work of dogs
We received hundreds of entries to our 2013 Best Places to Work contest from all across the country. We heard from two-person shops and large corporations who are dedicated to dog-friendly workplaces. We were introduced to a resident dog at a Hawaiian dental office who helps soothe jittery patients; we met shop dogs at bakeries (Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC) and a glassblowing studio (Glassybaby in Washington state), a rescue dog/mascot at a distillery (Tito’s Handmade Vodka) in Texas, several technology/internet firms (Advent, The Nerdery) and a handful of manufacturers (Jones Soda, Bissell). While each company had a great story to tell, three entries stood out, earning Bark’s special recognition and a year’s worth of Zuke’s delectable treats.
Midland School, Los Olivos, Calif.
The Midland dogs attend classes, watch soccer games from the sidelines, sleep on library couches and help herd the resident cattle. Dogs even play a role in academic research. Midland’s statistics class conducts an annual mathematical analysis of daily dog wanderings. Students attach GPS units to the collars of several dogs and track their movements around campus over the course of several days.
Dogs are so integral to the culture of Midland School that Headmaster Will Graham’s 2011 graduation speech centered around their importance: “An animal can teach a person to focus on the simple things … the important things … to care for and love something other than ourselves, to pick up a mess that we did not make, and to play. They reassure us, keep us from being restless, help us be practical and grounded, and make us smile.” He named the dogs alongside the graduating seniors when he issued diplomas.
PrintingForLess, Livingston, Mont.
KolbeCo, O’Fallon, Mo.
2014 Best Places to Work Contest kicks off September 1.
News: Guest Posts
Ellie is now nearly eleven years old. She still loves going to work every day and has no plans to retire. “She loves coming to work with me, and just seems to be getting better and better at her job,” says Page Ulrey, a King County Deputy Prosecutor and Ellie’s handler.
Ellie is the first facility dog who was trained specifically for use by a prosecuting attorney’s office, to assist victims of crime during witness interviews and courtroom testimony. I first wrote about Ellie, and Jeeter—the facility dog who helped get the idea going in Seattle, Wash.—in 2007. While Page prosecutes cases involving elder and vulnerable adult abuse, Ellie continues to help with a wide variety of cases within the office. Ellie has been working almost nine years now, and in that time has attended a trial every few months, perhaps as many as forty total. She’s had a huge, beneficial impact on how many victims of crime experience the legal system.
Ellie—and other courthouse dogs like her—had to do some convincing along the way. As in other states where facility dogs have been introduced into criminal courtroom proceedings, defense counsel and/or judges in counties across Washington State have often objected when a facility dog accompanies a victim or witness to the stand for testimony. This is especially true the first few times a facility dog is used. Some cases, after a conviction at the trial court level, are appealed in part on the basis that the dog created a bias in favor of the prosecutor’s witness and case, interfering with the defendant’s right to due process. In Washington, most of those cases ended in the state’s appellate level courts with convictions affirmed and the use of the facility dog approved.
Now, however, the Washington State Supreme Court has weighed in. After an appellate court affirmed a conviction and the use of Ellie to comfort a victim while testifying, the case was appealed again to the state’s highest court. The Washington State Supreme Court issued a decision September 26, 2013—State v. Dye— making it clear that the use of facility dogs in the courtroom should be allowed so long as certain facts are established and precautions are followed.
What makes State v. Dye an especially strong case for the use of facility dogs is that the defendant’s counsel made several common objections to the use of Ellie at trial—preserving the issues for appeal—so that the Supreme Court could address them in detail. The victim in the case, though 56 years old, was a developmentally delayed man who functioned at a mental age of six to twelve years. When interviewed by defense counsel prior to trial, Ellie comforted him. Page, as prosecutor at trial, laid the foundation for using Ellie to assist the victim because he felt anxious about testifying, much like any child would. Ellie accompanied the victim to the witness stand. Not only did defense counsel object to Ellie, saying her presence with the victim was extremely prejudicial to the defendant, but also because the prosecutor on the case was Page—Ellie’s handler—who could possibly signal Ellie in some way. And finally, defense counsel objected on the basis that the defendant and even defense counsel might have allergies to dogs, or be intimidated by the dog.
