work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
These working dogs calm harried travelers.
Traffic on the way to the airport makes you late. Rushing, fearing you’ll miss your flight, you anxiously stand in endless check-in and security lines, annoyed at the delay. Your stress level increases with every passing minute. Finally clearing security, sitting to put your shoes back on, you notice something unusual across the room: an enormous harlequin Great Dane wearing a vest that says, “Pet me!” A smile breaks across your face and your blood pressure immediately drops. You say a quick hello to the dog and rub his soft ears, and the tension of the past hours melts away.
We’re used to seeing security dogs at airports, but those dogs are working— no petting allowed. The “pet me” dogs are a different story altogether, reflecting the industry’s growing understanding that helping passengers destress, especially during busy holiday flying seasons, has value. These dogs are all about being touched!
So far, some 30 airports across the country have therapy dogs on duty, and luckily for travelers, the number is steadily growing. The idea started at California’s Mineta San Jose International Airport shortly after 9/11 as a way to ease traveler jitters. Videos of those dogs at work convinced other airports give it a go.
The distinctively outfitted dogs and their handlers position themselves throughout the airport, from checkin to boarding—wherever passengers can use some calming canine love. Recognizing that not everyone loves dogs, the teams typically remain stationary in an open area so those who wish to greet the dogs can do so while anyone not so fond of dogs can easily avoid them.
One of the most recent converts to the service, North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, began deploying professionally certified therapy dogs in March 2015. Currently, there are 15 dog/handler teams providing coverage daily between 10 am and 4 pm. Lauri Golden, the airport’s manager of customer engagement, supervises the all-volunteer CLT Canine Crew. “We wanted a way to create a sense of place,” she says. “Our airport is a hub for American Airlines; 70 percent of traffic is connections, so the passengers just see the facility, not the city.”
Initially, Golden worried about finding enough volunteer teams. However, the pilot program created to iron out the logistics was an instant success. “We expected that kids would like the dogs, but even more, it’s the adults benefiting from them,” she says. “They pull out photos of their own dogs; talk about ones recently lost; take selfies; ask the name, age and breed of the dog … lots of questions. The dogs create a gathering, an audience, which creates its own community as people talk to each other, sharing dog stories. They are our superstars.” The demand for teams is high, and Golden is constantly recruiting.
Max the Great Dane and his handler Fred McCraven make up one of the Charlotte teams. “When I asked Fred why he wanted to join, he was so honest: ‘I just want to show off my dog.’ Max is a complete sweetheart!” says Golden.
Fred thoroughly enjoys taking Max to the airport. “Some tourists just light up when they see Max, and take photos,” he says. “Some look at him funny, like, ‘Please don’t bring that big dog near me.’ I try to gauge peoples’ reactions. Even those who don’t come up to touch Max are smiling. I once met a woman who was traveling to her brother’s funeral. Her brother had a Great Dane as well and she took it as a sign her brother was okay.”
Los Angeles World Airports (LAX) was the third to create a therapy dog program, after San Jose and Miami. Heidi Heubner is director of Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) and volunteer programs for LAX. PUP, which launched in April 2013 with 30 teams, now has 52, allowing them to have dogs in most terminals every day of the week. Each PUP dog has his or her own baseball card–style ID, which is given to passengers as a keepsake.
Heubner enjoys observing the interactions between volunteer teams and passengers. “The dogs bring strangers together,” she says. “We’re often afraid to talk, or are on our devices, but with the dogs, people are sharing stories and photos of their own dogs, talking about where they’re going. I never get tired of watching them. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much, watching them in action and listening to what the passengers are saying.”
Therapy teams are also called upon to calm passengers when things don’t go as planned, Heubner notes. “One day, a f light was cancelled. A f light attendant asked if one of the dogs could visit with the passengers. The passengers loved it, were saying, ‘Who cares that we’re delayed! It was worth it to see the dogs.’”
Airport therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds but the thing they have in common is that they’re all certified by one of the country’s therapy-dog organizations; for example, Charlotte and LAX use teams certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. New teams do an initial walk-through at the facility to make sure the dog is comfortable with the noises, smells and crowds of strangers. If that goes well, they’ll go through a more thorough vetting, with the human half of the team undergoing background and security checks. Once approved, teams typically work one day a week.
Dog-loving passengers rave about the programs. A letter sent to the Charlotte program expresses an often-repeated sentiment: It was like having my pups with me though they are miles away. The stress that is lifted when you see and touch a dog, it’s indescribable and it was the best part of my trip today. I cannot thank you, the staff that implemented the program, the handlers and the dogs enough for this remarkable program.
Clearly, these programs are positive for passengers and airport staff, but they’re also proving beneficial for the handlers. “Max has made me a better person,” says Fred. “I’m not a very social person, sort of a lone wolf, but taking Max to the airport has gotten me out and around people, improved my social skills. And it puts me in a good mood. Last week I had a bad day at work. I took Max to the airport and came home in a totally different mood.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Detection dog essential for research success
For three years, scientist Chris Bugbee of Conservation CATalyst has been studying a jaguar named El Jefe, first with support from the University of Arizona and now from the Center for Biological Diversity. El Jefe is about seven years old and the only wild jaguar known to be in the United States. Most members of this species live further south, in Mexico and in other Latin American countries, but El Jefe has spent at least three years in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Jaguars are notoriously elusive, rarely seen and can have territories that cover hundreds of square miles, so the study of El Jefe represents a major success story. He’s not, however, the only animal associated with this study who is a success story.
The other one is a female Belgian Malinois named Mayke, who is a working detection dog. She has been trained to bark when she finds jaguar scat, which she can distinguish from the scat of other large cats. (Mayke is also trained to bark when she finds the scat of ocelot, another species of wild cat.)
