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?
If we are out looking for someone, it’s because law enforcement is almost certain that person is dead. So finding a body isn’t a nightmare. It represents success. Certainly for Solo, for the investigators, and for me. Usually for family and friends, although not always. But nine of ten times when we go for a search, we don’t find anything. Investigators are following vague leads, unreliable witnesses, or the need to simply rule out areas where a body might be. That’s their job, and at the best of times, it’s difficult work. Clearing areas—being able to say, “We don’t think the missing person is here”—matters, as well. The cases where we don’t find someone are the ones that keep me up at night.
A handler and a working dog’s training is ongoing. What are you and Solo working on now?
Solo is an experienced cadaver dog now, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to practice. And training is the fun part of this work. He’s also getting older (he’ll be ten in March), so I’m slowly trying to train him to work on water, a skill that will still challenge his nose but not require quite as much stamina as covering fifty acres of dense woods in the summer. David and I have a new German hepherd pup as well, Coda, who has kept me awake at night stewing about brand-new training challenges. It feels as though I’m starting all over from the beginning with her. There’s a term for it, of course: “second-dog syndrome.” Each dog is different. As one of my mentors said, gently reminding me of my early training: “Solo’s on automatic pilot now.” Dogs make you live in the present, and forget what came before. Coda, the new pup, has an amazing nose and loves the game of search, but has an independent streak. That’s working dog-training shorthand for not entirely caring about what I think. In the long run, that independence will be an advantage. If she realizes we are a team. If I learn to communicate with her. Right now, she’s busting my chops daily. When I’m utterly frustrated with myself and with her, I look over at Solo, lying calmly, looking at me with devotion. He’s now the good one. We might get there yet with her.
Working dog training appears to be very much “a man's world.” What was it like for you, starting to train in that world?
It was hard at first. The vast majority of handlers and trainers in law enforcement are men. The same is true for sworn officers generally. In the first months, I found my heart pounding when I showed up for K9 training with a police unit, though I tried to hide it. A couple of years after I started, one handler admiringly noted my “zen calm.” I had to laugh and admit it was closer to “frozen fear.”
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.