The Supreme Court said that trial judges may exercise their discretion in allowing a special measure such as a facility dog to accompany vulnerable witnesses. The analysis is the same in situations when child witnesses are allowed to take a doll or teddy bear with them to the witness stand. There should be a showing by the prosecutor that the witness would have difficulty testifying without the special measure. The trial judge can then determine whether the special measure would unduly prejudice the defendant.
The Supreme Court noted that Ellie’s behavior in the courtroom was never disruptive; she never left the witness’s side; and she never made any gesture (growling, lunging) toward the defendant that would cause a jury to consider him dangerous or untrustworthy. And finally, the trial judge instructed the jury to not make any assumptions based on Ellie’s presence.
The allergy objection has been a common one in the early stages of using facility dogs like Ellie in courtrooms. In the Dye case, the judge offered to allow the defendant to prove such an allergy with a note from his doctor, and if proven, make accommodations for him. The defendant never produced such a note and the objection was overruled. The Supreme Court approved this approach.
Both the Washington Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court upheld the trial judge’s decision to allow Ellie to assist the victim while testifying. A concurring opinion to the Supreme Court decision did voice some concerns, however. Justice McCloud felt that because Ellie was such a powerful symbol in the courtroom— “…her mere presence conveyed a deeply reassuring, yet silent, message of comfort, security and support”—that in the interest of fairness to the defendant, the trial judge might consider additional steps, for example allowing a facility dog to accompany the defendant’s key witness to the stand, to balance things out. Defense counsel didn’t seek such balancing steps, so no error occurred at the trial level. Justice McCloud was also concerned that a simple instruction to the jury to not draw any conclusions from Ellie’s presence was insufficient, that it’s well known that jurors often fail to follow a court’s instructions. “[T]he presumption that jurors follow instructions is especially inapplicable where the challenged procedure—here, the presence of the adorable dog Ellie—is a procedure that works only because it provides such powerful symbolism.”
There is still room for novel objections to the use of facility dogs in the courtroom. Those objections will wind their way through the appeals process. It’s all part of how our legal system sorts through these concerns and comes to the best possible solutions. Page isn’t worried. Ellie, and facility dogs in general, have become a common sight in King County’s courtrooms; most of the judges have become quite comfortable with their use. I’m sure that’s the case in many other jurisdictions across the country as well, and will become more common in the future.
As for defendants also having access to facility dogs in the courtroom, as suggested by Justice McCloud? “I think that's fair,” said Page. “Although I don't think the prosecutor's office is under any obligation to supply defense with a dog.”
State v. Dye, No. 87929-0, published September 29, 2013, can be found at:
Courthouse Dogs Foundation (www.courthousedogs.com) - promoting justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.
For the first report on courtroom dogs by Rebecca Wallick see, or for previous update .
A conversation with Cat Warren, author of the new book, What the Dogs Knows.
In the fall issue of The Bark, I gave a very positive review to Warren’s book, a story of “how she discovered what the canine worldview really is, and how she and her dog, Solo, learned to navigate it.” The following is a conversation with her and interviewer, Whitney Peeling.
Whitney Peeling: On the way to pick up your new German Shepherd puppy, you envisioned obedience rings and calm companionship, but this changed quickly.
You’re a professor, but you also do some rather unusual work outside of the university.
What made you take such a different route with Solo, training him to be a cadaver dog?
Some of your time with Solo is spent with others in the working dog world, including other handlers, trainers, breeders and police units. How have these relationships been important to you?
Death is an inescapable part of your work, and you address it matter-of-factly, yet with great respect. But is it sometimes difficult when your search leads to a body?
A handler and a working dog’s training is ongoing. What are you and Solo working on now?
Working dog training appears to be very much “a man's world.” What was it like for you, starting to train in that world?
