work of dogs
News: Guest Posts
Service Dogs for Veterans Get a Paw Up
House passes pilot for training dogs, including shelter pups

We’ve been tracking the progress of efforts to pair service dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other post-deployment mental health conditions. We’ve cheered funding, training initiatives and research into the benefits. Slowly but surely the idea that dogs can provide major benefits to veterans is gaining traction in Washington.

Last week, the enterprise got a serious boost, when the House unanimously passed veterans’ health care legislation that included the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (H.R. 198). If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, the legislation will create a pilot program for training dogs as service dogs to assist veterans with disabilities.

“As a veteran, and an American, I am thrilled that this legislation has passed the House,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a Marine combat veteran who introduced the bill. “I urge my colleagues in the Senate to pass it without delay, so that it can be signed into law and allow us to begin providing assistance to our returning veterans.”

Already studies have demonstrated that a service dog can reduce symptoms for veterans suffering from PTSD. Caring for a pet can help reduce stress, depression and suicide rates. Service dogs can also help veterans by doing things like waking them from terrifying nightmares and alerting to signs of and helping ward off panic attacks.

Even better, the legislation directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to “consider dogs residing in animal shelters or foster homes for participation in the program.” Great news for homeless dogs and smart from a budget perspective, since purpose-bred dogs can cost as much as $50,000 each, according the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

OK Senate, now it’s your turn to do the right thing by veterans and dogs.

News: Guest Posts
Caleb Keeps Rocking Guide Dog Preparation
The puppy-raising phase is coming to an end

This afternoon Caleb and I returned home from a five-day trip to San Francisco, where I learned two of his littermates had been career-changed. Since only about 50 percent of puppies in training make it as working guide dogs this is not unheard of, but after another successful travel experience with my stoic little dude it stung just a little. Luckily, Caleb remains on track. We have yet to encounter a situation he cannot handle. He is a willing participant in whatever activity we are headed for. Tail wagging and feet prancing, he’s very good at showcasing those Golden Retriever traits. 

We spent a few days in San Francisco, which is a great experience for this little country bumpkin. Caleb has become such a seasoned traveler I believe he absolutely knows exactly what’s going on when I begin to pack my bag and his food. Thinking back to the little chuck of puppy I picked up last winter, I am very proud of how far Caleb has come. Watching him navigate slipping under the seats on a plane and traversing through San Francisco Airport is really amazing. He’s ready to face whatever path he chooses. He is confident and smart and loves to please, I think he’ll make a wonderful guide dog and partner for someone.

From San Fran, we made our way to Napa for a few nights to visit some friends and attend the Guide Dogs for the Blind Canine Heroes Wine Gala. Guide Dogs for the Blind supports and funds the veterinary care for all program dogs for the duration of their careers. The funding will support everything from urgent-care treatments and life-threatening conditions, to annual exams including vaccinations and lab work.

The evening included amazing wine and food from local restaurants, a silent auction, a spirited live auction and lots of dogs! Caleb was more than willing to pose for photos and work the crowd. I managed to win the raffle drawing for 13 magnums of wine but most importantly nearly $500,000 was raised to ensure Guide Dogs for the Blind can provide the best veterinary care to their clients free of charge.

Even with all the excitement and Caleb’s successes, I think we’ve reached the point I should address the white elephant that’s been in the background of this series since the start, the reality of giving Caleb up, which is only growing closer with each passing day. I am hoping we’ll have him for another 3 to 4 months but we are starting to prepare for his recall, knowing it’s only a matter of time.

He’s the first puppy we’ve had who didn’t meet Noah, my yellow Lab companion of nearly 14 years. I think this worked in his favor as we refer to him as our clean slate pup. Our previous guide dog puppy-in-training, Arden, was with us when Noah passed away and the entire year was hard for all of us. I still miss my Noah every day but my heart aches less.

Caleb is with us—and more specifically, me—all the time; I am his person. He will go anywhere and do anything for me. Over the last year, we’ve built an amazing bond and trust that we’ll always have no matter what his future holds. He may go weeks, months or years without seeing me but his reaction will be the same and the reunions will be joyful no matter how long we’ve been apart.

I honestly don’t think any of my pups spend their days pining for me. All of them are with their soul mates and where they are meant to be. I am the awesome aunt who brings special presents and treats. From day one, I remind myself eventually we’ll have to say goodbye but as recent as last night I find myself tearing up at the prospect. It never gets easier, in fact, sometimes I think it gets harder with each dog.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Avalanche Rescue Dogs
Powder Hounds

Picture a mountain rescue dog, and the traditional image is a faithful St. Bernard plodding valiantly into a blizzard to bring relief and a welcome tot of brandy to avalanched skiers and stormbound winter travellers.

But the fact is, St. Bernards have had only limited employment as rescue dogs. Breeds such as German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers are the dogs of choice for mountain rescue teams.

So it was that I found myself looking up into the friendly, panting face of Lily, a Golden Retriever cross who had come to rescue me from an “avalanche” on the slopes of Fernie Alpine Resort in British Columbia.

