I’ve long admired Buzz Hoot Roar, a graphics-driven blog that explains science in fewer than 300 words, so when @VerdantEleanor (she’s “Roar) approached me about doing something with artist Christine Fleming, I said yes with alacrity! We decided to focus on the ongoing competition between machines and dogs and other animals, to see which has the best nose, and is the easiest to use. Okay, dog people, I honestly tried to be objective when I did this research, but one of Christine’s marvelous illustrations sums up why dogs rock, and why A Good Nose Isn’t That Hard to Find.
Bruce Siceloff, a reporter with the Raleigh News & Observer, spent a couple of days reporting on the work in Wilmington on historic graves, and wrote a beautiful story on it:
Canine noses point to forgotten, unmarked graves in Wilmington.
And Chuck Liddy took great video and photographs.
I am helping organize a historic grave search with cadaver dogs in Eastern North Carolina from Sept. 12 to 14. An African-American church’s graveyard is being relocated because of a road widening project. The church has generously agreed to having the cadaver dog teams on site to see whether they can help confirm or locate unmarked graves.
I am trying to raise some modest funds to cover the expenses of three experienced cadaver-dog handlers — Lisa Higgins, Paul Martin, and Susan Goodhope — who were featured in What the Dog Knows doing this work. Separately and together, they have worked on ancient remains projects across the United States. The link provides just one example of Lisa Higgins working with her dog Dixee on such a project at Dozier School for Boys.
The three handlers, whom I know personally, are bringing their dogs and their handling talents to this project because an environmental review coordinator at the NC State Historic Preservation Office read the chapter in the book on historic remains, called me, and suggested that it might be a great opportunity to both help the church, and to be able to study how accurate dogs trained on detecting ancient remains can be. The state department of transportation will need to move all the graves, marked and unmarked, to another area on the church’s property. The DOT is using GPR and other methods on the site, and will be excavating.
A donation of even $10 will help, but time is of the essence.
We want to cover the expenses (hotel, food, and gas) plus a minimal honorarium for the handlers ($300 each), who are generously coming from some distance.
We have two ways to give: Triangle Search Dogs has kindly agreed to host the project because of its mission to further the education of K9s and handlers. I and another member of Triangle Search Dogs will be on site to help and learn (I’m so excited to be able to do this!). Triangle Search Dogs is a non-profit, and any donations you give will be tax deductible. A donation of $50 or more, and I will send you an autographed copy of What the Dog Knows.
Or, if you’d like to donate via Indiegogo, you can use your credit card. That donation (because of our tight time frame) isn’t set up to be tax deductible.
I was fortunate to be able to interview a number of people who worked their cadaver dogs at the tragic mudslide in Oso, Washington. Here is another piece, Oso Disaster Pushes Dogs, and Their Handlers, to Their Limits, that I wrote for the online magazine, The Dodo, about their experiences. Pictured is Marcia Koenig’s search dog, Raven.
Here’s a post I wrote on Coda that appeared in the Dodo, a great new online magazine devoted to animals. They called it “My Dogs Do Sensitive Work. Will My New One Let Me Down?” I called it “Second Dog Syndrome.” Despite everything, Coda is growing up and starting to fly right!
Since the book’s publication in October, one of my greatest joys has been subtler than one might think. Yes, Rebecca Skloot’s review in the New York Times was a thrill. Same for the National Geographic Weekend radio coverage.
But the coverage that in some ways has moved me most has been from talented people with small blogs or slightly obscure websites whom I didn’t know at all, and whom the publisher didn’t know either. These are often the reviews that I either stumble upon by accident. Sometimes, it’ll just be an email from someone who says, “I really loved your book, and here’s why.” I love those.
This morning, a photographer from Indiana, Mike Meadows, posted an amazing review of the book on his blog. His website is filled with great photography of dogs and people, and I learned something new just by reading his take on the book.
In November, I found Ranny Green’s review on the Seattle Kennel Club’s website. He’s the former president of the Dog Writers Association of America, a five-time recipient of the DWAA’s columnist of the year award and a six-time winner of the DWAA feature writer of the year for newspapers over 150,000 circulation. He retired from the Seattle Times in 2008.