As the years go by, it’s less difficult. The handlers and trainers like Solo. I try to be true to who I am: I'm a woman who likes working dogs and likes to train. I don’t want to be a law enforcement dog handler. It’s not a job I could do. And while I have some close professional relationships and real mentors in that world, boundaries are still important. I work hard to stay out of the way during aggression training, to not get in the middle of work conversations. If it’s a regular training and not a seminar, I don’t follow handlers to lunch or dinner break. Their world is unrelentingly 24/7.
Any group—whether it’s K9 handlers, or cops, or college faculty, or AKC confirmation breeders—is going to have its rituals and its special language. It’s going to have people who welcome you in and mentor you, and those who prefer to keep you at a distance, or even eye you with suspicion. I understand all those reactions, and I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had several great mentors in law enforcement K9. It’s more work, no matter what, to have an outsider around when you are training law enforcement dogs. It can be challenging work, especially if you are doing it right, and really working the handlers and dogs so they are learning new skills. It doesn’t even matter whether that person is from another agency or a volunteer female handler like me. I have the same reaction when someone sits in on a class I’m teaching. I have to think more about what I’m doing.
Now, I have two K9 law enforcement units that I train with regularly. I’m fortunate. They are very different from each other, and I learn different things from each of them. It’s been more than seven years now since I started training regularly with law enforcement teams and watching at seminars. But it always feels new. I still get a thrill from watching the joy of a new handler who realizes for the first time what his dog’s nose can do.
While a nanny cam might be a good idea to keep track of both a child and a caregiver, even better idea might to trust in your dog’s instincts. A couple in Charleston, S.C., learned about this the hard way. It was their dog Killian who alerted them to an abusive nanny they had hired for their young son, Finn.
Benjamin and Hope Jordan did a background check before they hired the babysitter for their 7-month-old son, Finn, last year. So they hired 22-year-old Alexis Khan, who seemed to be an attentive and loving sitter in her first five months at work. But the Jordans were concerned when their trusted calm, family dog, Killian, started acting strangely toward Khan.
“…we started to notice that our dog was very defensive of our son when she would come in the door,” Benjamin Jordan told the local TV WCSC TV’s Live 5. “He was very aggressive towards her and a few times we actually had to physically restrain our dog from going towards her.” Their dog had never reacted this way towards anyone before.
The parents were concerned and suspicious and decided to put an iPhone under the couch to record what was happening while they were at work.
“It started with cussing,” Jordan said. “Then you hear slap noises and his crying changes from a distress cry to a pain cry. I just wanted to reach through the audio tape, go back in time and just grab him up.
“To know that five months I had handed my child to a monster, not knowing what was going on in my house for that day…”
The Jordans called the police and Khan was taken into custody. Last Monday, she pleaded guilty for assault and battery in Charleston County Circuit Court. Khan will spend one to three years in prison and will be placed on a child abuse registry.
“That is fantastic news to us. To know that maybe Finn’s ordeal has possibly saved another child’s life in the future,” Mr. Jordan told Live 5. “Had our dog not alerted us to the trouble, had my wife’s instincts not said we need to make something happen, it could have been Finn that was killed by the babysitter. You never know.”
Don’t you think that this shows that every family with a babysitter also needs a doggy cam? Good work Killian!
A Video Pick of the Week
I was rereading John Pilley’s Chaser, a must-read book about his dog, Chaser, the Border Collie who learned to distinguish over 1000 words. One of the aspects of the book I really enjoyed was his appreciation for Border Collie lore, with a nod to others, like Arthur Allen, the “grandfather of Border Collies,” who wrote the seminal Border Collies in America and went on to “star” in a 1955 Disney movie, Arizona Sheepdog. Pilley mentioned that it’s now available on YouTube, so I just watched it and want to recommend it to every dog lover. It’s my video “pick” of the week!
Granted it is a “staged” Disney film but what Nick and Rock, Allen’s dogs do on this film cannot be directed. It was stunning to see how Nick herds a Navajo child’s pet chipmunk and then goes on to rescue sheep that have fallen into a fast moving river. These are amazing dogs who demonstrate that not only can they problem solve without supervision but they also work cooperatively with each other. This short film is a testament to Allen who has said, “I like a dog that is an individualist; one who thinks for himself and will act without orders.” As the film narrator says, Allen had no doubt that Nick would do his job and bring the sheep back to their flock. That is what they expected he would do and he did it. See it for yourself and let me know what you think.
