work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
One courageous therapy dog inspires many.
Dutchess is a golden Retriever with a smi le guaranteed to warm your heart — an important gift in her line of work. As a therapy dog with the Good Dog Foundation, she is required to stay calm and nurturing in challenging situations. And when a hereditary illness recently claimed her eyesight, her generosity of spirit and signature smile remained firmly intact.
Mark Condon brought Dutchess into his home as a puppy nine years ago, and they have been a loving team ever since. In between his duties as professor of biology at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., they volunteer at the Anderson Center for Autism in nearby Staatsburg.
Like any rambunctious pooch, Dutchess loves chasing tennis balls. She never missed one tossed to her, Condon recalls. Then, in 2010, something started to change — she began to miss them. She also started bumping into objects and sometimes appeared to be disoriented. Visits to the vet and ophthalmologist revealed that she had pigmentary uveitis, a genetic disease that generally leads to glaucoma and blindness.
Eye medications slowed the progression, but it was obvious to Condon that after six months of trying everything, her vision was all but gone. Even worse, the pressure on her eyes was causing her pain. After receiving the grim news that surgical removal of both eyes was necessary, he and Dutchess started preparing for the inevitable. “I had some time to get her oriented and teach her new commands such as ‘Curb up, curb down’ and ‘Look out’ to alert her to things she might collide with off-leash.”
Fortunately, Dutchess sailed through the operation and was able to go home one day later “with her tail wagging as if nothing had happened,” says Condon. Free of pain, her recovery was nothing short of remarkable, but the question remained: could she go back to the therapy work she loved?
“My biggest fear was that the outgoing, gregarious dog I knew would be lost,” says Condon. “She loves her work so much, and I knew she would really miss it, but I had to make sure she had the confidence to return. She would be completely blind and still interacting in a place where there might be loud noises. The only way was to try.”
Mary Anne Enea is a speech language pathologist at Anderson and had worked with Dutchess and Mark before the surgery. “When Mark first told me she was going to lose her eyes, it broke my heart,” says Enea. “Then when he said she was ready to come back to work after only three weeks, I couldn’t believe it. [Though] I thought he might have wanted her back this quick for her sake, I knew he would never put her in harm’s way.” Dutchess surprised everyone by easing right back into her job as if nothing had happened.
Part of a special program initiated by Anderson several years ago, therapy dogs work with patients to break through the wall of autism and help strengthen their communication and social skills. If a patient wants to throw a tennis ball for Dutchess to chase, brush her or give her food or water, they must step outside themselves to communicate that request to Enea or Condon.
Dutchess’ inability to see now adds another layer to the interaction. Before, a tennis ball was easy for her to spot and chase. Now, the ball must first be held close for her to smell it, and then thrown. Retrieving the ball is a triumph shared, says Enea. “One of my patients is much more enthusiastic now when she gets the ball. Before, he wasn’t cheering for anyone. Now, he is clapping and cheering for her … for someone else.” Condon admits he swelled with pride the first few times he took Dutchess back to Anderson. “It was amazing that she had the confidence to trust people she couldn’t see to pet her and interact with her.”
Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation, calls Dutchess and Condon an inspiring therapy-dog team. “Clients and patients take comfort in hearing how Dutchess rebounded from a grim prognosis, and see her as an example of what love and determination can do.” Dutchess’s remaining senses have become heightened, and the fact that she has overcome her disability with grace is not lost on those she interacts with, says Condon. “Whether you are a dog or person, consider not just what’s inside you but what is around you. It is how you fit into the rest of the world that is important. People say to me, ‘I feel so bad for her’ and I say, please don’t. She is as happy as she has ever been in her life. Someone’s petting her now, or wants to play with her right now or talk to her. If she was not able to extend her consciousness outside of herself, she would not get that happy. She derives it from how she reacts with others.”
The deep bonds of love and trust between Dutchess and Condon have fueled the engine of recovery and allowed her to continue to make a difference in people’s lives. “I don’t know if I have ever seen a bond like they have,” says Enea. “Mark lives for Dutchess. He is so proud of how much she loves her work, and she knows she is safe with him. She is an inspiration.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
On a calm winter morning in Three Forks State Park in Montana, I stand next to Alice Whitelaw and her truck. Three dogs crated in the back bark and yodel. Ten-year-old Camas, the most experienced tracker, moans the loudest.Whitelaw pops the latch, and out hops Camas, a fine-boned, dark German Shepherd. Though I stand close to her handler, she doesn’t even quiver a nostril in my direction. Camas focuses her bright brown eyes on Whitelaw, vibrating with excitement as Whitelaw straps her into her working vest. Camas is first up to give me a demonstration of what a conservation dog can do.
Before I arrived,Whitelaw planted bear scat (poop) in the brushy field in front of us. Camas is going to find three samples, using her nose. Camas is off-lead, and she and Whitelaw stand at the edge of the field and lock eyes for a second. She gathers herself, as though balancing at a starting gate.Whitelaw pulls out a ropeball toy and shows it to Camas.“Ready?” she asks. “Find it,” she says in a calm voice. Camas begins to run, nose to the ground.
Camas is one of a handful of dogs in the United States who works for science through Working Dogs for Conservation. The dogs scan wild terrain to find wildlife scat or hair, plants and even animals. The organization was founded by four biologists—Whitelaw, Aimee Hurt, Megan Parker and Deborah Smith—to provide scientists with a noninvasive, inexpensive but accurate way to count or study wildlife and plants.
Whitelaw worked as a wolf biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I loved it. It’s great work, but it’s no secret that if you handle wild animals, at some point somebody’s gonna get hurt, and I’m talking about the animals.”“Capture and handling”is still considered one of the best ways to study and observe wildlife. Biologists set traps in the woods or dart wildlife from helicopters. Sometimes they drug and fit the animals with radio collars, then use receivers to locate the animals later and observe or count them.
Yet, capture and handling can be costly and difficult. Animals may detect traps and bypass them or, like wolves, dig them up and poop on them (gotcha!). Some animals fight the trap, expending terrific energy or injuring themselves.Wildlife in traps may hyperventilate, overheat or, very rarely, die of “capture myopathy,” heart failure from stress. They can also fall prey to other animals.
About 15 years ago, there was a shift in the wildlife field.Researchers figured out ways to collect and decode DNA from scat, hair or skin samples. “What if we could get information from scat without ever seeing the animal? We started thinking about using dogs. It seemed natural: loved dogs, loved working with them, loved being in the field with them,wondered if we could make this work,” says Whitelaw.
Whitelaw and her partners teamed up with trainers of narcotic-detection dogs. Together, they developed a protocol for training conservation dogs to help wildlife biologists do their jobs. Working Dogs for Conservation, a 501(c)(3) foundation, is one of only three organizations in the country that uses dogs for conservation detection.
Dogs have a leg up on humans as searchers and trackers. And it’s a rare dog who doesn’t love to sniff out, evaluate, roll in or coolly sprinkle over poop. Most dogs seem to consider the examination of scat as one of the major jobs of the day. There’s a difference, however, between a pet dog’s daily rounds and the focused work of a detection dog, who communicates with her handler about every single scat of the “target” species.
