Old Dogs Learn New Tricks!

Hello again, from Cherie O’Boyle, Shiner, and Ben (who turns one year old today!!) and also from Patience, the cat.

After about ten years of obedience and agility classes, flyball tournaments, and herding trials, my border collie Shiner was ready for something new. Sadly, by then arthritis had claimed his left wrist joint, making running on uneven ground painful. His hearing was also going, meaning he could no longer follow the long-distance whistles directing him where to herd the sheep. But the dog was still ready to go. I knew I had to think of something fast as Shiner was staring at me with that unmistakeable border collie eye. So what was next?

What was next turned out to be “nose work” or, in AKC parlance, “scent work.” Nose work uses many of the same skills used by professional search and rescue teams, but has become more of a dog sport. Participants may attend “trials” to test their skills and earn ribbons and awards.

When people ask me about nose work, their first question is “How do you teach dogs to smell what you want them to smell?”

The answer, of course, is that we don’t teach dogs to smell what we want them to smell. They already do smell, all the time, although granted, not always what we want them to smell. Dogs live in a universe of scents that we can only imagine.

Nose work involves first, teaching dogs which one of those millions of scents we want to know about and how to make a sign when they’ve found that scent, and second, teaching the human to read the sign the dog makes. Nose work requires a strong bond between dog and human, making it the perfect activity to share.

Having said that, it turns out that many dogs need practice in using their remarkable sense of smell. As humans, we live in an almost exclusively visual and auditory world, and as a consequence, the dogs who live with us are rarely called upon to pay much attention to their olfactory universe. Nose work gives dogs a chance to hone skills they may not have practiced much, to amaze us with their abilities, and even to help us with tasks we would have a much harder time completing without their help. We’ve all heard about dogs being trained to alert doctors to the presence of cancer in patients. The surface of those abilities in dogs is barely being scratched.

Nose work is also a terrific activity for older dogs. It does not require great physical prowess or speed. Dogs who are losing other sensory skills such as hearing and even eyesight can successfully participate. Studies have found that dogs gain in self-confidence when they participate in nose work. Conveniently, I have forgotten how researchers measured self-confidence in dogs, but since the findings mesh so nicely with what I already want to believe, I’ll not lose sleep over that.

There can be no doubt that a shared interest in nose work bonds human and dog in ways little else can. In ideal nose work practice the human has no way of finding the target, and must rely entirely on reading and trusting the signals sent by the dog. There is nothing quite so fascinating as setting your dog on a “find” to search a car that you know has been planted with a scent, and watching the dog’s every sniff, every move, even the slightest head turn, for signs of an alert. And when the dog makes a successful find, celebration!

Sure, your dog may never win any nose work awards, but even practicing together is a fun way to build a connection between you. There are lots of videos available on-line to get you started.

Learning nose work with my dogs has informed my writing in a variety of ways. My most recent release is On Scent, a wilderness thriller featuring both air-scenting and tracking dogs. That one required a great deal of research, not just about canine skills, but also about kidnappings, law enforcement procedures, and fighting forest fires as well.

In my Estela Nogales Mystery series, all of the neighborhood dogs play various roles, always utilizing skills that dogs exhibit every day. They sniff out dead bodies, murder weapons, and bad guys. They tree lost cats, and come to Estela’s rescue simply by appearing at the right time in the right place. At no time in these mysteries do the dogs, cats, or wild boar ever talk or do anything else that these animals wouldn’t do in real life. And thank goodness for that, as, in Estela’s opinion, there is entirely too much yammering going on in the world already without dogs pitching in their two cents.

And just for the record, because whenever we learn something new we always include Patience, the cat, I have to tell you that she is faster and more efficient at finding the target scents than any of the dogs. She would have a boxful of ribbons too, if she cared to attend trials with all those barking dogs. Here she is giving her best “alert” sign on the correct box.

How about you and yours? What do you do to keep an older pet entertained? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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Creepy Crawlies in the Cat Bed

 

Hello again! For my second post, I have some disturbing news to share.

