Cutting sign. That's what they call it along the U.S.-Mexico border. You might know it as tracking, but of course, it's more than reading tracks on a dusty road, isn't it?
Along the border, they are not just looking for tracks in the dirt -- they are also looking for haircuts from other countries, bell bottoms that have been out of style in the U.S. for decades, and dress shoes worn in the desert or on slaughter house work floors.
If a Border Patrol officer asks a simple question, the answer may reveal whether the person answering comes from Texas, Mexico, El Salvador, or parts father South, East, West or North.
Of course, you can cut sign anywhere; all it takes is an ability to notice details and ask what they mean. You will never be Sherlock Holmes (who is?) but you might get good at gleaning a larger meaning from the presence, or absence, of small things.
Watch the men and women in line in front of you at the store. Look at fingernails, jewelry, logos on clothes, tattoos, any reading material they might hold, and what they are buying. Look at shoes.
Remember, a lot is facade or aspiration. Learn to cut sign as you go through life, and you will have a better understanding of what kind of people you are talking to, where they are coming from, and where they are going.
And don't always look for something. Look for the absence of things as well. Listen for silence.
Imagine what it is like to wear the clothes of the person across the aisle from you -- to move in that body, to come from where that person has just come, and to be going where that person is going.
Now you are starting to cut sign.
This post is about sign-cutting in the world of dogs. It's not that hard to do, but you have to pay attention.
The easy stuff is what you can see. If you see someone walking an extreme breed beset with chronic health problems, you know something important. There is no need to say anything -- just file it away in your brain. This is the kind of person that bought a mutant for amusement, and never mind the misery, disease or early death that comes with that kind of dog.
Ditto if you see a person walking a dog on a retractable string leash, or you see someone walking a dog in a harness meant for draft horses. This is a person that has never read a single book on dog training. You do not have to say anything. Simply notice it and remember what it means.
But what about the dogs and people you cannot see?
For example, what about the breeder who claims they have working dogs, but who has no pictures of those dogs in the field and who does not appear to hunt or herd themselves? Danger Will Robinson! Danger! A date that starts with a lie is a marriage likely to end in divorce!
How about the lady who claims to be an expert in wolves, but who lives in Britain, a country without any wild wolves at all? A small question should rise in your brain.
How about a person on a list-serv or blog that will not use their real name or even name their own breed? Why take such people seriously?
Suppose someone tells you they "disagree with Cesar Millan's methods." Really? All of them? And what "methods" are those? Ask for a simple citation, and you get back a rapidly evaporating vapor trail. The person in question has never actually read one of Millan's books or seen more than a video clip.
And then there is the self-styled expert on every animal under the sun, domestic and wild, from tropical fish to iguanas, from horses and parrots to dogs and cats. An instant expert thanks to Wikipedia.
So how can you spot the folks driving a little faster than their headlights?
One simple method is to ask blind questions that sound innocent and unimportant, but which illuminate quite a lot if answered the wrong way. You can learn a lot by asking the right questions and thin-slicing the answers you get back.
If someone claims to be an expert in a working breed and claims that coat or nose color is important, they have told you a lot. If they do not work their own dogs, they have told you a lot. If they do not know the true history of their own breed, they have told you a lot.
If a dog trainer is too dogmatic, they have told you a lot. There are more ways to train a dog than there are to skin a cat, and every dog is as unique as the person holding the leash. A good trainer recognizes that, and has a variety of options and methods at their disposal.
At the veterinarian's office, your vet is revealing a lot if they try to revaccinate your adult dog for distemper every year, or if they try to sell you heartworm "preventative" when it's 20 degrees outside.
And if you keep coming back to that vet, you are telling them quite a lot as well.
If a person claims a choke chain is a horror, that's a good sign they do not own one, and have never used one. Ditto for a modern e-collar.
Of course everyone makes a mistake or phrases something poorly from time to time. Ignore that. A typo does not ruin a book any more than a popped button ruins a shirt.
What you are looking for are not small things with small meanings, but small things with large meanings.
Is the self-styled "dog food expert" recommending a brand that has never seen a feed trial and which is made in a factory the company does not own, in a location they will not disclose? A small caution there!
If you board your dog with your veterinarian do they try to tag on a charge for an "extra" walk despite the fact that there is no yard, and no one has ever been seen walking a dog more than 10 feet from the building? A caution there!
These are the obvious things. A little research will turn up more cautions -- self-styled "dog experts" who are barely out of college, and others who have yet to bury their first dog. Experts who got into "their" breed just three years ago, and who are now quite certain they are the font of all human knowledge.
Heads up! Do not jump to conclusions too quickly, and try to be charitable. We all have character flaws and we all make mistakes and we all drive faster than our headlights at times.
That said, if you file things away long enough, you will start to see patterns in both nature and in society, and you will be able to put those patterns and observation to good use.
Cutting sign is something we unconsciously do all the time, but if we make a decision to consciously do it -- we can learn a lot about people -- and dogs -- very quickly.