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Pitoutchi, a mascot cat in World War I

March 17, 2014


It is hard to imagine that a cat in the trenches could save a man’s life, but that is exactly what Pitoutchi did. In the Belgian military records is the following recommendation: “Pitoutchi, 3rd Regiment of Artillery, for showing great bravery under fire, rare endurance, and remarkable initiative. Showed proof, in the course of a campaign, of the finest military qualities. Seeing his captain in danger, did not hesitate to expose himself in his place, courageously drawing upon
himself the enemy fire, and foiling the maneuvers of the adversary by making them mistake the above-mentioned officer for a cat. At the front since his birth” (Baker, Animal War Heroes, 69).

Pitoutchi was born in the Belgian trenches. His mother was killed before the litter of eight kittens had opened their eyes. Lieutenant Lekeux was on duty when he heard the kittens crying and found a group of soldiers around a small basket of kittens. He decided to take them and nurse them. He tried the best he could to put drops of milk into their mouths, but the kittens would not drink it. By the next evening, all but one kitten had died. Only the little white kitten would drink the milk, and he survived.

Although Pitoutchi survived, he never grew very big; he was, however, noted for his keen
intelligence. Pitoutchi was devoted to Lekeux and followed him wherever he went. If the ground
was dry, he would walk with Lekeux in the trenches. If the ground was wet, he would jump
onto Lekeux’s shoulder and ride.

The incident about which Lekeux wrote the report happened as follows.

The Germans were up to something for a number of days, throwing dirt near a thicket. Lekeux was concerned and decided to investigate what was going on, so with Pitoutchi on his shoulder, he left the trenches to investigate. As Lekeux reached a spot near the German lines, he saw that they were digging a new trench. He hid himself in a shell hole nearby to make a sketch of the German works. He was so absorbed in his sketch that he did not notice three approaching German soldiers on patrol. When he finally realized his situation, it was too late to run. If he left the hole he would be shot, and if he stayed he would be  bayoneted, because it was obvious that the Germans had seen him crawl into the shell hole.

He decided to lie very still, hoping that the Germans would not see him, but unfortunately he heard one soldier say,  “He’s in the hole,” so he knew he had been seen.

When Pitoutchi heard the German say that, he jumped out of the hole onto a piece of timber. The Germans were startled and fired two shots at Pitoutchi. However, as frightened as he was, Pitoutchi was not hit, and he jumped back into the hole with his beloved Lekeux.

The Germans laughed and joked that they had mistaken a cat for a man and left. Lekeux finished his drawings and returned to the Belgian lines with Pitoutchi on his shoulder.

Excerpted from Susan Bulanda’s fascinating book Soldiers in Fur and Feathers – The Animals that Served in World War I – Allied Forces.



January 30, 2014

When training or working your dog in tracking or trailing, many handler’s will reach a point where they need to keep the dog motivated and excited to hit the trail. Here are a few pointers to keep your dog keen on the trail.

1- Make sure each search has a payoff.

Always make sure that the dog wins at the end. Whether on a training run or an actual mission, always stick to one principle: quit only on a success. Make sure that at the end of the day, he has a solid find.

2 – Make sure that every find is an achievement.

The dog’s motivation is in large part a reflection of the handler’s attitude. Make sure that your dog understands that you are delighted in his excellent work with an energy-charged voice, hugs, pats, and an energetic game of tug or fetch. Keep the praise equal to the find. Make sure your praise is supporting, not interfering. While on a real search, never forget to acknowledge your dog’s work.

3 – Demonstrate that you are relying on him.

Always trust the signals he gives you. If the dog wants you to do something, make sure you do it. This will help strengthen your communication with your dog as well as you will learn to trust your dog and his abilities.

4 – Keep your expectations reasonable.

