I had little time for further deliberation because I soon received a call from Bonnie Bergin, the executive director of the Assistance Dog Institute, an organization in Rohnert Park, California, that trains canines to assist disabled persons. The director told me about Ana, a one-year-old Golden Retriever who’d been surrendered at least twice and was now terrorizing the wheelchair-using individuals she was supposed to be training to assist.
A picturesque Golden, Ana was the color of butterscotch in the sunshine. She had a narrow face with elegant curves. Her small ears fell evenly and lacked the wonky Dumbo-the-Elephant look of some puppies. Her hair always seemed to lie in an orderly fashion, like she’d just been groomed. Proud in an almost regal way, she gave the impression that she sat where she wanted, not where someone told her to. Painted as a portrait, Ana would have seemed to have it all. In the flesh, she was beyond control.
A product of unregistered breeding, the wily pup had been relegated to her original owner’s backyard almost immediately. But high fences were only minor setbacks—Ana could jump them. Flower beds? Ana would turn them inside out. Her destructive habits weren’t just total, they were constant. Subsequent owners, who’d been forewarned and believed they were prepared for the storm, were sent reeling. One owner watched in horror as Ana didn’t hesitate to chase a toy ball down a cliff face, and then climb back up again.
In short, Ana’s future was dim. Dogs surrendered multiple times often find themselves in kill shelters, where limited space and resources mean a short wait for the euthanasia needle. An estimated 3.3 million dogs enter shelters every year. Even near the new millennium, many shelters were still putting down around 60 percent of the animals they took in.
Ana caught a break when she came to the attention of the Assistance Dog Institute. They saw potential in the puppy and scooped her up to start their training program to be a disability-assistance dog—a service dog that helps physically disabled owners with everyday tasks. Intelligent, driven dogs are important for helping anyone with disabilities, but they also need a governor. Ana was stuck on full-throttle. It didn’t take long for the institute to realize its mistake, but the director didn’t want to put Ana back in an unprepared home or shelter. She saw raw talent in the dog as long as the energy was properly channeled. She’d heard of my SDF pilot program and hoped I’d be willing to make the seven-hour drive up to check the pup out.
At first, I hesitated. Golden Retrievers are inherently goofy dogs. Long before I’d even conceived the notion to start my foundation I was told I didn’t have enough of a sense of humor for Goldens. But Ana sounded like she had a heart full of bottled lightning. Exactly what I needed.
THE NEXT DAY as I drove, I tried to keep my expectations in check. Ana might have developed bad habits that couldn’t be trained out of her. She might’ve developed mental blocks she wouldn’t be able to overcome. I reminded myself that this dog had to be a home run for the sake of the SDF. Nonetheless, I also had two promises to keep.
First, Ana would never need to be rescued again. I couldn’t have been more than six years old in 1939, the end of the Great Depression, when ten million Americans were slowly finding work again. Yet I distinctly remember my grandmother collecting spare change in an old soup can in her home’s tiny kitchen in Newark, New Jersey. The coins would become a weekly donation to the less fortunate. “There are poorer people than us,” she would say with a knowing smile. The lesson stuck with me when I started the SDF. There’s always someone less fortunate, animals included. So I made the pledge that once I rescued a dog, it would never see the inside of a shelter again, even if it didn’t make the cut to be a search dog. If Ana wasn’t up to the task, I’d make sure she found a loving home that could handle her. It might take some time, but that was a promise I could keep.
The second promise was more daunting, but it was the one I made to myself when I’d started the SDF in the first place: I had 168 souls to honor. I was stepping out into an abyss but inexperience would be no excuse. I had to take all comers if I wanted to see my goal through.
As my car sped north, I prayed Ana would somehow understand this promise. I needed her as much as she needed me.
AS I TURNED onto the private drive, I had to stifle a laugh. The trek had taken the majority of the day and the sun was starting its descent in the west, spilling a twilight gold over the green hills and across the valley. Four hundred miles north of my home in Ojai, California, the outskirts of Rohnert Park looked more like fabled pastures for horses than a haven for working dogs. Here, the knobby hills of the Sonoma Coast met the moisture skimming off the Pacific Ocean that contributed to the long stretches of fertile plains and helped spawn the grapes of the world-famous Sonoma County wines. About an hour up the 101 from the cramped cityscape of San Francisco, Rohnert Park had many developments springing up and was beginning to meld with the city of Santa Rosa.
The Assistance Dog Institute had its own facility in the city, but the executive director, Bonnie, had invited me to her small ranch where she kenneled the canine candidates—Ana included—for the institute. The ranch sat a few miles west of any urban development where the emerald hills were testament to the coast’s extra moisture, and no doubt kept the horses happy. The air was thick with grass pollen and the smell of manure.