What motivates conservation dogs is not poop, but play.While Camas searches for scat the way any dog does, she does not relate to scat the way other dogs do. Camas equates material from the species she’s been trained to find with playing tug-of-war with Whitelaw. Whitelaw explains, “These dogs are not smelling every poop like most dogs do. They are out there working for the target scent that they’ve been trained to associate with their reward [their ball]. That’s all they’re doing. They’re not out there acting like dogs.” Most of them are toyobsessed— they’re the dogs you’ll see in shelters, bouncing off the walls. In fact, that’s how many conservation dogs have been discovered. The partners visit shelters, looking for the dog who won’t put down her toy for anything. Others are rescue dogs, and some come from breeders who specialize in detection dogs.
This morning, conservation veteran Camas is engrossed in her job, rushing through the dried grass with her nose above the ground, zigzagging on an imaginary line in front of Whitelaw. Once Camas has found her target, she’s trained to look at the scat, thrust her nose toward it without touching it, sit next to it and then make eye contact with Whitelaw. This series of movements is called an “alert.”
Camas is a generalist; she can identify 13 species, including kit fox,wolf, cougar, grizzly bear, black bear, desert tortoise, and several invasive and rare plants. This lowland state park is a good place for a demonstration of finding grizzly scat because the bears don’t live in this habitat. The scat samples Whitelaw has planted should pop out at Camas.
Generalist dogs like Camas can’t turn off their training. She’ll alert on any and all of the species she knows, wherever she finds them. In the Montana mountains, Camas is asked to search for grizzly, black bear, cougar and wolf all at once.
Working Dogs for Conservation’s dog/ handler teams have helped study animals all over the globe, including Amur tigers, African wild dogs, and snails in Hawaii. Closer to home, Camas and Whitelaw work in Montana’s Centennial Mountains on a predator-connectivity study. Jon Beckmann, the lead researcher, studies the ways in which many grizzlies, black bears, wolves and cougars live in and use the mountains as a link to other habitats. Beckmann’s data, gathered in part by the dogs, have contributed to several land management decisions that have protected the predators and their migration corridors.
“The dogs have allowed us to study a whole suite of carnivores simultaneously in a really rugged landscape, where it’s difficult to trap animals.”Beckmann adds that he’s learned not to doubt the dogs. “In five years, the dogs have had 98.6 percent accuracy over 1,000 data points,” says Beckmann.
Camas pauses, pokes her nose toward something on the ground and looks at Whitelaw.“Show me,” says Whitelaw. The dog steps to the patty, pokes her nose toward it, sits, then stares at Whitelaw. Whitelaw whips the ball end of the pulltoy into Camas’s mouth and her voice travels high up into a sunny range.“What a good girl! What a dog!”
Finding the Right Dogs
Drive gets the dogs through repetitive, sometimes grueling training and searches. The dogs must be crazy for their rewards, ignoring distractions. “Play has to be a big enough deal,” says Aimee Hurt, “so that searching wouldn’t be enough. If a dog liked searching more than the toy, that’s a problem, because it cuts down on the dog’s need to communicate with you.”
Nerve strength is crucial because the dogs work in the wild. It’s one thing to ask a dog to find a bomb in a human environment like a building or airport; it’s another to teach a dog whose focus is on reading poop to ignore the messages that poop is sending. A conservation dog overrides what he knows about the animal whose scat he’s sniffing.Wolves, for instance, treat other canids as competition and may try to kill them. Not surprisingly, some dogs react to wolf scat.
“They pee on it, get their hackles up and walk around it in a creeped-out way, or won’t go into it at all.” If a dog is too nervous around wild scat, he won’t make the cut. (Whitelaw and her partners have been known to fall in love with some dropouts and keep them as pets.)
Even an accomplished tracker like Whitelaw’s male dog,Tsavo, occasionally balks when scat wafts a territorial warning.“ He’ll identify all kinds of wolf scat, but there are a couple of instances where we’ve come across a great big pile of what I’m assuming is alpha male wolf scat and he’ll alert from a distance.” Whitelaw adds,“A handler has to know how to read that individual dog in order to work him at his peak. Every dog is different.”
At first, the dogs play hide-and-seek and games with their handlers.Handlers downplay manners. “You want as wild an animal as you can get.We want the dog to be very independent—listening, but not in the obedience sense.”At about one year old, the dog is ready for search training.Whitelaw sets up a row of cinder blocks with holes in them. Into one she inserts a glass jar with something stinky, like hair gel. “When the dog gets to the hot block, the ball appears out of nowhere.” (She drops it from under her arm.) Each time the dog stops and notices the scent, the handler throws a toy or plays tug-of-war.
Once a dog makes the link routinely, he’s taught a formal alert. There are many steps and pitfalls on the way to field readiness, which generally takes four months for conservation dogs, a longer training period than for most detection dogs.And in the end, training alone does not make a conservation detection dog. The dogs have to have a “willingness to cooperate,” says Whitelaw. “No amount of training’s going to make a dog do something like this.”
By noon, Hurt, Wicket and I were pressed against the wall as Camas ran her final trial. She punched her nose into one block and neatly sat, eyes on Whitelaw. She’d located the target scat and this time, after tugging and hallooing, Whitelaw let Camas carry her rope-ball.
She stepped over to us, showing off her toy. Then, after greeting Hurt, for the first time since I’d met her, Camas looked up at me, glance expansive, lips drawn back as though smiling. She reminded me of a prime athlete, chatting up the spectators after winning. Look, my toy. She waggled her head just a bit. I got it because I did well. Whitelaw had instructed me not to engage with Camas or her toys, even if she offered them.Yet, the dog waited for acknowledgement. I touched her head lightly, “Yes, you did well. You did!” She grinned and turned abruptly, seeking out Whitelaw’s eyes, ready for whatever her partner might want from her.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
With a leash and a prayer, Kat Albrecht pursues an admirable goal: improve the odds when a best friend goes missing.
It’s a cloudy, late-winter morning in Clovis, just outside Fresno, Calif. The night before had been stormy, and later, a tornado will touch down nearby. You wouldn’t want your dog or cat roaming in weather like this. But somewhere out there, hungry and wet, might be Tinkerbell and Pumpkin. The skinny, tiger-striped, two-year-old mother cat and her look-a-like five-month-old kitten have been missing for two weeks.
Owner Becky Brady had let the cats out for a little break. “It was late afternoon and they were sniffing bushes while my daughters played,” Brady says. “Then, suddenly, they were gone.” Like many indoor-only cats, they had neither collars nor microchips. To make matters worse, Brady and her three daughters will be moving to Denver in five days.
We learned about the cats from a posting on craigslist.com. Eager to demonstrate how Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians do their job, Kat Albrecht called Brady to offer her services. MAR uses the same investigative techniques, technologies and strategies that police detectives and search-and-rescue technicians employ to find missing persons. “Some people think it’s a scam,” Albrecht says. “They think we’re nuts.” But Brady is game, or desperate, or both.
