The Ojai Humane Society, my local shelter, answered my prayers with Harley. As a clear demonstration that the universe has a sense of humor, Harley was, of course, another Golden Retriever. Three-of-a-kind breed-wise was actually not that surprising.
The Golden Retriever breed arose during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, where the hunting of waterfowl required a medium-sized dog that was comfortable in water. Because the breed has the natural prey drive and physicality of a hunting dog, as well as intelligence and the ability to adapt well to different environments, Goldens are ideal candidates for search dogs.
Their friendly temperament and aesthetic beauty also make them a popular breed among the general public, which, unfortunately, also increases the number of Goldens that are surrendered to shelters or escape and become strays.
Breed was perhaps the only thing Harley would share with his Golden sisters-to-be in terms of temperament. He had incredible prey drive and could really move when he wanted to, but he was more like a steam engine—it took him a while to crank up to full speed.
Compared to average dogs, Harley was fast, but when put next to his hyperactive sisters, it sometimes seemed like he needed an accompanying soundtrack of a trombone.
From what we were able to determine, Harley had started as a field trial dog. A field trial is essentially a competition that simulates a bird hunt and requires the tested dog to retrieve a downed “fowl” and return it to the owner. The dogs are then judged on their performance.
That may sound simple, but the competition field is almost a half-mile long and involves dense grass, swamp, and water. The dog must be in control at all times and obey commands given by the owner from a distance by hand signals or whistles. Multiple fowls must be retrieved in a given heat in a specific manner. The sport spans the country, and competition for the prestigious national title is fierce.
In fact, field trials are viewed as among the most difficult competitions for working dogs. Only the absolute cream of retriever dogs can make it. Harley was not the cream.
He looked more like an alley dog. He was a large male with a coat that didn’t quite have the same polyester luster as Ana’s, nor the fiery red of Dusty’s. His hair stuck up in different directions like he was always doing science experiments with static electricity. The hair around his muzzle faded to white, giving him a look of wisdom and sophistication.
That was also not the case. Harley’s thoughts seemed to be much like his movements at times in that they wandered, sometimes slowly. This trait did not bode well when it came to the no-room-for-error standards of competition field trials.
Harley was probably admonished for his shortcomings on the field. Not many dogs can learn from constant reprimand, though. The negative feedback only drove a deflating nail into the dog’s already fragile confidence. The more frustrated his owner became, the more Harley shrank away. Abuse might have followed. By the time he was surrendered to the shelter, Harley was a shell of his former self.
When I met Harley, it broke my heart to see a dog with such potential so reduced. I have my own opinions about an owner who would bully such a kind being, but none that are suitable for print. But Harley has an engine for a heart.
He was absolutely committed when I sent him after toys and gave him praise. When you showed you believed in him, he exuded the dedicated loyalty of a soul willing to do anything for his partner. That’s what I loved most about him—he was a good soul. I didn’t care about his confidence issues. I knew a gentle hand could guide him back to the great dog he was.
WITH FOUR DOGS—three of whose energy multiplied their presence exponentially—Harley would have to be housed elsewhere. I was recommended another dog trainer who had a kennel. The man was a former police dog trainer and had given me advice on dog selection in the past. Unfortunately, I was taught another hard lesson.
The sentiment that dogs should never have to leave the living room couch, much like what I’d seen from the organization where I’d adopted Dusty, also has a polar opposite. It could be referred to as “old school” training methods, but I think of it more as outdated. It is the idea that dogs are not assets or teammates, but rather equipment that needs to be controlled. If the equipment does not perform how you want it to, you fix it, physically. It is what Jack London called “the law of the club.” Unfortunately, in some places, this way of thinking had remained prevalent.
A few days after boarding Harley at the kennel, I arrived early to pick him up for his day of training. The man who was boarding Harley tried to force him into a dog run, but the big guy refused to cooperate. I watched in horror as the man lifted his leg and planted a kick in Harley’s rear—the absolute worst thing that could be done to the dog.
I’m not a big woman. I don’t like to fight. But as I’ve mentioned, when it’s the right thing to do, I don’t stay idle. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I do know that Harley was back in my house that night and would never return to the kennel again.
SO MY HOUSE came to have three prime search dog candidates bouncing off the walls like renegade Ping-Pong balls, but I had my pilot program team. Three rookies, primed and ready. Ana, the youngest and smallest, was perhaps the sharpest. She was my ace. I’d seen nothing that might indicate she’d have trouble with training, but you don’t know until you try. Dusty, a bit older and more robust, was literally right on her tail. I couldn’t see her having any problems with the physical demands of training, but her confidence issues worried me. Would they come back to haunt her? And then there was Harley, my gentle soul. He could plow through the physical portion of training and ask for seconds most likely. But how would he handle the mental demands of constant commands, environment changes, and other stressors? Did he have hidden mental triggers like Dusty? Had the harsh treatment he’d experienced left insurmountable scars?
I had a rejected guide dog, an abused stray, and a washed-out competition dog. Now I had to turn them into the best disaster search dogs America had ever seen.