Robert D. Parker is an award-winning local scent-work dog who has overcome a lot of adversity to get where he is today. After hearing about his inspirational story, Flagpole spoke to his owner and handler Doug Ahern to learn more about scent work and how Robert came into his life.
Flagpole: Can you go into the early days of Robert coming into your home? What state was he found in, and how was the initial process of bringing him into your life?
Doug Ahern: Robert was in the ACC Animal Control shelter in pretty rough shape, covered in specks of tar and quite frightened. We don’t know how he came to be blind, but he was blind when ACC found him. It wasn’t easy bringing him into the fold with our three other dogs at the time. There were a few dust-ups, but on the whole it was positive from Day One. Plus, he’s always loved people. As he found his place, he gained a lot of confidence, and it wasn’t long before he became just a normal, super happy dog.
FP: Is there any significance to Robert’s name?
DA: He is named after one of my wife Christine’s favorite authors, detective novelist Robert B. Parker.
FP: What exactly is scent work? How did you train Robert, and what particularly does he excel at within these competitions?
DA: [In scent work], the dog and the handler work as a team to find a specific target scent or odor. It came out of the same training programs that were used to train working dogs to find explosives and drugs. Instead of searching for the odor of explosives, Robert and I train to find birch, anise or clove oil, which is usually a droplet on a Q-tip hidden somewhere in a search area. The search area could be a couple of vehicles, a room in a building or [a] field. The dog is the star of the show, of course, and the handler is there to help the dog navigate the search area. As the team’s abilities improve, searches become more and more challenging. It is essentially you and your dog working as a team to solve a puzzle.
FP: What would you say to someone wondering if their dog is cut out for scent work?
DA: It’s for all ages and types of dogs. It’s always positive, and your dog is always rewarded. It is a big confidence builder for dogs, and will make a tight bond between person and dog even closer. Just think, your dog will leave the search area saying to you, “Hey! We found it! Where is the next hide? We’ll find that, too!” Right now the only NACSW-certified trainer in Athens is Vicki Tate. You can find her on Facebook under “Truelove for Dogs,” and there are intro classes year-round.
FP: What other things are you training Robert for?
DA: Rally is a type of competitive obedience where the handler and the dog go through a course with different stations, and at each station they do a different thing, like “come front,” “heel left” [and] “behind.” Robert also knows lots of tricks. Christine is hoping to get his AKC Trick Dog title later this summer. He’s super smart and learns fast.
FP: Any favorite stories about Robert?
DA: Life with Robert is really wonderful. I often forget that he can’t see. He loves to chase tennis balls in the yard, run up and down stairs and wrestle with [our other dog] Dolly.
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