Mayke was born to do scent work, coming from a program in Germany that has successfully bred many dogs for this purpose. Like her close relatives from the same lines, she has a great nose, can handle heat and is both trainable and intelligent. Even with that background, her first assignment was not a good match. She was originally placed as an explosives detection dog, but she couldn’t handle working around big trucks or gunfire. Those stresses upset her to the point that she was unable to perform the work she was trained to do, but she excels in the wide open, remote spaces where El Jefe lives, and where both dog and jaguar have been videotaped.
Detection dogs can be trained to find a huge range of things from explosives to drugs to people to invasive snails, so why was Mayke trained to find jaguar scat? The answer to that requires an understanding of how scientists view the excrement of their study animals. As a friend of mine who studied patas monkeys in Africa once said, “Most people think of poop as just poop. I think of poop as information.” (FYI, I paraphrased in order to maintain our PG rating.)
Scat is a major resource for people studying wild mammals, but it’s hard for people to find, especially when the animal in question is a jaguar and can travel 30 miles a day. Luckily, dogs are not held back, as people are, by pathetic noses and tiny olfactory lobes. A trained dog can sniff out scat, and therefore allow humans to learn so much more about an animal than would be possible on our own.
Thanks to Mayke and her trainer, biologist Chris Bugbee, it has been possible to map out El Jefe’s home range, learn what he’s eating, figure out a number of places where he likes to bed down during the day, and study his DNA. Mayke found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US, which is a big deal because the jaguar has not always been in this part of its historical range. It’s because of Mayke’s work that scientists have been able to place camera traps in places that El Jefe is likely to visit. The jaguar has been photographed and videotaped over a hundred times in the last three years. The understanding of El Jefe’s location and behavior, made possible by Mayke’s unique contribution to the project, have shown that El Jefe is a resident male who lives in Arizona.
According to Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center For Biological Diversity who has studied jaguars for years, this is important because people and organizations who are reluctant to use any resources to protect him tend to refer to him as a “solitary wandering male”. That implies that he is just a vagrant temporarily lost and visiting the US. This is a nonsensical classification because males of this species are always solitary except briefly during mating. Females are also solitary except during mating and during the short period they have young with them.
Jaguars are native to Arizona. Both males and females were living and breeding in the area until people shot and poisoned them out, beginning in the early 1900s. The interest in El Jefe is helping to protect 764,000 acres of critical habitat in southern Arizona, and making it more likely that recovery efforts can re-establish a jaguar population in the area. The area is at risk of great damage to wildlife, water and the attractive landscape because of a proposed copper mine. There are many reasons to reject this environmentally damaging project, and El Jefe’s large territory is one of them.
With such a rare species, it’s important to keep as many potential breeding animals in the population as possible to maintain the genetic diversity. Previously, a male named Macho B who spent time in Arizona and was photographed there, returned to Mexico to breed, and it is likely that El Jefe is also a part of that same population.
Arizonans are quite attached to him already. That is especially true of the kids who named him. Children at Valencia Middle School in the Tucson area, whose mascot is the jaguar, picked his name. El Jefe (Spanish for “The Boss”) was the overwhelming choice in the vote among the five names that were finalists.
Perhaps the most important part of Mayke’s contribution to the study of El Jefe is that she enables scientists to learn about this jaguar in a non-invasive way. They are able to get an amazing amount of valuable data without bothering the cat. This matters for any species, but it’s especially critical when working with rare animals. Sadly, there are cases of jaguars being injured or killed because of attempts to radio collar the animal (to monitor the animal’s position) and a bad reaction to the tranquilizer. Mayke can locate signs of the animal’s presence and allow scientists to collect data without any such invasive techniques, which eliminates the risk associated with other methods of study.
When I asked Bugbee if there was anything else he wanted to share with me about Mayke, he answered, “Just that she’s a success story—even if you ignore that she’s found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US—because she found her confidence and came into her own.” They’ve been working together for three years and have a close relationship. Bugbee knows her well and understands her behavior. He knows the different ways that she reacts to various wild animals. If she finds scat from a puma, she pees on it. If she detects fresh deer scent from the glands in their feet, she points—holding one paw up and leaning in the direction of the deer. She also has her own unique responses to bobcats and bears.
Bugbee talks about her with great affection and respect, sounding like both the professional trainer he is and a loving dog guardian like any other, saying, “I wish I knew all of the things she picks up on. It would be incredible,” and “She’s a good dog. I like her.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
NYPD’s K-9 teams are loyal partnerships.
When NYPD officer Benny Colecchia brought his partner, Blaze, a nine-year-old German Shepherd, to the lower Manhattan emergency veterinary practice where I worked as surgeon in 2010, the big, stoic dog was displaying symptoms of colonic torsion, an uncommon twisting of the colon. If it wasn’t surgically corrected, Blaze could die.
Given Blaze’s age, even with surgery, the prognosis was guarded. He might require a bowel resection (removal of the compromised bowel) or develop sepsis (infection), or the bowel might fail altogether. But there was absolutely no hesitation on Colecchia’s part about going forward.
“Blaze is always on the money,” said Colecchia, a 16-year veteran of the NYPD. “He’s never balked.” The two had been partners for seven years at the time. Blaze, whose name was “Imp” before he joined the force, is known for his skilled cadaver-recovery work. Just prior to his trip to the vet ER, he had found a charred human torso in a burned-out Bronx building; the fire had been deliberately set.
Like most NYPD dogs, Blaze had been born and raised in the Czech Republic, which is known for its high-quality breeders and the dogs they produce specifically for police work. The city buys the dogs through established brokers for about $4,000 each. Considering that this includes the dogs’ veterinary expenses, food and housing for the first two years of their lives, as well as the flight to New York, it’s a good deal.
After 9/11, the city recognized the need to increase the number of NYPD K-9 units, and recruited heavily from the patrol ranks; Colecchia transferred over in 2003. Originally used primarily for patrol, the K-9 Unit now comprises four divisions: Transit, Emergency Service Unit (ESU), bomb and narcotics. There are approximately 40 dogs each in Transit and ESU (80 combined) and roughly eight dogs each in the narcotics and bomb divisions. But it wasn’t until 9/11 and their extensive use at Ground Zero for SAR operations that they became a critical part of the force and more publicly visible.
