Does this dog have the best job ever?

Remember how you felt when you found out that someone actually gets paid to taste ice cream flavors? Or test video games?

That’s how your dogs are going to feel when they find out that some dogs get paid to sniff poop!

Meet Crush, a sewage sniffing dog from Environmental Canine Services. She and her handler, Aryn Hervel, have traveled to my part of northwest Washington state a few times to track down the sources of fecal coliform bacteria in our water ways.

Unregulated agriculture is a huge part of the problem, but Crush is trained to alert to the smell of human waste specifically. Last week, she was in Whatcom County, sniffing samples of water taken from watersheds with high levels of contamination. By letting us know which samples contain human poop, Crush is helping officials locate sources of septic tank failures or sewage leaks.

Your dog’s pretty jealous, right? I mean, I play nose work games with my dogs, but never with actual, aromatic human poop!

Nose work has gotten very popular recreationally because it reinforces what your dog was born to do, and it’s entirely reward-based: when the dog finds the hide, she gets a treat!

Fearful dogs can gain confidence through nose work; dog-reactive dogs can take nose-work classes, since no other dogs are in the room while they search; and obedience school drop-outs (or flunk-outs) can even excel at nose work, since obedience commands are discouraged in the nose work arena!

Training should always be fun for both the dog and the handler. Crush is super lucky because her handler adopted her from a shelter at four months, and found a way to turn the nose work game into a career.

What have you done that’s fun for your dogs today?

Positive TrainingThis post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Cascadian NomadsTenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below.  Our theme for this month is play and trying out new training games. The Linky Link will be open through Sunday.

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Girls like flowers

After 14 springs in Washington state, I guess I don’t have to go to the tulip fields every April. Fortunately, Mia and I saw some color in the beds along Mount Vernon’s newish Skagit River Walk.

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Goldilocks and two other bears

Not dog-related, but I saw Grizzly Bears!
bears_2

Rocky and Coco, Atnarko River, Oct. 2015

I first learned of grizzly bear rafting tours a year ago when I drove through Bella Coola, British Columbia, with my mom, but it was July and the bears weren’t out yet. Rob and I returned for a one-day whirlwind trip with one goal: to see grizzly bears.

It’s possible to get there by ferry, but it takes about 20 hours along the inside passage from Port Hardy, B.C., (and first you have to get there). Rob and I flew one hour on a small Pacific Coastal plane from the Vancouver Airport and were met by a staff member from the Bella Coola Mountain Lodge, which also operates the bear tours. Fraser Koroluk and his wife, both biologists, own the lodge and Fraser is the bear guide.

Arriving on the banks of the Atnarko, we were hit with the pungent smell of rotting salmon carcasses; familiar to me, less so to Rob. Fraser paddled us and four others down the Atnarko. Pink salmon were still spawning, and we saw the occasional chinook under our raft as well.

The most bears they’ve seen on a tour is 20, and that was last summer. Sometimes, they don’t see any. About 10 minutes into our tour, just as I thought we might be one of the unlucky groups not to see any bears, there she was, standing on a log. I felt like everyone on the raft saw her at the same time, but Fraser was concentrating on paddling, so my breathless, “Bear,” alerted him.

Goldi

Goldi

He’s been calling her Goldilocks, because of some light brown coloring near her face. A single female, Goldilocks likely had mated with a few boars over the summer, and was now eating as much salmon as possible to get fat enough to survive pregnancy, birthing cubs and nursing them during hibernation. Egg implantation in female bears is delayed, so if they don’t gain enough weight, they won’t get pregnant.

Since the lodge has been doing these tours for about 14 years, the bears are tolerant of rafts of people floating by, and Fraser is careful to keep a respectful distance.

After watching Goldi devour several whole salmon carcasses and wander back into the woods, we continued downriver where we found Coco and her two-year-old cub Rocky on a gravel bar. Other tour groups have witnessed lively wrestling matches between mother and son (which is how Rocky got his name), but they were moving a little slower on this day.

Coco and Rocky

Rocky

Rocky log

Even though Coco won’t have more cubs until Rocky is grown and on his own, they also have to eat as much salmon as possible before hibernation – this gorging phase is called hyperphagia. While Coco swam between gravel bars looking for salmon, Fraser observed that Rocky seemed a little bored.

In addition to my utter joy at watching grizzly bears in their natural environment, I really appreciated Fraser’s expertise about grizzly bear life cycles, and these bears in particular. It was also another reminder of the importance of healthy salmon populations.

