work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
These working dogs calm harried travelers.
Traffic on the way to the airport makes you late. Rushing, fearing you’ll miss your flight, you anxiously stand in endless check-in and security lines, annoyed at the delay. Your stress level increases with every passing minute. Finally clearing security, sitting to put your shoes back on, you notice something unusual across the room: an enormous harlequin Great Dane wearing a vest that says, “Pet me!” A smile breaks across your face and your blood pressure immediately drops. You say a quick hello to the dog and rub his soft ears, and the tension of the past hours melts away.
We’re used to seeing security dogs at airports, but those dogs are working— no petting allowed. The “pet me” dogs are a different story altogether, reflecting the industry’s growing understanding that helping passengers destress, especially during busy holiday flying seasons, has value. These dogs are all about being touched!
So far, some 30 airports across the country have therapy dogs on duty, and luckily for travelers, the number is steadily growing. The idea started at California’s Mineta San Jose International Airport shortly after 9/11 as a way to ease traveler jitters. Videos of those dogs at work convinced other airports give it a go.
The distinctively outfitted dogs and their handlers position themselves throughout the airport, from checkin to boarding—wherever passengers can use some calming canine love. Recognizing that not everyone loves dogs, the teams typically remain stationary in an open area so those who wish to greet the dogs can do so while anyone not so fond of dogs can easily avoid them.
One of the most recent converts to the service, North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, began deploying professionally certified therapy dogs in March 2015. Currently, there are 15 dog/handler teams providing coverage daily between 10 am and 4 pm. Lauri Golden, the airport’s manager of customer engagement, supervises the all-volunteer CLT Canine Crew. “We wanted a way to create a sense of place,” she says. “Our airport is a hub for American Airlines; 70 percent of traffic is connections, so the passengers just see the facility, not the city.”
Initially, Golden worried about finding enough volunteer teams. However, the pilot program created to iron out the logistics was an instant success. “We expected that kids would like the dogs, but even more, it’s the adults benefiting from them,” she says. “They pull out photos of their own dogs; talk about ones recently lost; take selfies; ask the name, age and breed of the dog … lots of questions. The dogs create a gathering, an audience, which creates its own community as people talk to each other, sharing dog stories. They are our superstars.” The demand for teams is high, and Golden is constantly recruiting.
Max the Great Dane and his handler Fred McCraven make up one of the Charlotte teams. “When I asked Fred why he wanted to join, he was so honest: ‘I just want to show off my dog.’ Max is a complete sweetheart!” says Golden.
Fred thoroughly enjoys taking Max to the airport. “Some tourists just light up when they see Max, and take photos,” he says. “Some look at him funny, like, ‘Please don’t bring that big dog near me.’ I try to gauge peoples’ reactions. Even those who don’t come up to touch Max are smiling. I once met a woman who was traveling to her brother’s funeral. Her brother had a Great Dane as well and she took it as a sign her brother was okay.”
Los Angeles World Airports (LAX) was the third to create a therapy dog program, after San Jose and Miami. Heidi Heubner is director of Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) and volunteer programs for LAX. PUP, which launched in April 2013 with 30 teams, now has 52, allowing them to have dogs in most terminals every day of the week. Each PUP dog has his or her own baseball card–style ID, which is given to passengers as a keepsake.
Heubner enjoys observing the interactions between volunteer teams and passengers. “The dogs bring strangers together,” she says. “We’re often afraid to talk, or are on our devices, but with the dogs, people are sharing stories and photos of their own dogs, talking about where they’re going. I never get tired of watching them. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much, watching them in action and listening to what the passengers are saying.”
Therapy teams are also called upon to calm passengers when things don’t go as planned, Heubner notes. “One day, a f light was cancelled. A f light attendant asked if one of the dogs could visit with the passengers. The passengers loved it, were saying, ‘Who cares that we’re delayed! It was worth it to see the dogs.’”
Airport therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds but the thing they have in common is that they’re all certified by one of the country’s therapy-dog organizations; for example, Charlotte and LAX use teams certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. New teams do an initial walk-through at the facility to make sure the dog is comfortable with the noises, smells and crowds of strangers. If that goes well, they’ll go through a more thorough vetting, with the human half of the team undergoing background and security checks. Once approved, teams typically work one day a week.
Dog-loving passengers rave about the programs. A letter sent to the Charlotte program expresses an often-repeated sentiment: It was like having my pups with me though they are miles away. The stress that is lifted when you see and touch a dog, it’s indescribable and it was the best part of my trip today. I cannot thank you, the staff that implemented the program, the handlers and the dogs enough for this remarkable program.
Clearly, these programs are positive for passengers and airport staff, but they’re also proving beneficial for the handlers. “Max has made me a better person,” says Fred. “I’m not a very social person, sort of a lone wolf, but taking Max to the airport has gotten me out and around people, improved my social skills. And it puts me in a good mood. Last week I had a bad day at work. I took Max to the airport and came home in a totally different mood.”
Are the rules governing service animals on airplanes about to change? The US Department of Transportation’s advisory committee on accessible air transportation met recently to consider refining the presents rules for Emotional Service Animals. Ever since 2003 when the DOT revised its policy on service animals to include emotional-support animals, there have been no restrictions for these animals and no real definition of a service dog. As Jenine Stanley, who serves on the committee and is with the Guide Dog Foundation, has noted there are no real rules as to what is a legitimate service or support animal.
“Once you board your plane with your animal and you say ‘I am coming with a service animal,’ i.e. an animal that is trained to medicate my disability, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it’s true or not,” she said. Which is why the U.S. DOT wants to change the rules.
There have been numerous complaints from fellow travelers about the wide assortment of species, from miniature horses, pigs, boas, cats, and of course, dogs, that have been accorded the status of ESA and who usually have scant training about how to behave on an airplane. Some of the complaints have also been generated by people who have highly trained and skilled service dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs. Many of the ESA pets on planes can also distract (to put it mildly) a service dog from doing her job.
One key issue the committtee looked at was: Should specific species be defined? If so, what are they? The group suggested only dogs be listed as service animals, and dogs, cats and rabbits qualify as emotional support animals.
Another complication surrounding ESAs are the legal ramifications to the mental health professionals who are providing certifications. The University of Missouri recently conducted a study about the possible conflicts this presents to psychologists. Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology, says these requests for certification for emotional support animals present several potential conflicts for mental health professionals.
“There are no standards for evaluating the need for an emotional support animal, whereas there are concrete rules to determine if someone is eligible for a service animal. These emotional support animal letters are formal certifications of psychological disability, and the psychotherapist is stating, by writing such a letter, that the person needing the emotional support animal has such a disability and that the presence of the animal addresses that disability.” Jeffrey Younggren, professor of clinical and forensic psychology, believes that the evaluation process should address the specific psychological issues that are going to be improved, and not just that the owner wants to be with their pet. They also noted that the lack of scientific guidelines regarding emotional support animals would make it difficult for the psychologist to defend this certification letter in court.
Younggren noted that "the study recommended was two fold: First, that these letters not be written by treating therapists for ethical issues but that they should be written by forensic evaluators/psychologists who do not have a dual role with the client. Second, we stated that, since these are disability determinations, there needs to be some type of comprehensive psychological assessment of that disability and that assessment should directly assess how the presence of the animal ameliorates the disability."
The working group committee members include representatives from American Airlines, Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and America’s VetDogs. Key issues about service animals can be found here.
Stanley said she expects the new rules to be out for public comment within the year and to be set within three years.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Devyn Pereira Fighting for Independence
Devyn Pereira and Hannah, her service dog, move through their day as one. Clipped to Hannah’s harness, the nine-year-old is both safe and as independent as possible. If Devyn tries to roam, the 110-pound, white Bouvier des Flandres sits down, stopping the child with the weight of her body.
Before Hannah came into her life five years ago, the little girl had to be carried or transported by wheelchair to the school bus loop. Now, she walks beside Hannah. The dog is also trained to detect seizures and alert adults so medication can be administered.