In fact, my first experience taking care of NYPD dogs came during this fraught time. Several dogs with burned, cut and bleeding footpads were brought into the practice where I worked in downtown Manhattan; their paws had been injured as the dogs scoured the edges of the inferno that had been the Twin Towers. The heat had caused the protective external footpads to separate from the underlying tissue. Despite how painful their paws must’ve been, their drive to continue searching was huge. I saw a hard-wired imperative in these dogs, a one-way arrow pointing to “Go.”
Anthony Compitello, another K-9 officer and a 19-year veteran New York City cop, brought in his partner Caesar, a 100-pound, six-year-old German Shepherd, for a surgical consult in 2012. Later, we talked about what it takes to be part of this unit. Compitello said there were 11 in his 2005 graduating class, which was the department’s largest. In order to apply for transfer to the K-9 Unit, an officer must have five years’ experience with the NYPD. “You can’t be a knucklehead,” Compitello observed. Once an officer is cleared, he or she must pass a rigorous physical-fitness test consisting of a run, an 80-pound carry to simulate a dog’s weight and a wall climb holding a 50-pound bag overhead.
Taking the Bite
During this exercise, the dog is on-leash, restrained by the handler. Since a handler’s dog can’t be trained to bite him or her, the cops partner up and take the bite from another handler’s dog. This training is vital, as all NYPD dogs are trained to “locate and bite” (as opposed to “locate and bark”) once they find a perpetrator. One of the NYPD dogs’ most important roles is to apprehend suspects, and the “get” is the dogs’ reward: they’re primed to want the bite.
“Your whole body’s resisting the dog. The biting is very intimidating,” Compitello recalled. “It knocks a lot of guys out [of the training]. They’re afraid, or they get hurt. Dogs are either front-biters and bite with their canines—which hurts the most—or full-mouth biters, using their molars to hang on.” Compitello proudly showed me scars on his right forearm from his training days; five stitches here, three stiches there.
The goal of the 20-week training is to teach the dog that catching a suspect or finding a scent is a game they always win, and the reward is praise and affection from their handler, followed by quick tug of war. If a dog has to be corrected during training, “Better double the praise,” says NYPD officer Rob McArdle, who has been in the K-9 Unit since 1994.
These dogs live for praise from their handlers. Food can’t be used as a reward, since work may take the dog into a restaurant, deli, grocery or other places where food is part of the search environment. So, play is the more practical alternative. K-9 officers carry a rope toy everywhere, and downtime always includes a game of tug.
Using their personal clothes and scuff marks from their shoes, handlers give the command “Track” so their dogs can learn their scent. The dogs also wear a special harness, which they come to associate with scent-tracking. Over the course of a week, training intensifies: the size of the clothing gets smaller, and it’s hidden in increasingly difficult places—garbage bags, under furniture or in ceilings in derelict buildings. Within days, the dog “tracks” to an article of clothing or artifact, and can search for the scent of that person in an abandoned car or building or across miles of a densely wooded area. Hundreds of scents could potentially override or overwhelm the dogs, but they’re able to retain their focus on just one.
The dogs’ scenting skills are also used extensively in recovery operations. In 1994, when McArdle got Baron, his German Shepherd, the training for an NYPD dog lasted 12 weeks. Baron was a patrol dog, one of only 15 working the five boroughs at the time. All of the dogs were trained to recognize gunpowder and live human scent. “Cadaver work was minimal in 1994,” McArdle said. “There was only one day of training. That changed dramatically after 9/11.”
McArdle had just started training with a new dog, Tonto, in early September 2001. After six years of physically rigorous police work, Baron had back pain and difficulty walking. Following a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, Baron eased into retirement, and McArdle was assigned another dog; Tonto was the new boy on the block.
On Duty at Ground Zero
“We didn’t believe it. You know, all kinds of crackpots get on our radio. Still, we headed toward the parking lot, and then a civilian said the same thing. We raced to our cars, drove to the base in Brooklyn to get supplies like flashlights and ropes, then headed into the city,” McArdle recalled.
During the weeks following 9/11, as search-and-rescue turned into search-and-recovery, Baron came out of retirement to work as a “spotter,” and, along with the other NYPD patrol dogs, was fast-track-trained for cadaver work, “Some dogs did find human remains in the beginning. But the cadaver scent was so overwhelming; it’s not the ideal situation for a cadaver dog. The dogs were literally on top of it, and it was too powerful.”
McArdle tried to give the dogs directions to turn right or left, things they would normally do automatically. But the dogs found the commands hard to follow. “I don’t think they were reacting to the human emotion. They were frustrated. They kept searching and coming up with nothing. Times like that, you just fall back on your training; the dogs do, too.”
By mid-October, police presence was cut back at Ground Zero, and McArdle and Tonto resumed their five-day-a-week training schedule. By then, training for all NYPD dogs had been extended to 20 weeks, and included extensive cadaver training. It was about this time that Tonto’s name was changed to TC, for Trade Center.
When I first met TC in 2011, he was the sole surviving NYPD dog to have worked Ground Zero. The partnership between McArdle and his dog was as synchronized as any between two individuals who have shared a decade of day-today history.
A Day in the Life
“The dog is the last resort before people go in. We give a clear, loud warning several times to give the suspect time to surrender, and anyone else time to get out of the building. Once that’s done, if there’s no response, we deploy the dog. That’s the toughest call, when you actually have to send your dog into harm’s way,” said McArdle.
It’s also hard to wait for the dog to come out before the Special Unit police officers go in. “You’re praying that they don’t find anybody in there, that the dog didn’t mess up.” McArdle paused, and then continued. “It’s all trust. The dogs are trusting that you’ll never put them in harm’s way. You’re trusting them with your life. They’ll get killed before one of us does.”