Recognize the fact that not all searches will end with a find. Acknowledge that your dog is giving you his best effort and always be patient with your dog. Remember that he is a dog and can only do what he can do.
Make sure to keep him comfortable. Be aware of the conditions where you are searching and minimize the stress that it may put on your dog as best as you can. Always make sure to keep him hydrated, and give him a trail snack to keep his energy up.

5 – Make sure your dog enjoys the search.

Keep a positive attitude whenever you are out on the trail. No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, remember that your attitude feeds down to the dog. Make it fun for him and he will always enjoy the search.

For more in-depth tips to keep your dog motivated, as well as training your dog to track, pick up a copy of Lue Button’s popular book Practical Scent Dog Training.

How to Prevent Unplanned Puppies

January 28, 2014

While late winter or early spring may be the perfect time to breed your dog for a perfect summertime litter, there are times when you may not want to breed your female. This may be due to several reasons. The age of the dog is one concern, as well as if the bitch has been tested or evaluated for any of the breed’s known health issues, such as hip dysplasia, primary luxating lens, progressive retinal atrophy, cardiac problems, elbow dysplasia, etc. (A list of tests for each breed can be found on the Canine Health Information Center website: Many owners of purebred dogs frequently finish their conformation titles or compete in dog sports before allowing their bitch to be bred. All of these decisions help to assure that the bitch that is to be bred will be a quality dog and will help keep the breed healthy and viable.

But anyone that has had a bitch in heat knows that sometimes those plans may go awry. During that time period, she may do extraordinary things to escape and find a willing mate, as well as an intact male will do the same to reach her. Here is a list of potential solutions to prevent an unplanned litter.

  • Keep accurate records of her heat cycles.
  • Be fully aware of when she is in heat and when she is most receptive.
  • Watch for signs of a silent heat or a split heat.
  • If possible, keep the bitch with you at all times during her heat cycle.
  • If you are not able to keep the bitch with you, leave her crated for short time spans, and leash her for exercise and to relieve herself. Make double sure that the crate is securely latched and the door to the room is closed and also latched.
  • If you are uncomfortable with leaving her in a crate, you may leave her in a room or house, but make double sure that all windows are tightly closed and all doors to the outside are securely latched.
  • Beware of dogs escaping through cat doors or other small areas that have access to the great outdoors. She may squeeze out, or someone may come in.
  • Do not leave a bitch unattended outside, even in a fenced yard or kennel. Male dogs have been known to scale walls and kennels to reach a female, and vice versa.
  • Do not keep intact males on your property.
  • Do NOT leave her with someone that you can not trust 200% with the responsibility of a bitch in heat. If they are inattentive at all or are not 100% familiar with females in heat, then do not leave your girl with them.
  • Board the bitch or any intact males you may have at a reliable veterinarian’s office or a highly reputable boarding kennel.
  • Do not rely on pants for bitches or wraps for males, as these can easily come off or be torn off.
  • Be aware of intact male dogs in your neighborhood and if possible, alert the owners that you have a female in heat. Remember though that a male dog can smell a female in heat for quite a distance, so do not rely on this to keep your girl safe.

In short, keep your bitch locked up tight and under your control at all times. It only takes a minute of inattention or a short distraction to have her disappear or for a male to reach her.

Learn as much as you can on the reproductive cycle of dogs so that you will be more aware of her cycle and what is taking place with her during her cycle. And, in case she is bred even though you took all the precautions you could think of, learn about how to care for her while she is pregnant and how to take care of the pups when they are whelped.

You may find Phyllis A. Holst’s book, Canine Reproduction: The Breeder’s Guide, 3rd Edition, helpful in learning more about the dog and their reproductive cycle.

Dog Sledding in Alaska – Mushing Through Breakup

January 9, 2014

Miki paddling the canoe across the wide lead between the shore and the solid pack ice. She would have give the dogs a ride, but they all opted to swim.

Miki paddling the canoe across the wide lead between the shore and the solid pack ice. She would have give the dogs a ride, but they all opted to swim.

Keta takes the lead as the whole crew heads back for the sled, waiting out on the pack ice.