Then there was Robert Vaughn’s mid-October blog post on the book, which he’d seen by accident in his local library. I didn’t know Robert, and there was something special about that complete lack of connection that made his post special. No advance copies from the publisher, no pleading for a possible review. Since I suffer from probably more than what is a healthy dose of fraud syndrome, Robert’s review, Ranny’s review, Mike’s review — and all of those emails and Facebook messages from strangers help provide me with an extra dose of feeling it was a worthwhile project writing the book.
I had a hole in my heart when I emailed Solo’s breeder, Joan Andreasen-Webb, back in May of 2003. David and I had put our wonderful German shepherd Zev to sleep the week before: lost to an obscure disease at too young an age. I had decided I wasn’t going to mope for a year before I got on a waiting list and waited for another year to get a pup. I had a German shepherd lover’s version of a biological clock, though perhaps not quite as dramatically as Marisa Tomei’s. Tears were still pouring as I emailed Joan. I had researched to her dogs via a number of people. I’d been on the web, on the phone, on email almost non-stop. Framheim German Shepherds and Joan kept popping up. Joan wrote back, warmly and candidly. Thus began a relationship that is more than a decade old and has changed my and David’s life. One year later, in May 2004, Solo arrived in our home like a small freight train. He comprised the Y litter, the 25th litter Joan had bred. She whelped one final litter after Solo, and temporarily retired from shepherd breeding, having completed the alphabet.
Joan wrote this back in May 2013 after I had finished the book. I read it and got a lump in my throat. I asked Joan if I could post it on this blog not because Joan chose me to become Solo’s owner (although I am forever grateful and fortunate), but because to me, her succinct essay epitomizes responsible breeding.
Letter from Joan
Hobby breeders can be an odd lot. Match-making runs through our veins.
When we plan litters, every available source is searched, scratching out details on ancestors. How did relatives perform in Schutzhund? Were they confident, easily trained, over-aggressive, out of control, nervous or fearful? We watch them performing in trials and observe their every expression to evaluate their mental soundness. We study their anatomy for structural correctness. Have they passed their strengths onto their progeny?
When a breeder has bred generations of her own dogs, we have a handle on who they are and what they produce. We can be our dogs’ strictest critics even with the emotional bonds we have with them. We recognize glimpses of ancestors gazing back at us in every litter. Each pup is a vessel of its family history and a reckoning of our matchmaking abilities.
You might think we fulfill our matchmaking drives via our dogs. No – the obsession given to assessing the character and worthiness of dogs, we now turn to the prospective adopter. We study what you say, how you say it and even what you do not say. We evaluate your history of dog care, the issues you had with other dogs; how those problems were managed; how long your past dogs lived; what they died of and were you with them when they died? We study your every reaction to determine if you are worthy of our prized puppies.
The German Shepherd Dog is not a breed for everyone. One can say that about most breeds, but it especially relates to the German Shepherd Dog. The origins of the breed as a tending dog imparted a broad and complex range of duties that formed its eventual genetic temperament. The tending dog has a sense of defense to protect its flock; a sense of territory that maintains the flock in the graze area; with prey drive – enough to ensure herding but not too much so the dog insists on sheep for dinner; to be self-reliant as well as devoted to its human. Ultimately, the breed is an intelligent dog with a sense of responsibility and an honest character. Not a small goal to aspire to! These qualities – in balance – make it the consummate service dog but not always an easy dog to live with.
That sense of responsibility that makes for sheep-tending and service dogs can be unruly, even belligerent, without wise leadership or, on the opposite spectrum, with uncompromising harshness – a cringing or over-aggressive menace. An intelligent dog trained for a duty is a wonder to behold. When left to its own devices, resourcefulness can reach new heights of destruction!
This brings us to the question: Why Cat Warren?
The unique qualities of the breed so useful when bred thoughtfully, and reared and trained wisely make for an ideal partner. Solo demonstrated these admirable qualities as a pup. He was full of himself, slightly arrogant; indulged by everyone – dog and human – in his little world, confident that one and all would adore him. As a singleton, he also missed out learning to negotiate dog-to-dog relationships. Adult dogs have no need to negotiate with impertinent pups. Their reactions range from permissiveness to no-nonsense scolding. Choosing a future human for Solo was a significant task.