Devyn was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects speech and mobility, and causes developmental delays, autism and seizures. The Gates Chili Central School District, located in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., permits Hannah to accompany Devyn to school, as long as her mother pays for a dog handler. Heather Pereira’s position is that her daughter is Hannah’s handler, and she only needs minimal assistance from school staff (a one-on-one school aide and a nurse are also with Devyn daily).
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, and in September 2015, sued the school district for violating Devyn’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). School officials refused to comply. On August 7, U.S. District Court Judge Charles J. Siragusa dismissed the school district’s motion for a summary judgment (a method for promptly disposing of legal actions that are without merit). This means the case will go forward.
“People ask me all the time, why do you think the school is doing this? Why do you think that they are making this so difficult?” says Pereira. “When Gates disregarded what the DOJ said, it became clear this isn’t a matter of ignorance, it is blatant defiance … Devyn’s school is using her disability against her. Her level of delay does not erase her rights. It does not make her less worthy of the compassion and respect all parents want for their children.”
Most children are able to bring their service dogs to school without a hitch, according to Ron Hager, senior staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.- based National Disability Rights Network. But families who face prolonged resistance from school districts find themselves spending enormous amounts of time and, in some cases, money trying to convince school administrators to allow these service animals in their classrooms.
The number of legal disputes between families and school districts over this issue has increased in the last five years, says Hager. In the fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case involving Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old Jackson, Mich., girl with cerebral palsy who was banned from bringing her Goldendoodle service dog, Wonder, to class.
“Our case is specifically about whether people bringing disability cases have to jump through a lot of administrative hoops first,” says Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which brought the suit with the Frys. Steinberg says he is confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case, noting that a child with a disability should not have to choose between her education and her independence. “Give Ehlena her day in court and we will prove that the district violated the ADA,” he says.
In some instances, school officials have prohibited a service dog on the basis that the district was already meeting all of the student’s educational needs. However, preventing children from bringing their service dogs to school disrupts the special bond between handler and animal, says Tiffany Denyer, founder of Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville, Tenn. “It doesn’t work unless you send the dogs to work.”
When Fairfax County School District in Virginia refused to allow Andrew Stevens, who has severe epilepsy and is developmentally delayed, to take his German Shepherd service dog, Alaya, to school in 2010, his family reached out to the national media, even appearing on The Today Show. When interviewed by the media, Kim Dockery, Fairfax County Public Schools assistant superintendent, said she was concerned about keeping Andrew and the other students safe. The district ultimately allowed Alaya to accompany Andrew. “I think they’re afraid of new things they don’t understand,” says Angelo Stevens, Andrew’s dad.
Heather Pereira began advocating for her daughter’s right to take her service dog to school six years ago. When she talks about the ongoing conflict with Gates Chili school officials, you can hear the weariness in her voice, but the determination is still there, too. In 2011, the district allowed Hannah to accompany the preschooler to school; then, that summer, Pereira was informed that in order for the service dog to continue to be permitted in school, she would have to pay for a dog handler. Pereira complied, but she also hired a disability rights attorney and ultimately filed a complaint with the DOJ’s civil rights division.
In September 2013, two investigators traveled to Rochester to interview Pereira, school administrators and classroom staff. Nearly two years later, the DOJ found that the district was in violation of ADA requirements and ordered it to reverse its policy and pay more than $25,000 in damages. The New York State Education Department also found in Pereira’s favor.
This battle could prove pricey for the upstate New York school district. From October 2013 to May 2015, Gates Chili incurred more than $34,000 in legal expenses related to the case, according to documents obtained by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A detailed report revealed how the DOJ reached its finding:
“Since D.P. began working with her service dog, she has learned to communicate with the dog through hand gestures and signals. Her service dog interrupts certain behaviors caused by her autism (such as meltdowns, wandering and repeated body movements). Her service dog also alerts adults to oncoming seizures so they can take precautions before the seizure occurs. In short, with the help of her service dog, D.P. is both safer and more independent at school.”
The federal agency also found that requiring staff members to unhook Devyn from the dog from time to time and to occasionally remind her to issue a command were “minimal and reasonable accommodations.”
Two weeks later, the school district challenged the ruling and filed an appeal.
“It’s extremely rare for a school district to fight the federal government. To actually litigate—I’ve never seen it,” says Ron Hager, who has been a disability rights attorney for decades. Gates Chili Superintendent of Schools Kimberle Ward declined a request for comment, saying that she could not speak on a pending matter.
The school district just doesn’t get it, says Kristin Small of the Empire Justice Center in Rochester, one of Pereira’s lawyers. “It does not get to choose how Devyn Pereira, as a person with a disability, travels through this world. That is Devyn’s choice alone, or her mother’s, as long as she is a minor,” she says. “Just as it would not be permitted to tell a person in a wheelchair, ‘I know you prefer to use the wheelchair, but … just try crutches instead,’ it is not appropriate to say to this child’s mother, ‘I know you would like her to bring the dog, but we think she can do fine at school without it.’ The fact that Devyn’s use of a service animal is an inconvenience to the school district is irrelevant. If the school can reasonably accommodate that choice, it must do so.”
Waiting for Justice
Hannah was trained at Tiffany Denyer’s Wilderwood Service Dogs, which specializes in providing service dogs for people with neurological diseases, including autism, psychiatric disorders, dementia, PTSD and brain injuries. According to Denyer, “About half the dogs are rescues; the rest come from breeders we have relationships with.” She looks for dogs who enjoy work, are calm and easily adapt to change.
In 11 years, she has placed about 200 service dogs. Each undergoes roughly 18 months of training; the first six months focus on general tasks; the rest is geared to meet the individual handler’s needs. The dogs learn about 50 commands and are taught to be low maintenance; Hannah goes the entire school day without food, water or having to relieve herself.
Hannah cost $16,000, but some trainers charge $25,000 or more per service dog. Many families, including the Pereiras, fundraise for months in order to purchase a dog. Denyer estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the families she works with have encountered problems getting schools to fully accept their service dogs.
Heather Pereira calls Hannah a “gentle giant.” “She has such a calm, graceful presence, even when Devyn gets ramped up about something,” she says. “Devyn never asks to be untethered from Hannah. That says a lot for their connection.”
This fall, Devyn will enter a fourthgrade special education class. Pereira says she is amazed at the growth she has seen in her daughter, attributing much of it to her connection with Hannah.
“Devyn is doing things with Hannah we never thought she’d be able to do. If Hannah is lying down, she’ll tug on the harness to make her get up. She taps the ground so that Hannah will lie down. Before, Hannah guided Devyn all the time; now, Devyn is the one guiding Hannah.”
As fall approaches, the Pereiras and the Frys wait for justice.
“We hope that the school district realizes they don’t have a strong case and negotiates a settlement,” Pereira says. “The pressure to make this better for Devyn and all who follow is real. Every parent knows they will not be around forever and so we work to create a world that not only accepts our child’s differences, but more importantly, embraces them.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The education of a scent-detection dog.
Jaco pulls me hard past the cars in the driveway, slowing to run his nose across the seam of each trunk. The Prius, the Leaf, the old Mercedes, our Honda Civic covered with road dust and acorns. It’s an obsessive-compulsive habit from his early adolescence in the Czech Republic, where he had started to learn to detect explosives. I keep him moving. Someday, however, he may have to search car trunks for the scent of human remains. Because I’d like him to do that, I don’t actively discourage his vestigial nose sweeps.
Jaco is two years old, a compact sable German Shepherd with a stiff, cream-colored ruff of fur encircling his neck. He looks like a cross between a wolf, a tortoiseshell cat and Queen Victoria. I first met him outside a working-dog vendor’s kennel in North Carolina. His name was Jack then. He was 17 months old, recently flown in from the Czech Republic. Many U.S. law enforcement agencies get their detection and patrol dogs from Europe, either directly or via vendors who go over and bring back dogs they think show promise for law enforcement or for ring sports such as Schutzhund. I had decided to go the same route for my next cadaver dog.