Keta takes the lead as the whole crew heads back for the sled, waiting out on the pack ice.

After swimming on ahead, Meeter, Keta, Jiles, Pebbles and Clarence wait for Miki as she paddled the canoe and dog sled ashore from the pack ice on the way home.

After swimming on ahead, Meeter, Keta, Jiles, Pebbles and Clarence wait for Miki as she paddled the canoe and dog sled ashore from the pack ice on the way home.

I harnessed five dogs, each carefully selected from the 15 in our yard: Big old Clarence, my most loyal leader, and his brother, Julie’s leader Jiles. Little Keta, timid with people but fearless around trail hazards. Pebbles, still young but a strong do-anything dog, and Meeter, fearless not because he was brave but because he just didn’t know any better. Each had years of trail experience and proven his courage many times over.

Living in the bush gets surprisingly complicated. Julie was flying home on the mail plane, landing at the strip on the far side of the lake six miles away. Although normally a half-hour run, this time would be different. The lake ice might still be over two feet thick on the 5th of May, but a ring of open water around the edge would make traveling problematic at best. I’d need every bit of trust, experience and courage my little crew could offer.

Harnessed and careening around loose, the dogs hiked with me to where our sled and canoe waited on the lake shore. Normally the shore lead is wide open right up to the edge of the solid pack ice. This time rotting chunks of ice lurked partway out, and a 25° F. night had covered the 100-foot-wide shore lead with a quarter inch of skim ice.

I strapped on a life vest, wrestled the dog sled into the canoe, and pushing through loose ice, paddle to the pack ice. Usually the dogs swim along, but that skim ice stopped half of them, and the rotting ice edge turned back the other half. After moving the sled over to solid ice, I paddled back, loaded Clarence and hauled him across.

As I returned for another dog, my big loyal leader ran back and forth along the ice edge, anxious not to be left behind. By the time I had Keta in the canoe; Clarence had fallen in and swum ashore.

I got them both back onto the ice. By the time I had tied Clarence to the sled; Keta had fallen in and swum ashore.

When I returned for Pebbles, Keta bravely swam back to the ice with me and I helped her scramble out of the icy water, tying her with Clarence.

By the time I loaded Jiles at the beach, Pebbles was swimming ashore.

The whole crossing took about an hour, and I was glad I only had five critters.

Finally hitched up as a team, the dogs instantly switched into sled dog mode. No longer five dogs dashing crazily about in their own directions: as one they surged powerfully forward, clinging to the fain mark of the winter trail. Aluminum canoe thundering along behind, my sled skittered wildly over an icy surface honeycombed by snowmelt. With the dogs relieved to be in harness, the mushing proved the simplest and fastest part of the day.

In lead, Clarence and Keta didn’t slow when we neared the far side, but as the 200-foot wide shore lead came into sight, their ears flicked worriedly. All five seemed relieved when I sang out “Whoa” right at the ice edge.

Turning the dogs loose, I hauled my plastic tub of warm clothes, mail and emergency sat phone across with the canoe. I would have gone back for the dogs, but by the time I beached, each one had plunged over the edge to swim bravely after me.

Picketing my wet critters on a grassy, sun-swept slope, I left them to make the last mile-long hike down the gravel road to the Post Office where Julie waited.

By the time we were ready to head home, the  dogs had worked up a paretty good head of steam. I paddled Julie to the ice with our load before returning for the dogs, now on their feet and hollering, anxious not to be left behind.

Finally I turned each one loose. The quintet swarmed around as I climbed into the canoe and paddled out over deep, cold black water. All ahead and beside and behind, those fine good dogs courageously swam with me.

Finally all stood in harness, hitched to the sled and waiting for the word.

“Go back, everybody!”

As one, our soggy pack lunged for home, as happy and loyal a crew as you could ever ask for.

Written by Miki Collins, co-author of Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher, Revised Edition. 