So far, New York City hasn’t had a NYPD dog die in the line of duty—none have been shot, stabbed or hit by a car— although dogs have been injured. In June of this year, Caesar suffered a near-fatal electrocution while searching an area of Ft. Bennett Field in Brooklyn. An exposed 220-volt wire had electrified the ground during a rainstorm. Compitello, only a few feet away, saw his dog hold up his leg, fall to the ground and start violently seizing, all in a matter of seconds. At first, he thought that Caesar had been bitten by a snake. He radioed for emergency transport to the hospital, and, after two days of intensive medical care, Caesar recovered. Compitello later realized how close he came to being electrocuted himself, had Caesar not been walking in front of him and taken the shock first.
A few years ago in New Jersey, a police canine was shot and killed in a private house. Afterward, there was an outpouring of public money specifically to outfit police dogs with bulletproof vests. The downside is that the vests are very restrictive; ultimately, it’s up to the handlers whether or not their dogs wear them. Typically, the only gear the dogs wear is a collar, so there’s less to grab.
“It’s a horrible feeling. The dog is there to protect us and is used as a tool, but the dog also comes home with us; he’s part of the family,” observed Officer Colecchia. Officer Compitello voiced the grim reality: “The dog’s replaceable, you’re not. The dog goes first.” As hard as it is for every police officer in the K-9 Unit to know, understanding this from the beginning is also part of their training.
A Price to be Paid
During the summer of 2012, TC developed a persistent cough. His chest X-rays showed many circular opacities, and he was given a presumptive diagnosis of lung cancer by a veterinary oncologist. Knowing his history—that for three months, he’d had his nose to the ground on a daily basis at the site of the incinerated trade towers—I suspected that it might be sarcoidosis, a progressive, inflammatory lung disease that many people exposed to the 9/11 fumes also developed.
The only other disease TC could have had was a fungal infection, which was not only extremely unlikely but also carried an equally poor prognosis, even with treatment. For a definitive diagnosis, a lung biopsy was required; this is an invasive procedure and requires anesthesia, which is always a worry with older dogs. Understandably, McArdle wasn’t interested in pursuing a diagnosis. Other than the cough, TC was not displaying any other symptoms, and continued living a comfortable, happy life with McArdle, his family and their new police dog, Clancy.
During the course of the following year, however, X-rays showed that TC’s lung disease was progressing. When TC was 13 years old, an ultrasound revealed that a tumor was growing within his heart. This sort of tumor, presumptively a cancer—a cardiac hemangiosarcoma—is relatively common among German Shepherds. Because of its location, TC was at risk for sudden internal bleeding, collapse and death.
On December 26, 2013, Rob McArdle called me at home. He was at his local vet, about an hour outside of the city. “TC’s in heart failure,” McArdle said, his voice cracking, “I’m going to let him go. I want to do right by him.”
This was, of course, also understandable. TC had always done right by McArdle. As his partner, he showed up every day and did his job without error or hesitation. As a beloved family dog, he had seen three children grow to adulthood and was able to see them a final time when they came home for the holidays. The relationship between McArdle and TC was standard for a police officer and his service dog: heroes protecting each other as well as the rest of us.
I called McArdle not long after he had TC euthanized. He was already in the patrol car, driving to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Long Island. TC’s body, wrapped in his blanket, lay on the back seat, where he’d sat every day for 11 years.
Rob McArdle now patrols his familiar beat in Midtown Manhattan with Clancy, who has been his K9 partner since TC retired. Blaze is a healthy 13-year-old, happily retired and family pet to the five Colecchia children. He’s also mentor to Timmy, the three-year-old Shepherd who’s now Colecchia’s K9 partner; Timmy excels in SAR and has a nose every bit as keen as Blaze’s. Anthony Compitello has a newly trained three-year-old Belgian Malinois, Argo, although 9-year-old Caesar has yet to retire.
Colecchia and Blaze, Compitello and Caesar, McArdle and TC: these teams and others like them are symbols of the power of dogs and people working together. May public awareness of these dogs and their importance to police officers— and to public safety—continue to grow.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Making slopes safer for everyone.
In a cold february morning in 2013, a Golden Retriever named Rocky and his owner/ handler John Alfond quickly climb into the backseat of the Flight for Life helicopter. Rocky scoots to the far side next to the window. Alfond slides in beside the dog, followed by the avalanche technician. The liftoff is fast and hectic, and Rocky leans into Alfond for reassurance. It will take them 12 minutes to reach the Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, and every second counts. Rocky, an avalanche-dog-in-training with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, is being transported to a disaster.
Avalanches threaten not only skiers and snowboarders but also snow-mobilers and ice climbers. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 25 people on average die in avalanches each year. In 2010, that number hit an all-time high with 36 deaths, and a near-record high again in 2012 with 34 fatalities. The risk is the highest in Colorado, which has more than 1 million acres of avalanche terrain and a notoriously unstable snowpack.
When the Flight for Life helicopter touches down, police officers and members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol are waiting. They brief Alfond and team on the incident—a man in his mid- 40s witnessed an avalanche. The man wasn’t affected, but he saw others swept away. No one is sure how many people are buried. Rocky paces on the end of his leash.
Alfond, himself a member of the ski patrol in Vail, assesses the scene’s safety. He identifies the wind direction, and looks for signs of more slides—cornices, or snow that could shift. Time is critical. After 15 minutes, nine out of ten people, or 90 percent, will survive an avalanche. After 30 minutes, that percentage decreases to 50.
Once Alfond is comfortable that the snow pack no longer presents an imminent danger, he asks Rocky to sit. The dog obeys. Alfond gets down on his knees and looks Rocky directly in the eye. “Are you ready to work?” he asks. Rocky sits tall and holds Alfond’s gaze. He’s ready. Alfond unclips the leash. “Find it!” he says. Rocky bolts.
The dog immediately identifies a partially buried man, alive, but with head and leg injuries. Alfond praises Rocky, who romps with glee, and then asks him to sit. “Are you ready to go back to work?” he asks. Rocky turns serious again, and Alfond issues the “Find it” command a second time. After several minutes, the dog identifies two more victims, fully buried, and begins to dig them out. Alfond determines that both are dead. Rocky is still praised, as his job is to “daylight” avalanche victims—to locate and unbury bodies, alive or dead.