Finding a balance of work and play
Zuke’s began over a decade ago, when Patrick Meiering was hiking in the Colorado Mountains with his energetic dog, Zuke. Noticing that Zuke had become exhausted, Patrick broke off a piece of his energy bar and tossed it to him—Zuke perked right up. The idea that pets need healthy, all-natural treats was born at that moment. Today, Zuke’s offers a host of treats that are formulated with only natural ingredients providing the specific nutrients needed by dog and cats. The company embraces a healthy lifestyle of work and play, including a dog-friendly workplace—making them the perfect partner to sponsor The Bark’s Best Places to Work contest in 2013.
Tell us about Zuke’s office environment and an average day on the job …
Is there an official dog policy in place?
What is ownership/management’s view of allowing dogs in the workplace?
Can you give some specific examples of how the dogs add to the work environment in a positive way ....
What are some of the tips and pointers you can offer a company who is looking to start a dog-friendly work policy?
Though we are a pet products company and are thus unfairly biased, we believe that the positives outweigh the negatives for workplaces considering dogs. Aside from having a ready and willing taste test team on hand at all times, our management and employees universally believe that there are huge benefits to having canine coworkers.
Bazz, wearing his new bee-proof working gear, is Australia’s first apiary dog. Beekeeper Josh Kennett devised this suit so that his Lab, and working partner, Bazz could help sniff out a virulent bee disease, the American foulbrood.
Dogs can’t get near a hive of bees without being aggressively chased away. So Kennett got the idea to train Bazz from his American counterparts but in the U.S. the colder temperatures negate the need for protection.
“Their winters are far colder than ours, with snow over the top of beehives. We don't have that situation here in South Australia.
“So I’ve tried to develop a suit the dog can wear and hopefully avoid being stung.”
He also said that he tried a variety of prototypes because he wanted a suit that “doesn’t restrict him too much,” so had to do a lot of trial and error, especially with the head part.
After a long training period that was started by a professional detection dog trainer, and refined by Kennett to get Bazz used to the suit and to the hives, the beekeeper team is now ready to go
“We’ve now proven the concept, he can find the infected hives.
“To fully cover a dog up and expect it to do the same thing, it takes time to change how he behaves and to get used to that suit.”
Source: ABC Australia
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog to the rescue
June 21 is “Take Your Dog to Work Day.” For those of us who treasure our dogs company, being able to have our companions with us on the job is such a bonus. I’ve been blessed as an animal control officer to be able to bring my girl Breeze, a rescued Doberman, with me to work. On a rough day in the field, just being able to reach over and stroke Breeze’s silky coat can make the day bearable. I provide a soft bed next to my desk when I’m in the office and she’s expected to lie there quietly while I work. Of course, sometimes when there are several employee dogs wanting to socialize, we do allow them a play break. In the truck, she snoozes between calls and gets a potty break when I take mine. She doesn’t leave the truck unless invited and I take every precaution to keep her safe.
When we have our dogs join us at work, It’s critical that they be clean and well-behaved, and that we protect them from well-meaning but pushy or in-your-face people. Make sure your dog is comfortable with strangers and always expect that people will do silly thing to dogs. Even the nicest dog can bite so make sure your dog is enjoying any attention from co-workers or customers.
An added bonus to having Breeze along is that sometimes a scared stray will come to another dog but not a person. If my offers of treats, sweet talk and toys haven’t done the trick with a loose dog, sometimes bringing Breeze out is all it takes. On a recent call, two 5-month-old hound mix pups were dumped far out on a rural road. Sadly, one pup was killed by a car the first day, while the terrified and traumatized littermate wouldn’t come anywhere near people. He had taken up residence in an empty shed, but the minute I pulled up he took off through the pasture toward the nearby forest. Breeze was sitting next to me on the seat watching the pup intently. I got permission from the property owner and then took Breeze into the pasture where the shed was. Breeze loves everyone and is sort of the social greeter with dogs and people everywhere she goes.
