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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sally and Petey hit the jackpot - evolution of the tracking team

In his latest book Izzy & Lenore: Two Dogs, an Unexpected Journey, and Me John Katz writes: “If you spend time around breeders, rescuers, trainers, vets, shelter workers, you hear this expression now and then: Someone’s hit the jackpot. It means some matchmaker scored: A dog and a human found one another and mesh beautifully, embarking on one of those great interspecies love affairs. A number of elements need to fall into place—a person and a dog that need and complement one another, that intersect at the right time and fit snugly into each other’s lives. Sometimes when you wait for something, it arrives and proves worth waiting for.” I am convinced that Sally and Petey hit the jackpot.

We were contacted by Sally M. from Vermont in October 2006. I received this long thoughtful e-mail:

“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Jeanneney,

I am emailing you because I would like to be put on the waiting list for a puppy from your next litter. I have been doing blood tracking with my two-year-old Beagle but after a year and a half of mediocre performances during training, 1-1/2 hunting seasons with absolutely no success and especially after having the opportunity to watch Tom DiPietro's dog Musket work, I have to finally admit that he doesn't have what it takes to do the job. I have had to cut this year's season short and pass all my deer calls on to Tom since it doesn't feel right taking calls knowing my dog and I won't be able to help. Although my Beagle has a good nose, he's an anxious dog and after half an hour of frantically trying to track a deer, he's an exhausted, confused, quivering ball of nerves who can't think straight. This has been frustrating and somewhat embarrassing and not a whole lot of fun for my dog.

I'm a single mother with a 13-year-old daughter as well as a seven-year-old Basset mix and four cats. We live in northern Vermont off a dead end dirt road surrounded by 100s of acres of woods. I work at home so my dogs are my constant companions and my best friends. I spend a lot of time outside with my dogs and take them up into the woods for a couple of hours every afternoon, depending on the weather. I also have an underground dog fence encompassing my house, pond and five acres of woods which has worked very well, even for my Beagle.

I have read your book and have had a good look at your website and am impressed by your obvious love of the dogs, and especially by the care and attention you give your puppies. Since three dogs is all I think I can manage and "getting rid of" someone is not an option, I would like to maximize my chances of finding a solid tracking dog and I think having one of your puppies is the best way to do that. I am ready for a level-headed, calm, gentle but tough little dog with a lot of guts who will be a good friend and hopefully a great tracking dog. I realize you are in the midst of hunting season and probably very busy, so please get back to me when you have the time.”

I was very impressed by Sally’s introduction but highly skeptical. A single mother with two dogs and two cats, and, as I later found out, she was not a hunter. This request was highly unusual. There are very few women trackers. Most of the time we get inquiries from hunters who would like to have a dachshund for tracking and at the same time have a pet for their family. Or occasionally we hear from dachshund people who’d like to get involved in blood tracking so their dachshunds have something to do. But Sally’s only motivation was her fascination with tracking. Also, even though our success with selecting puppies for their new owners is quite successful, what would happen if we made a mistake? What if a puppy did not turn out the way Sally desired? In spite of our doubts, we decided to go ahead, and we put Sally on the waiting list for Keena’s next litter.

Keena's litter of seven puppies was whelped on March 19, 2007

I asked Sally to join our borntotrack yahoo group and United Blood Trackers, and she promptly did. I also sent her 2nd edition of John’s book on blood tracking dogs. Her next e-mail was somewhat surprising: “I received the new book yesterday. I wasn't expecting such a beautiful hard cover book. That was very kind of you to send it to me and I greatly appreciate it. I see the part about the scent shoes is quite a bit more positive than it was in the last book. I just know there's a way to make a pair of homemade ones and I have a few ideas I'm going to be trying out. I also found the appendix about the e-collars interesting. My older dog doesn't need to be on a leash in the woods but my Beagle does. One of these collars might work well for him since he respects the underground fence very well. It sure would be nice to walk in the woods not attached to an energetic Beagle so I'm going to look into these.”

Sally’s resourcefulness about scent shoes was impressive, and she ended up constructing her own shoes: “I did end up putting together some homemade scent shoes by cutting the soles off a pair of old boots and taking a trip to the hardware store. I only tried them out for a few minutes in the front yard and they seemed to work fine though it felt like I had high-heeled shoes on (at least I think so as I've never worn heels). I have no idea how they'll hold up - they might fall apart after a few uses, who knows.

I also invested in an e-collar for my Beagle and the results are nothing less than miraculous! I had to use it twice the first day and once the second day, but we have now spent 8 afternoons in the woods without a leash and without having to use the zapper. We are both so much happier. What a pleasure to watch him running back and forth with his tail going and his ears flapping. He now gets to chase chipmunks with my other dog without being frustrated by the end of the leash. I'm so glad he responded well and quickly - I hated to have to cause him pain but there was no other way and I think he would even agree that it was worth it.”