I’d been buried in the snow as part of an exercise for the resort’s ski patrol team, and it was Lily’s task as one of the team’s avalanche rescue dogs to both find me and dig me out as fast as possible.

In a real rescue situation, an avalanched skier would be grateful to have a trained dog such as Lily on hand. An avalanche dog can search one hectare (2.5 acres) in approximately 30 minutes, while 20 humans using avalanche probes would take around four hours to cover an equivalent area.

The speed with which an “avy dog” locates an avalanche victim is absolutely vital, since around 90 percent of avalanche victims will survive if recovered in the first 15 minutes after burial, provided they haven’t suffered fatal trauma. This drops to 30 percent after a half-hour and just 10 percent after two hours.

The dog searches for “pools” of human scent — if still conscious, the buried victim will give off especially strong scent, as he is highly likely to be panicking and even sweating despite the cold. The odor rises up through the snowpack before being carried away on the breeze, and when a dog finds a potential scent, she’ll bury her snout and head into the snow to try to locate it more accurately. If the scent intensifies, the dog will start to dig, and human rescuers will come along and assist with shovels; if the scent becomes weaker, the dog will work outward from the area to try to locate a stronger scent.

As Lily’s handler, Kirk Gutzman, told me before the exercise, “The tricky part as a handler is to be able to recognize if your dog is interested in a spot because there’s someone buried beneath it, or has just found a surface scent — for instance, where a fellow rescuer may have fallen over and put some human scent on the snow surface.”

Kirsty Morris, a friend I was skiing with while in Fernie, had hung around to watch the free show. She told me what had been happening on the surface as I tried to keep warm in a snow hole dug especially for the exercise.

Lily had been brought to the scene of the “avalanche” at high speed on Kirk’s snowmobile, and as soon as it stopped, “she jumped off, sniffed the air for a few seconds and then headed almost straight toward where you were buried,” said Kirsty. “After a bit of sniffing around in the general area of the snowhole, she then homed in on you and started digging — the whole thing took less than a minute.”

Happy as I am to see her, Lily isn’t really that interested in me — it’s the sweater that I’ve taken down the hole with me that she’s after, and the game of tug-of-war we have with it as a reward for her efforts.

Lily has learned to track the scent of the human clutching the sweater, since in a real-life avalanche she would be searching for similar odors given off by a buried victim. She will do a practice rescue like this twice a week throughout the winter.

It was after seeing an avalanche rescue dog in action at Fernie that Kirk was encouraged to get into “avy dog” work. “The first successful avalanche dog rescue in Canada took place here in Fernie in 2000, when a buried skier was dug out alive thanks largely to the work of the dog,” says Kirk. “I was a member of the ski patrol team at the time. I got Lily a couple of years later with the intention of working her as an avy dog, and at two months old she began her training.”

Kirk went on to explain that for puppies, all the training is based on praise — obedience training doesn’t begin until a dog is a year old. When Lily was eight months, she and Kirk attended a weekend assessment course with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), where trainers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assessed dogs for their suitability.

Lily was deemed to have the right stuff, so there followed more training and eventually a weeklong winter course involving everything from recognizing human scents to learning to ride on ski lifts and snowmobiles and in helicopters.

Lily and Kirk successfully completed the works to become a “team in training” for a full year, followed by another weeklong winter course, which they passed to become a fully certified avalanche rescue dog team and validated members of CARDA. “So as you can see, it’s actually taken us quite a long time to come and rescue you!” laughed Kirk.

During the ski season, Fernie’s rescue dogs travel to work with their owners bright and early every morning, hitting the slopes well before the first skiers of the day arrive. Their kennels sit on the mountain at an elevation of over 6,000 feet. Ready to go into instant action, they will always be called out to any avalanche on the ski hill, irrespective of whether anyone is thought to have been buried or not.

Naturally enough, Fernie’s avalanche dogs are a popular feature of the local ski scene and receive a lot of attention when they’re on duty — after all, it’s not every day you see a dog riding along on a ski lift. They’re discouraged by their handlers from letting this go to their heads, though, because when all’s said and done, the avy dogs, unlike most of the people they meet every day, are in the resort to do a job. Their work is becoming more and more important as increasing numbers of skiers and boarders head away from groomed trails and “out of bounds” into potential avalanche terrain.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dog Class
Teaching inmates the dog canon.

One long, unseasonably warm fall, I teach a class called “Man’s Best Friend” every af ternoon in the prison library. We read dog stories as a way to explore the relationship between humans and dogs; my hope is that it will help the inmates take the next step and think about how they connect with their own emotions. On sunny days, I open the small, barred window so we can smell the soft, autumnal air and hear the shouts and laughter of inmates in the exercise yard.

I know that some of my students would rather be out there shooting hoops, walking laps or relaxing on benches instead of clustered around library tables reading books with me. But they are here because they love dogs. Reading about them cannot substitute for being with them, but it is the best we can do. Many have left pets on the outside and pine for them. This devoted group attends what’s become known around the facility as “Dog Class.”