I had never considered bringing home an adult German Shepherd before. I’d always started with fuzzy pups with milk teeth and elastic brains ready to be molded. This time, we’d get a dog who was already a bundle of muscle, with huge ivory fangs and a mind of his own. My husband, David, and I talked a long time about this unfamiliar dog-acquisition route. David asked me uneasily how a dog bred and raised for law enforcement or military work might fit into our small household and my world of volunteer search and rescue. Would the dog bond with me? With David?
Of course, I assured him breezily. Look at all the cops who have dogs they adore, and vice versa. They rarely get them as pups. I didn’t tell David that I knew some cops who greatly respected but didn’t love their dogs. And while rare, I’d seen a few cops who were afraid of their own dogs.
When the vendor brought Jaco out to meet us, he eyed me obliquely, then walked stiff-legged over to David, stood at his side and growled gently at him. David stood still and avoided making chirrupy, encouraging noises. The vendor wasn’t disturbed in the least; she approved of that wariness. That was the East German border patrol lineage coming out.
This particular dog, the vendor told me earlier via text, was “a lot of dog,” “a working fool.” Maybe too much dog for me? I needed a dog to work alongside me, not climb up the leash after me. I was a volunteer who wanted a dog to find dead people, not seek out suspects. I didn’t need a dog who considered every stranger, or my husband, as a potential bad guy.
But the qualities one looks for in any scent-detection dog, whether for law enforcement or volunteer purposes, are similar: A dog with drive. One who can hunt for scent for hours and not give up. Those qualities can be easier to find in the thousands of young German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois brought over each year from Europe to populate law enforcement K9 units in this country. These dogs—usually with ribs showing as a result of pacing in their kennels, being chronically underfed and then shipped long distances—arrive with the stench of kennel urine. They don’t arrive with cheery notes from their trainers. Or warning labels.
With imported “green” working dogs, it’s hard to know exactly how they were trained, what kind of health they’re in or what sort of personality they have. They all seem to have good noses (and a love of launching at a bite sleeve or a Gappay ball). We didn’t know if Jaco was housebroken or if he’d ever been in a home. We didn’t know if he was going to retain his suspicion of David.
Jaco’s early training had clearly involved bitework. When I brought out a section of rubber blast hose a few days after we brought him home, his teeth chattered with eagerness; he was trying to cap his own drive with that chatter. Then, he levitated and grabbed it, jolting me hard. He saw a jute bite sleeve at a training venue and dragged me to it, head low, gaze fixed, digging his nails into the concrete floor to get to it. The first few times I brought him into a warehouse, he was sure it was to play the bad-guy game. He glanced around quickly, ears pricked, forward on his toes, looking for a decoy skulking in a corner.
About a week after Jaco came to live with us, one of our neighbors saw him gazing at me with his enigmatic umber eyes. Leaping across species and gender boundaries, she declared, “He looks at you just like he’s a mail-order bride!” But I didn’t want Jaco for his gaze—which, by then, we were pretty sure wasn’t sociopathic—I wanted him for his nose. And I wanted that nose up and running as soon as possible.
I had spent eight years searching for the missing and dead with Solo. Only months after he died at the age of 11, we got word from the vendor that she had a good working dog prospect for me to assess. Part of me wanted a puppy, but I also wanted a dog who was sufficiently developed to allow me to see if, as an adult, he would have what I needed: the drive and mental stability to search for hours in bad conditions.
Not unlike a vaguely suspicious spouse who realizes it might be good to know more about his mysterious mail-order bride, I did an Internet search and stumbled upon an early video of Jaco trying to find a PVC pipe filled with Semtex (a plastic explosive notoriously popular with terrorists) under one of several milk crates. I say “trying” because Jaco wasn’t very good. I could see both his sincerity and his hesitation. He was 14 months old then, with tufts of hair going every which way, like a teenager who had just fallen out of bed. Is this what you want? He kept glancing at the trainer, and then back at the three plastic crates. One had the pipe underneath. He offered a tentative down next to it. It looked as though he hadn’t bothered using his nose. He was smart enough to cue off the trainer, who kept her foot planted on the positive crate.
The video gave me pause. I had expected a bundle of muscle and drive with a superfine nose, all parts installed and in working order. I wondered if this was why Jaco had been sent to the United States.
Still, I wanted to get going. I wanted to fill that handsome sable head with new marching orders, a world of toys and treats, a rich vocabulary, and so many new people he would soon realize how wonderful humans were (even if I knew better). In my American ignorance, despite all the evidence that he was mostly goofy and playful, I wrongly assumed that he’d had a puppyhood devoid of play and stimulation. I wanted to teach him to fetch and tug, and sit, and down and heel.
Most importantly, I wanted to expose him to the entirely new range of odors he would need to recognize to start searching for the dead. Those odors are as complicated as people; forensic scientists have identified at least 480 volatile compounds emitted by human remains, and the list keeps growing.
As I prepared to institute my complex battle plan, a more experienced friend—one who had trained many more search dogs than I—stopped me and gave me advice that I hated. “Sometimes,” my friend said, “doing nothing is better than doing something.”
I’m not exactly Zen, so it took time to understand what she was saying. When her simple remark sunk in, I realized that it was the best training advice I’d ever received. Making Jaco sensitive to what I did or said, teaching him to gaze adoringly into my eyes before he moved? That was the wrong approach. The definition of “doing nothing” depends on the individual dog, but in general, it means slowing down and not tossing a dog you don’t know into a scrum of people and new situations he’s not comfortable with, flooding him instead of teaching him. It means not rushing into training that might backfire.
I backed off my ambitious initial plans. Instead, David and I cuddled Jaco. Oddly, he liked that. We taught him to get in his crate without a fuss and wait for his food rather than scrabble to get out. He learned to navigate our slippery stairs without hesitation, and to stay off the counters. He had only one accident in the house. We taught him to tolerate his nails being Dremeled without grabbing our hands in irritation. I took Jaco into tobacco warehouses and deserted office buildings, and he stopped eyeing dark corners with as much suspicion. But I didn’t invite some of my wonderful but voluble friends over to meet him, and I didn’t parade him around the farmers’ market.
I waited. We bonded. And he didn’t growl at David again. Instead, when he saw my husband, Jaco’s mouth would fall open in a delighted grin.
TEACHING OBEDIENCE TO ODOR
A month after he came to live with us, Jaco and I went to see Lucy Newton, who’s quiet and exacting. She likes dogs. And most people. Unlike me, she is settled within herself. She has a couple of decades of experience training search-and-rescue dogs, patrol dogs, human-remains detection dogs, narcotics dogs, conservation dogs. I have enough experience to have had some success, but I’ve had notable failures as well. I also had some bad habits. It wasn’t just Jaco who had things to learn.
Lucy breaks tasks down into their smallest increments, partly for the handler’s benefit, sure, but largely because it helps the dog. Her directions to me were specific and clear: Open Jaco’s crate in the car. Clip his leash to his flat collar. Clip the collar on Jaco. Don’t hurry. Gather yourself. Only then, let him leap to the ground.
A chartreuse tennis ball on a string waited on the ground where he landed. His eyes glowed, his teeth snapped and he pranced into the nearby garage, the tennis ball clenched in his jaws, its short string hanging from his mouth like the tail of a dead mouse. After four weeks of cold turkey on any toy that resembled a ball, after four weeks of bonding boredom, Jaco finally got his fix.
Lucy waited for us at the back of the large garage, standing on a platform behind a bank of eight identical plywood boxes hanging from a rail. Part of a detection-dog training system developed by K9 trainer Randy Hare, the boxes had big PVC pipes sticking out of their tops like chimneys and clear plastic covers that could be raised and lowered on their fronts. Tinny rock music blared from a radio in the corner. Jaco ignored the music. The floor was slippery. Jaco ignored that. His mouth was full of tennis ball, and he was straining at the end of his leash. He’d been ball deprived and he didn’t want it taken away from him.
Without fanfare or a single word, Lucy dropped another tennis ball on a string down one of the box’s chimneys. She made it jerk around like a psychotic puppet. The trap was set. Jaco’s eyes widened. Forget that saying about a rabbit in the mouth being worth two in the bush. So untrue. He dropped the sodden ball on the concrete, then lunged toward the herky-jerky ball in the box. I lurched along behind, trying to keep his leash loose. Lucy, a masterful puppeteer, kept the tennis ball on the string both inside the box and inside Jaco’s jaws with slow, methodical tugs. His tail wagged slowly, his eyes were slitted in ecstasy.