The pup stopped at the sight of Breeze. With his tucked tail and hunched posture, he was the picture of dejected loneliness. I unclipped Breezes leash and said “get the puppy, Breeze.” She raced across the pasture, eager to meet a new friend, while the pup watched warily. As she reached him his tail began to wag and he curled his body into a submissive gesture of appeasement as she gave him the sniff over. Feeling more confident, the pup began to kiss her muzzle and press himself as close to her as he could.
As soon as I could see that they were buddied up, I sat down in the grass to be less threatening and pulled out a handful of treats. I called to Breeze, who came running with the pup close behind. I gave Breeze a treat and tossed one to the pup who stopped just out of reach. His body language was still terribly afraid but he clearly wanted to trust. Within minutes the pup worked his way close enough to take cookies out of my hand. In no time at all, he crawled into my lap, wiggling and wagging and soaking up the attention like he could never get enough. I slipped a leash on him but he immediately panicked. Obviously, he had never had one on so I scooped him up and carried him back to the truck with Breeze trotting by my side.
The hound pup was adopted soon after and he was just one of many examples of Breeze’s presence making my job easier.
I’d love to hear from readers who also take their dogs to work. Tell us the best part of having your buddy along on the job (or the worst!).
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Nashville’s finest bookstore has new workers.
In the weeks before my business partner Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, I would bring my 16-yearold dog Rose to the store. I folded her up inside her soft bed and then stretched her out in the warm sun that fell through the front window. She would sleep while I painted a cabinet or shelved books. Rose, who had once been a Chihuahua/Terrier mix, was now nothing but a limp little sock puppet of a dog, and I carried her with me everywhere. I wanted her to be a store dog. If I was going to have a bookstore, it seemed only right that Rose should have a job. I thought that she could stay in her bed by the cash register and people could pet her, but it didn’t work out that way. Having lived a long and happy life, Rose died two weeks after we opened.
The truth of the matter is that Rose, no matter how much I loved her, was not store-dog material. For one thing, she hated children, and while she almost never actually bit them, she could bark and lunge and snap without provocation. At times she could be so ferocious that children felt bitten without the actual bite. The only reason I even thought she might be able to be a store dog late in life was that she could no longer walk, and her sight and hearing were negligible. She just liked the petting, and the size of the hand running over her small flank didn’t matter anymore.
Karen thought the bookstore should have a piano, and so she got a piano. I thought the bookstore should have a dog, but now I didn’t have a dog, and I was too sad to go out and get another one.
So we hired a part-time dog, a sleek, short-haired Miniature Dachshund named Lexington who came in with our events manager, Niki Castle, once or twice a week. Lexington was from New York City, where she and Niki had lived before moving south. As a city dog, she was not afraid of crowds. She was used to strangers making over her. She was used to children getting in her face. Frankly, she liked children getting in her face. Her M.O. was to race around the store 10 times, greet everyone and then skid back into the office, where Niki would scoop her up and drop her into a sling she wore across her chest. There, in her pouch, Lexington napped. Twenty minutes later, she’d take off running again. It was the cycle of her day.
No one could complain about the job Lexington was doing. Children marched back to the office and demanded to see the Dachshund, and off she would go to the picture-book section. She did not gnaw on the spines of the books on lower shelves. She did not lose her temper, never once, when a small hand tried to keep her from her appointed nap by holding onto her tail. She was in every way top flight. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want my own store dog.
“We have a store,” my husband would say when he called about various shelter or foster-care dogs we had seen on the Internet. “Do you think he would be a good store dog?”
But if you don’t have a store, how can you know? How can you know if your dog can be trusted not to dart through the continually opening doors, or if he’ll jump up and grab a fluttering scarf, or have accidents in hidden corners, or bite a child—even one child, one child who may have been asking for it in every possible way. How do you know that dog when you see him?
It turns out my husband knew. The Friday afternoon we walked into the Nashville Humane Association and my husband saw Sparky, he knew. He leaned over and lifted him out of his pen. “This one,” he said, without looking at a single other dog.