I liked Sally more and more. The fact that she was willing to learn and had an open mind was invaluable. So many times we come across people who “know better” despite their limited experience or are not willing to change their approach when things do not go well.

On March 19, 2007, Keena whelped a litter of seven puppies, and one of them was to go to Sally. After many communications with Sally, we selected for her a nice male whom we called Matthias (it was an M litter). He was a very laid back pup, with nice personality, and he had a suitable functional conformation for tracking in Vermont. He did not have a super strong tracking drive but we were pretty sure that this would come with age, training and experience on natural lines. Sally came to pick him up when he was 11 weeks old.

Pete (aka Matthias) has a red collar

We really liked her as she is a rare combination of no-nonsense attitude, sensitivity and toughness. We spent several hours with Sally going over puppy training and tracking, and next day we heard from her: “Puppy is doing just fine. It was a long ride home yesterday because there were some trees down, one of the roads was closed and I had to find another way home. I stopped once to take him out but otherwise, the puppy was quiet and slept most of the time in the car. He has handled himself quite well at home too. He's been brave and friendly with my other dogs and even the cats. My older dog is not impressed and after meeting the puppy, has since ignored him. My Beagle is very interested, though nervous and a little afraid of the puppy, as I expected. The puppy spent midnight to 6:00 AM in the crate without a peep. He's been very affectionate and friendly and seems to be quite taken with my daughter. He's eating well too. I will email more in a few days and send pictures. “

Just three days later we got another message: “The puppy is doing very well. We are calling him Pete. He seems to be very comfortable here and I'm impressed with how well he has taken all the changes. He is quiet and calm and sure of himself, and not afraid of much. He's been swimming, gone for a car ride, walked in the woods with the other dogs. He's also pulled one of the cat's tails, humped the other dogs and eaten cat poop. What a life! He's doing well in his crate at night and eating well. He doesn't seem to be a very destructive chewer but if something moves, he wants to kill it - like my broom. My Beagle is still a little snappy with him - he's always been second to my other dog and I think he's enjoying being the boss over someone else for once and can take it too far. He's much better outside but I have to watch him closely in the house. Since things are going well, I'm planning on laying a track this weekend. I will keep you updated.”

At the end of June we heard “We finally got a nice uninterrupted practice track in yesterday and Pete did a beautiful job. 100 yards, 2-1/2 hours, 3 turns, slow and steady with no help. Feeling good about trying a four-hour line this week.”

A month later: “Pete is doing just fine. He had his second round of shots last week and all is well. He's just about 14 pounds now. His housetraining is going well - not quite 100% but close. He's up to 1 hour walks in the woods every day with the other dogs now. I watch him closely and carry him when he seems tired, but that's becoming less often. He's comfortable around the water and rides on my floatie with me on the pond like he's Cleopatra. He'll jump right in if he sees something interesting. He had his first four-wheeler ride last week which didn't seem to bother him a bit except he wanted to get down to run with the other dogs. His manners are coming along well. My other dogs are very well behaved and responsive so I think he's learning a lot from them. He's a lot of fun to have around and has fit in very well.

We had 2 good 4-hour lines over the last week or so, so today we tried a 7-hour line. He had trouble in one spot that he just couldn't get but the rest of it went well and he got both of the 90 degree turns. We're still doing not quite 100 yards and using about 2 ounces of blood on the sponge stick. For the last 2 lines I've used the tracking shoes as well. He definitely knows what is going on now and when he sees me get his tracking leash out, he gets excited and heads for the door. “

And again a month later: “Pete is doing just fine. We did our first 10-hour line yesterday and he did fairly well. He gets pretty excited about it now and is starting to rush and not be as careful as I would like. I'm going to start leaving treats along the way and see if this helps. Otherwise he seems to be coming along well. He's pretty close to 100% reliable with housetraining and he's growing well. He has graduated from the crate at night to my bed and he's doing well on the leash when we walk on the road, though handling 3 dogs on leashes is a little tricky. One of his favorite things is chasing butterflies which he will eat if he catches one. So all is well, more updates later.”

Sally wanted to train Pete to handle in the woods and since she had such a good and quick success with her Beagle, she wanted to try e-collar with Pete. I advised her to talk to Andy Bensing, who is a professional dog trainer. She wrote: “I did manage to finally get hold of Andy. He seemed to really know what he was talking about and explained the training process very well. It was simple, it made sense and it was humane. The video he suggested is the Tri-Tronics e-collar training video. I haven't received it yet to tell you what I think of it. Apparently I lucked out with having it work so well with my Beagle and was a lot more ignorant that I thought. Please know that I'm only planning on using it as a last resort when it's either that or lose my dog. I will only take the training as far as I have to go to make sure that if I ever have to use it, it will have the desired result. Pete has responded very well to training with treats and is actually very reliable with "come", but I need to have a backup just in case or I won't feel comfortable walking him off leash.

