A 16-month-old German shepherd is not really a puppy. Nor an adult. It’s more like a giddy adolescent velociraptor. Mostly. Sometimes, the situation can deteriorate. And understand that I’m only speaking hypothetically about dogs and dinosaurs, so no letters from paleontologists or creationists, please.
In my Jurassic fantasia, some dinosaurs–like Solo the boy dog–were preternaturally smart and wickedly fast. A few of them had a goofy sense of humor, something rarely captured in the scientific literature. They would cock their head attentively when eyeballing either master or prey. Sure, dinosaurs had masters. Why not? It’s all debatable, right? We all know when velociraptors were happiest. Chomping and romping! Perhaps the indestructible rubber Kong toy didn’t exist then. That was the only difference.
I compare Solo to those primitive monsters that once roamed the earth because I’m familiar with nothing in the extant animal kingdom that suits. Although Nancy Hook Widener, of Hook’s K9 Training, calls him “a jackass.”
What do you do with an enthusiastic monster besides despair? You train it–and you–for a specific task. Some of the behaviors most irritating to live with–insatiable energy, the desire to dive into polluted rivers, the salvia-coated toys thrust at you 24/7, and the flouting of subtle correction–become strengths in a training context. That’s not obsession, that’s drive! That’s not insensitivity, that’s resilience!
So what can Solo do, besides be a jackass?
Solo smells dead people.
Solo adores that smell, thanks to rewards and fulsome praise every time he happens upon it. There’s nothing else like it. Dead squirrel? Fuggedaboutit. Cow pie? Pulllease. Whether his id is modeled after a small dino or a big jackass, that dog has one fine nose. I must hasten to add that he does not have a distinctly better nose than other dogs; it’s just that he’s slowly learning how to put it to work. Early on, I bragged on Solo’s nose a bit. Until Nancy Hook dismissively pointed out that every dog has a nose. Her daughter is planning to train her self-confident Chihuahua puppy as a cadaver dog. He’ll go places–places that an 85-pound shepherd cannot.
I know it sounds a bit creepy–training a pet to become what is known as “a cadaver dog”–to possibly search a crime scene, or a mudslide in the Smokies, or help find a suicide victim in Umstead Park. I’m not a cop or a K-9 trainer. I’m a pasty, short, near-sighted academic. So, yes, some raise their eyebrows. My doggie obsession, tolerated because of my childless state, has taken a turn to the dark side. I’m sure some are silently offended. I understand the “eewwhh” factor, too. And I can read certain expressions as well as Solo can: What a red state kind of thing to do. Yup. I’ve got some of those genes.
Why do it? Because it’s good for the dog: All his synapses get fired. I can hear them popping. Because dog’s noses are so fine that they ought to be used–they still haven’t found a machine that works so well to distinguish a variety of molecules, down to 500 parts per trillion. One academic article sucked the juicy marrow right out: “The dog and its handler remain the most widely used, broadly sensitive, accurate, fast, mobile, flexible and durable system” for detection. Some system.
I like the idea of training Solo to do something that has a distinct purpose. In downtown Durham, we don’t have a flock of sheep that needs herding. Cadaver dog training combines several worlds I both love and lack in my life as an academic: forensic science, the natural world, and dogs. Even a certain amount of physical fitness. And it’s been a while since I’ve had a real master myself (mentor is too wimpy a term for Nancy Hook). Just call me “Grasshopper.” I like being in a learning mode with someone who knows her stuff, and can teach me an entirely new and demanding skill–with humor and laughter, with example–and with narrowed eyes from the occasional backtalk she gets from me. Some days I feel frustrated, or incompetent, or just plain dumb. I never, ever feel humiliated. A few times, I have felt utterly euphoric. Someday, perhaps, I will be a decent dog handler. Or not. Some day, the two of us may be involved in a search. Or not. It’s a long, complicated road, filled with demanding training and complex record-keeping–and politics.
But, for the moment, it’s just plain fun, a fascinating puzzle. I really don’t mind dead bodies, or even parts of bodies, although I’m not complacent about it. The musty training materials we use–a plastic canister of cadaver-permeated soil, a baggie with a couple of teeth–are fairly far removed from the complete body thing. Nancy Hook, who has done search and rescue and cadaver dog training for a good number of years, has a fascinating assortment, culled from numerous sources, including her husband’s mouth. The dentist was only slightly taken aback when she asked for her husband’s freshly pulled molars, and would he just throw those bloody gauze pads in the baggie, if he didn’t mind. Solo just loves those baggies. There’s nothing scary or tragic for him. While this is for what is ultimately a very serious purpose, he’d better never find that out. That’s just the smell that means he’s won the game. Yahtzee! The Kong, please!
Nancy has allowed me to read a couple of approved texts on scent theory, including the bible for trainers, the Cadaver Dog Handbook. But she warns me off others, knowing that I’m probably sneaking them on the sly, combing the web like an addict, picking up bad advice like deer ticks. My “more is better” junk philosophy always loses out to her “less is more” purist streak. I try to understand what is happening with scent rafts and wind and temperature by reading much and understanding little. Nancy grabs a handful of those colored smoke bombs from her shed and thrusts them at me. The atmosphere does strange things to psychedelic smoke. Talk about your purple haze. It can make it crawl straight up the side of a building like Spiderman before the smoke curls over itself like a husky’s tail and dissipates into vagueness. It can lurk down low in a ditch before creeping across the ground, finally tangling itself into inertia in the kudzu. After that, I started watching Solo understand the invisible smoke of scent, where, for instance, it’s attracted to water like a magnet. More than once Solo has dipped his head straight into buckets of water up to his ears thinking, I can smell it … it’s right there … I know … I’ll just grab it….