That particular box held more than a bouncing ball. Wafting from a hidden compartment was the scent of human remains. As he blissfully tugged, Jaco got constant hits of this scent. That’s why Lucy let Jaco bogey that ball. That’s how you addict a dog to a scent. It was Jaco’s first step in learning the most important concept a detection dog needs: “obedience to odor.”
This moment was why my friend hadn’t allowed me to teach Jaco to “watch me” or “sit” or “down” or “give” or “fetch.” Or “come,” for that matter, as important as it is. Those would come later. For a scent-detection dog, one desire should override everything else: getting to the odor, wherever it’s located. That was what Lucy was teaching Jaco with Randy Hare’s box system. Other training techniques work, too. But this particular method made Jaco’s job simple and mine even simpler: I just had to get out of his way; he could essentially teach himself. He learned that three things were connected: if he could get as close as possible to a particular odor, he’d get a ball and a fun tug.
Over the next two weeks, in two 10-minute sessions each day, I watched Jaco transform from a hesitant “Is-this-it?” dog into an obsessed “I’m-at-the-box-with-the-scent-so-giveme- my-tug-game!” dog. Lucy, occasionally a tease, would wave a tennis ball on a string in front of his face, and he’d ignore it. If it wasn’t right next to the scent, he knew the ball wouldn’t put up a fight. Lucy threw a bunch of balls onto the floor, where they lay enticingly, like sirens on a rock. Jaco, now wiser than Odysseus, ignored them. He knew those balls were a trick, that the only time he’d get a ball to fight properly was if he had his head buried inside the box that contained the scent of human remains.
Other boxes had other scents: dead squirrel, kibble, deer bone. His nose quickly rejected them to find the box that made the ball come down the chimney. Lucy put ladders and chairs and slippery cardboard in front of the bank of boxes. After worrying and thinking hard, Jaco leapt over them, then shoved them aside with his nose. And there was the plywood box containing human remains. He planted his nose there. Lucy waited several beats. So did Jaco, his head cocked, fixed, like a fox at a mousehole. At last, as he knew it would, the good tennis ball came down the chute. And Jaco got his game. I make it sound so simple. Oddly, it was.
THE GAME’S THE SAME
We took the game outside the garage, and Jaco generalized quickly. No boxes with chimneys? Never mind. They’re not part of the scent-ball-tug triumvirate. He started to find scent source in the yard, in the woods, in the warehouse, in the alley behind a large home-improvement store. He was always astonished and pleased. His head would bob up and down like one of those toy drinking birds, almost touching the source, swinging up to make sure that I was coming to reward him, bringing it down to fix his nose as close to the source as he could get. The rules never changed; the game was the same.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and, like any scent-detection dog, Jaco’s a work in progress. As am I, his handler. But as Jaco learns to find the scent of human remains hung in a tree, buried in the ground, downwind, upwind, in the heat and in the rain, on short searches and long searches, I’m watching him with joy. He’s not perfect. No dog is (nor is any handler). He adores chasing insects, possibly a vestige of his past life, when he was in a kennel and bored and flies were a great distraction. But he’s learned that a live tennis ball is more fun than a fly.
He needs no command. A tennis ball on a string is waiting on the ground when he leaps out of his crate. He grabs it. We go to wherever the training search starts. I show him a second ball, he drops the first, grabs for the second and misses, and I tuck both into my pocket. This ritual betrayal is his signal to start the hunt. His eyes light up, his mouth opens and he leaps away from me. Game on. Recently, I hid training material in an acre or so of deadfall and heavy brush and mud, the kind of mess created by a flooding river. A brisk wind whipped scent through the fallen trees and debris. He’d never worked in conditions this physically challenging.
So that he couldn’t track me back, I started him in an area away from where I’d walked to plant the material. I tucked the tennis balls in my pocket and he threw his head and ran. Within a minute, he was working more than 150 feet away from me, balancing on logs at the outer edge of the pile, then working his way back in. I could see him lift his head as he found scent drifting through one side of the pile. He ran around the edge, working to get ever closer. I stood there, watching him teach himself, watching his intense focus, watching him learn a new search pattern in the jigsaw puzzle of logs and branches. I was a bit worried about this new and precarious environment. He was not.
For Jaco, the tangle of wood, wind and mud was simply in the way of the three things he wanted: Scent. Ball. Tug.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Excerpt from The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene
A German Shepherd mix slated for euthanasia watched Karen Shirk from behind the bars of his cinder-block cell in a cacophonous county animal control building. With his long black muzzle and imploring brown eyes, he looked at her with that heartbreaking shelter-dog mix of worry, fear, confusion, and hope. “This is a good-looking boy. Do you know anything about him?” Karen called from her wheelchair to a nearby worker. “Can he sit? Can you sit, boy? Sit.”
The dog sat. His haunches trembled with the sincerity of his “Sit.” He tentatively raised one paw a few inches above the floor, in case the stranger also wanted “Shake.” She didn’t say “Shake,” so he lowered his paw quietly and put his whole focus back into his excellent “Sit.”
He was an “owner-surrender,” though there was no coercion or “surrendering” about it: his people, for reasons unknown to the shelter, had brought him here to be disposed of. In crowded shelters, owner-surrenders are among the first to go: without the required ten-day “stray hold” bestowed upon lost dogs or cats for whom someone may be searching, the owner-surrenders quickly join the ranks of the sick, the injured, the elderly, the pregnant, the nursing mothers and their newborn litters, and the defamed pit bull breeds—no matter how gentle—to be euthanized one by one by one, usually by lethal injection …
The scrape of shovels and splash of water and the homesick yelps of imprisoned dogs ricocheted around Karen and the German Shepherd mix as the dog sat for her on the cement, making worried eye contact, in the most important and possibly last audition of his life. Did the shelter dog understand on any level that he had won Karen’s attention, however briefly? As he gazed unflinchingly and longingly into her eyes, was he aware that he’d captured the attention of a human being, something in scarce supply in a county animal shelter? Of course he knew. He was begging her, with his eyes, not to leave him.
“I’m going to give him a try,” Karen said to an employee. “Let’s take him outside.” The worker stepped into the pen and clipped a leash to the dog’s collar.
On the way down the cement hall toward the steel exit door, the shepherd, leashed, stayed beside Karen’s wheelchair, but his paws moved double-time, like a speeding cartoon character whose legs accelerate into wheeling blurs. Outside, the dog blinked in the sunlight and barely knew which way to run first. Just in case, he briefly sat again, tremblingly, joyfully. When the passenger door of the van opened to him, he bounded into the seat, wiggled in happiness, settled in, and never looked back. He moved into the cabin with Karen and her own dog, Ben, and soon began training for Karen’s first child client, a twelve-year-old girl with paralysis. Soon two rescued Golden Retrievers joined them, one for each of the adult women who’d requested dogs. It was a happy messy life for Karen, the start of her finding a way toward the life she wanted. The hospitalized preteen squealed with joy when she saw the German Shepherd mix for the first time and named him Butler—“because he’s going to be like my furry butler!” When his mobility training was finished and he was placed with the family at home, Butler broke the no-child barrier among service dog agencies, among the first service dogs in the world to be trained for a child.
He was a great success! He heeled beside her wheelchair, slept on her bed, and always sat up extra straight and tall when told to sit, since this was evidently his winning skill. The girl’s laughter rang through the house again whenever Butler, unable to contain his love and happiness, stood up, propped his front feet on the armrest, and leaned into the wheelchair to lick her cheeks.
“Am I too old for one of your dogs?” strangers phoned to ask Karen. “Is my child too young for one of your dogs?” “Am I too disabled?” “Am I disabled enough?”
Karen told everyone the same thing: “If your life can be improved by a dog and you can take good care of a dog, I’m going to give you a dog.”