The horses weren’t the only ones who were happy. As I slowed, the field on my left, once a horse pasture, now held a different type of herd. Sprawled out across the dirt and crab grass, in every lounge position possible, were about twenty-five Golden Retrievers catching the end-of-day sun. They didn’t have a care in the world. They all wore the contentedness of a post-Thanksgiving meal and paid me little mind. None of the pack moved, save a few yawns. Except for one dog.
In the middle of the pasture was a remnant of a large tree. It lacked foliage and the skyward-reaching branches of a live tree, but still sported the thick, snaking limbs of the old oak it once was. On a spanning limb, at least five feet high, a new type of foliage had sprouted. Stretched out on the branch, casual and careless, was a slender puppy. The pup was at ease with her elevation, letting her tail lull off the side of the branch like a lounging jaguar in the jungle. The comical jungle cat stand-in stirred my hopes. That was exactly the type of balance and agility and ease in an
BONNIE LED ME to a long wooden barn adjacent to the converted pasture, asking questions about
“LET’S GET THEM dinner,” Bonnie said and threw her weight into the large sliding barn door. The sound woke the herd. In an instant, two scores of Golden Retrievers came stampeding into the barn. Instead of charging us, though, the dogs sprinted to the outer edge of the barn and began circling us in an amber cyclone—a gleeful victory lap before dinner.
“Now,” Bonnie said, watching the spectacle with an amused smile. “Which one do you think I have in mind for you?”
Now that was a helluva question to ask! A playful challenge, sure, but I heard the test in her voice. I glanced out into the pasture at my only clue. The oak tree stump was bare. Somewhere out in that swirling chaos was the tree-climber, and somewhere out there was my Ana.
For a moment, I stood flummoxed and speechless. In the back of my mind, the needs of the SDF tapped an impatient foot. We needed 168 dogs and had zero. There were currently no other candidates. Bonnie would be sympathetic—our arrangement would be best for Ana, and she wanted it to work out—but that wouldn’t make her any more likely to release the dog to an unqualified individual. I stared out into the Golden Retriever merry-go-round. The dogs blended together, nose to tail in a solid blur.
Then Ana quite literally threw me a bone. One of the circling dogs snatched up a stick from the ground and shook it merrily as she trotted around with it. A few of the others tried to clamp on as well but she shook them off. It was like a giant flare had been shot into the sky. Now there was a high-spirited dog with prey drive. It had to be Ana. I went all in.
“Well,” I said, pointing to the stick holder, “that’s got to be her.”
Bonnie slapped her leg. A gleeful spark appeared in her eyes. I’d just moved up a notch or two in her mind. More important, I’d passed the interview. “That’s right!” she said. “And believe it or not, she likes to climb trees!”
IT WAS A triumphant drive home with Ana. I was flying high. The foundation was off and running. I would need two more dogs and then I could begin my pilot program, but—call it faith or just stubborn confidence—I was certain after the first dog the floodgates would open. Ana would stay with Murphy, John, and me at our small house in Ojai, and I would set about seeking out my next candidate.
I pulled Ana out of her crate. She stretched into a few long yoga poses then pranced out like she was a newly crowned princess stepping out of her chariot. I walked her up the driveway and opened the door to her new home. No more animal shelters, Ana. A stable sanctuary and a regimented training plan await. Welcome to your new h—
Ana bolted inside.
I knew a great deal about training search dogs, but I still had much to learn about shaping a dog’s general behavior. When introducing a dog to a new home, it’s best to break each room off, bit by bit in bite-size pieces, slowly acclimating the new dog to the new environment. The idea is to establish a disciplined routine up front and avoid the situation I was about to experience. I’d been so caught up in my rising tide of victory, I didn’t realize the wave was about to break. Tsunami Ana had reached full force.
Ana took one look at my tranquil living room and decided it was a playground. She sprinted around tables and chairs, running circles and figure eights, skidding into walls and footrests. Then she went bouncing onto the couch, plowing through pillows like bowling pins. From the couch she leapt to the love seat and went straight up the back of it, tipping the chair over. The circus continued for a good ten minutes. I could do nothing but watch the madness through splayed fingers, horrified.
Murphy seemed just as terrified as I was. From the corner, composed and orderly from years of discipline and training, she looked from me to the Golden rampage and back to me again. If canine physiology allowed, her jaw would’ve been on the floor. Poor girl. She didn’t know I needed two more of these hurricanes.