So let me proffer scene 2, take 21, from Solo’s life as a cadaver-dog-in-training. We’re in a large field in the middle of a farm outside Zebulon, with more than one great blue skimmer buzzing across clumps of cut grass to land on fresh cow pies and errant Japanese beetles rattling by on their mission to skeletonize innocent plants. (It’s going to be a bad year. I’ve learned to catch them midair and squish them hard without wincing at the feel of their bronze bodies cracking and juice flowing. Call it my contribution to North Carolina agriculture.)
It’s a humid day, but still early. Solo and I stand at the top of the pasture with a swamp and pond at the bottom, where some placid Herefords hang out until slaughter. Solo’s whining as I hold him. I try to figure out which direction the wind is coming from before I send him; the moist air is barely eddying. “Find the fish!” Nancy Hook has taught me–because I’m way too city now–how to add a bit of country back to the command so that it has a nice, drawling nasality. Then, as Solo whips away from me, she gives me her standard warning: “Now, zip it.” She draws her pinched thumb and forefinger across her lips. In the dog obedience world, she would lose points for a double command–voice and hand signal. But I’m not a German shepherd. I’m a slow learner who talks too much and thinks too much without really paying attention. So she doesn’t mind losing points with her obviousness. If she were close enough, she’d smack me upside the head to remind me.
It’s a sizable field, and Nancy has helpfully forgotten where she planted one of the hides much earlier that morning. She’s pretty sure she knows where the others are. She’s doing this more and more, which amuses her greatly and worries and irritates me. I want the humans to know something. I want control. Nancy wants the humans, especially me, butt ignorant. She doesn’t mark the spot she’s buried the baggie with a small flag or even an innocuous stick. Solo would figure that one out pretty quickly. So would I. Hey, I’m trainable. Handlers all too often unconsciously cue their dogs, wanting their success a bit too much. Just like Clever Hans, the famous performing horse that could count, dogs are great at reading unconscious signals. So just as Clever Hans was a math genius, cadaver dogs in training become material geniuses: Oh, you know the baggie’s there? Fine. I’ll take your word for it. I’ll just do my down-stay, and get my Kong reward, and we’ll be done with it.
So what’s my job? First, to shut my mouth and watch closely. To learn how Solo works naturally, to understand his body language, the way he tosses his head up and casts when he’s caught a whiff, or buries his nose deep in a pile of vegetation just downwind from the hide. The body part may not be there, but the scent sure is, and his job is to pinpoint where that scent is emanating from. I’m learning to read his signals, but it’s not as straightforward as bright purple or orange smoke: his huge velociraptor tail curls and freezes. His back tenses and humps slightly. I need to learn to trust him, to get out of his way, and help him by making a slow zigzag across the field so the area gets thoroughly covered, working more tightly in areas where he shows some interest. So I start to zag and then zig, thoughtfully and methodically. Follow my example, young doggie: Slow and careful wins the race. Solo ignores my pattern. He throws his massive head up, which is still too big for his tadpole body, then lopes away, almost straight down into the swamp filled with cow crap, rotting vegetation and tiger mosquitoes. More than 150 feet away from me, and halfway into the swamp, he slows and stiffens, then plops down in the muck. There’s a baggie there, vegetation pulled over it. His trained alert, the cue that tells me he’s found it, is a down: right next to the material, so as not to damage potential evidence. And we can all do without cadaver breath. Only now does he pay attention to me, as I come running clumsily down the hill: I can feel his compelling stare through the turgid humidity. Nancy yells, “Throw it. Quick!” So what’s my job? Keeper of the Kong.
Nancy gathers up the baggie, praises us both, but Solo a little more. He has better reflexes. She gestures inexorably and vaguely back up the hill, sweeping across about an acre, and shrugging. It’s a mighty big pasture, with high clumps of grass, and low clumps of pie. We’re on our own. Solo sticks closer this time as I pace off the area, trying to keep my eye on a couple of landmarks, a trash pine and a red gate in the distance. It’s already hotter, he’s panting. He’s not getting a whiff of anything. Nancy critiques my pattern. Too much zig. Not enough zag. I can’t even get that straight. I want to give Solo some water out of my new yuppie water bag. Poor lil’ pup. She reminds me that we’ve been working for less than 20 minutes, that it’s not that hot out, and to stop babying him, already. OK, but it feels hot. I’m hot. I’m sure he’s hot. And I wanted to use my new bag. We trudge on. Hot. Boring. Hot. Boring.
Then, Solo’s head goes down. He slows even more, and runs his nose deep along a high ridge of deep grass. Then he moves away, gaining distance, moving along the ridge, and about 30 feet straight away from me. He circles a bit, stiffening. Then he’s down, toenails dug hard into the ground. Bam. His big brown eyes sparkle. This time, I’m ready to trust him. I move fast and fling the Kong. Neither of us is tired or hot anymore. Solo growls and yowls and tosses the Kong for himself, bouncing it off his nose. Raptor rapture.
Nancy lifts the dried cow patty, twice the size of a dinner plate, and pulls the baggie out. There are a few inches of desiccated rib bone in it, donated from a friend’s surgery.
“Damn.” She shakes her head. “Damn.”