One day, I am sitting in the library supply closet, which I have converted into an office with just enough room for my computer, a table to put it on and a rolling chair. My phone sits on an upended box, and there is no ventilation. I’m doing some last-minute preparation when Paul, one of my students, comes to the closet door and drops a sheet of paper on the edge of my computer table. “Here, I wrote this about my dog. You can have it.” He sits down at a table in the reading area to wait for class to begin.

It is a poem about Willy, his failing old Boxer back home. In the poem, he calls him “my boy” and muses about what it will be like when Willy dies. I read it and fight the urge to cry. Paul cannot see me, but I call out in a tight voice, “Paul, this is very good. A real tearjerker. Thank you for letting me read it.”

A moment later, Larry, my new library assistant, comes over with a thick book of poems and says, “If you like sad poems, try the one on page 89.” Larry functions on the border of things, never entering into a conversation unless invited. He has only recently begun opening up by suggesting titles of books he’d like me to order. A week earlier, he asked for anything by D.H. Lawrence or Jane Austen.

The poem is “A Dog’s Death,” by John Updike. I am quickly reduced to tears. “Larry, that is really something,” I say thickly. “Show Paul; he might want to read it too.” He takes the book and sets it in front of Paul, who hunches over it intently. When I walk into the reading area, Paul is wiping tears from his face.

“Should we read this one in class sometime?” I ask. “And yours Paul, can I make copies and pass them around for the guys to read?” He nods okay, still choked up by Updike’s poem.

In this class, we read books about lost dogs, sled dogs, farm dogs and dogs of the American frontier. We scan articles about doggie issues, which I clip from newspapers. We read funny poems and letters to editors that point fingers at dog abusers, and discuss the pros and cons of leash laws. I pass out cartoons and thoughtful quotes related to canines, and invite people who work with dogs to visit our class. Each brings along a real live dog.

In a high-security prison, where touch is forbidden, a tail-wagging visitor can make even the most sullen inmate drop his war face and reach out to make contact. The stories we read in class are vehicles to explore emotional connection and compassion, but dog visitors are the carrots that reel inmates into the class. And because this is an English class, I make them think about vocabulary, too, often putting lists of tricky words from the reading on the whiteboard to discuss.
James Herriot’s short stories about being a vet in England during the 1930s and ’40s are time capsules of British rural life, a culture totally alien to these men, and many of the words are unfamiliar to them. We pick out trundle, perfunctory, vivisection and chauvinistic, and we make up sentences.

Harold was just let out of The Hole. He’d been sent there for making hooch in his cell. I ask him to use vivisection in a sentence. He stares at me from behind his dark glasses and says, “I hate vivisection.”

“Can you tell me more, Harold?” I say. “That simple sentence doesn’t give us any clue about what the word means.”

“Okay. Dogs hate vivisection and I like dogs, so I hate it too,” he offers. Luis, a good-looking Latino who sold heroin on the street, volunteers to use chauvinistic and trundle in a sentence. In his heavy accent, he says, “I am chauvinistic about my home of Puerto Rico. I would like to trundle back there.”

Not to be outdone, Stanley, who sits next to Luis, adds, “They served us bad chow today in a perfunctory manner.”

Stanley obsesses about chow, and complains daily about taste, content and portion size. A barrel-shaped man in his late 50s, he is short, grizzled and universally recognized among staff and inmates as a malcontent. Most inmates have a nickname, and Stanley has three: Stumpy, Grumpy and Toad.

Today, we are finishing a book about a man’s team of sled dogs and his love for his favorite lead dog, who is slowing down with age. We talk about foreshadowing, and how the discussion of her decline is most likely leading to the part about her death. Luis read ahead the night before, and announces matter-of-factly, “I already know what happens. The dog dies.”

“Shit, now you ruined it for the rest of us,” says Stanley. “I hate that. Why should we even bother to finish it?”

“Nah, let’s just read it,” says Ralph, a large, loud lumberjack of a man who dislikes Stanley. “Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing to Stanley. “Who cares what the goddamn ending is, anyway? It’s a good story.”

It is my practice to do a lot of the reading aloud, and I choose to push through to the end of the book today so we can start Old Yeller tomorrow. They follow along in their own copies, and it is dead quiet as they listen, except for the occasional shouts that float in the window from the yard.

But no one hears them because we are in Minnesota, where it is white cold. We see the old sled dog as she stands in a snowy field at the spot where her owner used to put her in harness. The bitter wind whips her coat as she waits patiently for him to come. But her sledpulling days are over and the dog team is long gone. Her human walks out to the field to gently urge her back in the warm house. In the swirling snow, she leans against his leg and stares ahead at where the old sled trails used to be. My voice cracks. I know where this story is going. I stumble on for a few more sentences, then put the book down.

