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Working a cat-detection dog.
Working a case with a cat detection dog.
Working the cat detection dog is very different than working the scent trailing dog. With Tino, most of the time, I hold on and try not to die as he drags me around on the scent trail. With Mu, it is mostly much calmer. We start out with a strategy, and I direct him to check certain hiding places as we do a thorough grid search. He rarely pulls hard unless he has found a cat. I have to be ready to hang on tight, but it’s not like he is yanking my arms off for three hours, like Tino.
When working the cat detection dog, we start with a plan based on the interview. Some locations are going to be more likely than others. In general, we try to search the area in sections, working back toward home, so that if we accidentally dislodge the missing cat, hopefully he will run closer to home, not farther away. Before we start a search, I will look at the map and identify the areas of highest probability. A yard that is immaculately groomed is probably less likely to offer a cat a hiding place. The yard with inoperable vehicles, wild shrubs, poorly maintained decks, old sheds, and missing crawlspace screens is going to offer a lost cat the most hiding places. Although our goal is to cover the whole territory thoroughly, just in case, I try to increase our odds of success by checking the most likely places first, if possible. In general, we will cover about a 350 foot radius from the point last seen, which is about 8.8 acres. I will pay attention to the wind, both according to what the weather app says, and based on what I see as far as steam from roof vents, or flags or tall trees. We try to work into the wind, so that the wind is scouring under decks and shrubs and bringing the scent to us. Because the cat detection dog is not pulling hard for three or four hours, like the scent trailing dog, he tends not to get hot so fast, so he can work in a broader range of temperatures.
The reasons we use a cat-detection dog instead of a scent trailing dog are because that’s what works, and also because lost cats usually hide not too far from the point last seen. Lost cats are found, 85% of the time, within that 350 foot radius. A dog that is missing will typically wander several blocks or sometimes many miles, in a series of loops. Dogs leave a scent trail from point A to point B, even if it has loops and switchbacks and dead ends. Cats don’t typically travel from point A to point B. They move and hide, and move and hide, creating a series of overlapping scent pools. When cats do move between properties, they don’t usually use the sidewalk. They go over and under fences, through shrubs and brambles, generally through obstacles that would make it very hard for a scent trailing dog to follow. Within the 350 foot search radius we use for most cats, there are going to be hundreds of very good hiding places for a cat. The goal of the cat-detection dog is to check those hundreds of hiding places and also look for evidence of a conflict. The cat-detection dog does not try to follow a trail from point A to point B in most cases, although there are exceptions. In fewer than 7 cases, the scent trailing dog helped establish a direction of travel, and in zero cases has the scent trailing dog tracked right to the lost cat, although it is theoretically possible. The cat detection dogs I have worked with have probably found 500 missing cats in the past 14 years.
If we locate many cats that are not the cat we are looking for, that can change our approach. A displaced cat is usually going to stay away from other cats who have established territories. If a particular house has many cats in the yard, we would search that last, assuming the lost cat would probably avoid it. Another thing that would cause us to adjust our search plan would be if we found evidence of a predator attack. As in the cases of Boots and Gandalf, once evidence was found, we concentrated on the paths a coyote would likely take, and we looked for evidence that would support the theory that he was taken by a coyote. We would still want to do a full grid search if no more evidence was found, but we would search the areas of highest probability first. Other evidence, while not suggesting a predator attack, could help you narrow the focus of your search. For example, cat hair left on the bottom of fence boards could suggest which way the cat probably went. Especially if the fur is new, and from a single pass under the fence, as opposed to a buildup of fur left by a cat that goes under there all the time.
When working either a cat detection dog or a scent trailing dog, it is important to use a tracking app on your phone, but for different reasons. On the cat search, you want to know where you have searched so you can come back and fill in any gaps. On several cat searches, we found the cat or found evidence when I looked at the map and saw a place we had skipped over for some reason.
In those rare cases where I use both dogs to find a cat, I will usually use the scent trailing dog first, to establish a direction of travel. If he finds the lost cat, that’s great, but so far it hasn’t worked out that way, because of the convoluted way cats move. Having at least an initial direction of travel has been helpful in some cases, though. Then the cat detection dog can start in an area of higher probability and have a better chance of success.