A couple with a ten-year-old son with autism phoned to say that their boy constantly ran away and they’d hoped a service dog might keep track of him, but the service dog agencies had all denied them. This was again new territory. Karen knew that placing service dogs with adults with invisible disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder or seizure disorder, was the cutting edge of service dog work, but it hadn’t yet been tried with children. It was a tall order, quite different from training Butler for mobility work with a child.
Back to an animal shelter she went. Despite the forbidding prison-like appearance of the place and the collective hysteria of the stressed and frightened dogs, Karen knew there had to be animals there with high intelligence and fine dispositions. The problem was that their panic at the harsh, crammedin, and grating conditions of captivity concealed their true natures. The confinement in cement cells with industrial drains in the floor made the dogs seem ferocious, impossible to tame, even insane. They bared their gums and barked in fear, scaring away adopters.
As Karen wheeled through the cat room on the way to the dog kennels, cats stuck their forearms through the bars of their stacked-up cages, waving their paws around in blind search for human contact. Karen stopped to stroke the arm of one cat; the lean middle- aged tabby instantly withdrew his arm and flipped onto his side in the cage in winsome appeal. He’d waited so long for a tummy-rub! He stretched out and began to purr. But Karen couldn’t reach that far into the cage and had to move on. She knew that virtually none of these adult cats would see daylight again.
Tail lowered, ears flattened, face downcast, Patches, a Beagle mix, managed just a couple of tentative halfhearted tail-wags from the back of his cell. His overtures hadn’t beguiled anyone in the nearly twenty-one days of his captivity and his time was up. Karen positioned her wheelchair outside his cage for a closer look. Every morsel of emotion rushed into the dog’s moist trembling nose. He approached and shyly pushed his nose through the chain-link barrier.
“Okay, boy, I see you,” she said. When he was led out of his cage by a handler for one-on-one time with Karen, the little dog was so excited, shaking so hard, he couldn’t avoid peeing a little on the cement f loor. Like Butler before him, he left the shelter riding high in the passenger seat of Karen’s van, his mouth wide open with happiness, his ears rippling in the wind he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Before pulling onto the state road, however, Karen sighed, stopped, wheeled around, pulled back into the parking lot, and called out her window to a staffer to bring her the middle-aged tabby cat.
Patches, the rescued Beagle mix, became one of the first dogs in the world (similar work was beginning in Canada at that time) trained in autism assistance. He may have become the first dog in the world trained to track a single child. Now when their son disappeared, his parents cried: “Patches! Find Kevin!” And Patches took off to find the boy, wherever he was. One night he tracked him to a stranger’s backyard three blocks away. The land sloped down to a stream; Kevin, in his pajamas, was peering into the water when the dog interrupted his reverie. “Patches just saved our son’s life again,” the parents emailed Karen.
The cabin filled up with rescued dogs. “It’s a wonderful feeling when we see one of our animals adopted by 4 Paws!” said Mary Lee Schwartz, executive director of the Humane Association of Warren, Ohio. “We’re happy when a dog gets adopted to a normal home, but when one gets adopted to a home when he’s going to help someone, we’re thrilled! I can’t think of a more exciting thing to happen for a dog, especially one on Death Row.”
Another shelter worker commented: “People are surprised that we have such highly talented dogs coming through our shelter, capable of performing the functions of service animals. But of course we do.”
All shelters have them: indescribably marvelous animals just waiting to be given a chance.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study finds that pets are beneficial to families with autistic kids.
Animal assisted therapy has helped kids with a range of disabilities, but a new study has been looking at the effect of pet dogs on the whole family. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lincoln and the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation has been looking at interactions between parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found that families with dogs experienced improved functioning among their ASD children and a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between the parents and children.
The lead researcher, Professor Daniel Mills, says that while there's growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the effects of dog ownership. The team's work is also unique because the research looks at the effects on the family unit, as opposed to only looking at the ASD kids.
"We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child's main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog," says Professor Mills. "This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain." The reduction in stress was not seen in families without a dog.
I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that parents of children with autism feel, but it's heartening to see the important role dogs play in our lives.
According to HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, "We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
News: Guest Posts
9/11 SAR Dogs honored with commemorative statue
The service dogs that responded to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks have not been forgotten. However, monuments to their service are few compared to those devoted to two legged responders. On Wednesday August 17, New Jersey officials gathered at the Essex County Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial in West Orange to do their part to change that. They dedicated a new commemorative statue honoring the Search and Rescue Dogs of 9/11.
The four-foot tall bronze dog sits atop a 12-inch slab of granite, and weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. It was designed by Oregon artist, Jay Warren and paid for by corporate donations. The West Orange 9/11 Memorial opened in 2002, almost exactly one year after the attacks. The park overlooks Manhattan across the water. Citizens once gathered there, helplessly witnessing the chaos at Ground Zero.
In September 2001, countless heroes emerged from obscurity to aid their country in its time of need. Men and women of law enforcement and fire rescue courageously faced the devastation alongside everyday citizens. The new West Orange monument stands as a reminder that not all 9/11 heroes were human.
Roughly 350 Search and Rescue Dogs worked tirelessly in the tragic aftermath searching for survivors; and after, searching for human remains. Sifting through the jagged rubble and blinded by smoke and debris, the dogs battled exhaustion and emotional distress.
After hours of searching and finding no one alive, some handlers would ask for a volunteer to hide amidst the rubble to be “located”, helping to raise the dogs’ spirits. Even when the search mission became one of recovery instead of rescue, the dogs carried on diligently, providing what little peace they could for the families of the victims.
In a press release for the commemoration of the new statue, Newark Public Safety Director, Anthony Ambrose said:
"Search dogs covered 16 acres of land at Ground Zero covered with metal and debris, and went where humans could not go. This is a fitting way to remember how many families gained some sort of closure because of the work by dogs."
The presence of the dogs at the recovery sites had an even greater impact than many may realize. Dutch photographer, Charlotte Dumas is the author of the 2011 book, Retrieved featuring the stories and portraits of 9/11 canines. She interviewed Denise Corliss, handler of famous 9/11 FEMA Search Dog, Bretagne. Dumas recounted an emotional narrative from her time with Corliss to Daily Mail UK:
“She told me a touching story of one fireman who was there in the rubble, and how taken he was with Bretagne who comforted him as he sat down to catch his breath. Years later at a Remembrance Ceremony, the same fireman recognized Bretagne and her handler and they had a touching reunion. It developed that even though the dogs couldn't find people still alive, they could provide comfort for the brave firemen and rescue workers of the emergency services.”
Most Search and Rescue Dogs are trained by non-government organizations. Often their handlers are civilians as well. Many of the teams that responded to Ground Zero did so on a volunteer basis, simply because their country needed them. Now these pups are getting the recognition they deserve from the folks in Essex County, NJ.
To learn more about search and rescue dogs and the brave men and women who train them and act as their handlers, visit searchdogfoundation.org or disasterdog.org.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Detection dog essential for research success
For three years, scientist Chris Bugbee of Conservation CATalyst has been studying a jaguar named El Jefe, first with support from the University of Arizona and now from the Center for Biological Diversity. El Jefe is about seven years old and the only wild jaguar known to be in the United States. Most members of this species live further south, in Mexico and in other Latin American countries, but El Jefe has spent at least three years in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Jaguars are notoriously elusive, rarely seen and can have territories that cover hundreds of square miles, so the study of El Jefe represents a major success story. He’s not, however, the only animal associated with this study who is a success story.
The other one is a female Belgian Malinois named Mayke, who is a working detection dog. She has been trained to bark when she finds jaguar scat, which she can distinguish from the scat of other large cats. (Mayke is also trained to bark when she finds the scat of ocelot, another species of wild cat.)
Mayke was born to do scent work, coming from a program in Germany that has successfully bred many dogs for this purpose. Like her close relatives from the same lines, she has a great nose, can handle heat and is both trainable and intelligent. Even with that background, her first assignment was not a good match. She was originally placed as an explosives detection dog, but she couldn’t handle working around big trucks or gunfire. Those stresses upset her to the point that she was unable to perform the work she was trained to do, but she excels in the wide open, remote spaces where El Jefe lives, and where both dog and jaguar have been videotaped.