Alfond sends Rocky back to work to “find it” one more time, but the dog turns up nothing. Alfond radios in the coordinates of the bodies as the avalanche technician loads the injured man onto a sled. Rocky follows. Total time from when they stepped off the helicopter: 23 minutes.
Once Alfond and the team rejoin the rest of the group, the mood turns celebratory. The incident was a simulation, and Rocky performed exceptionally well. The two “bodies” are volunteers, members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol, as is the “injured man,” who hops off the sled and starts to wrestle with Rocky. “He’s ready for certification,” Alfond says, high-fiving the avalanche technician.
The next month, Rocky passes his certification test at Copper Mountain Resort, along with a Labrador named Mookie and his handler Caroline Stone. The two dogs officially become the second and third members of Vail Resort’s certified avalanche-dog team. “I was more stressed than Rocky was,” Alfond says. “When it comes to avy dogs, humans are the dumb end of the leash.”
Born to Rescue
Rocky was born April 4, 2011, at Hunters Trace Kennel in southeastern Wyoming. Alfond chose the kennel because owner Marsha Greenwell had successfully put four other dogs into ski patrol programs. “There are specific traits I look for in a puppy for avalanche rescue,” says Greenwell, “but the most important factor is the dog’s genetics.”
For avy work, Greenwell breeds dogs with pedigrees proving good health and strong joints, as well as successful hunting or field-competition backgrounds. She feels that hunting and field dogs have attributes that are also desirable in avalanche dogs: they are intelligent, bold but not reckless, and possess the perseverance to work and search. Once the dogs have been bred, she selects puppies who can distinguish scents easily, demonstrate a strong work ethic, are confident and playful, and know when it’s time to rest. The key trait she looks for, however, is eye contact. “It’s been proven that dogs communicate through eye contact,” she says. “They get a lot of their instruction from us by what we’re saying to them with our eyes. It’s how they learn to trust in scary situations, like getting into a helicopter.”
By the time Rocky’s litter was five weeks old, Greenwell had selected two possible avalanche dog candidates. At eight weeks, she’d narrowed it down to just one—the male with the gold yarn around his neck. “She was right,” says Alfond. “Rocky is smart, has a great temperament and a strong work drive, and loves to search.”
Alfond gave Rocky four weeks to get adjusted to his new home before starting training. The Alfond household includes two children and two other Golden Retrievers; fortunately, Rocky fit in well. The pup’s first lessons lasted five minutes, building up to 20. After Rocky mastered the basics like sit and come, Alfond started laying the foundation for the commands essential to search-and-rescue work.
Alfond would ask Rocky to sit; once he’d done so, a friend or family member would hold the dog. Next, he’d ask Rocky if he was ready to work, and then walk 10 to 20 feet away. Watching his owner “leave,” Rocky would become anxious to follow (hence the need for someone to hold him). Finally, Alfond would issue the most critical command in the search-and-rescue dog universe: “Find it!”
The friend or family member would let go of Rocky and he’d run directly to Alfond. Praise, play and treats were part of Rocky’s reward for a successful “find.” “When they get good at that, then you start to hide, like ducking behind a rock,” says Alfond. “Eventually, you hide downwind from them, without [letting] them see where you hide, and they find you based purely on scent.”
After a summer and fall of preliminary training, Rocky was ready to try his new skills in the snow. Alfond started Rocky with basic burial drills, in which the dog is held as he watches a person crawl into a snow cave, and then released with the “find it” command. Rocky progressed to finding someone who had been buried in the snow out of his sight.
In January 2013, Rocky and Alfond traveled to the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts in Utah to attend the four-day WBR International Dog School. The oldest and most prestigious program of its kind, the school includes instructors from Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, Swiss Alpine Club, Alaska SAR Dogs and the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. By spring 2013, Rocky had mastered avalanche simulations like the one at Arapahoe Basin. His total training and preparat ion for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD) certification took two years.
The Avy Dog Difference
“As the number of people recreating at ski resorts and in the backcountry continues to rise, more resorts are starting to see the benefits of avy dog programs,” says Thompson, himself an avy dog handler and a member of the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol.
Thompson, who has participated in more than a dozen avalanche SAR efforts with his dog, a Labrador named Dixie, created Beaver Creek Resort’s avalanche dog program in 2000. Four dogs currently participate, and the resort plans to add a fifth for the 2013/2014 season. “In the winter, you have to be ready at a moment’s notice,” he says. “When Flight for Life responds, they look for the closest avy dog to the scene.”
Thompson doesn’t mince words when it comes to avalanche survival rates. Ski patrollers understand that the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be caught by one in the first place. The hard fact is that by the time avy dogs and their handlers reach a site—by helicopter, snowmobile, skis or all three —it’s usually too late for the victim.
At 30 minutes, the avalanche survival rate is 50 percent, and that percentage drops to 20 after two hours. “We always respond as fast and as efficiently as possible with the thought that we’re going after a live body, but more often, that’s not what we’re finding,” says Thompson. Alfond agrees. “An avalanche dog is not a magic bullet.”
As he and Rocky head toward their first ski season as a full-fledged avy dog team at Vail Resort, Alfond acknowledges that there are serious on-the-job risks. In addition to avalanche danger, there are other hazards, such as frostbite or Rocky accidentally getting cut by a ski edge while running beside him to a rescue. Yet Alfond appreciates the rewards of his job. “If we rescue just one person, or bring just one body home to a family, it’s worth it.”
Alfond sees another benefit to having avy dogs as part of a resort’s ski patrol team: they’re great for public relations. Ski patrol members are not typically known as the most approachable skiers on the mountain. Quite the contrary— they’re the ones who bust you for ducking a rope and to get to the untracked powder out of bounds. But when avy dogs are around, suddenly people want to interact. “Guests actually come into our office just to pet them,” says Alfond. “And we get a lot better reception at schools during our snow-safety presentations when the dogs are there.”
