The answers to these seemingly straightforward questions continue to emerge in shades of gray. For example, Cedar excels at “problems,” the scat-induced scavenger hunts we lay out on the landscape to evaluate and hone his detection skills. He’s very enthusiastic about these endeavors, and savors a spirited game of tug with the tennis ball when he finds what he’s looking for. Things get a bit more complicated in the field, however. Last summer, Cedar located plenty of wild scats, but he tended to be lax about letting me know where they were. Ideally, Cedar pinpoints a scat, sits, and waits for his reward. In reality, he would often walk away from his find, throwing me a casual glance in the process. It was almost as though he thought I already knew it was there, so why should he go through the charade of sitting by it just to close the deal?
It’s difficult to describe the range of emotions I felt at these times. Frustration, worry, disappointment—was Cedar doing this on purpose or was he genuinely confused? Was he picking up on some subtle cue from me that I didn’t even know I was giving him? Round and round I went, trying to disentangle the complex strands of communication between dog and human. I wanted Cedar to work, and to play by the rules. I wanted him to find that goddamned stinky poop. Most of all, I wanted him to be happy, and feared that I was putting too much pressure on him. By the end of the summer, I was mentally and physically exhausted. And I think Cedar had had quite enough of those deer flies.
So what does all this mean for Cedar’s future as a scat-sniffing dog? As we approach our second field season, I’m reinvigorated and cautiously optimistic. We’ve been doing training exercises all winter, and Cedar seems more excited than ever about his quest for scat. He has mastered the “autosit,” and rarely walks away from test samples. Soon, a new pair of detector dogs will join our pack, and we’ll be off and sniffing in the woods again. I really hope Cedar can cut the mustard this year—but if he doesn’t, I’m going to have to face the facts. While we’re trying to use Cedar as a tool for science, he’s not an instrument that can be calibrated or programmed. Indeed, we all have the capacity for “failure” when measured against a preconceived notion of success—perhaps Cedar just doesn’t fit neatly into our agenda this time around. Regardless, he’ll walk by my side in the forest for the rest of his days, reminding me to take time out to smell the flowers. For this, he can have a tennis ball whenever he wants!