April 4, 2010

Working dogs in the news

Two stories: one hopeful, one skeptical.

First up, from the NY Times: For the Battle-Scarred, Comfort at Leash’s End. Excerpt:
Just weeks after Chris Goehner, 25, an Iraq war veteran, got a dog, he was able to cut in half the dose of anxiety and sleep medications he took for post-traumatic stress disorder. The night terrors and suicidal thoughts that kept him awake for days on end ceased.

Aaron Ellis, 29, another Iraq veteran with the stress disorder, scrapped his medications entirely soon after getting a dog — and set foot in a grocery store for the first time in three years.

The dogs to whom they credit their improved health are not just pets. Rather, they are psychiatric service dogs specially trained to help traumatized veterans leave the battlefield behind as they reintegrate into society.

Because of stories like these, the federal government, not usually at the forefront of alternative medical treatments, is spending several million dollars to study whether scientific research supports anecdotal reports that the dogs might speed recovery from the psychological wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Full story and audio slide show here. Photo at top left by Stephen Crowley for The New York Times.

Next: can dogs follow a six month old track? And if they can't, how is it that two search dogs — a yellow Labrador and a German short-haired pointer — came so close were driven to a site two miles from the place a murder victim's body was hidden?
The handlers, Sarah Platts and Julie R. Jones, partners at Virginia-based VK9 Scent Specific Search and Recovery Unit, say their highly trained dogs possess specialized skills that have made believers of many families and police agencies.

"It's a revelation for some folks," said Platts, 48, adding that her volunteer organization has helped authorities gather evidence on numerous murder and missing-person cases.

Dog handler organizations are skeptical. Their profession, members say, has been undermined over the years by handlers claiming amazing crime-busting abilities who were later exposed as frauds. They say Quincy and Jack's work was an incredible coincidence or a calculated hoax.

Attributing heroic skills to lovable dogs is natural but invites false hope, said Roger Titus, a trainer with the National Police Bloodhound Assn.
The article is online now, and will be on the front page of Monday's print edition of the L.A. Times: Dogged faith in these trackers.


Heather Houlahan said...

I have left my comment for the LA Times.

It's hard enough convincing the cops that we SAR handlers aren't all witch doctors without goobers running around making wild claims.

I'm sorry, that's intemperate and unfair. Witch doctors can often actually fix 'ya up.

Hint: "We drove the dogs to within two miles of the body" is NOT "close."

Luisa said...

This is how I looked while I was reading the article.

I drive the back roads through Pala when I visit my sheepdog trainer, and for what it's worth, in summer the temps can be over 100F and the ground is baked dry. I'm not the only one on the road, either. There are two or three big casinos on tribal land nearby, steady traffic -- Pala isn't a big town, but "remote Indian village"? I LOL'ed.

Sarah Platts said...

All I can say at this time is that your facts are inaccurate (and unfair).
The facts of what we did are contained in our after action report written and submitted months ago to LE.
While speculation is nice, unfortunately, we are unable to defend ourselves because the case is still open.

Heather Houlahan said...

Well Sarah, we can set up a trail tomorrow and you can come run it -- blinded, with blinded observers and no hints about DOT -- in October. With a six-month-old scent article. On video.

I'll even do it here, in our non-arid environment.

I'll get someone to lay it and preserve the GPS track and communicate nothing about it.

I have colleagues in arid environments who are skeptical, with good empirical reasons, of the feasibility of running a 24-HOUR old trail when the day has been sunny.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Rob said...

Pala is an interesting non-place. My dad's family used to own a citrus and avocado farm in Fallbrook, just on the other side of the 15.

There was a fairly infamous case back in the late 80's/early 90's not too long after the completion of the 15 wherein a CHP officer killed a pretty young blonde girl. (I seem to remember reading about this in the LA Times Magazine, back when that was a weekly.) The prosecution botched the case, the judge declared a mistrial, and the girl's father doubled down his efforts to get the case handled properly. (The officer was, in fact, convicted.) One of the side effects of this was that the father successfully lobbied Caltrans to permanently close the offramp said officer used.

The whole area has become amazingly built up in a very short time. The only access used to be U.S. 395 when I was a kid, which was a guaranteed barf-o-matic drive because both my siblings had motion sickness problems. Now it's pretty much wall-to-wall civilization almost from the 91 junction down to San Diego. I don't know where they find room for wine grapes, but they do.

Sarah Platts said...


I’ve demo’ed this stuff before and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Blind, double-blind, actual case recoveries, etc – it doesn’t matter - it always gets turned around into the “blind squirrel managed to find a nut” issue. So what I would rather do is show you how to do it and train for it with your own dogs. If your dogs are footstep trackers then you will probably have problems in which case bring a young dog that doesn't know any better. Fall is not bad here, so take a week off, pack up your trailing dogs, and come for a visit.

Heather Houlahan said...

My offer of a double-blinded test with a six-month aged track, documented with state-of-the-art GPS (both tracklayer and trailing team) and videotaped by a blinded walker stands.

I am dead serious about this. I am not interested in playing any other games.

Rob said...

Ah. I think the case was actually Cara Knott's murder at the hands of CHP officer Craig Peyer, and I misremembered the area; it was actually near Scripps Ranch in Poway, not Pala.

Luisa said...

@Rob: Will you marry me?

Sarah Platts said...