Creepie Crawlies in the Cat Bed

There is a vector on the rise that you need to know about if your household includes at least one cat, dog, or rabbit, and secondary food source, such as yourself. The critter in question is the cheyletiella mite. We recently had an infestation on our strictly-indoor cat, Patience, and co-occuringly, on the rest of us. The rise in the appearance of this mite is attributed to the increasing use of flea-control products that do not contain a pesticide aimed specifically at mites. Climate change is also implicated as a factor.  

If you have a strong stomach, you might want to check out this web site for more information and a truly disturbing photograph. 

 

Symptoms

Signs that your cat might be afflicted with mites include irritability in the cat caused by the itchy bites and sensations that something is crawling across their skin. Granted, irritability in cats caused by an infestation of mites is difficult to distinguish from your everyday feline irritability. If the infestation is severe enough, you will notice the same symptoms in yourself, accompanied by a plethora of itchy red bumps that can drive you to complete distraction. If you are weak-willed and cannot resist scratching, these bumps only become more itchy and break into patches of open, bleeding blisters. Caution: giving in to the itchiness will also measurably up your irritability score.

As you might guess from their extremely small size, unlike other blood-sucking pests, these mites do not carry on board an anesthetic to be injected before sinking their feeding parts into your skin. Thus, their bites are often accompanied by a sharp pain much like a tiny bee sting. The itchy red bump follows a day or so later. None of this is going to improve your ability to get along with others. 

The most reliable sign that your house is infested with mites is actual sightings of the mites themselves. For this you will need a bright light and a four year-old with perfect near-vision. If your household does not include such a person, and is instead made up of several vision-impaired older folks equipped only with “cheater” glasses from the discount store and a dusty magnifying glass, sightings of these mites may prove impossible.

If you do think you have spotted one, a tiny dot on a light-colored surface where your cat has recently been napping, you can try staring at the dot, watching for it to start crawling. Be careful not to breathe too enthusiastically while you stare as, due to their extremely small size, a single puff of air can blow them right out of Kansas. (This is a Californian’s feeble joke about tornadoes. I recognize that if you are reading this from most other parts of the country, tornadoes are no joking matter.) In any case, my point is, the dot can easily be blown away. Yes, they really are this small (that’s a penny to show scale). This mite is recently deceased.

 

If the dot you have spotted is alive, it eventually will begin moving, and usually in the direction of yourself. Mites are attracted to body heat and CO2, both of which you emit in abundance.

Collecting Evidence

Once the dot begins crawling, do not try to pick it up with your fingers or roll over it with a fingernail to kill it. Take it from me, neither of those techniques will work. The mite is too small for you to feel, unless you are dozing fitfully at two in the morning and it crawls across your neck. You will feel it then, and will come abruptly awake, twitching, thrashing, and clawing at your neck. But I digress.

What I’ve found works best is to scoop the dot up with a funnel made from a white index card. These critters move fast, so have a small, preferably clear container handy with an air-tight snap-on lid. Tap the funnel over the container until the dot drops inside, and snap the lid on tightly. You will need this exhibit to prove to your veterinarian that your household is truly infested with invisible dots that crawl on your skin. Without this evidence, you are in some danger of being remanded to the local detox facility with a presumed diagnosis of delirium tremens. It is not unlikely that your veterinarian, primary care physician, and pest management company will all insist they have never seen, nor even heard of these mites, so take the name of the mite with you along with your carefully collected evidence.

Treatment

Lucky for all concerned, the treatment for an infestation of cheyletiella mites is relatively simple and effective. Because both our dogs are on a flea-control product that contains a drug to kill mites, ivermectin*, the dogs were only transiently effected. Patience was not on any medication since she only leaves the house once a year and only then for the five minute ride to the vet’s office. We secured the ivermectin there, and within just a few days of its application our sightings of mites have significantly decreased.