After 16 wonderful years with Rose, it’s hard for me not to panic when I see a tiny child toddling towards my dog, fingers outstretched. But regardless of size, Sparky gives every customer a fullbody wag, then drops to the ground to show his spotted tummy. Most children then drop to the ground as well and together they roll around.
There are always children who are nervous around dogs, who look stiffly away as though they’re being addressed by a crazy person in the subway, but Sparky is never pushy. If ignored, he will sit for a minute and try to puzzle out the situation (Child doesn’t want to play?). Then, coming up with no logical explanation, he simply walks away. So what about Lexington? After all, she was here first. All I can say is that while there have been some high-speed chases, there has been no competition. We’re bookstore enough for two small dogs, one who looks like a tiny supermodel, the other who resembles an unruly dandelion.
“Who’s this?” a woman asked me when Sparky put his front paws on the edge of the big, comfortable chair where she was sitting, reading a book. He butted his head against her knee.
“This is Sparky,” I said. “He’s the store dog.”
“What’s his job?” the woman asked me. “What does he do?”
I looked at her. She was scratching his ears. “This,” I said, stating what I thought was obvious. “He does this.”
Do store dogs encourage reading? I believe so, in the same way the rest of the staff encourages reading: by helping to create an environment you want to be in. Children beg their parents to take them to our bookstore long before they can read so that they can play on the train table and pet the store dog. Trains and dogs then become connected to reading.
Sparky and Lexington are also happy to provide a complementary service for people who don’t have dogs of their own—children, parents and non-parents alike—so they too can have a little snuggle before they go home. Our store dogs aren’t here just to create a positive association with books; they’re also here to create positive associations with dogs.
A high school English teacher called several months ago to say her class had read one of my novels and she wanted to bring the students to the store for an hour before we opened so that I could talk to them about the book. It was early in Sparky’s tenure and I thought a closed store with a limited number of people inside would be a good trial run. The 20 or so high school students pulled their chairs into a lazy circle. They were hip, disaffected and slouching until Sparky trotted in. As it turns out, there’s no one, not even a high school senior, who’s cool enough to ignore a small, scruffy dog.
Sparky worked the room like a politician, hopping into one lap and then another, walking over knees, until he had pressed his face to every person in the room. When he was finished, he came and settled in my lap. That was when the students looked at me with awe. Sure, I had written a novel, but they felt certain they could write novels if they felt like it. What I had going for me was the love and devotion of a really good dog.
I have no ax to grind with e-books. I care much more that people read than about the device they chose to read on. But I do believe in small businesses, and in the creation of local jobs, and of having a place where people can come together with a sense of community to hear an author read or attend story hour or get a great recommendation from a smart bookseller.
And I like a good store dog, a dog who knows how to curl up on your lap when you’re thumbing through a book. A virtual Sparky? A one-click Lexington? Believe me, it wouldn’t be the same.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A Texas Terrier helps a species threatened with extinction
Cairns, or stone piles, have for centuries abounded in the Scottish Highlands, marking everything from burial grounds to property boundaries. It was the Cairn Terrier, with his powerful nose, sharp teeth and aggressive personality, who helped Highlanders keep rats and other vermin from infesting both the cairns and their stone cottages. Indispensable then in Scotland, another Cairn has become indispensable today on the beaches of North Padre Island, Texas, where he is helping save the rare Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from extinction.
His name is Ridley and he is the family pet of Donna Shaver, PhD, director of the Sea Turtle Science and Recovery program at Padre Island National Seashore, who has been working tirelessly to establish a secondary nesting beach for these turtles since she first volunteered there as a Cornell University student 28 years ago. (She’s even refused several promotions in order to remain with the turtle program.)
Little more than two decades ago, the Kemp’s ridley—the most vulnerable of the seven species of sea turtle—was declared “genetically extinct” by many conservationists; the turtle’s numbers had dwindled to about 250 to 300 breeding females in the world, virtually all of whom nested only on Rancho Nuevo, a single 30-mile stretch of Mexican beach roughly 200 miles south of Brownsville, Texas. From 1978 to 1988, in an effort to create a secondary birthing area, a few thousand eggs were flown annually to Padre Island to hatch and grow for a year in captivity before release. It was called “head-starting,” after President Lyndon Johnson’s preschool program for disadvantaged children.