So here we are in a modest neighborhood of single-family homes and condos at 8:30 in the morning. Albrecht, in jeans, work boots and a Day-Glo orange “Lost Pet Search” coat, looks every inch the former police Bloodhound handler, crime scene investigator, search-and-rescue manager, and police officer that she is. Parked nearby is her dark green truck with reflective SEARCH and RESCUE bumper stickers and a PETHNTR license plate in a frame that reads: “Get lost. Make my Bloodhound’s day.” In the past eight years, Albrecht has conducted about 150 full-scale searches and helped reunite approximately 1,800 owners with their pets through consultations.
Before we search a square inch, Albrecht asks Brady a few questions about the missing cats. Last sighting? Habits? Experience outdoors? Temperament? Neighbors with a grudge? She’s creating a “feline personality profile” that will help her determine probabilities for the missing cats across a spectrum that ranges from theft, rescue and unintentional disposal to injury, illness, death, deliberate displacement and more.
Barring intervention, “there are predictable patterns for how a dog or cat will act when he gets free,” Albrecht explains. Those patterns dictate search strategies. Of course, it’s easier with cats. With dogs, several x-factors, including a much greater likelihood of human involvement, make predictions more difficult (see below).
Temperament is key. According to Brady, Tinkerbell is outgoing with humans and dogs. If she’d been “skittish and xenophobic,” Albrecht would have recommended humane traps with food, the best way to capture a frightened, hungry cat seeking food under the cover of darkness. She’s recovered many this way. But since Tinkerbell has a “curious clown” temperament, a daylight search of the immediate area using a cat-detection dog is the order of the day.
This is no undercover operation. Seasoned volunteers Beverlee Bargamian and Jill Buchanan, also decked out in neon, join Brady and Albrecht. A retired US Marshal, Bargamian wields an amplified listening device (ALD), the little dish and headphones favored by hunters and PIs, and a turbo flashlight.
Buchanan has her hands full with Susie, a four-year-old Jack Russell Terrier tricked out with her own “search dog” shabrack, a neon-orange vest. Susie is a cat-detection dog. She searches for kitties indiscriminately and in the process, we hope she flushes out the two we are looking for. She’s angling to get started, poised on her back legs and straining at her leash.
“I’m not the first person to use a dog to find lost pets,” Albrecht says. But she probably is the first to codify the training and to try to create a national resource. When she originally suggested using one dog to find another dog (an invention born of necessity when her police Bloodhound A.J. went missing in 1996), it was a heresy to her colleagues in the K-9 unit and her search-and-rescue peers. They considered the idea a misuse of a good dog and a waste of training. “I lost a lot of friends,” she says.
Currently, Albrecht has two scent-detection dogs at home: Chase, an 11-year-old Bloodhound once used in police work to track criminals, and Kody, a three-year-old Whippet-mix. Both can identify individual dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, ferrets, iguanas and geckos (and probably much more) by scent.
Albrecht and Brady start knocking on doors, asking for permission to check backyards. To my surprise, no one says no, although one homeowner looks at the search crew and says under her breath, “She must really love her cat.”
We quickly circle a well-kept yard that offers few hiding spots for a cat. Buchanan directs Susie to “check here” and “check here” along the fence and edge of the house. The dog sniffs eagerly but determines almost immediately that this yard is a bust. “We rely on their body language to tell us what they smell,” says Albrecht, who never doubts a well-trained dog’s nose. “They live in a world that’s different from ours.”
The next yard is a potential bonanza. There’s scrap wood, an upside-down stroller and lots of other domestic junk on the patio. As we peer under bushes and old mattresses, Albrecht is answering Brady’s questions. She sounds like counselor, explaining why the cats might not respond to calls of “Tinky.”
“A cat’s only protection from predators is to hide and be quiet,” she explains.
Why haven’t they returned home?
Because Tinkerbell and Pumpkin are indoor cats, they haven’t established an outdoor territory. Albrecht explains that the world beyond the threshold was new and unknown. There’s no reason to think that once they wandered off, they’d even be able to recognize home.
“My friend thinks they might be stolen,” Brady offers. “They are really beautiful.”
“Well, maybe,” Albrecht says, not terribly convincingly. “But this was the first time you ever let them out.”
She’s already explained to me that pet-theft is a common explanation. People often want to believe their animal has been stolen because it means closure. “They want to stop grieving,” she says. It happens, but it is rarer than you’d think.
At the next house, a woman gives a dead-on, uncoached description that matches Brady’s: a skinny, white-and-tan, gregarious cat, seen several times in the past two weeks. Pay dirt. Albrecht said the two cats would be nearby. Meanwhile, Susie pulls Buchanan behind a shed, and she sees tiny, muddy paw-prints on the fence. A frisson of excitement shoots through the group.
We follow the direction of the sighting. An elderly woman lets all of us, Susie included, tromp through her house to the backyard to check a garden crowded with tropical plants, bushes, a wishing well and outdoor bric-a-brac. The team is gleeful at the sight of so many potential hiding places. (After a few hours of this type of work, you never look at a yard the same way again.) Susie lets out a series of shrill barks and bolts for a corner. A fat gray cat leaps over the fence.
“Gooooood girl,” Buchanan and Albrecht praise her. The former shelter dog vibrates with excitement. It’s not the right cat, but she’s not expected to discriminate. She’s nailed her quarry.
With a cat already here, Albrecht doesn’t expect to find Tinkerbell and Pumpkin sharing this territory, but we make a thorough check. The woman watches through her glass doors, and as we file back through her home, says she’ll pray for the cats.
Other neighbors have seen nothing but promise to look, and then tell us sad stories about how they lost a pet. On several posts nearby, flyers describing a lost dog are water-soaked and illegible. On this gloomy morning, lost pets seem like a universal condition. According to Albrecht, no one keeps track of the number of pets that go astray annually. “We know how many cars were stolen in a year. And how many guns. But we can’t say how many pets go missing,” she says, clearly disgusted.
As we head to a new block, a man shouts across the street, “Are you for real?”
We pass a yard with a broken television set and pile of clothing on the sidewalk. The garage door is cracked open and junk spews through it. “I’d like to get in there,” Bargamian says. But no one is home to give permission.
Many of the homes in this neighborhood have raised foundations ventilated by small, screened openings. If there’s a hole in the screen big enough for a cat, Bargamian pokes in with her ALD to listen for cat sounds. A neighbor dog barks, and she gives a little leap.
When training Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians, Albrecht teaches aspiring pet detectives to investigate hiding places for signs of fur. Once, she used a DNA lab to match fur tufts found at a coyote kill site with fur taken from a cat’s bed at home. This is where Albrecht’s police background really comes in handy.
After some early positive signs, the trail is growing cold. We’ve been searching a three-block area for almost two hours. Even with bad knees and a back injury that permanently sidelined her from police work in 1998, Albrecht shows no sign of fatigue or frustration. She’s tracked pets through bramble-covered ravines and in foul weather. (Many of these adventures are described in her memoir, The Lost Pet Chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 Cop Turned Pet Detective.)
When she finally calls off the search, she’s confident we’ve made a good start. The neighborhood is on alert. Frequently, the mere visibility of a search makes all the difference. A few years back, while trailing Bubba, a lost Jack Russell, she was approached by a bystander investigating the commotion, who proclaimed: “I’ve got that dog in my garage.” Case closed.