As I got to know Cat, her personal history made her a natural for one of our pups. It was her commitment, striving for knowledge and the ability to be flexible yet determined that ultimately confirmed my belief that she would bring out the best in our only child, Solo. From this matchmaker’s perspective, Cat and Solo have brought out the best in each other. We readers of What the Dog Knows are now the beneficiaries of their successful relationship.
I put some simple cadaver training aids out in a cooperative neighbors’ big backyard last week: some carpet, a few teeth, dirt, a sheet. I ran first Coda, then Solo. I knew that Solo might track Coda but wouldn’t be distracted by the knowledge that a dog had come before him. It wasn’t a challenging training for either him or me. It was a chance for him to stretch his legs and get happy.
I haven’t trained the two dogs one right after the other often. That’s because I don’t have an SUV to cart them around together when I go to K9 trainings. The Camry is still our dogmobile. The two dogs have different needs, and I’ve spent the past eight months prioritizing Coda’s getting used to all sorts of search environments and bonding. Plus, learning to mind me. I have trouble multi-tasking anyway, so I’m only occasionally frustrated by our transportation limitations. I do know people who can train and work two dogs. Or more. I admire them. I am not them.
Today, I loved being able to work both dogs in turn. I also realized the differences between them. They both found the hides. Since I often let Solo work at a distance from me, he will sometimes run back to find me, once he’s found the aid, and then go back in for his final alert. Sometimes, I can fling his tug toy from 20 feet away if I limber up my arm. That was the case today. Since I’m still working Coda on a long lead, I do have to move in behind her. I’m rewarding her right now with desiccated liver right at the source. The smell of the liver in my pocket is her best cue what game we are playing. I only use the liver for scent training, so even before I tell her, “Go find your squirrel!” she’s ready. I move in behind her once she’s found her “squirrel,” and if she’s not in a down, gently encourage her before I start giving her several pieces in a row.That’s to reward, but also to encourage her not to paw at the training aid — or try to devour it. She doesn’t leave the source. I like that.
Dogs work differently, of course. Duh, I knew that. Yet, somehow, when it’s your own dogs working so differently, it’s ever so much clearer. It was fun seeing those differences up close last week. It’s not just that Coda is just a year old, and Solo now nine and a half, although that matters, too. Solo is a skeptic at this point in his career: ever-suspicious about where scent is the strongest. He works from the outer perimeters in, and once he hits scent, he slows down immediately. If he finds the hide and it’s something that emits faint scent, he’ll check just outside the scent pool to confirm before coming back for a final alert. It’s pretty clear he’s ruling out areas; making sure his final choice is the right one.
I found the picture above from Solo’s early days of training — he was less than a year old, coming in on a hide in the rocks. I remember the joy and abandon with which he would fling himself into an alert in those early days. It’s not that he has lost that joy, but speed no longer matters to him quite as much. Or to me. He now wants to be sure. He’s like a thoughtful student who goes over the quiz one final time before handing it in; or a veteran reporter who double-checks his sources.
Coda is snotty and certain; she’s a natural. It’s too early in her training for her to even consider that air currents might trick her. She may realize at some point that it might not be that easy, but for now, she doesn’t doubt or query her nose when she gets into source scent. It’s not that she flings herself as Solo did as a youngster. But the map she draws of her scent world appears nonetheless entirely consumed with the here and now, rather than the what ifs. I’m pleased that her map, for all its limitations, is three-dimensional: not flat, but a nice globe. If scent is high, she’ll levitate and climb along walls; she leaps onto whatever is nearby to get closer to it. She ignores me entirely. She moves in on the hide and likes to paw or try to sample it if it’s accessible. She’s like a toddler: happy to experience the world through her mouth, not just her nose. Liver has been the best substitute for the hide that she finds to start to discourage that tendency. Long term, I’m hoping for a toy that will be as meaningful to her as liver. That way, my pockets won’t reek. I also remember to remove the toys before I run the pants through the washing machine.