“This program is so important—if a catastrophe were to strike the main nesting beach in Mexico,” Shaver says,“there still might not be enough nesting here in Texas to preserve the species.” Shaver’s concern is fact-based. In the summer of 1979, an underwater oil well blew out about 500 miles from the Mexican nesting beach and the drifting slick threatened 10,000 baby turtles with a gooey death; many were saved, however, thanks to the efforts made by rescuers in a fleet of Mexican helicopters, which flew them to safety.
This sort of threat is why every single Texas nest is valuable. “We have had a huge increase in nesting along the 67 miles of Padre Island National Seashore during the last five years, from five in 2000 to 93 last year,” explains Shaver. The curve is indeed upward; the number of nests is increasing along the entire Texas coastline, from one or two nests every one to three years in 1980 to 195 in 2008. But for the turtle’s future to be secured, the number needs to grow by about 10 times—or to approximately 1,950— within the next 10 to 20 years.
The Kemp’s ridley is one of the fastest nesting of all sea turtles, taking only 30 minutes to an hour to crawl out of the surf, dig her nest, lay her 100 or so eggs (known as a clutch), cover the nest and return to the Gulf. During nesting season, the beach is patrolled hourly by volunteers and National Park Service rangers who look for the distinctive tracks in the sand or actively nesting turtles. Found eggs are relocated to the humidity- and temperature-controlled incubation building at NPS headquarters. Despite this, some nests are still missed. At about 80 pounds on average, the Kemp’s ridley is the smallest and lightest of all the sea turtle species, and the tracks she makes on her way from the water to the nesting site are quickly blown away by the wind. Shaver knew there were more eggs to be found, and it was driving her crazy.
Two years ago, Shaver began to exploit Ridley’s acute sense of smell to locate these elusive eggs. “I’ve known for years that dogs and coyotes are two of the prime predators of wild turtle nests in many nations, especially in Central America. And dogs are also used to find illegal drugs or explosives at airports and locate trapped people after earthquakes. So I was anxious to see if Ridley could find the ‘missing’ nests,” says Shaver.
When Ridley was just a puppy, Shaver and her fiancé—Stephen Kurtz, a National Park Service turtle patrol volunteer— had trained him to locate objects by hiding liver and chicken treats around the house and telling him to “go find.” Then, when he was about a year old, they began taking him to the beach for his next big step: identifying the smell of turtle eggs.
At a freshly emptied turtle nest, Ridley’s attention was directed toward its pungent scents of hatchling turtles; leftover egg fluid; and remnants of the mother turtle’s lubricating mucus, which coats the eggs as they’re laid. Ridley soaked it up into his Cairn “hard drive,” and after he got a nose full, Shaver and Kurtz filled the empty nest with sand, walked him down the beach for about a half-hour, and then told him to “go find the nest.” Time after time, Ridley raced back to the exact site. Within about 10 weeks, he was ready to begin the real work of finding the few but critical “invisible nests” the Gulf wind had hidden.
Now, he is brought to the beach several times each year to find nests at track sites where humans have been unsuccessful, his Scottish Highland nose sniffing for the faintest scent of turtle eggs, with Shaver or Kurtz in hot pursuit. When he finds a nest, Ridley digs slightly, careful not to damage the eggs. Successful, he sits back and waits for his treat. “I actually think Ridley understands just how important what he’s doing is; he gets so excited when he finds a nest, even before he gets his reward,” says Shaver.
He’s been doing this work for a season and a half now, and this summer, expectations are high that he’ll be finding even more eggs. An extensive search-and-rescue operation began in April this year, and later this summer, as the baby turtles hatch, Ridley will be there watching, along with the television cameras and the crowds of squealing children who crowd the beach off Corpus Christi 10 to 20 mornings each year to see this miracle of regeneration. Ridley Shaver—in a role the 17th-century Scottish Highlanders who developed the breed could not have envisioned—not only lends a paw but most importantly, a nose to this environmental success story.
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