Detection dogs can be trained to find a huge range of things from explosives to drugs to people to invasive snails, so why was Mayke trained to find jaguar scat? The answer to that requires an understanding of how scientists view the excrement of their study animals. As a friend of mine who studied patas monkeys in Africa once said, “Most people think of poop as just poop. I think of poop as information.” (FYI, I paraphrased in order to maintain our PG rating.)
Scat is a major resource for people studying wild mammals, but it’s hard for people to find, especially when the animal in question is a jaguar and can travel 30 miles a day. Luckily, dogs are not held back, as people are, by pathetic noses and tiny olfactory lobes. A trained dog can sniff out scat, and therefore allow humans to learn so much more about an animal than would be possible on our own.
Thanks to Mayke and her trainer, biologist Chris Bugbee, it has been possible to map out El Jefe’s home range, learn what he’s eating, figure out a number of places where he likes to bed down during the day, and study his DNA. Mayke found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US, which is a big deal because the jaguar has not always been in this part of its historical range. It’s because of Mayke’s work that scientists have been able to place camera traps in places that El Jefe is likely to visit. The jaguar has been photographed and videotaped over a hundred times in the last three years. The understanding of El Jefe’s location and behavior, made possible by Mayke’s unique contribution to the project, have shown that El Jefe is a resident male who lives in Arizona.
According to Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center For Biological Diversity who has studied jaguars for years, this is important because people and organizations who are reluctant to use any resources to protect him tend to refer to him as a “solitary wandering male”. That implies that he is just a vagrant temporarily lost and visiting the US. This is a nonsensical classification because males of this species are always solitary except briefly during mating. Females are also solitary except during mating and during the short period they have young with them.
Jaguars are native to Arizona. Both males and females were living and breeding in the area until people shot and poisoned them out, beginning in the early 1900s. The interest in El Jefe is helping to protect 764,000 acres of critical habitat in southern Arizona, and making it more likely that recovery efforts can re-establish a jaguar population in the area. The area is at risk of great damage to wildlife, water and the attractive landscape because of a proposed copper mine. There are many reasons to reject this environmentally damaging project, and El Jefe’s large territory is one of them.
With such a rare species, it’s important to keep as many potential breeding animals in the population as possible to maintain the genetic diversity. Previously, a male named Macho B who spent time in Arizona and was photographed there, returned to Mexico to breed, and it is likely that El Jefe is also a part of that same population.
Arizonans are quite attached to him already. That is especially true of the kids who named him. Children at Valencia Middle School in the Tucson area, whose mascot is the jaguar, picked his name. El Jefe (Spanish for “The Boss”) was the overwhelming choice in the vote among the five names that were finalists.
Perhaps the most important part of Mayke’s contribution to the study of El Jefe is that she enables scientists to learn about this jaguar in a non-invasive way. They are able to get an amazing amount of valuable data without bothering the cat. This matters for any species, but it’s especially critical when working with rare animals. Sadly, there are cases of jaguars being injured or killed because of attempts to radio collar the animal (to monitor the animal’s position) and a bad reaction to the tranquilizer. Mayke can locate signs of the animal’s presence and allow scientists to collect data without any such invasive techniques, which eliminates the risk associated with other methods of study.
When I asked Bugbee if there was anything else he wanted to share with me about Mayke, he answered, “Just that she’s a success story—even if you ignore that she’s found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US—because she found her confidence and came into her own.” They’ve been working together for three years and have a close relationship. Bugbee knows her well and understands her behavior. He knows the different ways that she reacts to various wild animals. If she finds scat from a puma, she pees on it. If she detects fresh deer scent from the glands in their feet, she points—holding one paw up and leaning in the direction of the deer. She also has her own unique responses to bobcats and bears.
Bugbee talks about her with great affection and respect, sounding like both the professional trainer he is and a loving dog guardian like any other, saying, “I wish I knew all of the things she picks up on. It would be incredible,” and “She’s a good dog. I like her.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
NYPD’s K-9 teams are loyal partnerships.
When NYPD officer Benny Colecchia brought his partner, Blaze, a nine-year-old German Shepherd, to the lower Manhattan emergency veterinary practice where I worked as surgeon in 2010, the big, stoic dog was displaying symptoms of colonic torsion, an uncommon twisting of the colon. If it wasn’t surgically corrected, Blaze could die.
Given Blaze’s age, even with surgery, the prognosis was guarded. He might require a bowel resection (removal of the compromised bowel) or develop sepsis (infection), or the bowel might fail altogether. But there was absolutely no hesitation on Colecchia’s part about going forward.
“Blaze is always on the money,” said Colecchia, a 16-year veteran of the NYPD. “He’s never balked.” The two had been partners for seven years at the time. Blaze, whose name was “Imp” before he joined the force, is known for his skilled cadaver-recovery work. Just prior to his trip to the vet ER, he had found a charred human torso in a burned-out Bronx building; the fire had been deliberately set.
Like most NYPD dogs, Blaze had been born and raised in the Czech Republic, which is known for its high-quality breeders and the dogs they produce specifically for police work. The city buys the dogs through established brokers for about $4,000 each. Considering that this includes the dogs’ veterinary expenses, food and housing for the first two years of their lives, as well as the flight to New York, it’s a good deal.
After 9/11, the city recognized the need to increase the number of NYPD K-9 units, and recruited heavily from the patrol ranks; Colecchia transferred over in 2003. Originally used primarily for patrol, the K-9 Unit now comprises four divisions: Transit, Emergency Service Unit (ESU), bomb and narcotics. There are approximately 40 dogs each in Transit and ESU (80 combined) and roughly eight dogs each in the narcotics and bomb divisions. But it wasn’t until 9/11 and their extensive use at Ground Zero for SAR operations that they became a critical part of the force and more publicly visible.
In fact, my first experience taking care of NYPD dogs came during this fraught time. Several dogs with burned, cut and bleeding footpads were brought into the practice where I worked in downtown Manhattan; their paws had been injured as the dogs scoured the edges of the inferno that had been the Twin Towers. The heat had caused the protective external footpads to separate from the underlying tissue. Despite how painful their paws must’ve been, their drive to continue searching was huge. I saw a hard-wired imperative in these dogs, a one-way arrow pointing to “Go.”
Anthony Compitello, another K-9 officer and a 19-year veteran New York City cop, brought in his partner Caesar, a 100-pound, six-year-old German Shepherd, for a surgical consult in 2012. Later, we talked about what it takes to be part of this unit. Compitello said there were 11 in his 2005 graduating class, which was the department’s largest. In order to apply for transfer to the K-9 Unit, an officer must have five years’ experience with the NYPD. “You can’t be a knucklehead,” Compitello observed. Once an officer is cleared, he or she must pass a rigorous physical-fitness test consisting of a run, an 80-pound carry to simulate a dog’s weight and a wall climb holding a 50-pound bag overhead.
Taking the Bite
During this exercise, the dog is on-leash, restrained by the handler. Since a handler’s dog can’t be trained to bite him or her, the cops partner up and take the bite from another handler’s dog. This training is vital, as all NYPD dogs are trained to “locate and bite” (as opposed to “locate and bark”) once they find a perpetrator. One of the NYPD dogs’ most important roles is to apprehend suspects, and the “get” is the dogs’ reward: they’re primed to want the bite.
“Your whole body’s resisting the dog. The biting is very intimidating,” Compitello recalled. “It knocks a lot of guys out [of the training]. They’re afraid, or they get hurt. Dogs are either front-biters and bite with their canines—which hurts the most—or full-mouth biters, using their molars to hang on.” Compitello proudly showed me scars on his right forearm from his training days; five stitches here, three stiches there.
The goal of the 20-week training is to teach the dog that catching a suspect or finding a scent is a game they always win, and the reward is praise and affection from their handler, followed by quick tug of war. If a dog has to be corrected during training, “Better double the praise,” says NYPD officer Rob McArdle, who has been in the K-9 Unit since 1994.