Mu is not the only cat detection dog I’ve worked with. In the beginning, I would often work with a beagle who belonged to a volunteer with MPP. His name was Griffin and he was wonderful to work with. After that I worked with a beautiful and sweet pit bull named Karma. I’ve worked at least 1400 searches with Mu, so by far most of my experience is working with him. One key to success with a cat detection dog is learning to read him. I can’t even explain how I know the difference in the things he is smelling sometimes. Just working with him so much, I have come to know when he is just smelling where another dog peed, and when he is smelling an area where something significant happened, even though there is no visible evidence. Or at least, not a specific indicator I could point my finger at.
For reasons unknown to me (I really wish I could find out somehow) blood outdoors is usually not visible, or just barely detectable with the eye. It certainly doesn’t look like the bloodstains I’ve seen on some of my shirts over the years. Mu definitely finds blood evidence that I never would have found, and we have confirmed it with Luminol.
You need to trust your dog. That doesn’t mean he never goofs off. Mu is famous for, in the middle of a search, suddenly flopping on the grass and rolling around, to scratch his back. Also, I don’t trust Mu to just walk right up to a cat I can see. He gets way too excited. I mean that I trust him in the sense that I can read him. He gives me reliable signals. Some of these indicators I could explain, like his whining. His whine can be like a cat-o-meter, a louder whine indicating a stronger scent of a cat. There are other instances where I don’t exactly know what it is that I’m reading in him. I need to shoot more video of a search and review it for signals that I’m seeing subconsciously.
Normally, you would approach a search in a systematic and methodical way. I learn the patterns and history of a particular cat, his physical characteristics, and any other factors I can think of that might increase or decrease the likelihood of finding him in a particular place. Then we set up the search by getting permission, as much as possible, to search those areas of highest probability. I will work the area in sections, searching the cat’s yard first, mostly looking for evidence. Then we move on to other yards, trying to work into the wind if possible, and also trying to work areas so that if we dislodge the cat, he will move towards home, not farther away. I record the search on GPS so we can see what we have covered and go back and fill in any areas we missed. For the most part, I guide Mu to have him clear the areas one by one, in a methodical way. Other times, if he seems to catch a scent of particular interest, I will let him work a scent trail, planning to come back and cover anything we skipped over. Mu is not a scent trailing dog, in the sense of being trained to follow scent trails. It’s just not the best way to find most cats. Mu says, there’s a cat here, of there’s no cat here, or here is evidence. He doesn’t usually indicate scent trails. When he does, I let him follow to see what he finds. He is a dog, after all, and even if he wasn’t trained to follow scent trails, that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
When using a cat-detection dog, you will encounter many spaces where the dog smells something but it is deep underneath something, so you can’t see what he is signaling on. In these cases, I will usually use my iPhone to record video, with the light turned on. Practice doing this to check dark spaces. You may need to cover the camera at the start of recording to make the light come on. Being very sure not to drop your phone, put your hand and phone into the space, such as a crawlspace or under a shed or behind a washing machine. Pan the camera around to see if you see a cat. Also, look for eye reflection. Besides looking for a cat, you should also be looking for paw prints, disturbed spider webs, fur left on edges, bodies and bones of rodents that may have been the cat’s prey, and feces that might be from the cat.
Most searches for lost cats follow a typical pattern:
Interview the owner to get details about the cat and decide if a search dog is likely to help.
Get permission from property owners within the 350 foot radius, usually done by the cat’s owner.
Schedule the search for a time that is cool enough for the search dog.
Start the search in a methodical way, with the GPS app running on your phone, to systematically check all the hiding places.
Use the wind or airflow to your advantage.
Take pictures of any evidence you find, such as remains, fur, prints, or disturbed areas.
If you find the cat, pull the search dog away quickly to try to avoid making the cat run.
Work on a the best strategy of getting the cat in custody, possibly using calming signals or a humane trap.
If the cat is not found, give the owner a report of what you did find and the best ways of finding the cat, moving forward.
From the more that 1400 searches I have done with Mu, I have many examples narrated in the following stories, which highlight different aspects of working with a cat-detection dog.
Mu rocks. He works hard and plays hard. And he sleeps hard. He has the best snore in the world. Mu has taught me so much about so many things, but his work has significantly advanced what we know about finding lost cats. He has saved the lives or more than a hundred cats.