This morning was the first time any of Brady’s neighbors learned about the missing cats. The chances that she will get a phone call the next time Tinkerbell or Pumpkin surface are far greater now than they were yesterday.
We pile into the truck. Susie is wet but reluctant to stop, as though she knows that all the unsearched yards, alleys and garages out there harbor more cats—a giant smorgasbord.
“There is a lot of pressure on you and your dog to turn up a miracle,” Albrecht says on the way home. But she sees her job as improving the odds of a search from “a needle in a haystack to a coin in a sandbox.”
At the Clovis home Albrecht shares with her 80-year-old mother, two dogs and two cats, Susie is rewarded with playtime. Cheeto, an ample orange feline, allows the Jack Russell to jump her and hold a cheek-full of fur in her muzzle. Like a scene from a romantic comedy, they roll across the carpet. This is actually Cheeto’s job. As a “target cat,” she is used for training dogs to hunt down, but never harm, missing cats. She appears to love her work.
In a back bedroom is Albrecht’s office, home of the Missing Pet Project, the national nonprofit organization she founded in 2004 to research the behavioral patterns of lost pets, educate pet owners in how to properly search for a lost pet, and educate animal shelter staff and volunteers in the science of lost pet behavior. Also, it’s the base of operations for Pet Hunters International, a pet-detective academy established in 2004 to certify MAR technicians, investigators and search dogs. There’s yellow CRIME SCENE tape on the door, and a doormat hanging on the wall reads: “Come back with a warrant.”
“I want you to hear this,” Albrecht says, hitting the button of her answering machine. The plaintive voice of a Texas woman fills the room. Her cat has been missing for a month and she’s desperate for help from the woman who put pet detecting on the map.
“It kills me that I can’t help her,” Albrecht says, her voice breaking. “She shouldn’t have to call me all the way up here.” I’m surprised to see her cry.
After pouring her heart—and much of her bank account—into the effort to create a national organization, Albrecht and her Missing Pet Project have yet to establish stable financial support. And though she’s trained and certified many better-known pet detectives and at least one professional cat profiler, she and her profession still aren’t taken seriously.
On top of it, the realities of Albrecht’s life—financial troubles; job disappointments; health difficulties for her and her mother; and the deaths of Rachel and A. J., the dogs who launched her passion—often collide with her dream, sometimes running her off the rails. Her great idea isn’t an unqualified success yet.
But still she persists, and it looks like things might be turning around. The Today Show recently taped a segment featuring Albrecht’s work, and she’s in discussion with television executives about a reality show based on MAR cases. That sort of exposure could generate the momentum she needs to take her detection dogs from the fringe into the mainstream. Clearly, we are in the middle of this story. It’s too early to say how things will end.
Postscript: The fate of Becky Brady’s cats remains a mystery—after the search, Albrecht never heard from Brady again.
Kat Albrecht offers certification seminars for aspiring Missing Animal Response technicians; for more information, or for helpful advice if you’ve lost a pet, visit www.missingpetpartnership.org.
News: Guest Posts
Training either a pet or a working puppy should be a full time job, and with Ranger it sure feels like it!! Ranger is now four months old. He is a fairly confident and independent puppy by nature, and I continue to bring those qualities out in him in a controlled way to avoid any overly scary or traumatic experiences. Puppies up to about a year old are very malleable, and one scary experience can be a huge setback. I take Ranger to new places all the time, and he is allowed to meet new people (with treats in hand) and new dogs who I am sure are friendly. He is also exposed to new surfaces, terrain and challenges almost daily. Rather than assist Ranger when we come to an obstacle like a cattleguard on a farm, I walk off and allow him to independently figure out how to get to me on the other side.
Obedience is also a very important for the working dog. Obviously it is imperative that our dogs have some good foundation obedience such as recalls, down, stay, etc. Ranger and I were generously donated a six week puppy class by Puppy Love Training in College Station, TX. This has been a great class that focuses on positive reinforcement and clicker training. Training outside of familiar locations, around other dogs, and under distraction is incredibly important for Ranger to learn and get used to.
Besides our obedience class, Ranger and I train almost every week with our friends at CenTex Search and Rescue based in College Station, TX. Here we have a chance to learn from some great trainers and wonderful dogs who are trained to find either live people or cadavers. Ranger is obviously not going to be learning to do either one, however he gets to learn and experience so many useful things, including traveling and waiting in his crate, getting on a boat, and of course meeting lots of new people, dogs and even a horse! He must also acclimate to the Texas heat!
During these training sessions Ranger usually gets assessed to see how he is progressing. The main team members of the Search and Rescue group are very knowledgeable when it comes to puppies, and they look at all the attributes I described previously: confidence, independence and play drive. They usually ask me to play with Ranger for a few minutes to see how excited he gets about his toys and how determined he is to get his toy. Play drive is generally a “nature” type trait that dogs are born with or not. Certain breeds, and particularly certain bloodlines, may be predisposed to have a higher play drive than others. Obviously many of the hunting/retrieving breeds are one of the first places we look for these high drive dogs, but this trait can be found in other breeds and in mutts! CenTex Search and Rescue specializes in using Border Collies for example, and some people use only shelter and rescue dogs!
Drug dogs, bomb dogs and conservation dogs all work for one reason… because they are addicted to their toys and will work all day in difficult conditions to get their reward. A dog who will retrieve his ball twenty times in a row in the backyard might not have anything close to the drive and focus we require in our dogs.
Of course, just like with puppies raised to be Guide Dogs for the Blind, there is no guarantee that Ranger will have the rare combination of confidence, independence and drive that he will need to become a successful Conservation Dog. Temperament and personality traits depend on both “nature” AND “nurture.” If you want to read an interesting article about this check out this article about the “Fox Farm” experiments in Siberia. So far the little guy is doing pretty good, and we are just trying to make everything fun for him while he learns!
Until next time, feel free to visit us on our NEW website or on our Facebook page for regular updates on our training progress!! Dogs for Conservation has some other exciting news to share with you!
Training Videos from this month:
News: Guest Posts
Ranger on a rollercoaster
It has only been a month since I first blogged about Dogs for Conservation, but oh so much has happened since then! I have had incredible highs and devastating lows in this short period of time.
Of course, the main “high” has been the addition of our new Golden Retriever puppy. Ranger was donated to us by the breeder and comes from a long and impressive line of working Goldens, including search and rescue, cadaver, field trial and hunting dogs. The trip to Georgia to pick him up from Lyn Parsons was a happy occasion and the puppy has settled into my life quite nicely.
The most important job was deciding on a name for the little guy. I wanted it to mean something, and reflect the mission of Dogs for Conservation. After many weeks of research and Internet surfing, it was my husband who came up with the name Ranger. In Africa, the men and women who work on wildlife reserves are known as “game rangers.” They work very hard and often risk their lives to protect rare and endangered wildlife and habitat. The name seemed fitting as soon as I met him!
Our first week together went very well. I started some short-but-sweet training sessions with him and got him used to the flow of our household and its inhabitants. He was completely fine with my chickens, but slightly obsessed with my rabbits, so that required immediate and consistent on-leash training with lots of positive reinforcement for calm behavior, which is paying off nicely.
