Dusty Girl

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DUSTY GIRL

The turnout next to Highway 101 outside Salinas, California, was an odd place to meet a dog. As I slowed to a stop at the turnout, dust curled around my station wagon and drifted lazily away across the expansive Salinas River Valley. It was early afternoon, but I almost felt like I was showing up to a midnight rendezvous.

A few weeks had passed since I’d brought Ana home. Word about my pilot program was getting around, and I got a call from a woman at a nearby Golden Retriever rescue. She had another young Golden Retriever who fit the description of a search dog candidate—physically fit and prey-driven—ready to be adopted. Of course I was ready, but when I asked to set up a meeting to see the dog, things got a little strange. The woman was hesitant to set anything up. Finally, she suggested this odd, off-the-beaten-path location to meet.

“Why can’t I just see the dog at your shelter?” I asked, confused.

The woman’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial hush as she informed me she hadn’t reported the dog to her rescue organization yet.

Then I understood. The dynamics of an animal rescue organization can differ from group to group. Some subscribe to different philosophies than others. Animals don’t have liaisons or representatives to speak for their species, so it falls on their human caretakers to decide what is best for them—often this is based on emotion rather than logic. In the case of this Golden Retriever rescue organization, they did not want to place any rescues as working dogs.

I’d seen the bias before, but it still surprised me. Yes, true, service dogs have tough jobs. Disaster sites can be dangerous. Any dog we let out onto a debris pile incurs some risk. But the notion that the dogs are seen only as tools, or indentured into some type of forced labor is inaccurate. Unfortunately, in their quest to place dogs in the same category as humans, some well-intentioned groups actually have the opposite effect.

Confining a lightning bolt like Ana to a household would be the worst thing for her, even cruel. These dogs need the constant challenge of a search or training. There is just no other release valve for their energy. In my twenty years of experience, SDF dogs have never incurred more than minor injuries on a disaster site. We train our dogs thoroughly. We pair the dogs with handlers who love them like their own children and care for them accordingly. It’s difficult to convey these sentiments to someone who’s unfamiliar with the capabilities of such dogs.

I’ve dealt with a lot of misguided opinions in my life. One almost steered me away from working with animals altogether. I was the first member of my family to attend college. Originally, I’d wanted to be a vet. But in 1951 when I entered college, I was discouraged by a course catalogue that had no qualms suggesting, because of the physical labor involved, a veterinary career was not suitable for a woman.

The small minds who’d compiled this catalogue deemed only two options appropriate: nursing or teaching. Well, I grew up climbing trees and never being picked last in neighborhood ball games, so I felt I got the better deal when, at age seventeen, I joined 124 classmates at Panzer College in East Orange, New Jersey, to pursue a degree in physical education. I never became a vet, but I also never let anyone fully extinguish my love of helping animals—which is why, over forty years later, I picked back up right where I’d left off to start the SDF.

I knew persistence was the key to overcoming bias, or any obstacle for that matter—Providence moves too. I was lucky the woman on the phone shared a similar will and knew the SDF was in the dog’s best interest. She was going out on a limb for this dog, so a little cloak-and-dagger didn’t bother me.

The woman pulled up beside me and opened the crate in the back of her car. Out popped a larger, more muscular version of Ana.

“This is Dusty,” she said.

The name did not fit this beautiful, powerful female dog. Her bright auburn coat had a finish of merlot-by-sunset red and elicited more the heroic cowgirl image than a “dusty” hue. Then she did something that worried me. When I approached her with praise, the young pup climbed up my legs and wrapped her front legs around my waist like she was giving me a hug. As cute as this might sound, Dusty’s behavior indicated a serious lack of confidence. The embrace was not an aww-love-you hug, but a please-don’t-abandon-meagain clutch. The transformation from the graceful girl I’d seen jump from the car put my heart in a vice. Whatever Dusty had been through, it had shattered her confidence.

The woman knew nothing about Dusty’s background, except that she’d been picked up as a stray. No papers, no records. In 2016 alone, an estimated 620,000 dogs entered shelters as strays. A large percentage of strays have no documentation. They can’t exactly tell their life stories, so if a dog is picked up without tags or context, things like breed, age, and history will be a mystery. As with children, the early years of a dog’s life are crucial. In the first few months—a significant amount of time in puppy years—dogs develop adaptations to the world around them. They learn who their friends are and how they should behave in certain environments. They learn who, or what, they should fear.

Research also shows that dogs raised in positive environments early in life have a much better chance of fully developing their brains. If Dusty had endured a traumatic puppyhood—even just a few weeks’ worth—was her mind sound enough to train for disaster search? And if she’d developed some innate fear of something a disaster site could present, would she be able to overcome the condition? There would be no room for anxiety on a rubble pile.

There was no time for anxiety on my part either. For the moment, I could only thank my lucky stars she’d been rescued and focus on the future. I showered Dusty with praise as I quickly ran her through some drive tests. Again, she blossomed into the gallant dog I’d seen earlier. So training might be difficult, but with a positive keel, I was confident Dusty would thrive.

I thanked the woman and saddled the SDF’s newest dog into my car and we rode off into the sunset. The SDF had just doubled its ranks.

AT THE TIME, the official SDF kennel was still my house. Dusty would be joining Murphy, Ana, and my husband’s (non-search) dog. I managed to avoid the rampage-like introduction Ana had made, but the addition of another strong and strong-willed dog to the pack made for quite a madhouse. It was borderline chaos from sunup long into the night as Ana and Dusty immediately took to competing against each other, running constant races around—and sometimes through—the backyard pool. The air was alive with yips and snorts and barks. It was the beautiful music of my vision becoming reality. I couldn’t have been happier. I just needed one more dog.

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