We've been stuck on 18-hour overnight lines for the past couple of weeks. He only just completed his last one without help so I'll wait until he's done a few more before I move on to 24-hour lines. He's always excited about it and certainly tries hard though.”

In September Sally wrote: “Here's a picture of Pete from the other day. He's doing great. The e-collar training is done and was very quick and easy. He passed the ultimate test yesterday when three or four deer jumped out in front of us. All dogs stopped dead when I yelled, including Petey. I didn't have to use the collar so maybe I never will. I hope not, but at least now he knows what it means.

He's been having some trouble with his training the past three weeks or so - starts off well but easily distracted, can't keep his mind on the job - though he did very well at Tom's house last weekend on some lines he laid out at his house. Not worried though, maybe he's just getting bored at home. I'll try to spice things up a little in the next couple of weeks.”

In October Sally was writing about her disappointment about tracking real deer with her seven month old puppy. “Pete and I have been out on five calls but as he is still so young, we have been struggling and I'm not sure how to proceed.

On a good note, we did have one find. The hunter really should have found it himself, but just didn't look hard enough. Petey tracked about 50 yards to the edge of a stream and the hunter said he had heard a splash but for some reason "knew" the deer hadn't crossed. We eventually found the deer on the other side of the stream across from where Petey had taken us. The hunter actually found it, but Petey was pretty close and heading in the right direction. After a minute of getting used to the deer he put on a pretty good show of trying to tear its legs off and then had to be dragged out with the deer as he was attached to its neck. So at least that was a good experience for him.

On the other hand, our other four calls have been the same thing - deer hit the night before (18 hours ago) with a blood trail that quickly ends. He can track what blood is there but then is unable to go any further. I don't get a lot of calls and I've never gotten one with the deer hit less than 12 hours ago so if I waited for an easy, fresh one, we'd never get to track at all. Even though I tell everyone I know who hunts to call me if they get a deer, this has yet to happen.

I realize that asking a seven-month-old puppy to track with no blood is unrealistic. John's book says it will take 30-40 real life calls before he can be expected to do this. Even though I tell people he is a young, inexperienced dog, they still get their hopes up and I feel terrible using these people as practice calls knowing that finding their deer is highly unlikely. I'm also concerned that this is doing Petey a disservice by putting him in these situations where he is in over his head and not getting rewarded. I'm afraid he will lose his enthusiasm and just end up confused. How can Petey get these 30-40 calls under his belt without getting frustrated and bored?

I talked to Tom on the phone about this tonight and we thought about taking calls together with Petey doing what he can and then Musket taking over. This sounds great to me but might be hard to coordinate as we would both have to be available to take the call.

So basically, should Petey and I keep banging our heads against a wall hoping for a miracle? Should I wait for that easy, fresh call even if it means waiting until next year? I want to do what is best in the long run and am willing to be patient, but hunting season is short and I'd like to get what I can out of it.”

Tom DiPitro with Musket and Sally with Petey

John’s response to Sally was: “Sally, I think that you are expecting much too much from a young puppy. Some puppy owners may be finding deer, but we don’t know all the circumstances. Their lines were probably not as difficult as the ones you have encountered. It is OK to take easy calls with Petey, but I don’t think there is much point in taking on 18-hour-old scent lines without blood. You don’t have a finished tracking dog yet, and you should not expect him to act like a mature, experienced dog.”

December brought this e-mail: “Petey is doing just fine - actually seems to like the snow. I got him a nice coat that he doesn't seem to mind too much. He has successfully demoted my beagle to third dog position as expected, but I think old Fred is pretty safe as top dog. I think he's off to a good start with his tracking and I'm very pleased with what he's done this year. He's very well-behaved when we're in the woods at home - his early training has really paid off. He wears the e-collar but I've never had to use it. He's a great little dog and I'm very lucky to have him.”

Five months later we got a longer update: “He's doing great and I couldn't be happier with him. He's a wonderful little dog with a big personality, very funny and quirky, has impeccable house manners, friendly and outgoing, and is very reliable off leash in the woods. He continues with his ball obsession - thank you for the raquetball suggestion, they're perfect.

We've done two training blood lines so far. On the first one, Petey was so excited he was all over the place, but the second one went a little better although he was still pretty excited. That's certainly understandable - you should have seen his face light up when I got the tracking harness out.