Avy dogs may be a ski resort’s best chance at decreasing the avalanche death toll. Dogs put a friendly face on snow safety outreach programs. They give the ski patrol an opening to talk about the importance of carrying a shovel, beacon and probe into the backcountry, and knowing how to use the gear in an emergency. Avy dogs in their red vests make people smile, and may make them more attentive to messages about using common sense in the backcountry, including having a partner and carrying a cell phone.
The presence of avy dogs at ski resorts helps make people more snow-safety conscious—and that’s a feat worth wagging about.
Meet Kumbali, the cheetah cub, and his new bro, Kago, a rescue Lab mix. You have to see this charming video from the Metro Richmond (VA) zoo about their story. Kumbali was removed from his mother to be hand-raised when he wasn’t showing any weight gain in his first couple of weeks of life.
He was thriving living with his keeper, but missed companionship, so they got him a pup from a local rescue group. The two young animals bonded almost instantly. And now are, according to their handlers, like devoted brothers. It seems that cheetahs in the wild have a more “flight” than a fight response, but they are also very social animals. As the video says, “in the wild they form coalitions with their brothers.”
So it makes the cross-species friendships with dogs, much easier than it would be with other wild cats. These cheetah-dog pairings in captivity has been happening for over 30 years.
Kumbali and Kago are perfect examples of how well this has worked. Kago provides a calming influence on the young cheetah, because dogs are less fearful than cats and “embrace” the new with more confidence, something that Kumbali picks up on too. You can see why the two have become inseparable.
News: Guest Posts
A little girl and her service dog vs a school board
The US Justice Department filed suit yesterday against a public school district in upstate New York for refusing to permit a student with disabilities to attend school with her service dog unless the family pays for a dog handler to accompany the pair.
The lawsuit alleges that the Gates-Chili Central School District in Monroe County, NY, violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a public entity must permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability, except under specific exceptions.
The child at the center of this debate, Devyn Pereira, 8, was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare disorder that results in developmental delays, seizures and autism. Her mother, Heather Pereira, a single mother of two, spent more than a year raising the $16,000 for Hannah, a 109-pound white Bouvier trained to perform numerous tasks for Devyn, including alerting school staff to oncoming seizures, preventing Devyn from wandering or running away, and providing support so she can walk independently.
Pereira, has spent three years trying to convince school officials to allow her daughter’s one-on-one school aide to provide periodic assistance in handling Hannah—primarily, tethering the service dog and issuing limited verbal commands. The dog is trained to last the school day without food, water or bathroom walks.
The lawsuit requests the school district permit Devyn to act as the handler of her service dog, with assistance from school staff. It also seeks compensatory damages of about $25,000 for Pereira for the ongoing cost of the dog handler.
Announcing the suit this week, Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said: “Honoring an individual’s choice to be accompanied by her service animal in all aspects of community life, including at school, promotes the ADA’s overarching goals of ensuring equal opportunity for, and full participation by, persons with disabilities.” In hearing the news of the department’s decision, Pereira responded, “knowing the United States of America is not only sympathizing with our situation, but willing to take this all way to the top to fix it is an amazing feeling.” And she added, “I have so many dreams for my little girl and with the DOJ’s help, they are all within our reach. It is so exciting to think we are blazing a trail for all those that follow with service dogs.”
For more information about this lawsuit, or the ADA, call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800.514.0301 or800.514.0383 (TDD) or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov. Complaints of disability discrimination may be filed online at http://www.ada.gov/complaint/.
It looks like we soon may be able to chalk up another win for the power of the canine nose.
In a recent UK National Health Service (NHS) preliminary study, trained dogs were able to sniff out prostate cancer 9 out of 10 times, making them a more accurate predictor than the standard (but controversial) Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) screening test, which has a high "false positive" rate.
For men of a certain age, the prostate goes from a background to a foreground worry. The walnut-sized gland circles the neck of the male bladder, and when it starts causing problems, there can be a number of reasons. The most serious is cancer. To arrive at a definitive diagnosis requires a biopsy, which--like any surgery--comes with its own risks. And this is why the "false positive" rate matters: in order to make a decision to go ahead with a biopsy, a man needs to have a pretty good idea that it's needed. The more accurate the screening, the fewer unnecessary biopsies.
Based on the success of the preliminary study, the NHS has recently authorized clinical trials to more definitively test the canine ability to identify prostate cancer. Dogs trained by the group Medical Detection Dogs will be taking part in the upcoming trials. This group, co-founded by by Dr. Claire Guest, was among those profiled in Barbara Robertson's Wonder Dogs article; click on over to read more about it.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A look at an innovative dog training program at University of Pennsylvania
A unique program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—not only trains detection dogs from puppyhood, but also, studies every aspect of their development in order to determine how to identify and train the finest detection dogs possible, dogs whose work is critical when natural and human-caused disasters hit. The center officially opened on September 11, 2012, at a former DuPont facility just south of the main campus. All of the puppies are named after dogs who served at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We want to focus on what the nose can do,” says the center’s founder and director, Cynthia Otto, associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto, who had been providing medical care to detection dogs for FEMA since 1994, joined a contingent of first-responders from Pennsylvania at Ground Zero in September 2001. Initially, the dogs were deployed to search for survivors, but ended up locating the remains of victims.
After the disaster, Otto and some of her colleagues in the working-dog world took a serious look at the factors that come into play in the best detection dogs. Was it genetics? Or could a dog’s natural talents be optimized? Was it possible to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues? If so, how? Otto, a scientist, began planning a program that would provide answers.
Otto decided to break with the practice of most detection-dog programs—including those of the military and many law enforcement agencies—which wait until dogs are a year old before beginning their detection training. Instead, she wanted to give puppies an overall “liberal arts” experience that included obedience, agility, searching, direction and control, drive building, impulse control, socialization, play, fitness, and husbandry. Then, she would study their development during that crucial first year, gather evidence of what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to guide the development (and identification) of even better detection dogs.