He also began to accompany my other dogs and me on our twice daily walks on the 35 acres we call home. This is bonding time for everyone, great exercise and wonderful environmental stimulation for a young puppy. He is exposed to different terrain—cattle guards, lakes, long grass, rocky areas, etc.—which will go a long way toward his training as a conservation dog. I also believe that being exposed to other well-balanced adult dogs really helps in how a puppy sees the world and how he is going to react to new and potentially scary things.
Five days after Ranger came home, we lost one of our older dogs who had gone in for surgery to remove a cancer-ridden spleen. The surgery proved too much for him and he did not survive the night. Although we knew it was a possibility, it still came as a blow.
The following evening during his 9:00 backyard potty break, Ranger was bitten by a copperhead snake that had been hidden between two rocks and the cover of darkness. I immediately woke my sleeping four-year-old (my husband is in Africa until November) and we headed to the clinic. Ranger screamed for pretty much the next 12 hours. He was bitten on the chin, and had severe swelling and pain. The next few days were spent recovering from the bite and getting spoiled, which, of course, is very un-working-dog-like!
Kammo living the good life (left), and a snakebit Ranger
Despite these few rough patches, I have managed to keep my head above water. I can rest assured that our old dog Kammo had a good, long life that included daily long farm walks and swimming in ponds up to the end. I’m also thanking my lucky stars that Ranger recovered from his bite without any physical or emotional trauma, and is progressing well through his early training.
I spend each day taking him to new places, meeting new people and challenging him bit by bit to help mold him into the dog we hope he will become. I am posting regular videos of his training on the Dogs for Conservation website and Facebook page, so feel free to watch and learn from our progress and our bumps in the road. And, please keep your fingers crossed that he will forever steer clear of snakes!
News: Guest Posts
Scenes from the life of a therapy dog deployed in Afghanistan
Prepare for a double take in these videos from the Army’s 7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment filmed in mid-April. A three-year-old Boston Terrier relaxes inside an armored vehicle defended by at least one visible gunner stationed in a hatch. He walks down dusty war-ravaged roads. Plays fetch and relaxes in sandbagged shelters.
How did this spunky, little pup end up here? His “therapy dog” vest is the key. Hank is a service dog deployed to Kunar Province, Afghanistan with Army psychologist Captain Katie Kopp as part of a new combat stress initiative. Hank is there to comfort the soldiers and help make Capt. Kopp more approachable.
I have mixed feelings watching Hank in a war zone. He looks so vulnerable in this context. But when I see and hear how the soldiers react to Hank and witness the nuts and bolts of his life (the b-roll)—plenty of stimulation, activities, interaction and play—I think his is a more engaged and meaningful existence than many dogs have here at home.
B-roll scenes from Hank’s deployment:
Interview with Capt. Katie Kopp, Brigade Psychologist, Co. C, 704 BSB, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, and Sgt. Nahum Campos, Infantry Soldier, HHC 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division:
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Labor easier with dog’s support
Laura Hulsing has post-traumatic stress disorder, and her service dog Autumn is essential for her well being. By predicting anxiety attacks as well as offering security and comfort in troubling situations, Autumn helps Laura daily. The day Laura gave birth to her son Noah was not a typical day, but Autumn provided the same assistance by being there throughout labor and delivery.
Autumn visited the birthing unit of the hospital prior to Noah’s arrival so that she would be comfortable there. During the birth, in addition to the usual hospital staff, Laura had support from her husband, Autumn and Autumn’s trainer. Laura had been concerned that being in pain and stressed during labor and delivery would be tough on Autumn, but the dog handled it just fine. Autumn was really attentive throughout the process, and provided Laura the comfort she needed. Autumn continues to support Laura, which allows her to be independent and to be a mom.
;m excited about how Autumn makes life better for Laura, and also thrilled that the hospital allowed her service dog to be present during labor and delivery.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Office dogs never complain about the size of their cubicles or staying late
Ever wonder what it would be like to have your dog with you at work, nestled under your desk? If you needed a break from paperwork or phone calls, you could go outside for a relaxing walk or a game of fetch. Minor irritants would melt away when you looked into those adoring doggie eyes or heard that solid tail thump.
A surprising number and variety of businesses now recognize the added value of allowing dogs in the workplace, and not just on the annual “Take Your Dog to Work” day. Increasingly, what started out as occasional canine visits have grown into standard practice in offices around the country. Likewise, official pet policies are now part of many employee handbooks; the rules not only address proper pooch-related etiquette and behavior, they also provide non-dog people with assurance that their needs are taken into consideration.
But a document weighed down in legalese doesn’t explain the amazing transformation that can happen to a company and its people when dogs are welcomed. People who perhaps would never have met or spoken to one another are drawn to the dog in the cubicle or out in the parking lot. A shy person feels free to greet the dog and kneel down beside her for a friendly lick. A fearful person bravely reaches out a hand for the dog to smell, and delights in her cold nose.
And of course, those with dogs never tire of hearing compliments about their pups or seeing colleagues enjoy their company. Even more gratifying is the chance to field questions from curious non-dog people and to help them begin to understand why dogs matter. All of these encounters provide co-workers with opportunities to engage in face-to-face conversation, something that is increasingly rare in this technology-driven world.
We took a look at some of the companies that welcome dogs, and—once we recovered from our surprise at the number—decided to dig a bit deeper into a representative selection. Here are four stand-out examples of corporate American dog culture.
“Every day, she gets petted and praised by others,” says Herdener. “She has half a dozen or so very good friends who see her once a day. It’s really a community of dog lovers. There are probably three dozen people I know only because of my dog. Dulce is more social than I am, so she’s a nice ice-breaker.”
Approximately 24 to 36 dogs come to work at Amazon’s corporate headquarters, a 12-story former VA hospital in Seattle, Wash. Herdener says it’s not surprising that dogs would be allowed in this old Art Deco building, which dates from the 1920s. However, when they move to a brand-new downtown facility in a couple of years, he says it’s a foregone conclusion that the dogs will still be welcome.
In order to bring a dog, the employee must first register him/her and agree to certain rules and regulations. For example, all dogs are required to be up-to-date on vaccinations, housebroken and on-leash except when they’re in an office with the door closed or behind a baby gate.
Considering the number of dogs, there are surprisingly few skirmishes or co-worker complaints. “It comes down to common sense and common courtesy,” says Herdener. “Even people who don’t love dogs appreciate the policy because it makes it a more casual environment. When you go through the hiring process, it becomes clear what our corporate culture is. People make a choice—either they subscribe to it or they don’t.”
Besides helping forge new relationships, allowing dogs in the workplace also gives employees peace of mind. “We work long hours,” says Herdener. “If the dog was at home, you would run home quicker. The fact that you can bring her adds to productivity. As hard as you work, you do have time to pet or play with a dog. I love my job and I love this company, and I have to say that one of the reasons why is the fact that I get to have my dog by my desk.”