These dogs live for praise from their handlers. Food can’t be used as a reward, since work may take the dog into a restaurant, deli, grocery or other places where food is part of the search environment. So, play is the more practical alternative. K-9 officers carry a rope toy everywhere, and downtime always includes a game of tug.
Using their personal clothes and scuff marks from their shoes, handlers give the command “Track” so their dogs can learn their scent. The dogs also wear a special harness, which they come to associate with scent-tracking. Over the course of a week, training intensifies: the size of the clothing gets smaller, and it’s hidden in increasingly difficult places—garbage bags, under furniture or in ceilings in derelict buildings. Within days, the dog “tracks” to an article of clothing or artifact, and can search for the scent of that person in an abandoned car or building or across miles of a densely wooded area. Hundreds of scents could potentially override or overwhelm the dogs, but they’re able to retain their focus on just one.
The dogs’ scenting skills are also used extensively in recovery operations. In 1994, when McArdle got Baron, his German Shepherd, the training for an NYPD dog lasted 12 weeks. Baron was a patrol dog, one of only 15 working the five boroughs at the time. All of the dogs were trained to recognize gunpowder and live human scent. “Cadaver work was minimal in 1994,” McArdle said. “There was only one day of training. That changed dramatically after 9/11.”
McArdle had just started training with a new dog, Tonto, in early September 2001. After six years of physically rigorous police work, Baron had back pain and difficulty walking. Following a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, Baron eased into retirement, and McArdle was assigned another dog; Tonto was the new boy on the block.
On Duty at Ground Zero
“We didn’t believe it. You know, all kinds of crackpots get on our radio. Still, we headed toward the parking lot, and then a civilian said the same thing. We raced to our cars, drove to the base in Brooklyn to get supplies like flashlights and ropes, then headed into the city,” McArdle recalled.
During the weeks following 9/11, as search-and-rescue turned into search-and-recovery, Baron came out of retirement to work as a “spotter,” and, along with the other NYPD patrol dogs, was fast-track-trained for cadaver work, “Some dogs did find human remains in the beginning. But the cadaver scent was so overwhelming; it’s not the ideal situation for a cadaver dog. The dogs were literally on top of it, and it was too powerful.”
McArdle tried to give the dogs directions to turn right or left, things they would normally do automatically. But the dogs found the commands hard to follow. “I don’t think they were reacting to the human emotion. They were frustrated. They kept searching and coming up with nothing. Times like that, you just fall back on your training; the dogs do, too.”
By mid-October, police presence was cut back at Ground Zero, and McArdle and Tonto resumed their five-day-a-week training schedule. By then, training for all NYPD dogs had been extended to 20 weeks, and included extensive cadaver training. It was about this time that Tonto’s name was changed to TC, for Trade Center.
When I first met TC in 2011, he was the sole surviving NYPD dog to have worked Ground Zero. The partnership between McArdle and his dog was as synchronized as any between two individuals who have shared a decade of day-today history.
A Day in the Life
“The dog is the last resort before people go in. We give a clear, loud warning several times to give the suspect time to surrender, and anyone else time to get out of the building. Once that’s done, if there’s no response, we deploy the dog. That’s the toughest call, when you actually have to send your dog into harm’s way,” said McArdle.
It’s also hard to wait for the dog to come out before the Special Unit police officers go in. “You’re praying that they don’t find anybody in there, that the dog didn’t mess up.” McArdle paused, and then continued. “It’s all trust. The dogs are trusting that you’ll never put them in harm’s way. You’re trusting them with your life. They’ll get killed before one of us does.”
So far, New York City hasn’t had a NYPD dog die in the line of duty—none have been shot, stabbed or hit by a car— although dogs have been injured. In June of this year, Caesar suffered a near-fatal electrocution while searching an area of Ft. Bennett Field in Brooklyn. An exposed 220-volt wire had electrified the ground during a rainstorm. Compitello, only a few feet away, saw his dog hold up his leg, fall to the ground and start violently seizing, all in a matter of seconds. At first, he thought that Caesar had been bitten by a snake. He radioed for emergency transport to the hospital, and, after two days of intensive medical care, Caesar recovered. Compitello later realized how close he came to being electrocuted himself, had Caesar not been walking in front of him and taken the shock first.
A few years ago in New Jersey, a police canine was shot and killed in a private house. Afterward, there was an outpouring of public money specifically to outfit police dogs with bulletproof vests. The downside is that the vests are very restrictive; ultimately, it’s up to the handlers whether or not their dogs wear them. Typically, the only gear the dogs wear is a collar, so there’s less to grab.
“It’s a horrible feeling. The dog is there to protect us and is used as a tool, but the dog also comes home with us; he’s part of the family,” observed Officer Colecchia. Officer Compitello voiced the grim reality: “The dog’s replaceable, you’re not. The dog goes first.” As hard as it is for every police officer in the K-9 Unit to know, understanding this from the beginning is also part of their training.
A Price to be Paid
During the summer of 2012, TC developed a persistent cough. His chest X-rays showed many circular opacities, and he was given a presumptive diagnosis of lung cancer by a veterinary oncologist. Knowing his history—that for three months, he’d had his nose to the ground on a daily basis at the site of the incinerated trade towers—I suspected that it might be sarcoidosis, a progressive, inflammatory lung disease that many people exposed to the 9/11 fumes also developed.
The only other disease TC could have had was a fungal infection, which was not only extremely unlikely but also carried an equally poor prognosis, even with treatment. For a definitive diagnosis, a lung biopsy was required; this is an invasive procedure and requires anesthesia, which is always a worry with older dogs. Understandably, McArdle wasn’t interested in pursuing a diagnosis. Other than the cough, TC was not displaying any other symptoms, and continued living a comfortable, happy life with McArdle, his family and their new police dog, Clancy.
During the course of the following year, however, X-rays showed that TC’s lung disease was progressing. When TC was 13 years old, an ultrasound revealed that a tumor was growing within his heart. This sort of tumor, presumptively a cancer—a cardiac hemangiosarcoma—is relatively common among German Shepherds. Because of its location, TC was at risk for sudden internal bleeding, collapse and death.
On December 26, 2013, Rob McArdle called me at home. He was at his local vet, about an hour outside of the city. “TC’s in heart failure,” McArdle said, his voice cracking, “I’m going to let him go. I want to do right by him.”
This was, of course, also understandable. TC had always done right by McArdle. As his partner, he showed up every day and did his job without error or hesitation. As a beloved family dog, he had seen three children grow to adulthood and was able to see them a final time when they came home for the holidays. The relationship between McArdle and TC was standard for a police officer and his service dog: heroes protecting each other as well as the rest of us.
I called McArdle not long after he had TC euthanized. He was already in the patrol car, driving to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Long Island. TC’s body, wrapped in his blanket, lay on the back seat, where he’d sat every day for 11 years.
Rob McArdle now patrols his familiar beat in Midtown Manhattan with Clancy, who has been his K9 partner since TC retired. Blaze is a healthy 13-year-old, happily retired and family pet to the five Colecchia children. He’s also mentor to Timmy, the three-year-old Shepherd who’s now Colecchia’s K9 partner; Timmy excels in SAR and has a nose every bit as keen as Blaze’s. Anthony Compitello has a newly trained three-year-old Belgian Malinois, Argo, although 9-year-old Caesar has yet to retire.
Colecchia and Blaze, Compitello and Caesar, McArdle and TC: these teams and others like them are symbols of the power of dogs and people working together. May public awareness of these dogs and their importance to police officers— and to public safety—continue to grow.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Making slopes safer for everyone.
In a cold february morning in 2013, a Golden Retriever named Rocky and his owner/ handler John Alfond quickly climb into the backseat of the Flight for Life helicopter. Rocky scoots to the far side next to the window. Alfond slides in beside the dog, followed by the avalanche technician. The liftoff is fast and hectic, and Rocky leans into Alfond for reassurance. It will take them 12 minutes to reach the Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, and every second counts. Rocky, an avalanche-dog-in-training with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, is being transported to a disaster.
