In 1998, I found a dog who wagged his long tail so hard it split open. Even that didn’t stop him from wagging, so the wound never healed. Bandages were no match. Eventually, the untenable tail had to be partially amputated to avoid infection. Even afterward, the dog still had a formidable tail. And it continued to wag. This was Duke. At eighty-five pounds, this massive Chocolate Lab was nearly as big as Debra Tosch, so of course I picked her as Duke’s caretaker while we waited for an opening at Pluis’s kennel.

Duke was a rejected hunting dog. Plenty of drive and heart, but as a former caretaker put it, “he only has two brain cells and they have yet to meet.” True, Duke had a bit more brawn than brain, but this dog loved to work. Nothing made his tail wag harder. I knew he would make a fantastic search dog based on sheer willpower alone. Until he started his training, though, Debra had her hands full. She would get waterskiing lessons every time she took him for a “walk” as he dragged her down the bike path near the SDF office.

One night after Duke was in bed in his crate, Debra was awakened by a large thump. It sounded like someone breaking into her home. Debra thought fast. Were the dogs ok? Should she call the police? She decided to take a peek. When the lights came on, the only vagrant she saw was Duke, an uh-oh look on his face, with a tennis ball he’d smuggled into his crate now stuffed in his mouth. He’d been playing with the contraband ball after lights-out like a kid reading comics under the covers past bedtime.

As with many of these search dogs, Duke needed constant stimulation and would make trouble if he felt bored. Once, he snuck into one of our unoccupied office rooms and chewed up a power cord. A power cord that was plugged in. Fortunately, he was unharmed, but it scared the hell out of us. We let out a collective sigh of relief when Duke left to start his training with Pluis. There was no doubt he’d make a phenomenal search dog; we just didn’t know how they’d keep him under control without assigning an entire fire brigade as handlers.

MANNY NEARLY PUT me in the nuthouse. He was a handsome male Border Collie whose coloring evoked the image of a divine chocolate-caramel-vanilla dessert dish. He was an artist’s rendition of the breed: a bright white coat, a symmetrical complement of onyx, and small highlights of bronze. Manny came from an impeccable lineage of show dogs, but the intelligent Collie’s impressive pedigree almost became his downfall.

Pedigree is registered with the American Kennel Club and displays things like breed, owner, and the dog’s lineage. It follows a show dog much like the title of a car and is a very important piece of documentation as it essentially proves the dog’s potential in the show ring. When a dispute arose between the breeder and Manny’s potential buyer, the breeder refused to provide the pedigree. Without it, Manny amounted to nothing more than a mutt, worthless in the show ring. He was surrendered to a Border Collie rescue.

The SDF, on the other hand, was happy to have him. We couldn’t care less about a dog’s background or lineage. If you can search, then we don’t ask questions. One of our dedicated volunteers caught wind of Manny and evaluated him. Manny tested very well and soon joined me in my home. That’s where he started driving me crazy.

It was my first experience with a Border Collie, and for anyone who’s owned one before, they have some very maddening characteristics. They are known as Velcro dogs because wherever you go, they are right by your side, stuck to you like Velcro. Manny followed me everywhere. Kitchen? Manny was there. Bedroom? Manny was there. Bathroom? Manny was right by my side. My God, I thought, can’t you take a break and go lay down for a few minutes? Manny took no breaks.

Border Collies are also herding dogs. They were originally bred to herd livestock, and Manny still had a full dose of the instinct. With no sheep to herd in my house, Manny made his own—out of my Labs. Murphy, normally the officer-in-charge, now found herself demoted as Manny organized her and the other two Black Labs I had at the time into a “herd” and marched them around the house, nipping at their feet when they weren’t moving fast enough, corralling and hustling them wherever he saw fit. The herd and I were ready for a break.

Around that same time, a civilian named Ron Weckbacher approached me about becoming an SDF handler. He was willing to put himself through all the necessary EMS and FEMA classes to get to the same level as our breaking into her home. Debra thought fast. Were the dogs ok? Should she call the police? She decided to take a peek. When the lights came on, the only vagrant she saw was Duke, an uh-oh look on his face, with a tennis ball he’d smuggled into his crate now stuffed in his mouth. He’d been playing with the contraband ball after lights-out like a kid reading comics under the covers past bedtime.

As with many of these search dogs, Duke needed constant stimulation and would make trouble if he felt bored. Once, he snuck into one of our unoccupied office rooms and chewed up a power cord. A power cord that was plugged in. Fortunately, he was unharmed, but it scared the hell out of us. We let out a collective sigh of relief when Duke left to start his training with Pluis. There was no doubt he’d make a phenomenal search dog; we just didn’t know how they’d keep him under control without assigning an entire fire brigade as handlers.

MANNY NEARLY PUT me in the nuthouse. He was a handsome male Border Collie whose coloring evoked the image of a divine chocolate-caramel-vanilla dessert dish. He was an artist’s rendition of the breed: a bright white coat, a symmetrical complement of onyx, and small highlights of bronze. Manny came from an impeccable lineage of show dogs, but the intelligent Collie’s impressive pedigree almost became his downfall.

Pedigree is registered with the American Kennel Club and displays things like breed, owner, and the dog’s lineage. It follows a show dog much like the title of a car and is a very important piece of documentation as it essentially proves the dog’s potential in the show ring. When a dispute arose between the breeder and Manny’s potential buyer, the breeder refused to provide the pedigree. Without it, Manny amounted to nothing more than a mutt, worthless in the show ring. He was surrendered to a Border Collie rescue.

The SDF, on the other hand, was happy to have him. We couldn’t care less about a dog’s background or lineage. If you can search, then we don’t ask questions. One of our dedicated volunteers caught wind of Manny and evaluated him. Manny tested very well and soon joined me in my home. That’s where he started driving me crazy.

It was my first experience with a Border Collie, and for anyone who’s owned one before, they have some very maddening characteristics. They are known as Velcro dogs because wherever you go, they are right by your side, stuck to you like Velcro. Manny followed me everywhere. Kitchen? Manny was there. Bedroom? Manny was there. Bathroom? Manny was right by my side. My God, I thought, can’t you take a break and go lay down for a few minutes? Manny took no breaks.

Border Collies are also herding dogs. They were originally bred to herd livestock, and Manny still had a full dose of the instinct. With no sheep to herd in my house, Manny made his own—out of my Labs. Murphy, normally the officer-in-charge, now found herself demoted as Manny organized her and the other two Black Labs I had at the time into a “herd” and marched them around the house, nipping at their feet when they weren’t moving fast enough, corralling and hustling them wherever he saw fit. The herd and I were ready for a break.

Around that same time, a civilian named Ron Weckbacher approached me about becoming an SDF handler. He was willing to put himself through all the necessary EMS and FEMA classes to get to the same level as our firefighters, and pay for a dog’s training in its entirety. I couldn’t fault his dedication, and, as fragile as the SDF’s financial situation was at the time, I couldn’t argue with his plan. So I let Ron take Manny for the week to see if he could handle this Velcro dog for a short period of time. Ron and Manny bonded almost instantly. I was glad to get some peace and quiet, but even happier because I knew Manny would make a great search dog and Ron would make a great handler. Not much later, Manny was at Sundowners doing his best to herd Pluis and her other dogs into line.

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