Ben & Jerry’s
Visitors and job applicants quickly learn that dogs are part of the Ben & Jerry’s team. “If they sit in the lobby for a few minutes, they’re more than likely to see a dog going outside. I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a dog-friendly place,’” says Greenwood. “It’s part of the tour. ‘This is the design department—Momo is there; Jack is in R&D, Allison’s in retail, Scout is brand new…’ They’re just like your co-workers.”
Momo is a 10-year-old Pomeranian-Terrier mix who comes to work with designer Lisa Wernhoff every day. “I live an hour away, and I don’t have a job where I can rush home to let her out,” says Wernhoff. “But because of the pet policy, I can bring her here.”
In 2000, Wernhoff and a volunteer group—folks with and without dogs—created the official pet policy in a proactive, team effort. “It spelled out the need to respect people who are scared of dogs or are allergic,” says Wernhoff. “No dogs in any conference room, lunch room, or bathrooms; no dogs hanging outside your little cubicle, in the aisles, or public spaces. It spelled out where dogs could go potty. We didn’t want people complaining, and tried to head off any problems.”
Obviously, dogs benefit from the attention, treats and petting they receive throughout the day. But the employees also enjoy the physical and mental breaks that come with having their dogs at work.
“For me, the biggest benefit has been taking a physical break from my computer,” says Wernhoff. “I’ve had lots of issues with ‘frozen shoulders’ and doctors constantly told me to take more breaks. Having my dog here, I have to go out at mid-morning, noon and mid-afternoon, minimum, which forces me to take those breaks.”
Another employee, who had been bitten as a child, never liked dogs, but after spending time around the well-behaved Ben & Jerry’s pack, she got over her fear. Eventually, she acquired two Golden Retrievers, who now accompany her to work; she takes them out for a half-hour in the middle of the day for a walk or to chase sticks.
“It’s a stress reliever,” says Lineberry. “There have been tons of studies showing that having dogs around calms your nerves and is good for overall health. If I’m working really hard on a project and I need a break, I’ll walk to my neighbor’s office and scrub her dogs a little bit and give them some treats.”
The nonprofit health information provider began as a three-person company in 1975. Today, there are more than 200 employees. Dogs have played a part in its culture from the first day, thanks to Healthwise’s dog-loving CEO, Don Kemper, who currently shares his office with a Bulldog mix named Tuba.
As the company grew, it became clear that a formal dog policy was needed. The company’s culture is based on “teamwork, respect and do the right thing.” The first sentence espouses that philosophy: “At Healthwise, people come first. It is the policy of Healthwise to provide a safe, nonthreatening and healthy work environment for all employees.” It goes on to say that, with the exception of service dogs, “having dogs in the workplace is a conditional privilege, not a right.”
There are situations in which a dog might not be welcome, for example, if a co-worker had allergies. An employee must request permission before bringing his/her dog into the office. If the dog interferes with another employee’s ability to work, the dog must stay at home. There is a “three-strikes” rule for dogs who demonstrate aggressive behavior, such as growling, barking or lunging. If three formal complaints are lodged against the dog, he is no longer welcome in the workplace. Of course, biting is never tolerated.
If a problem arises, the Healthwise Hounds—a group made up of both dog- and non-dog people—encourages the person to talk directly to the dog owner. If the person isn’t comfortable with that, an anonymous email may be submitted and the Healthwise Hounds will follow up.
There are a few people on the Healthwise staff who are afraid of dogs, so dog owners know to keep their pooches away. Many dog owners will thoughtfully post a sign on their office door. “A girl on my team has a little sign—Hi, my name is Miko. I’m here today and I’m a friendly dog,” says Lineberry.
The Healthwise offices are located in Boise’s beautiful foothills, and employees and their dogs take full advantage of the many walking trails that surround their workplace. The company encourages everyone to respect the trail system by cleaning up after their dogs, and has thoughtfully installed disposal-bag containers in the parking lot to make it easy for them to do so.
It’s hard to imagine curious noses and wagging tails among fragile items like the crystal, china and other collectibles for which Replacements is known, but Vice-President of Human Resources Jeanine Falcon says that it’s allowed speaks to Page’s generous philosophy. (His 11-year-old Miniature Dachshunds, Toby Lee and Trudy Mae, are very popular around the office.)
Falcon has three dogs, but only two of them are comfortable in a busy office environment. Her dogs—10-year-old Bear, a Border Collie mix, and Zola, a 14-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog—attract plenty of visitors, which she feels helps her do her job better.
“People stop by just to see the dogs all the time,” says Falcon. “I don’t know if they’d come by just to see me, though I’d like to think so! It demystifies the HR department and the executive offices, makes them comfortable and homey.”
Replacements’ formal pet policy requires each dog to be current on vaccinations, on a six-foot leash at all times, and polite to people and other dogs. “We emphasize that your pet’s behavior is your responsibility,” says Falcon. “If they chew a computer cord or growl at somebody, you may get some feedback on that. If that happens, we have a conversation with the employee: Do some training, try again in three months. We don’t fire many dogs.”
Falcon recalls that the company’s dog-friendly policy was particularly comforting when her oldest Bernese Mountain Dog, Bella, passed away. “It’s nice to know that your colleagues understand. At other places, you could call and say, ‘I’m not coming in today because my dog died,’ and they’d probably say, ‘Yeah, right.’ Here, they know the dog. They’re not pets, they’re family members, and I think that understanding really helps.”
Truth be told, we expected to hear tales of the challenges that came with having canines as part of the workforce. After all, people can be emotional about their dogs, and that can easily lead to misunderstandings. Surely there were people who would complain about shedding, barking or allergic reactions. But in all cases, it seems that these companies’ dog cultures are a natural extension of a healthy working environment, one in which employees are treated with respect and encouraged to proactively voice concerns before they turn into potential problems.
However, none of these companies, or the hundreds of others who welcome canines to the workplace, would have dogs if it weren’t for concerted grassroots efforts by empowered employees (who are occasionally aided and abetted by a dog-loving CEO). According to Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, “The dot-com revolution of the ’90s converted so many people to working at home or in a cubicle all day that interpersonal contact started on a down slope, and people started looking more and more to their animals for companionship.” By allowing dogs to come to work, companies help their employees connect on a more human level, and a sense of community that goes well beyond retreat-induced teambuilding is born.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A comforting canine presence provides victims with a safe harbor
It’s everyone’s nightmare: You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world collapses—you’re frightened, stunned, physically injured and completely overwhelmed. Police and prosecutors interview you about the smallest details, forcing you to relive the experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll have to face the perpetrator in court, testifying and once again reviving the horror. Emotionally paralyzed, you don’t know if you can do it.
Now imagine the same situation, but this time, a special dog rests at your feet during every interview, sits with you outside the courtroom as you wait to testify—perhaps even goes up to the witness stand with you—and stands beside you at sentencing when you give the court your victim-impact statement. This four-legged victim/witness advocate—accompanied by his human counterpart from the victim advocate’s office—helps you remain calm and reduces what can be a traumatic part of the legal process. You stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. He’s there for you, giving you exactly what you need at that moment: strength to get through this part of the nightmare.