“I can’t read any more. Who wants to continue where I left off?” The men stare at me in silence. We hear the muffled voices from the yard through the window. Someone curses, followed by a loud guffaw. “I’ll try,” says Stanley gruffly. The man they call Grumpy lowers half-moon reading glasses onto his nose and begins He gets through one page before his gravel voice quavers. He puts the book down and takes off the glasses to wipe his eyes. “That’s it for me. I can’t finish it,” he says. “Somebody else take over.”

“I’ll do it,” says Paul quietly. The paperback book shakes in his hand as he brings us to the sad end that we knew was coming but hoped would not make us feel so bad. He gets through it just fine, but his eyes are red, and there is an awkward silence when he closes the book. They look around at one another and at me, wondering who will say something to break the uncomfortable moment.

Loud Ralph points at me. “Lookit you,” he says. “You’re all pink and weteyed.” They stare, relieved to focus on me instead of their feelings. “And your neck has red splotches,” he adds. They snicker, and examine my eyes and my neck and my weakness instead of their connection to the story.

“Thank you for pointing that out, Ralph,” I say. “But get used to it. I always cry over sad animal stories. And when we get to Old Yeller, you may be the one with the splotchy neck.”

I walk to the filing cabinet where there’s a fat roll of toilet paper for guys who need to blow their noses, and unwind a few sheets for myself. “Who wants a tissue?”

“I’ll take some of that,” says Paul.

“Yeah, gimme some too,” demands Stanley. “But make sure you give me enough. This state toilet paper is flimsy crap.” The three of us blow our noses and I hear a couple of secretive sniffs around the room.

“Tomorrow we start Old Yeller,” I say. “But I think we’ve had enough for today. Why don’t you all go out to the yard and get some fresh air.” They leave, and when I am alone, I blow my nose again, loudly and in private.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Rikki and Arnold
Therapy dog unlocks a door into a patient’s mind

Rikki is a female golden retriever rescued from the f loodwaters outside New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Together, she and I are one of the animal-therapy teams affiliated with Companions for Therapy, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based organization that provides animal- therapy services to retirement homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, hospice, child dependency and criminal courts, and schools.

We were introduced to the man I’ll call “Arnold” during a regular visit to the geriatric schizophrenic ward of one of the psychiatric hospitals we visit. As I always do, I began by asking the clients if they would like to meet my dog. Arnold, deaf and mute, sat with a vacant gaze, flanked by his interpreter and his therapist. He waved us off as quickly as his interpreter signed my greeting, and we moved on to the next person. After a few minutes of positive interactions with four other residents, we moved back to see if Arnold might have changed his mind. He hadn’t, and again dismissively waved us off.

After making the rounds of the room again, Rikki pulled me over to Arnold for a third time, but even as we approached him, his complete lack of interest was plain. I quietly told Rikki that we should leave him alone and concentrate on others who were enjoying her company.

When Rikki pulled me toward him a fourth time, I led her over to the interpreter and said, “Forgive me, but my dog really seems to think that your client would like to meet her. Would you mind asking him just one more time?” I’ve worked with my partner long enough to know that she knows much more than I do about who really needs her, and why.

As the interpreter signed our request, Rikki lay down at Arnold’s feet and looked straight up into his eyes. Arnold’s arm began flailing around as though he was about to have a seizure. I knelt down beside Rikki and slipped my finger inside her collar, just in case I needed to pull her back. I expected her to tense up, but instead, her muscles relaxed and her mouth opened in an expectant smile.

As I watched, a kaleidoscope of expressions crossed Arnold’s face; then for a moment, his eyes rolled far back in his head. Suddenly, he burst into a huge smile and his eyes focused on Rikki as though he’d never seen her before. He leaned over and threw his arms around her neck, moaning as he buried his head in her fur. Instead of stiffening up, Rikki relaxed and leaned forward into him, bringing herself even closer. Arnold began softly weeping and rocking back and forth. Time seemed to stop.

Then, just as quickly as he had begun, Arnold released Rikki, sat upright and looked straight ahead with a vacant stare, ignoring us. I had no idea what had happened, but Rikki seemed to know that our visit was over, and we thanked everyone and left the room.

Arnold’s therapist followed us out into the hall, where he told me that Arnold suffered from multiple personality disorder; the therapist had identified nine distinct personalities over the 12 years he had been treating him. He told me that Arnold’s dominant personality, which was aloof and antisocial, controlled the others and precluded them from emerging except occasionally, and then only for a short time.

He and the other therapists had worked to encourage one of Arnold’s other, more sociable personalities to emerge long enough for them to make contact. “Your dog did in a few minutes what I haven’t been able to do in 12 years. She connected with one of his personalities who wanted to deal with the outside world in a positive manner,” he said.

He admitted that he’d heard of animal therapy but had never really believed it would be of any benefit to his practice. Now, he didn’t know what to think. I didn’t, either. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it must be to treat a person with Arnold’s disorder, which kept him in solitary confinement in his own body. The therapist asked if we could return the following week and focus strictly on Arnold, and I readily agreed.