I have a Basset mix named Fred whom Petey idolizes and whose life Petey saved this week. I was working on the computer, Fred was outside and Petey was inside. Petey started barking frantically at the door which is very unusual for him, and when I went to see why, I found Fred having a seizure outside on the doorstep. I managed to get him to the vet in about 15 horrible, frantic minutes which was a good thing because she said it was one of the worst seizures she's ever seen and would have soon killed him. He spent two nights at the vet's office and is still weak and very shaky on his hind end, but lucky to be alive. He's on phenobarbital now and I just have to wait and see how far he will come back. If Petey hadn't barked at the door, I would never have known anything was wrong and I would probably have lost old Fred. I will be forever grateful to Petey for that.

Petey's doing great, he's happy and healthy and looking forward to a summer's worth of training. You definitely chose the right puppy for me and I thank you.”

After the tracking season 2008 was over we received this e-mail:

“Now that bow season is over for us, I thought you'd like to hear that Petey has done an absolutely beautiful job this year. We had a pretty discouraging summer as far as training was concerned - he had plenty of enthusiasm, but just seemed to be all over the place and wasn't able to finish even a simple line by himself. When we started taking calls, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Every time we went out, he was all business and did exactly what he was supposed to do and did it well. He was enthusiastic, focused and determined, wasn't distracted by squirrels or chipmunks, would swim a brook without hesitation and never gave up. We had 6 finds out of 15 calls plus 1 we kicked up and let go. I can't tell you how thrilled and proud of him I am.

One night he tracked steadily for two hours before we found the deer. It had been shot through the butt so it went a long way. He got stuck a couple of times but figured it out for himself and never showed any signs of slowing down. Another night, Tom DiPietro got a call but Musket was exhausted so we took Petey and their puppy, Scout, so he could follow along. We found that one too, and since Petey got to follow Musket a few times last year, I felt pretty good about being able to return the favor.

We only had 1 embarrassing episode on an old track on a dry day with not much to start with. Petey didn't take us any further than the hunter, and eventually went into a hollow log and after lots of barking and thumping, came out with porcupine quills in his mouth. So, not only did the hunter not get his deer, but he ended up having to help me pull quills out of Petey's mouth. Other than that one though, on the calls where we didn't find the deer, Petey always took us further than the hunter and twice was able to find the blood when the hunter wasn't able to find any.

The only thing I don't like about his tracking is that he pulls so hard and tends to rush and get too excited. He's a very solid, strong 25 pounds and I'm not a big person. He will use up twice as much energy than is necessary. Gloves are a necessity and a collar is not an option. He will do this especially if the track is fresh and often needs to be brought back a few times before he'll settle down. Holding him back so he's not attached to the deer while the hunter drags it out of the woods is more exhausting for me than actually finding the deer. On an older track or when there's not too much blood, he's slower and more methodical. I'm assuming that as he gets older, this will get better. He also barks when he's tracking, but it’s only either when there's good, fresh blood and we're close to getting the deer, or if he's gone off and is after a fresh, healthy deer track. So if he's barking his head off and I'm not seeing any blood, I bring him back and this has worked so far.

I've learned an awful lot this year. I now feel confident in being able to read Petey's tracking body language and the way he feels at the end of the leash. I also feel a lot more confident about talking to the hunter - what questions to ask and telling him how he can help me. I've also learned that very often the hunter is completely mistaken about the situation and things can look very different when you get there than they sounded on the phone. I've also learned that the hunter doesn't necessarily appreciate it when your dog pulls his deer's tail off.

When I came to your house to pick Petey up, John told me I needed a gun and he was absolutely right. Two of the deer we found were down but still alive and the hunters had to cut their throats. This was extremely unpleasant for me, to say the least, and I don't ever want it to happen again. I know nothing about guns, but I have some friends who are going to help me with this and I will make sure I have one next year.

Other than his tracking, Petey is doing extremely well. He's gained four pounds since the spring when I finally found a combination of food that agrees with him. He's been healthy except for when he got squirted by a skunk directly in the face. He threw up that night and it smelled very strongly, so I'm pretty sure he swallowed some of it. It took three days and a trip to the vet before he would eat, but he bounced back quickly. He's active and happy, funny, smart, and has healthy relationships with my other dogs and six cats. He has impeccable house manners and is reliable off leash in the woods. I can't begin to explain how much he means to me and how good it makes me feel to be able to give him the opportunity to do what he was born to do and obviously makes him so happy. After four long, frustrating years, I am finally on my way with a fantastic little dog - Thank You! Sally”

I am sure that Sally and Petey will go through ups and downs, and there will be challenges ahead. But I am convinced that this a great match, and they both hit a jackpot.

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