I spoke last night with a animal sensory researcher. He is going to speak with a couple of PhDs in the field and they are going to get a study set up for me into this area and testing will occur with them. That way the results will actually mean something and the SAR politics issue is removed.

Rob said...

Wow! Chicks dig Wiki!

Heather Houlahan said...

Well I'm sure your unnamed researcher and the anonymous PhDs will be publishing the study design prior to setting up trials, so that they may be peer-reviewed before execution. Right?

I like the gratuitous invocation of "SAR politics." Because anyone who actually works in the field must be just jealous. The way we were all jealous of Sandra Anderson. Still are!

Besides, what would I and Perfesser Chaos know about all that complicated sciencey stuff?

Sarah Platts said...


It's not about jealousy. And there is no need to be snippy. I am simply trying to get an unbiased, third party involved that is disinterested in the outcome. That way whatever happens - it is what it is.

Donald McCaig said...

Six month old track. Hmmm. Although I've watched and been mightily impressed by Heather and Ken training, I claim no SAR Expertise and have no dog in this fight.

I am, however, a dog guff expert. I have heard a lot of it. For reasons which would take too long to explain here, dog guff is epidemic ion our culture.

The sure indicator of guff is: you can't test it. The dogs in question are in another state or owned by someone who doesn't believe in tests or is agoriphobic or or or . . .

The only cure for the guff is the objective, public test. "Herding" guff is muted by the availability of the sheepdog trial which is open to any dog and/or handler.

Heather's SAR test of the 6 month old track seems equally fair.

Ms. Platt's objection to Heather's challenge may be travel/time/expense difficulties or it may indicate guff. Ms. Platt's suggestion that Heather train with her is condescending and irrelevant.

Heather wasn't asking "What happens if we train together" but "Can your dogs do what you say they can do?" -

Whether any dog can follow a six month old trail is an interesting question.

But not, I think, hard to answer.

Test it.

Luisa said...

Mr. McCaig writes: The only cure for the guff is the objective, public test.


He adds: "Herding" guff is muted by the availability of the sheepdog trial which is open to any dog and/or handler.

I'll add that in North America, sheepdog trial means USBCHA Open trial.

As opposed to those "herding trials" where your dog can win a "herding title" if he manages to follow tame sheep down a fence line three times out of fifty attempts.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh - I bet I could get a herding 'title' on one of my chickens if I put a bit of work into it (and filled a sheep's tail with grain).

PBurns said...

"Guff". There's a word. I think it means what I call nonsense, fantasy, bullshot, pretending.

Like Don, I know nothing about search and rescue, but in the terrier world we say the nonsense stops at the hole.

Don and and both live in VA, and I will be happy as hell to lay a trail this week for a dog to follow two months from now, much less six.

How about it?


Heather Houlahan said...

There is claiming that your Labradoodle "herds sheep."

The reality check for that is the sheepdog trial. It reflects an individual's ability to meet a standard of work that all agree is possible.

There's claiming that your Labradoodle is a SAR dog. The reality check for that is any of a number of external and possibly somewhat objective certification tests. States have 'em, a couple national organizations have 'em. None are great, frankly, and I want to see that cert in conjunction with something more comprehensive from a reputable unit. But it's what we have now. Same idea as the sheepdog trial, without the element of competition.

Then there's claiming that your Labradoodle gathers the sheep, puts them in the barn, vaccinates and worms them, trims hooves, and stays up nights pulling lambs while you watch Netflix in the house.

Donald McCaig said...

I like Heather's definition: " a standard of work that all agree is possible."

All tests are not created equal. (See "herding trials") Since (field) bird dog and traditional sheepdog trials are designed for genetic selection the important tests are so difficult only the very best dogs can succeed For three consecutive years no sheepdog completed the Double Lift championship course at the National Finals.

Sport competitions and human competitiveness have produced tests which reliably produce useful working dogs for ordinary bird hunters and farmers.

SAR certification is designed (I gather) as a test of complex skills which are in part genetic (one wouldn't use a pug or minipoo) but are mostly trained.

That said: could a sport version of the present certification be designed? Should it be?

Donald McCaig

Would a "sport" version of SAR certification be designed?

Donald McCaig

Heather Houlahan said...

Donald, "sport versions" of SAR work have been tried, mostly in Europe.

They are contemptible.

For context, to become operational by our unit standards requires over a year of properly logged regular training, most of it observed/directed by a training officer. Handler must meet the requirements for ground SAR certification -- some of it now set by the Feds -- including field skills, medical, etc. The team meets some criteria using checkoffs as they achieve training benchmarks.

Then comes the testing. It takes two to three long hard days to complete the field tests for one team. A minimum of two examiners, one test administrator, and up to six volunteer lost subjects. The tests are double-blinded and conducted on strange territory. We need over 200 acres of usable terrain for each test.

And then we ALSO ask each handler to pass an outside evaluation (under much less rigorous conditions -- more of a "spot check" than a comprehensive evaluation) to further enhance the team's credibility. Depending on availability (our biggest problem with outside certs) this will normally be either a PA DCNR or a NASAR exam. The former takes a full long day per team, the latter about half a day. Both require prerequisite certifications and logs, etc.

We do this because when we field a team under our aegis, we are making a promise to the lost person that we have done all that is humanly possible to help him.

When someone smiles and tells me that her goggie is a search dog too, he has a Dog Scouts merit badge in search, you can imagine my response.