When we arrived, we saw several people gathered around Arnold, who was sitting in his chair. I suddenly realized that this was going to be a bigger deal than I’d imagined. This time, there were other therapists and physicians in attendance, including the hospital’s chief medical director. My stomach went into a knot as I realized that we were there to prove ourselves to a “show me” crowd. I tried not to telegraph my nervousness to Rikki, but she seemed more than eager to meet everyone and charm them into petting her. Luckily, my therapy dog calmed me down.

Would this work? Since I had no idea how it happened the first time, what reason did I have to think that Rikki would be able to connect with Arnold again? Her demeanor was so focused and positive, however, that I began to relax. I remembered that my confidence in her had been proven through hundreds of other interactions. She would do what needed to be done.

As during our previous visit, Arnold was not interested at first. We spent an hour with him, and during that time, Rikki stayed focused and within petting distance. It didn’t take long for “Earl” (the name given to the personality who wanted to pet Rikki) to emerge, though his arrival wasn’t as physically dramatic as it had been in our first encounter.

As the visit continued, we “saw” six distinct personalities, including one who did not want to pet Rikki but was content to watch me pet her and ask questions about her through his interpreter. This in itself stunned the therapists, as Arnold had apparently never before taken note of a visitor, much less asked questions.

When one of Arnold’s personalities was petting or treating Rikki (he began taking baby carrots from me and giving them to her, even letting me show him how to have her sit and shake hands) and another personality who did not want the dog around began to overtake his persona, he would literally wave his arm in the air, as though shooing away a giant bug. I hardly knew what to do, other than to keep Rikki close and make sure he could touch her when he needed to. She seemed to know what to do — when to move in, when to engage with him, when to leave him alone.

I’ll always remember the moments she extended her head and smiled as he gently stroked her ears and made quiet sounds of contentment. As I looked around at the faces of the others, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who sensed just how special those moments were.

Arnold eventually relaxed enough while petting Rikki that the therapists were able to have brief interludes of conversation with him through his interpreter. I don’t know which was more fascinating: watching the interaction between Arnold and Rikki and Arnold and the therapists, or listening to the sidebar conversations between the therapists.

When we left, Arnold and the therapists walked us to our car, and every one of them — including Arnold, through his interpreter — thanked me for bringing her. I could barely reply. I could only thank them for giving my special dog and me a chance to help.

On the drive home, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Rikki had fallen into a deep sleep.

The next time we saw Arnold, he had a notepad and was communicating with his therapist by written word as well as through his interpreter. I thought for sure he would recognize us as we walked by, but his focus stayed on his therapist. And I just knew that Rikki would be drawn to him as she was before, since their previous connections had been so profound.

But neither of them was particularly interested in the other, and after my confusion (and, frankly, disappointment) had subsided, it finally dawned on me: he didn’t need her anymore, and she knew it. He had desperately needed some way to get around his dominant, isolated personality, someone who could provide a key to unlock the door between the “real” Arnold and the rest of us. Rikki sensed that, and knew how to be the key. Once the door was unlocked, the professionals were able to begin connecting with Arnold and treating him in more conventional ways.

So often, our animals provide exactly the right link or motivation, one that can’t otherwise be made with someone in physical or emotional pain or distress. I see it all the time, in so many of our therapy visits. Rikki is a special dog, but she’s not unique.

The Aborigines have a saying: “Dogs make us human.” I couldn’t agree more.

News: Guest Posts
On the Road Again, Caleb’s Western Tour
Our Guide Dog pup travels four states, sniffs a T. Rex and turns one-year-old

It’s 8:02 on a Friday night, we are in a hotel room in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and I am the only one still awake. We have been on the road for a week; Caleb is officially a road warrior. Last Sunday, we packed up our car and headed west. A few years ago, my husband Alex went on a fly-fishing vacation to a lodge in Montana and had an amazing time. Since then he’s been trying to work another trip into our schedule and really wanted me to join him. I agreed on the condition we take Caleb with us; I don’t fish so I figured I’d need a buddy to hang out with for the 12 hours a day Alex and the other guests were on the water.

We mapped out a route that would allow us to stop and visit Alex’s parents in Boise before continuing on to Twin Bridges, Mont. I wanted to make sure none of us were in the car for more than six hours at a time day. It worked out perfectly: Each travel day was about 300 miles or less. Caleb was excellent in the car; he slept or chewed on one of his many toys. We stopped about every two hours for a stretch, walk, potty and water break.

Overnights in hotels are a breeze for him. As long as he’s got us, a bed and his meals, Caleb’s a happy pup. When we finally arrived at Healing Water Lodge, we all knew the drive had been worth it. Beautifully manicured grounds, a vegetable garden to die for, perfectly appointed rooms with plenty of room for Caleb’s giant crate, a gorgeous dining room and a pond complete with a resident beaver!

Caleb was welcomed with lots of love from the guests and staff and was part of every activity, from long walks and outdoor adventures to cocktail hour on the sun porch and gourmet dinners in the dining room. We hit some local museums, shopped and took a ton of photos. We spent a day in Bozeman with a friend and her two lovely Labrador ladies. Before heading back to the lodge, we made a visit to the Museum of the Rockies, where Caleb came face-to-face with some very large dinosaur bones. I am happy to report not once did he try to lick them.

The highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to take Caleb out on a drift boat for a day of fly-fishing. We’ve spent a lot of time going with Alex to fish the streams and rivers around our house, but it means just grabbing a camp chair and setting up with a book on the water’s edge. Caleb had never been on a boat and frankly I’d never been on a drift boat trip but Alex’s guide, Cassandra, and the lodge, were phenomenal in coordinating this little family outing for us.

Caleb is comfortable enough around water I figured he’d do fine but I wasn’t prepared for how awesome he was. Within minutes of me putting him in the boat he was resting at my feet watching the world go by. Occasionally, he’d sit up or rest his head on Cassandra’s seat to see what was going on. We stopped on banks to let Alex work the water and land some fish, giving Caleb some time to explore and enjoy the scenery. We did have to raft through some small rapids but Caleb was fast asleep so he missed it completely.

By afternoon Caleb and I were relaxing in the boat while Alex was landing fish after fish in a small riffle. After a while, Cassandra brought over the fish for me to see and photograph. Guess who wanted in on the action? Caleb. We introduced him to a brown trout. He was not aggressive or overly interested; he sniffed, gave it a quick lick and looked back at me for approval. Since it’s all catch-and-release, no fish were harmed in the experience. Here’s a video glimpse:

This trip really solidified how grown-up our pup is. We’ve given him just about every opportunity to experience life as a working dog. I can confidently say Caleb has handled everything thing we’ve put him up against. We are getting closer to his recall date and know we probably only have a few more months with him. His first birthday is this week. Happy Birthday Caleb, you rock!

News: Guest Posts
Do You Have a Favorite Canine Mascot?
Go Dawgs!

With football season in full gear, it may be poor timing to admit I’m not a big sports fan. But does it redeem my grid-iron lameness that I appreciate a good mascot, especially of the canine variety? From the squat nobility of University of Georgia Bulldog Ug to the not-terribly intimidating Boston University Terrier to the sleek and speedy (and sort of obscure) Salukis of Southern Illinois, dogs make great mascots because they have so many admirable qualities that translate to sport (loyalty, perseverance, love of play, good attitude, and on and on). Plus, you can have an actual dog in your parade and on the sidelines.

Among dog mascots (many Bulldogs among them) nothing touches the University of Washington’s, to my way of thinking. They fight the good fight behind a handsome Husky, usually “played by” a flashier, more docile Malamute. I admit I may be unduly influenced by the fact that I attended grad school at UW and that I’ve had three Husky-mix dogs sprinkle their pixie dust on my life.

For most of my time in Seattle, my UW Husky sightings were limited to t-shirts, posters and the bronze incarnation in front of Husky Stadium. But a couple years ago, I heard about Dubs (as in U-Dub), the latest mascot pup-in-training. I started following his blog, which is a constantly expanding collection of to-die-for photos. Interestingly his home and family are shrouded in secrecy to maintain his privacy and perhaps protect against pranksters. So when I saw him on a walk IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD I felt like I’d just spotted George Clooney. When we crossed paths a second time, I asked: “Is this?” The answer: “Yes.” We didn’t say his name, like a certified Hollywood star. We didn’t need to. But, unlike meeting a certified Hollywood star, I was allowed to pet him. Yum.

I see Dubs occasionally and check in on his blog. And I’m even starting to care how the teams do—for Dubs’ sake. Go Dawgs!

Do you have a favorite mascot?

News: Guest Posts
9/11 SAR Dogs Ten Years Later
Photographer Charlotte Dumas pays tribute to canine heroes

It is hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93. The memories and the impact are still so fresh. But one place you can see the passage of time is in the gray muzzles and clouded eyes of the surviving Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs.

With the tenth anniversary looming, Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas tracked down 15 surviving rescue dogs who assisted emergency crews searching for survivors. She traveled around the country and photographed these aging heroes in their homes. The noble and vulnerable images are a beautiful tribute to the efforts of all the SAR teams in those frightening and challenging days.

The portraits have been collected and will be published on 9/11/11 in Retrieved, a paperback volume with Japanese binding. (Available from The Ice Plant.) In addition, seven of her favorite images will be sold at a special silent auction to benefit the First Responder Alliance, which helps rescue and recovery workers and their families develop critical support systems.

The auction will be September 29, 2011, 6–8 pm at Clic Gallery, 255 Centre Street, NYC. The seven auction prints will be accompanied by the photographer’s personal notes as well as memorabilia including snapshots of the dog at work during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

See a slideshow of images from the book at The New York Times.

News: Guest Posts
Thunder Dog [Update]
Famed Guide Dog of 9/11 remembered in new book

Ten years ago, Guide Dog Roselle, a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, was sleeping under a desk on the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. Her partner, Michael Hingson, was preparing for a routine training meeting when he heard the explosion.

