Several recent graduates were rescue dogs. They need not be spayed or neutered, though Shimek advocates sterilization. A series of tests is used to check for suitability for the work. “We want endurance and hunting drive,” she says, along with sociability and trainability. One test involves throwing a ball in a field or hiding balls in trees and seeing how long the dog will search for it. Highly focused canines do best.
As every trainer knows, shelters are filled with dogs with such intense drive; in fact, that drive is one of the reasons people abandon or relinquish their dogs.
Rusty and Jin are perfect examples. Rusty, a neutered male Lab mix who works in California’s El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, was once a shelter dog. When Warden Erick Elliot adopted him, he was uncontrollable. It’s hard to imagine that earlier dog in the energetic bounce of the happy animal with the toy in his mouth who circles Elliot, or fearlessly scales a set of metal stairs at Shimek’s canine playground. All he needed was someone to believe in and guide him. In the field, Rusty has located deer and bear carcasses, enabling Elliot to pinpoint exact kill sites.
When Shimek says, “It’s the dogs themselves who have taught me the most,” the first to come to mind is a female named Jin. “The worst dog I ever had the privilege of working with became one of the best detection dogs,” she says.
Jin had been through three homes in her first year of life, and wasn’t house trained. Plucked from a shelter by another warden, who brought her to Shimek, Jin taught Shimek valuable lessons. Such as: “dogs should never be punished for anything they do out of fear.” To rehabilitate her, Shimek had to essentially step back in time and begin working with her at the most basic level.
The first task was simply saving the emaciated creature. “When I got her, she was almost dead,” Shimek recalls. It took eight months to straighten out her digestive system. As gaunt as she was in 2008, Jin fought a leash (which she seemed to regard as a monster attached to her neck), jumped on everyone and barked constantly. One year and 15 pounds later, Jin passed her first detection test and now works in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, with a handler who adores her.
As forces like climate change and habitat loss reshape the nation's wildlands, the job of Fish and Game dogs will continue to evolve. Scientists are exploring ways to tap their talents to meet the challenge, because each dog, regardless of their particular abilities or the obstacles they've overcome to pass the academy, comes equipped with a valuable natural resource. That is, a nose for nature.