Avalanches threaten not only skiers and snowboarders but also snow-mobilers and ice climbers. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 25 people on average die in avalanches each year. In 2010, that number hit an all-time high with 36 deaths, and a near-record high again in 2012 with 34 fatalities. The risk is the highest in Colorado, which has more than 1 million acres of avalanche terrain and a notoriously unstable snowpack.
When the Flight for Life helicopter touches down, police officers and members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol are waiting. They brief Alfond and team on the incident—a man in his mid- 40s witnessed an avalanche. The man wasn’t affected, but he saw others swept away. No one is sure how many people are buried. Rocky paces on the end of his leash.
Alfond, himself a member of the ski patrol in Vail, assesses the scene’s safety. He identifies the wind direction, and looks for signs of more slides—cornices, or snow that could shift. Time is critical. After 15 minutes, nine out of ten people, or 90 percent, will survive an avalanche. After 30 minutes, that percentage decreases to 50.
Once Alfond is comfortable that the snow pack no longer presents an imminent danger, he asks Rocky to sit. The dog obeys. Alfond gets down on his knees and looks Rocky directly in the eye. “Are you ready to work?” he asks. Rocky sits tall and holds Alfond’s gaze. He’s ready. Alfond unclips the leash. “Find it!” he says. Rocky bolts.
The dog immediately identifies a partially buried man, alive, but with head and leg injuries. Alfond praises Rocky, who romps with glee, and then asks him to sit. “Are you ready to go back to work?” he asks. Rocky turns serious again, and Alfond issues the “Find it” command a second time. After several minutes, the dog identifies two more victims, fully buried, and begins to dig them out. Alfond determines that both are dead. Rocky is still praised, as his job is to “daylight” avalanche victims—to locate and unbury bodies, alive or dead.
Alfond sends Rocky back to work to “find it” one more time, but the dog turns up nothing. Alfond radios in the coordinates of the bodies as the avalanche technician loads the injured man onto a sled. Rocky follows. Total time from when they stepped off the helicopter: 23 minutes.
Once Alfond and the team rejoin the rest of the group, the mood turns celebratory. The incident was a simulation, and Rocky performed exceptionally well. The two “bodies” are volunteers, members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol, as is the “injured man,” who hops off the sled and starts to wrestle with Rocky. “He’s ready for certification,” Alfond says, high-fiving the avalanche technician.
The next month, Rocky passes his certification test at Copper Mountain Resort, along with a Labrador named Mookie and his handler Caroline Stone. The two dogs officially become the second and third members of Vail Resort’s certified avalanche-dog team. “I was more stressed than Rocky was,” Alfond says. “When it comes to avy dogs, humans are the dumb end of the leash.”
Born to Rescue
Rocky was born April 4, 2011, at Hunters Trace Kennel in southeastern Wyoming. Alfond chose the kennel because owner Marsha Greenwell had successfully put four other dogs into ski patrol programs. “There are specific traits I look for in a puppy for avalanche rescue,” says Greenwell, “but the most important factor is the dog’s genetics.”
For avy work, Greenwell breeds dogs with pedigrees proving good health and strong joints, as well as successful hunting or field-competition backgrounds. She feels that hunting and field dogs have attributes that are also desirable in avalanche dogs: they are intelligent, bold but not reckless, and possess the perseverance to work and search. Once the dogs have been bred, she selects puppies who can distinguish scents easily, demonstrate a strong work ethic, are confident and playful, and know when it’s time to rest. The key trait she looks for, however, is eye contact. “It’s been proven that dogs communicate through eye contact,” she says. “They get a lot of their instruction from us by what we’re saying to them with our eyes. It’s how they learn to trust in scary situations, like getting into a helicopter.”
By the time Rocky’s litter was five weeks old, Greenwell had selected two possible avalanche dog candidates. At eight weeks, she’d narrowed it down to just one—the male with the gold yarn around his neck. “She was right,” says Alfond. “Rocky is smart, has a great temperament and a strong work drive, and loves to search.”
Alfond gave Rocky four weeks to get adjusted to his new home before starting training. The Alfond household includes two children and two other Golden Retrievers; fortunately, Rocky fit in well. The pup’s first lessons lasted five minutes, building up to 20. After Rocky mastered the basics like sit and come, Alfond started laying the foundation for the commands essential to search-and-rescue work.
Alfond would ask Rocky to sit; once he’d done so, a friend or family member would hold the dog. Next, he’d ask Rocky if he was ready to work, and then walk 10 to 20 feet away. Watching his owner “leave,” Rocky would become anxious to follow (hence the need for someone to hold him). Finally, Alfond would issue the most critical command in the search-and-rescue dog universe: “Find it!”
The friend or family member would let go of Rocky and he’d run directly to Alfond. Praise, play and treats were part of Rocky’s reward for a successful “find.” “When they get good at that, then you start to hide, like ducking behind a rock,” says Alfond. “Eventually, you hide downwind from them, without [letting] them see where you hide, and they find you based purely on scent.”
After a summer and fall of preliminary training, Rocky was ready to try his new skills in the snow. Alfond started Rocky with basic burial drills, in which the dog is held as he watches a person crawl into a snow cave, and then released with the “find it” command. Rocky progressed to finding someone who had been buried in the snow out of his sight.
In January 2013, Rocky and Alfond traveled to the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts in Utah to attend the four-day WBR International Dog School. The oldest and most prestigious program of its kind, the school includes instructors from Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, Swiss Alpine Club, Alaska SAR Dogs and the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. By spring 2013, Rocky had mastered avalanche simulations like the one at Arapahoe Basin. His total training and preparat ion for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD) certification took two years.
The Avy Dog Difference
“As the number of people recreating at ski resorts and in the backcountry continues to rise, more resorts are starting to see the benefits of avy dog programs,” says Thompson, himself an avy dog handler and a member of the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol.
Thompson, who has participated in more than a dozen avalanche SAR efforts with his dog, a Labrador named Dixie, created Beaver Creek Resort’s avalanche dog program in 2000. Four dogs currently participate, and the resort plans to add a fifth for the 2013/2014 season. “In the winter, you have to be ready at a moment’s notice,” he says. “When Flight for Life responds, they look for the closest avy dog to the scene.”
Thompson doesn’t mince words when it comes to avalanche survival rates. Ski patrollers understand that the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be caught by one in the first place. The hard fact is that by the time avy dogs and their handlers reach a site—by helicopter, snowmobile, skis or all three —it’s usually too late for the victim.
At 30 minutes, the avalanche survival rate is 50 percent, and that percentage drops to 20 after two hours. “We always respond as fast and as efficiently as possible with the thought that we’re going after a live body, but more often, that’s not what we’re finding,” says Thompson. Alfond agrees. “An avalanche dog is not a magic bullet.”
As he and Rocky head toward their first ski season as a full-fledged avy dog team at Vail Resort, Alfond acknowledges that there are serious on-the-job risks. In addition to avalanche danger, there are other hazards, such as frostbite or Rocky accidentally getting cut by a ski edge while running beside him to a rescue. Yet Alfond appreciates the rewards of his job. “If we rescue just one person, or bring just one body home to a family, it’s worth it.”
Alfond sees another benefit to having avy dogs as part of a resort’s ski patrol team: they’re great for public relations. Ski patrol members are not typically known as the most approachable skiers on the mountain. Quite the contrary— they’re the ones who bust you for ducking a rope and to get to the untracked powder out of bounds. But when avy dogs are around, suddenly people want to interact. “Guests actually come into our office just to pet them,” says Alfond. “And we get a lot better reception at schools during our snow-safety presentations when the dogs are there.”
Avy dogs may be a ski resort’s best chance at decreasing the avalanche death toll. Dogs put a friendly face on snow safety outreach programs. They give the ski patrol an opening to talk about the importance of carrying a shovel, beacon and probe into the backcountry, and knowing how to use the gear in an emergency. Avy dogs in their red vests make people smile, and may make them more attentive to messages about using common sense in the backcountry, including having a partner and carrying a cell phone.
The presence of avy dogs at ski resorts helps make people more snow-safety conscious—and that’s a feat worth wagging about.
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