The date: September 11, 2001.

Stairs were the only way out. So Michael Hingson, who is blind from birth, worked in tandem with Roselle, taking 1,463 steps down 78 floors to safety.

I met Michael Hingson five years after the September 11 tragedy. He and I were in Raleigh, N.C., with our guide dogs, both of us presenting at a 2006 conference for people who work in blind services. Michael’s speech about experiences with Roselle on 9/11 wowed the crowd.

“You have got to write a book!” I told him at the hotel bar after our presentations. Michael is a good talker. Roselle was already asleep when we arrived. After guiding me to a seat at the bar, my Seeing Eye dog, a Golden Retriever/Lab cross named Hanni, had the good sense to settle in with her co-worker under our bar stools.

Sipping a cocktail, Michael explained how he’d left a 27-year career in high-tech computer sales and management to accept a position at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) as National Public Affairs director. In a country where 70 percent of people who are blind are unemployed, his career path is miraculous enough, not to mention surviving September 11 with Roselle. He was quick to point out he’d already hooked up with the publisher of AKC Gazette to write his book.

Michael and I kept up via email after the conference, and when I finally got my courage up and asked how the book was coming along, Michael responded that “it just never came together.”

Enter Susy Flory. After contacting Michael last year about including his 9/11 story in a book she was writing called Dog Tales, she asked if he had any interest in writing a book. “She told me she’d be willing to help me with it,” he said. “It just clicked.”

Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers last month. One instance in Thunder Dog that really sticks with me is when Michael and Roselle found themselves in a subway station on 911. Everyone there had smoke and dirt in their eyes—they were all, in fact, blind, and each one terribly frightened of falling into the tracks.  Poor Roselle, I don’t know how she could see or breathe, but she managed to guide all of them to safety.

Michael is traveling with his new guide, a yellow Lab named Africa, to promote the book for the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy. He says his Guide Dog’s spirit never diminished during their 78-story stairwell descent on September 11, 2011, and that spirit was evident during the six-and-a-half years the two of them spent together afterwards traveling hundreds of thousands of miles throughout the United States and the world to speak about trust and teamwork.

“If anything, Roselle’s spirit grew even stronger after 9/11,” says Hingson, who has left Guide Dogs for the Blind to start his own company, now speaking to corporations and organizations on behalf of the Michael Hingson Group. “I want people to understand that the real handicap of blindness is not a lack of eyesight, but a lack of proper education about blindness,” he says. And while Roselle is no longer with him physically, Hingson knows her spirit will always, always be with him. “She helps me be a better person today, and everyday.”

Here’s a video preview with Michael Hingson (and Africa) and Susy Flory:

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Arson Dogs
Super Sniffers—there’s a new pooch at the firehouse.

If you were to make a Molotov cocktail, you’d have to wash your hands at least 17 times before a dog would be unable to detect traces of petroleum on your skin. Until fairly recently, this information probably was not much of a concern to would-be flame-throwers.But these days, arsonists of every stripe should beware. While most fire departments have phased out the Dalmatian, fire investigative units have been adding another dog to their teams.

Since the mid-1980s, an elite cadre of canines has been using the ability for smelling in the parts-per-quintillion to help investigators determine whether a fire was deliberately set, and sometimes even who set it. The more than 200 arson dogs (formally known as accelerant- detection dogs) working today can quickly and accurately sniff out tiny amounts of anything from lamp oil to lighter fluid in a scene flooded with several inches of water or covered in snow, ice, mud or thick layers of fire debris.

“The K-9s have the ability to survey a variety of terrain in a fire scene in an incredibly short time,” says Jerry Means, an agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. “The dogs dramatically increase the investigator’s ability to retrieve an accurate reflection of the flammable products present in a fire scene and increase the chances of collecting a positive sample.” Of course, it can be equally important when a dog does not alert to fire-starting substances—helping to rule out arson.

Means investigated approximately 800 fires with his first arson dog, a black Lab named Erin. “We had a fire that occurred in a home where three small children were killed in the blaze,” he says. The fire initially looked like a tragic accident, and an arson dog was not going to be used. “However, considering the magnitude of the loss, it was decided to throw every available tool at the fire investigation.”

Erin alerted a dozen times in the area where it was believed the fire started. Based on these samples tested at the lab, investigators determined that the blaze had been set intentionally. “After four years of investigative work and two separate trials, the children’s father and mother were each convicted of three counts of first-degree murder.”

Means acquired his dogs, first Erin and later Sadie, through a program run by State Farm Insurance Company. Since 1993, the Bloomington, Ill.–based underwriter has teamed up with Maine Specialty Dogs and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to provide arson dogs— about 10 per year—to communities where at least 50 suspicious fires occur annually. Most dogs are placed so they can help the greatest number of people, and they and their handlers often help neighboring jurisdictions. Overall, 250 State Farm–sponsored teams have set to work in 43 states, three Canadian Provinces and the District of Columbia.