This is not a totally speculative scenario. In Washington’s King and Snohomish counties, two innovative prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using highly trained service dogs to help victims of crime, and the dogs are having a positive impact. Not only do they assist victims, they also boost morale for the prosecutors and victim advocates who deal with the often-horrible consequences of crime on a daily basis.
Upon returning to Seattle and her office, Stephens began thinking creatively, wondering if service dogs might assist in the legal setting. On days that Jeeter could not accompany Sean, Stephens took the dog to work with her. She was the Drug Court prosecutor, and thought Jeeter might help kids with their recovery. She was right—the children quickly adopted Jeeter as their mascot. “One day in my office lobby, a boy, sexually abused by his mother and who [had] sexually abused his sister, glommed onto Jeeter. I didn’t know this at the time, but the prosecutor was offering a deal to get him to testify against his mother, and the boy was backing out. The boy asked to play with Jeeter. I asked him, ‘Would it be easier to talk if Jeeter was with you?’ He said yes, so the plea discussion was rescheduled. At the next meeting, I said, ‘Everyone on the floor!’ so the boy could sit and hug Jeeter. Defense counsel, prosecutor, cop—everyone sat on the floor. It worked. He told them everything that had happened.”
This was an “Aha!” moment for Stephens: The King County prosecutor’s office should have its own facility dog to work with victims. She started with her office’s sexual assault unit. No response. She pushed. Some were receptive, others, not so much. Things stalled. Finally, Stephens arranged for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and members of the sexual assault unit to meet Jeeter. “Jeeter convinced them,” Stephens recalls with a laugh.
As Maleng recalls, “When Ellen came up with the concept of using Jeeter with victims, without hesitation I said yes. I had an intuitive feel for what it could do; I understood from my heart what the program was all about, having grown up on a dairy farm with Collies who were an integral part of our family, offering companionship and unconditional love in sad or hurtful times.” Maleng marvels that—decades later—dogs are becoming a part of the justice system. “I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt—the victims, families, even members of our office—from exposure to trauma and anxiety. So within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice.”
Eventually, Ulrey began the CCI application process, which starts with a written essay describing the need for a dog. When she was turned down because CCI was concerned that their highly trained dog would be underutilized, Ulrey was ready to give up, but Stephens wouldn’t let her. Together, they attended a CCI dinner in Seattle and performed some magic on a CCI staff member who had once worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Ulrey reapplied and was accepted. In December 2004, she went to CCI’s Santa Rosa facility for training and to be matched with a dog.
Ulrey’s training group consisted of five people and five dogs. The first three days, each participant was asked to work with each dog for a half-day; they were assisted and observed by CCI staff. “I got Brielle—I call her Ellie—on the second day. She was a nightmare! She was stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to me. I felt horrible. I was in tears by the end of the afternoon. At the end of the third day, we were asked to rank in order the dogs we wanted. I wrote: Any dog but Ellie,” Ulrey recalls. The next day, they brought the dogs out, one at a time, and matched them to people. “Ellie was last, and she got me. By the end of that day, I’d fallen in love with her. She’s a sturdy character, where the others were more eager to please. She’s calm and self-possessed, which is perfect for the criminal justice system.”
Ellie was placed into service immediately, and was an instant hit. “She’s a real morale booster for everyone in the office,” says Ulrey. “It’s a high-stress environment, with gut-wrenching trials involving victims of violence, sexually abused children, aggressive defense counsel, lives at stake. Even the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse enjoy her.” Ellie is believed to be the first service dog in the nation to be officially placed in a prosecuting attorney’s office.
Ellie works three days a week. Currently, Ulrey is in charge of the King County prosecutor’s juvenile court unit, where Ellie visits kids in detention or in court. Both Ellie and Jeeter also help with victim interviews in the main office. When she’s not working, Ellie’s life is much like that of any well-loved and pampered dog: one day a week in doggy day care, lots of off-leash park time, runs and walks with Ulrey. Ulrey can’t think of any negative aspects to Ellie’s training, demeanor or work (with the exception of an occasional embarrassing episode of diarrhea at the courthouse). She never growls, is completely reliable with people and other dogs, and is a wonderful companion.
Stephens’ desire to see victims helped by these dogs didn’t end with the success of Ulrey and Ellie. One of Stephens’ friends happens to be Janis Ellis, prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, King County’s northern neighbor. Stephens planted the bug, and before long, Heidi Potter, victims’ advocate in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, applied to CCI. In November 2006, Stilson, a handsome black Lab, became the second service dog to be placed in such a setting.
CCI continues to monitor the program. According to Jeanine Konopelski, CCI’s National public relations manager, “This is a new venture for CCI and we are still evaluating to see if the specialized training and skills put into CCI facility dogs are a necessity for this type of work. Certainly, the work has proved to be valuable—there’s no question about that.”
Helping Victims Cope
The successful prosecution of a criminal case often depends on the ability of a victim to report and then testify regarding the details. With children—especially traumatized children—this can be extremely difficult. In just the few months that Stilson has been assisting victims in Snohomish County, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tobin Darrow has seen a significant positive impact. “I think Stilson [provides] a wonderful, warm reception. Initial victim interviews are often when a decision is made whether [or not] to start a case. We close a lot of cases when victims—children especially—can’t or won’t talk. Stilson allows the victim to start talking. It takes children time to develop trust with a prosecuting attorney, so Stilson is very helpful there. Or when kids have to wait—it’s very hard on them, waiting for their turn to testify. Stilson is calming and reassuring.”
Mark Roe, deputy prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County’s Special Assault Unit, agrees. In a recent case, an 11-year-old girl had to testify against her father, who had sexually abused her. Stilson comforted her while she waited in the hallway, and was in the back of the courtroom as visual reassurance as she testified. Mark, who admits that he wasn’t a proponent of the service-dog idea in the beginning, now concedes that there are clear benefits, especially with children. He said that Stilson’s calm and quiet demeanor is what convinced the judge in this particular trial to allow him inside the courtroom. “It’s funny that Stilson’s being profiled in a magazine called Bark, because I’ve never heard him bark!” Mark added with a laugh.
Heidi Potter recalls a case in which Stilson accompanied her and Tobin to Harborview Medical Center’s trauma unit to interview a shooting victim, who had been left paralyzed by his injuries. The man had been bound in duct tape, beaten with a baseball bat, shot in the neck and left for dead. When Stilson entered the hospital room, the man was delighted, and spent the next 10 minutes petting him from his bed. When Tobin asked him about being shot, the man began to talk, recalling how he had thought he was going to die; then, crying, he abruptly stopped speaking. Stilson, who had been lying on the floor, stood and put his head on the man’s lap and stayed there until the man recovered enough to continue. Stilson then lay back down on the floor beside the bed. “I didn’t give Stilson any command. He just did it,” said Heidi.
Even if a victim doesn’t have to testify at trial because the defendant pleads guilty, they may still have to face the defendant at sentencing. Preparing for—and anticipating—the sentencing can be highly stressful. Jessica Haight, 24, is a rape victim who spoke at the sentencing of her abuser in a recent Snohomish County case. “I thought I was going to be a strong chick at sentencing,” she said, “but I was fixated on the guy. I started crying. I didn’t understand why the victim advocate asked if I wanted Stilson in the courtroom with me. But they brought him in and he laid his head on my foot. I noticed I was playing with his ears. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a bald spot on his ear!”
