Over the years at the SDF we’ve seen all types of dogs with all types of issues. Adopting a rescue is always a roll of the dice. We’ve seen many multiple-return dogs like Cody. We had one crazy stray listed as a “police impound.” We’ve had multiple eleventh-hour euthanasia saves like Ace. We had dogs that would jump on top of the wooden fence at Pluis’s kennel and use it as a balance beam, just to see what was happening on the other side. We adopted a dog so out of control, the only thing on his adoption sheet listed for behavior was one word: “Unsalvageable.”

With Cody successfully paired, the SDF’s success rate in producing search dogs was above 90 percent. But of course there were those dogs that didn’t make the cut. We’d committed to never put our candidates back into shelters, but dogs like Cody presented an interesting conundrum: What do we do if the dog needs some type of a job, but for one reason or another, can’t be a search dog? Many of our candidates had so much energy, it would be almost cruel to force them into a “normal” house life. The answer, we found, was put them to work! Just … a different kind of work.

Zorro was a German Shepherd the color of coal, except for his gold nugget eyes. He had fantastic athletic ability and good prey drive. He could dart and cut around rubble piles with a series of sharp fencing moves just like his masked hero eponym—Left, right, left and ahha! I’ve got you! But Zorro had an interesting weakness come out during training. He would often get distracted during searches. Not by people or loud equipment or other dogs, but by plants. He would sometimes pause mid-search to give the local fauna a good sniff. It was actually quite humorous. He was like the child who picks flowers while the other kids play soccer around him. The dog clearly had talent, but we couldn’t rely on him for a life-and-death search. Fortunately, we found a perfect niche to combine his talent and his “hobby.” After a period of retraining, Zorro began a new career as an ecological detection canine, focusing on finding exotic plant species. Zorro now would comb the forest floor, bobbing and weaving through towering conifers, ahead of a scientist, and seek out endangered species of plants and animals for research. Among the scents he would imprint on were an endangered lizard species and an endemic shrew species. Zorro was a shoo-in and could now spend all the time he wanted smelling the roses.

Chewy was a petite Golden Retriever with a sanguine auburn coat who’d been surrendered twice because he was just too much to handle. Chewy’s immense prey drive more than compensated for his small stature, and the dog was brought in to start training. But in fact, Chewy’s prey drive was so intense that he would start competing against other dogs and exhibiting antisocial behavior. He wanted it to be a one-dog show. Because searchers work in teams and our dogs can’t show any type of aggression or antisocial behavior, Chewy needed a career change. There was a calling that needed a solo star, and even treated him to a complimentary hotel room once his work was done. Chewy began his new career sniffing out bedbugs. He would travel to hotels and nursing homes, his keen nose and high prey drive beating out any human technology to root out the nasty little creatures. He might not have made a search dog, but we all slept better at night knowing Chewy was on call.

Axel was a mix of about thirty different breeds, but probably pointer was most prominent in his physical appearance—a chocolate and vanilla coat stretched across a sleek frame, pointed at both ends with a short tail and sharp nose. This interesting young pup was rescued from a shelter in northern Idaho near the Canadian border. Initially Axel passed our candidate screening, but when it came down to it, he couldn’t hold together a full run through a search course. We knew Axel was more than capable, though, and thought he could move into some kind of detection work. After a brief period of retraining, Axel was partnered with a law enforcement handler where he served as a contraband detection dog in detention facilities—searching out illegal cell phones, drugs, and other banned items that inmates tried to smuggle in. His services became so sought after, Axel and his handler would travel all over the state to different facilities. The pointer learned to love life on the road and especially took to the hotel beds at night—some of them probably cleared of bedbugs by Chewy.

SOMETIMES WE HAD handlers that weren’t quite up to snuff, either. Training can be a tough teacher, and Pluis did not allow mistakes to be ignored. At one training event, a dog was having a tough time with an obstacle and the handler started berating the dog. This is never ok. Ever. This type of treatment is especially detrimental when the dog is still mentally building trust with the handler and can have permanent consequences.

Pluis and I have something else in common: you don’t want to get on our bad side, especially when it comes to the dogs. She got right in the handler’s face like she was about to start a fistfight.

“If you fuck up my dog,” she snarled, no more than an inch from the handler’s face, “I will fuck you up!”

She stared the handler down for another minute, then turned her back to him and stomped away.

Jim Boggeri, working with Recon on the other side of the kennel, remembers watching the confrontation and being scared stiff, standing at attention as Pluis marched past, her face a hard mask of anger. He was afraid to breathe. But in classic Pluis fashion, when she saw Jim’s petrified eyes, she dropped him a subtle wink.


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