Monday Mischief

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D is for Dedication

Tiptoe with Two Dogs
Dedication is putting your camera on a tripod in front of fields of tulips, setting the timer to take 10 photos after 10 seconds, then running through the mud with two large dogs to pose. Do this 10 times or so, and you might end up with one photo where both dogs are looking at the camera.

You might also end up with dirty jeans, mud soaked through your socks, and a car interior in need of detailing, but it’s so worth it.

Here are some outtakes.

Dedication also is a commitment to give your dogs the best life you can, to nurture their good qualities and help them through their challenges. We’ll talk more about that on Monday, when E stands for Every Day.

For more about my journey to discovering the benefits of positive reinforcement, read my book, Bark and Lunge!

D

Reclaiming my sidekick

mia and me daffs

Rob’s been taking Mia to work a lot. Since he works on a college campus, Mia gets to visit with all kinds of people while she’s there. Many of the students miss their own dogs, so they’re pretty excited to see her. Also, Rob takes her on long walks.

My office is nowhere near as fun. Someone usually gives us a “Beautiful dog” in the parking lot, but aside from that, there’s no one to talk to. (Why do you think I need to bring her?)

But outside my office… I have daffodils.

mia and me daffs_2

AND I just discovered on Tuesday, there’s a duck pond in the industrial complex behind my building. With picnic benches. This changes everything.

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Evolution of Dogs and Wolves

Do you think Noah had two of every single dog breed on the ark? Or do you believe that dogs evolved from wolves?

wolf town_3

The latest research from PLOS Genetics suggests that today’s dogs and gray wolves share a common ancestor in an extinct wolf lineage that lived thousands of years ago. The researchers found no clear genetic link between the modern dogs and wolves studied, so dogs and wolves likely diverged from the same Stone Age wolves between 11,000 to 16,000 years ago.

We still don’t know how dogs were domesticated. We don’t even know when precisely, but one estimate is between 18,800 to 32,100 years ago. Could someone please write some historical fiction about this? I would love to read a Paleolithic-era novel about a European hunter-gatherer in the Stone Age and the very first pet dog.

To me, dog breeding is strong evidence that evolution happens. I compare a pug to a Great Pyrenees and wonder, How are these even the same species?

I also wonder, What would happen if we stopped breeding dogs?

The dog welfare community seems universally opposed to puppy mills and pet store dogs. These days, the politically correct, animal friendly way to acquire a dog is to rescue one from an animal shelter.

But “dog breeder” is not synonymous with “puppy mill.” Each dog breed was created for a reason, and responsible breeders exist. Isis and Leo both came from breeders committed to preserving the qualities that make German shepherds so loyal, intelligent, hard-working, and really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

Abandoning dog breeding means saying goodbye to the distinctions between Labradors and Belgian Malinois and border collies …

The dogs studied in the aforementioned PLOS Genetics research were basenjis from central Africa and dingos from Australia. These smallish, pointy-eared breeds bear some resemblance to the dogs I’ve seen in the streets of Thailand and India. Most street dogs, I’m fairly certain, are not bred by people.

I wonder, if people stopped breeding dogs to have longer coats, and flatter faces, and floppy ears, would all dogs evolve to look like this one?

E is for Evolution.
E

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My “normal” dog

The magic of Mia is that I can take her anywhere. Truly. She doesn’t even need a leash; she sticks right by me. Even on a leash, she doesn’t bark and lunge at any of the usual suspects.

My original plan for the Festival of the River was to take Mia with me both days, but then I decided to leave her at home the first day while I set up the booth and got a feel for things. As last year, I watched dogs walk by all day long and looked forward to having my buddy with me the next day.

When Rob and the doggies joined me that evening, we left Leo in the car while we picked up a few items I’d left at my booth. After we set up our tent in the woods, I took Mia on a second trip into the crowd to get a slice of pizza. Both times, she was an exemplary ambassador for the German shepherd breed, accepting oohs and aahs of admirers with a quiet grace and politely greeting other leashed canines large and small.

mia tent

The next morning, as we walked Leo and Rob back to their car, I said, “I’m so proud of Leo. I consider this weekend to be a complete success. Of course, now that I said that, probably Mia will have a complete meltdown. Ha ha ha.”