Messenger Dogs in World War I

December 11, 2013

A Beauceron messenger dog leaps over a trench.

A Beauceron messenger dog leaps over a trench.

The use of messenger dogs in war is not a new concept and has been mentioned in early war accounts as far back as 4000 B.C. However, at the beginning of World War I, the British military was not convinced that the dogs would be of use. They changed their minds after the War Department received the following communication for Colonel Winter, R.A.:

From O.C. 56th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.

To R.A. Headquarters, 11th Division.

In continuation of my letter No. 549 dated on the 7th inst., during the operations against Wytshaete Ridge, two messenger dogs attached to this Brigade were sent forward at 1 A.M. One was attached to the forward liaison officer, and one with the group forward observation officer.

After being led up through communication trenches during darkness, they went forward as soon as the attack was launched, passing through the smoke barrage….One was dispatched at 10:45 A.M. and the other at 12:45 P.M.

Both dogs reached brigade headquarters, traveling a distance as the crow flies of 4,000 yards, over ground they had never seen before, and over an exceptionally difficult terrain. The dog dispatched at 12:45 P.M. reached his destination under the hour, bringing an important message, and this was the first message which was received, all visual communication having failed.

Signed O.C. 56th Brigade, R.F.A.

The War Department received two more reports about the two messenger dogs from Colonel Winter as follows:

When the Germans withdrew their line in the spring of 1917, the dogs were taken up the night before to a wood east of Bucquoy. They were then sent up to a forward observation post, 4,000 yards to the east of the wood, and were released with important messages. They found their way back, through masses of troops on the march, to the wood, although they had only arrived there the night previously, and the ground was quite unknown to them.

On the attack on the Vimy Ridge the dogs were employed with an artillery observation post. All the telephones were broken, and visual signaling was impossible. The dogs were the first to bring through news (Richardson, Watch Dogs: Their Training and Management, 185).

It was mainly due to the reports of success from Colonel Winter that the British army was persuaded to establish a messenger-dog program.

Excerpted from Soldiers in Fur and Feathers – The Animals that Served in World War I – Allied Forces, by Susan Bulanda. Learn more about the animals that served valiantly in the Allied Forces during World War I in the European theater in this fascinating book. Click here to order the book.

How to Use Distractions When Training a Trailing or Tracking Dog

November 27, 2013

Puppy gunshot K-9 Trailing

Noise and shapes can spook or attract dogs and need to be considered distractions in their own right. If whatever happens causes a trailing dog to disengage from the scent trail of the subject, it is a distraction. I have often heard handlers tell me that their dog has a certain attraction or fear reaction to a certain “thing,” and they take it for granted that it is a problem. Rather than trying to fix it, they attempt to avoid the problem or let the problem shut the dog down. This is a bad habit and does nothing more than reinforce the reaction in the dog. If the dog realizes that the handler will give in to an attraction nor give up when the dog encounters something about which he is nervous, the distraction becomes stronger each and every time this happens. There will come a point at which the handler may not be able to correct it. As with the kitty, the attraction or phobic response should be dealt with immediately and never be reinforced by allowance.

Here’s another example using my own dog. For some unknown reason, my dog freaked out when he heard the crash of a trash-truck dumpster putting a load of trash into the bed of the truck. I have no idea why, and I do not remember a particular incident that triggered it the first time, but I am now convinced that it had happened before and that something I did reinforced the fear.  I know this now after working with hundreds of dogs. Ronin was my first dog, and he was wonderful for me because he provided the basis for everything I did then and for what I am now. I am now intensely watchful of any dog’s body language at all times that I am with him. If the dog is for work, I am doubly watchful. The only way I learn about a dog’s attraction or phobic response to an animal or object is through his body language. There is no other way, because the dog cannot speak to me. I am charged with the duty to be cognizant of what affects the dog. My job is that of an interpreter, motivator, and leader.