Treatment should also include washing all of the pet’s bedding on your machine’s hottest setting and drying on high heat. If you are as squeamish as I, you will also want to similarly wash your own bedding, pajamas, towels, and all clothing. Thoroughly vacuum carpets, floors, drapes, and upholstered furniture. Wipe all washable surfaces with diluted ammonia including window sills, television consoles, and any place you have ever seen your cat sitting. Ever. I do not know that any of this is strictly necessary, but it will keep you busy while the ivermectin works its magic.

Check your flea-control medication box to see if it also controls mites. If not, you may want to begin your search for crawling dots. I sincerely hope you do not find any.

*Some herding breeds (of dogs) can have life-threatening reactions to ivermectin. There is a DNA test that can determine if your dog has the genetic mutation causing this reaction. Please check with your veterinarian before using this product on your dog.

 

 

Cherie O’Boyle, author of the Estela Nogales Mystery series, and On Scent, a working dog novel of suspense.

 

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A Tale of Two Working Dogs

Cherie O’Boyle here, and thank you for visiting my first post as a regular at Pens. Paws & Claws! As mentioned in my bio, my latest novel features search and rescue dogs working to locate a kidnapped toddler. Every day, it seems, we hear another story about how working dogs are using their special skills to help humans, and I look forward to writing more of their stories.

The following is a true story, really two stories about two working dogs.

Explosives Detection

At the end of an exhausting transAtlantic flight from Budapest, my friend and I gathered our things to deplane at Los Angeles International Airport. The flight attendants seemed unusually anxious for us to move along. They even opened previously unseen hallways in the huge aircraft, and we were rushed to exit through the first class cabin. I have never seen an airplane cleared out as fast as that one.

Once inside the terminal, a Transportation Safety Administration officer waved us to hurry up the escalator. What was the big rush? Baggage was already dumping onto the carousel by the time we got there, and TSA officers were helping passengers identify and claim their bags. When has that ever happened?

Something warm bumped the back of my leg as we waited, and I turned to see a basset hound in a TSA vest crawling over luggage, sniffing madly. At the other end of the leash, another TSA officer briskly encouraged her partner to “search.” It all happened so fast, we passengers hardly had time to react.

It was not until I got home and saw the evening news that I learned a credible bomb scare had threatened to blow up a plane upon landing at LAX that day. Thank goodness we had no idea at the time, and thank goodness a bomb-sniffing dog was on the job!

Are you surprised that a basset hound would be employed for bomb-detection? Every day we work with dogs, we learn about something new and helpful they can do. We’ve learned, for example, that all dogs, regardless of breed, have powerful abilities to discriminate scents, so all breeds and even mixed breeds can be trained in scent detection. 

We’ve also learned that in any situation where the dogs might have extensive contact with the public, it’s better to hire dogs with floppy ears. Floppy eared dogs are more likely to be perceived as friendly, while those with pointy ears are perceived as scary. If you’ve ever wondered why naturally floppy-eared doberman pinscher puppies have their ears cut off and taped upright, there’s your answer.

Customs and Border Protection Dogs

I said this would be a tale about two working dogs, so here’s the second half. Same trip, same friend, still at LAX.

Having claimed our bags, we dragged them down a long wide hallway to Customs. Coming toward us was a sweet beagle with a uniformed human at the other end of the leash, who I hardly noticed. After three weeks, I really missed my own dogs, and this beagle looked so friendly. Just ahead of me, the dog made a quick u-turn and took a sudden interest in my friend. My only thought was, isn’t that darling, the dog likes her. Then the Customs officer took my friend’s elbow and said, “You’ll have to come with me, ma’am.” As he hauled her away she protested, “It’s okay! It’s wrapped in plastic!”

As it turned out, the dog had scented a mystery meat sandwich she had been carrying since three in the morning when we left Budapest. Why the fact that it was wrapped in plastic was relevant was an even bigger mystery to me. My friend was also carrying an apple. She had not declared either item on her Customs form. The obvious conclusion from this story is, don’t try to slip anything past a sniffer dog, not even an apple, because those dogs are not fooling around!

How about you, have you ever encountered working dogs on the job? Do your dogs or cats do more for you than provide fuzzy hugs and comic relief (and those are no small contributions, for sure!) I’d love to hear from you! 

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