As Jessica spoke by phone from the victim advocate’s office for this interview, Stilson was lying on her foot. Jessica had “a million and one dogs” growing up, and has two now. Still, “I never would have thought of a therapy dog helping me. I saw guide dogs for the blind. But, me? I enjoyed [having] him in the courtroom. It was an extremely positive experience. It changed how I think about dogs, about therapy dogs. It should be a victim’s right to have a therapy dog in the courtroom.”
That thought is echoed by every prosecutor, victim/witness advocate, victim and legal system player who has seen these amazing dogs in action. Their use in prosecutor’s offices—and particularly in courtrooms—is still in its infancy, yet the benefits are clear and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, service dogs in this setting will be the comforting norm.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Pioneering program gives both women and dogs a second chance
Connie lathers a small brown Terrier in a waist-high tub. She wears a T-shirt and waterproof apron, and wields the gallon jug of shampoo as though it were much lighter. Her face is pink and shines from the heat of dog dryers and exertion.
“She’s a little mad about this whole ordeal,” Connie says, referring to the bather, Bella, as she massages soap down the dog’s legs and paws, rinses, and scrubs her muzzle with no-tears shampoo. She works quickly with the confident, gentle touch of a seasoned pro.
She is a pro. Mawyer has been working with dogs since 1995, and, if all goes well, she’ll continue until her release date, which is currently set for 2017. An inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle, she is one of 13 women working in the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP). Only a select few of the total inmate population of more than 800 learn kennel management and grooming skills and provide these services to the public.
On the face of it, PPPP is a simple voc/ed program, preparing women to work in the pet-care industry after they are released. But unlike toiling in the kitchen or the laundry, or participating in horticulture, construction or welding workshops, women in this program work with warm, furry, affectionate creatures. In prison, that makes all the difference.
“Because most of the programs deal with inanimate objects, you don’t continue to grow emotionally,” says Mawyer, who was 21 when she began serving her time. “This program has allowed me to mature. I think I would have shut down. You can’t do that with dogs. You have to leave your emotions open, therefore you’re emotionally learning and growing.”
In addition to her grooming duties, Mawyer is training a pair of rescue dogs, Alaska and Stella, to become service, seizure or therapy dogs, or to live as pets. Most program participants eventually train rescue and shelter dogs.
“It seems like no matter what dogs have gone through,” Mawyer says, “they still come out being very loving, helpful and ready to do something for you. That’s the miracle of working with dogs.” It’s tough to reconcile Mawyer’s crime with her compassion and insight, except to imagine that she illustrates the rehabilitation ideal.
The Power to Change
“It is important to feel and be loved, and a dog can do that for you,” Sister Pauline said in an interview with Lifetime Television, which made a film about her, Within These Walls, in 2001. “This is the first step in healing; then you can continue on and grow to even greater things.”
It is this simple idea that persuaded Dr. Leo Bustad, a veterinarian studying the human-animal bond at Washington State University, and a pioneer in animal-assisted therapy, to advocate for Sister Pauline’s dog-training program, which she launched at the Gig Harbor prison in 1981.
By 1991, the private nonprofit organization, working under contract to the Department of Corrections, expanded its mission to include kennel and grooming services. Inmate trainers have helped place more than 700 dogs in working partnerships or in homes as “paroled pets.” And the program has been emulated, at least in part, at prisons all around the country and internationally.
That’s what inspires Jesyka. Her first dog in the program was a brindle-furred Greyhound mix named Leif. “He was really, really skinny and sick. He had ticks all over him,” says Jesyka, who overcame a serious bug phobia to clean him up. Jesyka, who has long carrot-blonde hair and talks a mile a minute, is more than halfway through a 15-year sentence. She sits at a picnic table in the center of the dog annex. Next to her are Leif and his person, Ashlee Eddy, and Ashlee’s mother, Carol Blakely. It’s been a long while since dog, client and trainer have seen each other.
Eddy struggles with serious learning disabilities and suffers as many as 30 petit mal seizures a day. Leif’s job is to nudge her hand to bring her out of a seizure or to stand guard and bark a warning if she freezes or collapses in a public place. Until Leif came into her life three years ago, the 22-year-old had to be kept under constant surveillance. Now, with Leif at her side, she doesn’t need so much monitoring. She can bathe alone, hang out with friends, walk outside by herself. She talks about working for a veterinarian someday.
“We went to prison to find freedom,” Blakely says. “I knew that a dog would help Ashlee. I didn’t think that it would impact all of our lives like it did.” For the first time in decades, Blakely is able to sleep through the night.
During the training, Jesyka and Eddy became friends, and the inmate-trainer basks in her young client’s obvious success. “In here, time stands still,” Jesyka says. “Your friends have had their jobs for 10, 15 years. Have their cars paid off. Part of their house is paid off. Kids. A husband. And what do I have? I have Ashlee. If it ever came down to that, if I ever had to say, you know, like when you go to heaven, What have you done? I’d say, ‘Ashlee.’”
Benefits Ripple Out
They also appear to have better success on the outside. Of the 140 participants for whom program director Elizabeth Rivard has records, only four have re-offended (a little less than 3 percent, far below the state average recidivism rate for women of 35 percent).
Those with disabilities and limited means benefit too. They receive the life-expanding assistance and companionship of a service dogs for free. Assistance Dogs International estimates the average cost of training a service dog to be $10,000. Dogs also get a second chance.
“We would have a much higher success rate if we bred dogs for this purpose,” says Rivard. Only one in 15 to 20 dogs make it as service animals; the others become pets. “But the mission of this program is a second opportunity.” Rivard says it’s the “power of change” that has kept her at the prison for almost 10 years.
Christa knows all about dogs and second chances. She was an inmate working in the office at PPPP when a batch of year-old Poodle and Labradoodle puppies came in. Rescued after nine months in a hoarder’s basement, they were encrusted with feces. “You’d touch their skin and it would just crawl,” Christa says. Among them was a black Standard Poodle named Ramone. For six months, Christa dedicated every free moment to him. “You’re not supposed to sleep with your dogs in the program,” Christa says about the dog who shared her pillow. “I was like, yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
Ramone came a long way under her care, but after two months with an adoptive family, he failed to bond with them, and was returned to the prison shortly before Christa was to be released. She had served a little less than half of a 14-year sentence, and is serving the balance of her sentence on community placement. She was permitted to take Ramone home with her.
“It was really scary, because they’d never let anybody take a dog home before. It was like, ‘Oh great, she’s just getting out on the streets, so let’s give her a dog,’” Christa remembers. “It was just crazy. But I love this dog and I couldn’t imagine being without him and he couldn’t imagine being without me.”
She moved to Bellingham, north of Seattle, where she now lives with two of her three teenage daughters and Ramone. Soon after her release, she landed a job in customer service at the Whatcom Humane Society, where she worked for more than two years. On the day we talked, she’d just received a glowing review after six months working the front desk for a veterinarian—a stellar comment not only on her job performance, but also on her own efforts and the program that helped her land on her feet.
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