I have second dog syndrome, and Coda is my fourth shepherd. I am such a beginner. Again. At 11 months old, Coda remains an enigma and a challenge. One friend, listening to my admiring, yet rueful description of her, said that she sounded like a young raven or a crow. Beautiful, smart, wary, clever, and as shiny as a patent leather shoe. Even though she’s pure black, she reflects light. She learned early that if she dropped a marrow bone from some height onto the concrete floor of our house, she might knock the marrow right out of the bone. A corvid trick she’s applied to all her toys, though she hasn’t yet learned to drop rocks into something to raise the water level, like the old Aesop’s fable. That’s coming, though.
She’s so fleet of foot that she seems to fly, sometimes. Terrifyingly, at times, it’s away from me. She has a rear end that looks more like Betty Boop’s than a raven’s tail, so how she moves so fast is a mystery. When she’s walking, it waggles like an off-kilter planet, with loose unctuousness. She loses that waggle when she speeds up. All of a sudden, she’s low and straight and swift, like a panther.
Coda can be utterly charming—flinging herself on me with abandon, wanting me to put my head down so she can lick my ears, or lying on her back, her white teeth flashing, eyes rolling, bubblegum pink tongue lolling out of her mouth, leaping over to her crate, and pushing the door latches over, and flipping the door open with her nose, so she can get ready for the peanut butter bone I’m preparing. Occasionally, she will gaze up with such affection when she’s heeling that it gives my heart a brief hitch, and I momentarily see what our relationship might be like. Her nose and her hunt drive? Both are over the top. I’ve trained her on old bones, on buried hides, on faint scent that so faint I wonder whether she’ll recognize it. She does; focusing on scent work isn’t a problem. But right now, unless we are training in an abandoned warehouse, she is constrained on a long lead or parachute cord. I have little rope burns around my ankles and my fingers, though I’ve created training gloves out of gardening gloves.
I’ve never had a German shepherd who didn’t reliably come when called, who thinks that chasing wild things is far better than tug toys, better than smelly liver treats, far better than anything I can offer. Far better, especially, than me. Perhaps I can be more exciting as pee on a tree, as one K9 trainer exhorts me to be, but I can’t be more exciting than a bunny running. Prey drive, her breeder, Kathy Holbert, told me, is tough. Coda comes by it honestly, genetically; now she needs to re-channel it, and I need to help.
It’s going to be slow. Obedience, obedience, obedience. Swift correction and redirection when she starts to stare and hackle. At our house, for Coda, every day is a bunny day. For her, it would be worth it to go through the closed window. For me, it’s not so much of a bonne idée. I correct, ask her to do something to refocus on me, and reward. Games when possible. In the meantime, I feel like an old-fashioned parent, the not-fun one, imposing new boundaries, restricting freedom. I have friends inside and outside the dog world who tell me that this is my challenge, like a difficult daughter who will, as an adult, help me run with the wolves. I just want her recall to come back to where it was when she was six months old. I want her current Away From Me (apologies to all experienced herding dogs), to become a That’ll Do.
The tendons that support my cervical vertebrae are unknotting from weeks of bending over page proofs with a red pencil, wondering whether that little line is an en dash or an em dash, what it should be, and why I care. A chunk of the past three years has been devoted to writing, reporting and editing What the Dog Knows, the book.
Now that the book has moved through my cognitive system like a deer through a python in the Everglades and is in the capable production system at Touchstone and Simon & Schuster, it’s time to start my blog! And train the dogs. And train the dogs. Especially little Coda, who at 10 months, is no longer so little and no longer as cute as she was here, in an early hunt for treats in the woods. If I want her to learn how to hunt for cadaver scent in the woods, she needs to learn that deer are not planted in there for her amusement and pleasure, and that I, her handler, am not an extraneous nuisance to ignore. To her, I am not yet as exciting as pee on a tree, or a rabbit, and I need to be.
My hope for this blog? That, like Coda, it will evolve and be a challenging adventure. I’ll focus on working dogs—cadaver, trailing, law enforcement, conservation ), the good science that’s emerging, the legal and social controversies, and the training and handling issues that arise. Occasionally, I’ll throw in a cute dog picture (see above) or video. I’ll have some guest posts from working dog handlers, trainers, and breeders who know better than I about so many working dog issues.