Another unusual feature of the center is that, rather than being kenneled, the dogs live in foster homes. Such a system requires a great deal of organization; after several years of fund-raising and searching for a location, Otto hired three full-time employees to manage operations, direct the dogs’ training and coordinate the many volunteers who would be required. Then, she and her staff set about finding puppies whose pedigrees indicated that they had the drive and temperament to become exemplary detection dogs.
Ronnie, a black sable German Shepherd, is one of the dogs who spent his first year at the new Penn Vet Working Dog Center. As a puppy, he was fostered by Cathy Von Elm and lived with her and Auggie, Von Elm’s Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in their Center City Philadelphia home. Evenings and weekends were spent doing typical puppy things: playing with Auggie, tossing giant fleece bones in the air, filching ice from Von Elm’s glass, going to the country on weekends. Every weekday morning, however, on her way to work, Von Elm dropped Ronnie off at “school”—the Penn Vet center; in the evening, on her way home, she picked him up.
Ronnie came from breeder Julie Stade, whom Otto had met in 2012 at a national breeders’ conference, where Otto was giving a seminar. Stade, who’s based in Kansas and is known for her work with Doberman Pinschers, had recently made a foray into breeding German Shepherds and was awaiting her first litter. The parents came from impressive lines of Czech dogs, and Stade was interested in donating one of the puppies to the center.
Her timing was excellent: Otto was looking for just the right German Shepherd to add to her class of puppies. She wanted a namesake for another Ronnie—a Czech German Shepherd whose handler, David Lee, had been a longtime detection-work colleague before his retirement from the Philadelphia police force. (Lee had introduced Otto to Annemarie DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Trooper and founder of their canine program, who became the center’s director of training.)
In November 2012, Stade’s dog Burana whelped; Ronnie was the fifth of nine males. As she does with every new litter, Stade conducted what she calls “the matching game”: figuring out which dog is best suited for a prospective owner. “It’s my favorite part of the process,” she says. Stade observes the puppies’ behavior from birth and presents them with challenges, such as a variety of loud noises, to see how they respond—who gives up, who perseveres, who looks to a human to solve the problem, who whines.
After she’d narrowed down the choice to three dogs, Stade and her husband took Burana and the puppies to a park that was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from their farm, an adventure they hoped would help her make the final decision. “I had the brilliant idea of putting them in the back of a horse trailer,” she says ruefully.
Stade rode in the back with the dogs and all of their equipment, but she quickly discovered that without a horse’s weight, the trailer and everything inside bounced. “It was a far more extreme test than I ever would have done intentionally. I never want to put puppies in a situation where they question or doubt themselves.”
Ronnie, still unnamed, was identified only by his yellow collar. While his red-collared and blue-collared brothers reacted to the sounds and movement by becoming angry or anxious, Ronnie took in his surroundings and then promptly curled up and drifted off to sleep. Ronnie wasn’t just an intrepid traveler—he seemed to be unflappable.
In late January 2013, the time came for Ronnie to leave Stade’s farm for his life in Philadelphia. By then, however, the cold weather made it risky to ship him in a plane’s cargo hold. The center needed a volunteer to carry Ronnie on the flight. But there was another complication: Stade likes to keep her puppies well fed just before placement so they have some extra padding to help them adjust to the stress of their new surroundings.
“Ronnie was really fat,” she confesses. In fact, he was eight weeks old and weighed 29 pounds. Would he even fit under the seat of a plane? There was only one solution. David Lee, now a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, was unlikely to be challenged if there were difficulties during the flight. He volunteered to fly to Kansas and bring Ronnie to Philadelphia.
Lee recalled seeing the Buddha-shaped Ronnie for the first time: “He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed … just a ball of fire.” While playing tug with Ronnie, Lee instantly fell for his charms, but wondered what he’d be like on the plane. Lee had yet to discover that Ronnie didn’t just resemble Buddha—he possessed his enlightened detachment, too. On the flight, Ronnie didn’t flinch, whine or bark. He just sat on Lee’s lap. When Lee put Ronnie on the adjacent seat, he looked around, lay down and slept.
After arriving in Philadelphia, Lee was able to spend some time with Ronnie. He took him everywhere—to a warehouse, to the beach, down stairs. “Nothing fazed him,” Lee remembers. “He was a great dog even then.”
Trained for Excellence
School is a full-time affair at the Working Dog Center. After being dropped off each weekday morning before 9 am, the puppies spend the day at the center until their foster families pick them up sometime between 5 and 7 pm. The dogs are trained on-site, and their daily training regimens are tracked on a master board. All areas must be covered in a predetermined rotation, but obedience training takes place every day, if only while the dogs are being taken outdoors.
In addition to several indoor training areas, the center has a dedicated outdoor agility course and a rubble pile. They use a nearby vacant warehouse for search training. Regular field trips expose the dogs to as many different environments as possible. Destinations include local warehouses, airport terminals, the Philadelphia subways and the rubble pile, which is in New Jersey.
Dogs are grouped according to age so those with a similar skill level can go through a particular training scenario together, but they’re never held back because of their age. Each dog has to master basic scenarios before moving on to those that are more complex. Depending on how many staff members are available, the dogs go through two or three scenarios per day.
Search training, part of which involves finding a volunteer in an empty barrel on the agility course, is probably the most fun to watch—it’s like a really elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Or, one of the puppies might be let loose inside the empty warehouse to find a tug toy. The reward in either case is a well-earned game of tug and a wagging tail. “It’s a game, making it fun for them,” says Training Director DeAngelo.
Regardless of the setup, logistics matter. The dogs need to be transported to training destinations in crates, but the center’s cargo van cannot carry them all, so staff vehicles usually join the caravan. Each puppy also needs his or her own handler during training. Many of the handlers are volunteers or interns, and every attempt is made to pair a dog with the same handler as often as possible. In addition to the director of training, the center has two full-time and three part-time trainers. The part-time trainers have dedicated areas of expertise: agility, obedience and reactivity. When they’re not training, the dogs rest in their crates or are taken for walks, often to Penn’s main campus, where they play and socialize with students.