Once an arson dog is certified and placed with a handler, he or she works every day of the year and must be recertified annually. Captain Stephen Baer, founder of the arson dog program at the Seattle Fire Department, recently put his dog Henny through her paces.

Out on the blacktop at a fire-training center south of the city, Baer has set up a simulation. Before I arrive, he has burned a carpet remnant with a torch, squeezed one drop of 50 percent evaporated gasoline in two spots, and burned it a second time. He has also put a tiny drop on a T-shirt in a row of clothes (to simulate a clothing lineup).

At some distance from the demo area, he dons a belt with a kibble pouch. Henny tunes in, ignoring the floating cotton that had captivated her only moments earlier. “She goes from being friendly and looking for Chicken McNuggets on the ground to, Oh, Dad put the belt on, now I’m looking for gasoline,” Baer says. With out the belt, they could walk through a sea of hydrocarbons and she wouldn’t react.

“Seek,” Baer says, as we near the carpet. Henny eagerly noses the ground for a few seconds, then sits on the edge of the carpet and stares at Baer. An alert. “Good,” he says, passing her some kibble. “Show me better.” She circles and sniffs again, then sits in almost the same spot. “Good,” he says in a high, happy voice. More kibble. Baer always asks Henny to double-check and pinpoint the location where she alerts.

If this were a fire scene, Baer would place a clean poker chip on the spot. That’s for the fire investigator, who follows up and determines whether to take a sample and send it to the lab. This process cuts down on time-consuming guesswork in the field. Plus, fewer and better samples cut down on the workload at overburdened crime labs.

In the messy, chaotic aftermath of a real fire, Baer might also point exactly to each spot he wants her to check, saying, “Seek. Seek. Seek.” Arson dogs are taught to discriminate among the variety of scents they might confront at a fire scene —plus deliberate distractions such as beef jerky—and to alert only to substances used to start fires.

Henny joined the Accelerant Detection K-9 Program at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after flunking out of guide-dog training due to an overactive sniffer. The majority of arson dogs in the United States are trained and certified either by ATF or State Farm. The ATF program dates back to 1984, and 127 accelerant-detection dogs have been placed with agencies in the U.S. and 21 foreign countries since 1991. (It’s a small number, especially when compared to the 595 explosives-detection dogs certified in that same period.)

March 2006, the teammates have been apart only once—during Baer’s honeymoon. They train twice a day to keep Henny’s skills sharp; also, Henny only eats when she’s working. She is always fed from Baer’s hand, as is common with most arson dogs.

Accelerant-detection dogs aren’t limited to fire scenes. Jerry Means’ current arson dog, Sadie, was called in to “survey” two juveniles in a fire at an abandoned flour mill in Longmont, Colo. The suspects originally denied involvement, but when the dog alerted to their shoes, it was only 15 minutes before they confessed to starting the fire.

Arson dogs also make appearances in courtrooms when handlers present evidence—including the dog’s training and experience, and the procedure followed at the incident in question.

What makes a good arson dog? “The ideal dog has high energy,” says Paul Gallagher, the owner-trainer of Maine Specialty Dogs. “It’s basically the semi-problem child.” A former Maine State Police K-9 trainer and supervisor, Gallagher saw one of the first accelerantdetection dogs being trained back in the day, and decided to train one for Maine. This led to training arson dogs for other departments. When he retired from the police force in 1996, he paired up with State Farm to continue the work. State Farm covers the $23,000 training costs for each dog.

Both ATF and State Farm prefer Labradors or Lab-mixes because of their curiosity, energy, tracking ability and easygoing demeanor. Guide dog training “dropouts” are particular favorites. Gunny is fairly typical. He had to find a new career when he slipped a hamburger right off the table in front of a blind person. Now a State Farm–sponsored arson dog in Grand Haven Township, Mich., he’s great at his job because he’s extremely motivated to work for kibble.

Susan Piron of Lake Gaston, N.C., has seen two of the five puppies she raised for Guiding Eyes for the Blind go on to careers in arson detection. In 2008, she was given the option of adopting Elway, a yellow Labrador she’d raised, when he didn’t seem suited for guide dog work. “That was probably the toughest decision,” Piron says, “whether to bring him back to the lake or let him go on to do something for other people and become the best he can be. Elway had a lot of energy and initiative; he needed a job.” Today, he sniffs out accelerants for the Connecticut State Police.

State Farm also enlists one- to twoyear- old dogs from humane societies and rescues, including one Hurricane Katrina rescue.

“We’ve saved a few from being put down,” Gallagher says.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about second chances for dogs so much as saving lives and money. An estimated 32,500 structural fires were set intentionally in 2007, resulting in 295 civilian deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s most recent assessment. The cost in property loss due to arson for 2007 is estimated at around $733 million. Arson is tough to prove, but a dog is a huge asset.

a huge asset. “There is nothing in the pipeline that can equal the scent-ability of the dog that we can take to fire scenes and use,” Gallagher says. “The public needs to know those dogs are out there. It’s an elite group that does a good job … and they need the recognition.”