At the booth, I tethered Mia’s leash to a table as I rearranged my display boards and put out brochures, stickers and temporary tattoos. I set out a bowl of food and water. Early arrivals strolled between the booths, and before I even noticed the white pit bull and its owner, Mia barked at it.

Oh, no. No no no.

A few minutes later, another pair of dogs sparked the same reaction. A biologist working a booth across from me called out, “Kari, I don’t think your dog likes pit bulls.”

True, one of the pair was a pit bull, but I knew this wasn’t a breed-specific reaction.

“If she’s going to bark at every dog that passes by, this is going to be a long day. Ha ha ha,” I said. But I was thinking, If Mia barks at every dog that passes by, no one with a dog is going to stop at my booth, and people who are afraid of German shepherds aren’t going to stop here either. This was a really bad idea.

What am I going to do now? I can’t leave her in the car. I can’t just leave the festival. I have no cell phone reception, so it’s not like I can easily call Rob to come get her.

I had these thoughts because I have a history of owning reactive dogs. Leo’s barrier frustration makes him bark at passing dogs. If he were off leash and allowed to run up to every dog he saw, he would be perfectly friendly. I think. But because he is a redirected biter, I will not test this hypothesis.

Mia is not reactive. I knew she didn’t mean any harm by her barks, but her intent was irrelevant. I could not have a barking German shepherd at my booth.

Mia was unconcerned about other dogs on leash the night before, so what was the difference? Being tethered to a table?

Maybe I’ll just undo her leash and let her roam around my booth. Mia walked to the edge of the booth, nearly touching a vendor of geode wind chimes, and peered behind my vinyl curtain. The geode vendor gave me the stink-eye, so I leashed her back up.

I kicked myself for leaving Mia’s rubber Chuck-It ball in the car that Rob drove home. I tossed her an apple-shaped stress ball in hopes that she’d occupy herself with tearing it up for the next twenty minutes. She sniffed and ignored it.

Think, Kari, think. You know how to solve this problem.

Positive reinforcement. I filled a poop bag with treats and stuck it in my pocket. The next time I saw a dog approach, I gave Mia treats. My initial strategy was to get her to associate treats with the passing dogs, but Mia is so food-motivated that she was distracted enough to seem not even to notice the other dog.

An airedale, the same one we saw tethered to an RV earlier that day, lingered with its owner at a neighboring booth. Mia noticed her and barked a few times. I redirected her gaze in the other direction and wondered, Am I going to have to do this all day?

As it turned out, no, I didn’t have to do it all day. Either the positive reinforcement worked, or Mia just got used to the idea that other dogs were going to walk by. (Or both.) I gave her treats every time I saw another dog coming, but I also worked my booth, meaning I put temporary tattoo application and fish consumption rate explaining above Mia management. One guy entered my booth as I was treating Mia and I thought she might bark at the approaching dog as soon as I took my attention away from her, but she didn’t make a sound, and when I finished with the other guy, the dog was long gone.

While Mia may have driven off a dog-fearing festival-goer or two, she was a major attraction for many, many more people. Far more people asked, “Can I pet your dog?” than asked me to explain the importance of raising the state’s fish consumption rate, although you can bet I used Mia as an opening.

Here, Mia proved to be the bomb-proof dog I know her to be. At one point, I was concerned briefly she might frighten a toddler mid-pet by barking at a passing dog, but she did not. Perhaps strokes from a toddler are as positively reinforcing (and/or distracting) as a handful of treats. Other children cuddled her, rolled on top of her, and even put their sunglasses on her. (I wish I’d gotten a photo of that one.)

Mia and I both relaxed and I was so happy to have her with me. Her presence brightened my day. Gave me someone to talk to during the slow stretches in the afternoon.

As much joy as she brought me, and as much as I know she loves being by my side, it occurred to me that Mia might not actually be having the best time ever.

I had a similar feeling the night before, blissfully snuggled with Rob and the doggies in our tent. Rob had gotten stuck in horrible traffic on the way into the festival, and nettles scraped his legs as we set up camp.

“Are you having fun?” I asked.

“I’m just trying to get through it,” he said, perfectly amiably. I love that about Rob. The outing didn’t meet his expectations, but he didn’t punish me for it. Like Mia, he was there for me, making sure that I had a better time than I would have alone, but not getting all that much out of it himself.

That’s what our dogs do for us. If you asked Mia, she’d tell you she’d rather go with me anywhere than get left at home. But as the responsible adult, I recognize that bringing Mia to the festival was more fun for me than it was for her.