Otto estimates the costs of raising and training each dog to be $36,000. Penn’s vet school provides their health care, and various companies donate food and other supplies (foster families incur no expenses). In Ronnie’s case, the Wawa convenience store chain made a donation to the center to support his care. Such contributions are crucial, as the center depends entirely on donations for its operating budget.
Perhaps the most challenging fields for a detection dog are law enforcement and search and rescue (SAR). A major difference is that there are periods of inactivity in SAR work, but law-enforcement dogs work almost daily. “Ronnie can do anything,” declares Otto, and that seems to be the consensus of opinion among those who’ve come in contact with him. “He’s an awesome work dog,” says DeAngelo. David Lee goes further: “I’d love to be his handler. He’s the most laid-back dog I have ever worked with. The only thing that I would fear is if he did something that bored him. As long as it’s fun, that dog will work for days. He’s just that good.”
Initially, Otto was hesitant about placing the center’s dogs in law enforcement because that would require training them in bite work, a key component of criminal apprehension. Introducing an aggressive behavior has to be done carefully to avoid having it affect the dog’s personality. Nevertheless, when the police department of Philadelphia’s mass transit authority, known as SEPTA, announced that it was expanding its canine unit, Otto carefully considered the opportunity.
Ronnie had the chance to prove himself at SEPTA’s 2013 Iron Dog Challenge, an annual fundraiser in which teams of working dogs and their handlers compete in a specially designed course of more than 25 challenges, which include having the dog jump through a window, demonstrate nonreactivity to a gun shot, be carried uphill and placed over a barrier, complete a low crawl, and criminal apprehension. For Ronnie to compete, he had to be trained to bite on command.
Fortunately, one of the center’s volunteers is Bob Dougherty, a certified law enforcement canine trainer who is also a member of the Cheltenham, Penn., police K9 unit. Dougherty worked with Ronnie over several months of accelerated training that included more directed searching and tracking and the subtle work of teaching the bite-on-command behavior.
According to Dougherty, the key is to manage stress so that the dog never feels a pressure to perform, and training remains a game. Dougherty’s goal is to find a balance between achieving results from the dog and maintaining the dog’s happiness, so that the next time, the dog is even more eager to practice biting. “Ronnie is such an easy dog to work with,” says Dougherty. “All the foundation work was done so well. It wasn’t difficult at all.”
Although Ronnie didn’t place at the Iron Dog competition, he did well enough against the more than two dozen teams of certified working dogs and handlers that SEPTA officials took notice. Since 2005, SEPTA had been rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be canine officers. In January 2014, Ronnie and one of his classmates became the first dogs SEPTA purchased. With the help of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the group paid $8,000 for him.
Ronnie now lives with his handler, Officer Javier Class. Class is new to the canine unit, but has been around dogs all his life and always knew he wanted a canine partner. Nevertheless, when he met Ronnie, he was taken aback by the Shepherd’s size. Ronnie weighs100 pounds, and Class says it occurred to him that he might not be able to handle the dog. Class’s moment of doubt quickly disappeared as he and Ronnie bonded.
The two fulfill the principle of opposites attracting: whereas Class has plenty of patience, Ronnie is so eager to work that SEPTA’s head trainer, Officer Dave Parke, has instituted what he calls the “30-second rule”: he has to explain every new concept in 30 seconds so that Ronnie can get to work. Otherwise, the dog barks impatiently. When Ronnie is home with Class, his wife and two children, however, he’s a different dog. Class attributes this to the home environment that Von Elm and Auggie gave Ronnie in his first year.
Ronnie will almost certainly spend the rest of his life with Class and his family, even after he grows too old for active duty (something that’s difficult to imagine today). Barring injury or illness, Ronnie will work until he’s nine or 10, which is about the point at which dogs begin to lose their stamina for the rigors of scent work. For now, Ronnie’s most definitely on the job, and when he’s not, he spends a lot of time with his new best friend, Class’s six-year-old daughter. Their favorite game? Hide-and-seek, of course.
Escapees try to throw tracking dogs off scent
Once those escaped killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were caught in northern New York, people were wondering why it took the authorities three weeks to track them down. Police dogs had soon after the escape caught their scent only three miles from the prison. Nonetheless there was chatter online that perhaps Matt and Sweat had used a trick of sprinkling pepper in their tracks to confuse the dogs. It was thought, that the fugitives might have been inspired by “Cool Hand Luke.” In this movie Paul Newman brings some “chili powder and pepper and curry and the like” with him when he made his escape. In the movie the ruse worked and threw Bloodhounds off and they ended up sneezing and rubbing their noses. But could this really happen? The New York Times consulted with Alexandra Horowitz, canine cognitive researcher, about the likelihood of this being effective and she thought it was “extremely” unlikely because, as she explained:
That when people move “they slough off dead skin cells, and the scent from those cells lingers both in the air and on the ground.” Dogs, even those who seem to have their noses close to the ground like Bloodhounds, can “air scent” too and as Horowitz explained “there is no way that people can erase the olfactory information that they are leaving.”
Nonetheless, it’s good to note the dogs did their job when they were the first in the team to alert that the convicts were making their way on foot. They also proved to be key members of the long manhunt by helping the authorities to narrow the field—with or without the pepper.
The dog-human bond stars
This has got to be one of the most touching PSAs of all times—speaking volumes for the enduring connection between dogs and people. The video, “The Man & The Dog,” was developed by the agency DDB Argentina for FATH (Fundación Argentina de Trasplante Hepático) an organ donation program in that country, and in only 90-seconds itells the moving story of the bond that all dog people can readily understand. See what you think, and be ready to shed a tear or two at the emotional, uplifting ending. Understandably it has become a viral sensation.
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