When I finally recognized the problem regarding the trash truck, I had to take countermeasures to solve it. First, I needed to make my dog realize that I was not afraid. I am the perceived leader, and if the dog thinks that I am afraid based on my odor of physical reaction will be equal to or exceed my own. With my behavior, I affect what and how my dog responds to situations. If I am a rock in a stormy sea of stimuli, my dog will be easier to deal with. I showed Ronin that I was not afraid; I approached a truck confidently and with no hesitation. Second, I used motivation and reward (food) to coax him in close. This took time, but I got Ronin to the point that he could trail right past a trash truck and not give it a second glance. The reward can be anything the dog likes such as a ball, tug, or praise. Ronin was a walking stomach, and food was the key to everything.

The worst thing to do is to coddle! A handler should not coddle his dog when the dog is scared. What I mean by coddling is, when the dog shows a fear reaction, the handler reaches down and pets and fawns over him, cooing sweet nothings into his ear. This behavior reinforces the fear because, in reality, the petting and cooing are telling the dog that he is right to be afraid of what he is balking at. Dogs are not children, and they do not rationalize things the way people do; stroking and “rewarding” fear behavior tells the dog that his fear is well founded.

The best way for a handler to correct his dog is to firmly say “no,” confidently walk up to the “thing,” inspect it with no fear, and then motivate his dog to come over. If it takes six months to fix this situation, so be it.

From K-9 Trailing: The Straightest Path, by Jeff Schettler. Published by Alpine Publications. For more information or to order the book, please visit K9 Trailing: The Straightest Path.

Best Sled Dog Ever! – Our Little Red Sled Dog

November 5, 2013

Old Trapper found a new lease on life when we started using him to haul firewood in a little red plastic sled. He cheerfully hauls Julie’s load home for her. Photo by Miki Collins 1983.

Old Trapper found a new lease on life when we started using him to haul firewood in a little red plastic sled. He cheerfully hauls Julie’s load home for her. Photo by Miki Collins 1983.

We called Trapper our Little Red Sled dog.

Being a dark tawny brown with creamy markings, he could hardly be called red, and at 85 pounds, one would not call him little.

This was about 30 years ago. One of our first sled dogs, the old malamute could no longer keep up with the faster Alaskan huskies we’d acquired. Gradually, he had slipped into a life of leisure.

Trapper had been a great wheel dog. When the sled slid off the trail into deep snow, he was one of the rare few who would cross the towline to the opposite side to torque it back on. But, like all good malamutes, pulling and power were his pride and joy, not speed.

We retired the grand old dog to a plush life living inside and running loose in the yard. Sometimes we let him come along behind the team, but it wasn’t the same.

People who think that having a dog pull in harness is inhumane should have met Trapper. They must think that once retired, he lived in perfect bliss, the best of all worlds. No confinement, no work.

They’d be wrong.

Trapper became subdued. He lost his booming “Yo-ho-ho-ho!” when the harnesses came out for the other dogs. He moped around inside, and sadly watched the team speeding away to haul wood or run the trapline or do other important jobs, leaving him behind.

Poor old sled-less dog.

Then one day Julie brought him out to the woodlot. She piled firewood onto one of those little red plastic child’s sleds, put Trapper’s harness on him, and snapped it to the load.

“OK Trap! Go back!”

The old malamute leaned against the webbing, dragging the sled forward.

His tail bounced up. He lowered his head and drove proudly ahead, striding off toward the cabin, hauling the heavy load behind him. He did so well that within a few days Julie could load his sled and send him home for me to unload.

Trapper’s appetite came back. His bounce came back. Even though he only hauled a few loads a week, he was in harness again, being productive, pulling his weight. And he knew it.

Once again, he could “Yo-ho-ho-ho-!” with pride. When he had a choice of running around loose or coming out to work, he chose work every time.

He wasn’t little, and he wasn’t red, but Trapper was the best darn Little Red Sled dog we ever had.

By Miki and Julie Collins, authors of Dog Driver, A Guide for the Serious Musher.  Read more or order at


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