She was bored, lying on the grass beside me for hours on end, with the occasional break to walk to the port-a-potties. Worse, the constant assaults from strangers took a toll. Late in the day, a man asked if he could pet her and Mia barely raised her head to him before letting out an exhausted sigh. Sure, whatever, I’m here for your amusement.

My last post illuminated what I learned last weekend about managing my barrier-frustrated dog, Leo. I also learned a lesson about my perfect, normal, senior dog, Mia. Next year, I won’t force her to work the festival with me. (And Rob doesn’t have to drive down to camp out with me. Unless he changes his mind.)

Sleep tight, Mia Bear, you worked hard.

This post is part of a Senior Pet Awareness blog hop, brought to you by BlogPaws.

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Cocoons: My murderous obsession

If you walked onto your back porch at dusk and were swarmed with butterflies, you’d probably smile and say, “How magical.” If a ladybug crawled across your steering wheel, you might take its picture and post a blog about it.

Swap out the butterflies and ladybugs for moths and beetles, though, and your response would be more like:

“Aaah! Aaah! Get it off me! Get it off me!”

Right?

When I was a little girl, I found a fuzzy little caterpillar. I held it in my hand and thought it was so cute. Because I’d been brainwashed in school to think that fuzzy little caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies, I kept the caterpillar inside a jar with holes poked into the lid. I watched my pet caterpillar wrap itself in a cocoon and eagerly awaited its metamorphosis into beautiful butterfly.

So, yeah, I felt a little duped when a crappy little moth emerged.

We have a tent caterpillar situation in western Washington. I find the caterpillars themselves harmless enough, even when they congregate en masse on my chain link fence, or if one crawls across my foot while I’m reading on my patio. I’m not attached enough to my shrubs to care when they perforate all the leaves.

But last year, on a warm summer night, I left the back door open for the dogs to come in and out. The kitchen light was on, and after the sun set, I discovered dozens of moths slamming themselves against the light fixture like the undead.

Horror show.

This year, the tent caterpillar population has been an infestation of biblical proportions. I am not even exaggerating. I shudder to imagine the swarms of moths that will beat themselves against my sliding glass door this summer. How am I supposed to leave the door open for the dogs? We don’t even have a screen door because the dogs barreled through it.

The Internet prescribes various methods of deterring and poisoning caterpillars, but my soul is too sensitive to blast them with chemicals. A popular suggestion was to cut off the branches housing the tents where the caterpillar snuggle at night. We attempted that, but some of the tents are in trees too high to reach. And I can’t exactly cut off the post of my chain link fence.

Cocoons popped up on the dog run. I tried spraying these with vinegar — and then hornet spray — to kill them while they slept. To my horror, I could see the pupae writhing inside the cocoons. My sense of self deteriorated. I’m a murderer!

I decided the most humane thing would be to drown them. Wearing gloves, I started plucking the oblong dusty white cocoons from the chain link, and the side of my house, and the gutters, and the bases of our outdoor punching bags, and then dropping them into a bucket of soapy water.

Last week, I looked up to see a cluster — what do you call it in a sci-fi movie when they discover where the aliens are growing babies in jars, and there’s just thousands of them? That’s what it felt like — tucked into the leaves of my California myrtle. I grabbed garden shears and started hacking and yanking off branches and leaves, thinking, “I’m going to need a bigger bucket.”

I got really good at spotting cocoons in the leaves. I could tell by the way a leaf folded over that a caterpillar had tucked itself in there nice and tight. Every day after work, I dumped yesterday’s bucket and filled it up anew with cocoons and leaves, and if I saw a caterpillar working its way up a leaf, I flicked it in the bucket too. The other day, I swiped the whole collection of caterpillars sunning themselves on the post of our fence.

My murderous rampages became obsessive. I found the killing to be … satisfying.

No way to get them all — I can’t reach the cocoons on the eaves of the house — but when the moths come, I’ll know that there are fewer because of me.

Last night when we came home, my entire worldview shifted when I saw a lovely green moth by the front door.

“Is that what I’ve been killing?” I asked. “I wouldn’t mind seeing swarms of those. I thought I was killing those ugly brown moths.”

And that’s when I realized that I am racist.

green moth

Though it turns out, the emerald moths are NOT what I’ve been killing. They are from the family Geometridae, and their larvae are inch worms.