... The little turkey abandoned me for treats, but my subject was smart enough to withhold until he showed up with his human counterpart, so he returned and enjoyed the show...
I was a bit perturbed..and cold... So I scolded him with scowling looks while I found a safe crossing.. Once reattched to my traiterous boy, he mushed on and brought me to his subject (who was nice and warm by the way) and got his treats... Oh the joys of trailing...
When you do SAR or any other type of activity that puts you out in the elements, you try to use items that are durable and have redundant systems to lighten the load... My smartphone is one of those items... GPS, maps, light, communication and so much more, it is a valued item - so I protect it with the toughest of cases... A recent upgrade got me a phone touted to be pretty much indistructable..YAY!.. I even put a tough as nails case on top of it to insure that the time I dropped/sat/crushed/pinned or any other random clumsy or gravity motivated event happened, it would remain in great shape....mm hmm..
During a wonderfully cooler than normal summer day I was working my girl on a suburban trail... It was a single blind aged trail (single blind being that some component of the trail was known to me; in this case beginning direction of travel).. The start was from my house which presented a host of layered smells of cross traffic of various ages from her subject and all occupants of the house... A very realistic scenario and one I try to present to my dogs often... My girl in great form worked throught the cacophony of noise odor and found the exit trail and started on the trail... She has a cute way of bouncing with her hind end when she is working a trail of someone she loves and for her, her tail is the 'window to her soul'... She jogged (I jogged/ran ) along reading the natural clues of an odor trail left behind... At the road she swung north and headed up the street.... The wind was blowing about 10mph from the northeast and the temps were in the low 70's as opposed to 90's, so she and I were thoroughly enjoying the day and chance to hone our skills... As we neared a pasture, I mentally checked the pressure points each item in my pockets made: radio in upper left pant leg, check... knife in right upper pocket, check.... cell phone in back pants pocket, check... My girl hung a right into the pasture and crossed the land bridge over the river... Her pace didn't slag but the now uneven terrain was making me look like a newborn foal trying to find its footing... I quickly asked (begged) my girl to 'SLOW UP' and set my weight against the line a bit to enforce the request... A disgusted look from my girl followed, but she obliged for about ten paces (gee thanks)....
As she guided me to some tall reeds (my first clue missed that things were going to go downhill fast) I noticed she stopped (I gasped for air) and air scented a bit.. I interpreted it as the tall reeds blocking the scent trail or inhibiting the naural flow of air that was coming from the open pasture.... She dropped her nose again and did a side to side movement before disappearing into the reeds....Now, to those in the know, the change from hay pasture to reeds shouts a change in water supply or ground texture... I knew this and my only defense is I was oxygen deprived from the long jog over uneven terrain... That is my story and I am sticking to it... I followed my girl who had disappeared in the 6ft tall blind and as I walked I heard the tell tale 'squish' that told me I was close to the creek... I quickly looked down and saw what looked like a two foot wide flow of running water..."Ahh, no problem," I thought, "I will just hop over this and be on my way..." Famous last words...
What my wonderfully athletic girl had neglected to telegraph through the line was that the two foot long creek was actually just a small stream and once my agile body bounded across onto solid land, the next step was going to be a nice 6ft deep descent into COLD fetid water.... I instinctively put my arm out and stopped my descent.. gasping for air because that water was cold cold... My mind quickly processed the scenario and I could hardly believe I had stepped into such a deep creek that was only about a FOOT wide!! I felt the tug of the line which my hand hadn't let go of and knew my girl had (safely) passed the swamp and had found odor she wanted to follow.. The next thought was about the electronics in my pockets getting wet... I managed to pull my soggy body out and instinctively looked around to see what audience I had... Nobody but a crow coughing out its laughter at a stupid human not watching her step... I pulled out my cell phone and checked to see if it was still alive.. It was!! I pulled out the radio and checked in with my subject - one to see if the radio worked, and two to see if my dog was playing a practical joke on me and lured me into this trap as payback for some unknown trespass... It wasn't a joke, my subject had, thoughtfully and carefully I might add, crossed through the tall reeds, jumped the two foot creek (and landed a thigh and leg in it) and avoided the cavernous but narrow underworld of cold water... I shivered as the once friendly wind sliced through my body....
Have you ever noticed that waterproof boots become swimming pools for your feet when they fill with water? No? Well they do!! I slogged/squished with each step which of course was a stumbling type jog as my girl continued on with her job... I was a little disgruntled that she didn't even come to check on her mama, after all, if she had fallen in I would have ...ok, laghed, but after I stopped I would have checked to be sure she was alright... I was proud that she could work through the noise of my chattering teeth and stay focused on her job.... We were surrounded by tall reeds and every squishy step had me paranoid I was going to fall through the ground into my soggy grave, but my girl lead me deftly through the path and into a tree line... that was surrounded by that wonderful creek...that expanded to about 20ft wide and probably a hundred feet deep (not really but I wasn't going to test that theory)... I could see she could air scent her subject and was giving me proximity alerts... She danced at the bank and looked for a safe way to cross.... There wasn't...
Just like my subject had to do, we backtracked a ways to a place where probably a herd of deer had bedded down allowing for a clearer view of where the water traps were at... My subject had dunked the other leg in going back over, but I had her beat as I had gone neck deep already, so I cleared this round of creek hoppping with just a little toe dip....Once again, my girl cleared it with no problem.. A U turn at the tree line and a weave through branches and tree limbs had us face to face with a grinning subject... My girl got her treats and my subject a good laugh... I pulled my phone out of my saturated pocket to compare trails, and sure enough, my indistructable phone had an achilles heel...water... Ggrrreeeaatt... I tell you, it is very costly trying to save a persons life for free!!
On the way back, my girl was loose and bounding through the fields, I was enjoying her grace when suddenly her front end disappeared...HAHAHAHA!! Ooops, yeah, I quickly rushed to her aid, laughing so hard it stopped my teeth from chattering and warmed me up (so she did care about me after all).... She managed to extrecate herself from the watery hole and shook...Unfortunaely, we both needed a serious bath because that water, while clear, stank! Me? I had to buy a new stupid smartphone... A costly mistake I hope I remedied by buying one that is 'waterproof' has a 'lifeproof' case on and goes in a zip lock baggie when running where water has even the potential of showing up..which is everywhere!