The Poop Bag Decree

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THE POOP BAG DECREE

In January of 1997, Murphy and I took over a spare bedroom from Rick Lee, a firefighter from Sacramento, and his wife, Luann. Rick was a guided missile when it came to his job; he would lock on target and not stray an inch. He wore his hair cropped close and his mustache edged sharp. Any task he took on deserved his full effort and had to be done correctly, step-by-step down a mental checklist to make sure all was in order. The only cracks in his armor were gloves—while concentrating on everything else, he often misplaced his gloves. He estimated going through hundreds of pairs of gloves throughout his career. His fellow firefighters would tease him every chance they got.

In middle school, Rick was always listening to his local fire department respond to calls on his radio scanner. He became a reserve firefighter before he graduated high school. Over the next two decades he would rise through the fire ranks as a firefighter, engineer, and captain.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Rick’s interests were pushed toward USAR after reading an article in a firefighting periodical. The same article featured the disaster search dogs. Later, when the call came down for volunteers for the handler job in my pilot program, Rick put his hand up. He was the exact carte blanche I needed. He took the assignment seriously. He knew his dog’s actions could mean the difference between life and death. His pursuit of perfection would take a special dog when it came to canine assignment, but we would cross that bridge when we got to it. For the time being, it was great to have another type-A personality to share a home away from home.

Also joining us for training would be firefighter Randy Gross. Randy was an easygoing guy who was quick to strike up a conversation. Behind his youthful smile was a man who could turn serious in an instant, and he took his job very seriously. Randy got into firefighting first as a volunteer firefighter, following in the footsteps of his father in the El Dorado Hills Fire Department. He eventually became a full-time firefighter a few years later before becoming involved in USAR and my pilot program.

Rob Cima was our third volunteer. Quiet and reserved, Rob was also a lifelong firefighter who had deployed in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. He had no idea about what was involved in training a search dog, but he’d seen what good dogs could do, so joining the pilot program was an easy call for him to make.

With the Three Rs—Rick, Randy, and Rob—I had a quorum. I let the firefighters know we were doing something that had never been done before. I told them the success of the SDF depended on our success in the pilot program. If we worked together toward our common goal, I had no doubt we would succeed. If we did our own things and let the doubts and unknown get the better of us, we would fail. It was that simple. I also threw them a curveball. I said, “I only expect you to work as hard as I do.” They looked at me, a graying, retired sixty-three-year-old, and probably thought, How hard can it be?

What they didn’t see was that I lived and breathed the SDF pilot program, day in and day out. If I were going to break, it would’ve happened a long time ago. At this point, my attitude was, show me an obstacle and I’ll show you a woman who’s made up her mind. The firefighters would need to meet me on that level. We got down to business.

WORD TRAVELS FAST in the firefighter community and your reputation often precedes you. In my case, this was fortunate as my less-than-formidable physical appearance was supplemented by my track record. The firefighters had either been there or read the after-action reports from the Oklahoma City disaster. I had been there, and my three firefighters knew it was to their benefit to listen.

And so, primed and focused, they showed up as the sun rose for their first day of training. I gathered them around to distribute their training equipment. They leaned in, eager to receive the storied tools of the canine disaster search trade. I handed them two bags for collecting dog poop.

“Always have two of these on you,” I said. “A wedding, an airport, I don’t care. Have two of them.”

They stared at me.

I handed them each a leash. “Your leash,” I said. “It can be anywhere on you, but have it always. And here is the whistle for controlling the dog when shouting is not appropriate. Your whistle will be around your neck.”

They took the equipment glumly, obviously underwhelmed. But I had yet to give them the most critical piece of training equipment. A fantastic training device I’d picked up from my time observing military canine training at Lackland Air Force Base. I handed each firefighter a white bucket. “For now,” I said without an ounce of humor. “This is your dog.”

Though they probably thought otherwise, this was not a joke. The first lesson of being a handler actually has nothing to do with a dog’s movements. The dogs take cues from their handler’s movements—every movement. Dogs are masters when it comes to interpreting human behavior as they’ve been by our side for an estimated thirty thousand years. Thus before the handler even touched fur, they would need to learn how and when to move. For example, if they wanted to leave their dog in a down-stay, they had to step off with their right foot; otherwise, the dog would interpret the movement as one where she needs to come along. The handlers needed to learn that the dog watches every subtle movement, interprets it, and reacts. Hence the bucket—a stationary object the handlers could reference as they focused elsewhere. The military does the same thing for new canine handler recruits.

By this time, we had attracted quite an audience. Through the firehouse’s windows, a number of other firefighters were watching their buddies, who’d probably bragged about elite search dog training, now get poop-bag decrees and give commands to buckets like lunatics. I’m sure it took them a while to live that down. Rob would admit later he wasn’t sure, at first, if I had all my faculties.

I, of course, paid it no mind. Doubts were all too familiar territory. Rick, Rob, and Randy were wondering just what the hell they’d signed up for, but we started working the basics immediately, and I didn’t give them a free minute to form any more doubts.

IN TWO WEEKS, we rotated through blocks of instruction on basic obedience, dog behavior, scenting, and the use of voice, human body, and timing for commands. We worked on being a practice “victim”—playing tug-of-war with the reward toy and other skills to make it more fun and better training for the dog. Then we brought in Murphy to let them work with an already trained dog and start understanding a dog’s body language.

The firefighters worked incredibly hard. They suffered through hours with me and then had to go immediately into their normal firefighter shifts. Any time we traveled, they had to use personal vacation time. But they completed everything to standard, and I felt that they were ready for the next step. We set a date to head to Sundowners Kennels and get their dogs.

I’d given the firefighters some background on their potential canine partners. I didn’t sugarcoat anything. The handlers would know their dog inside and out soon enough anyway. With her penchant for destruction and general mayhem, Ana worried the firefighters. Nobody wanted to deal with that type of energy, especially someone who’s never handled a trained dog. Rick Lee wore a particularly concerned look as he heard how Ana had systematically dismantled my living room. He would confess later that his thoughts amounted to, “I hope I don’t get that dog.” Randy shared his sentiments when I described Dusty’s similar wild-child behavior. Time would only tell which dog would go where.

FEBRUARY 3, 1997, WAS judgment day in Gilroy, California. Time for the rubber to meet the road as the firefighters received their dogs and actually became a team. First thing was first; they had to choose their dogs, or rather, let their dogs choose them with a little help from Pluis.

An early morning fog still hung on the mountains in the background as the three firefighters stepped out onto the fifty-foot square of lush green grass portioned off by a brown wooden fence at Sundowners Kennels. They all wore sweatshirts of some sort against the winter chill. They didn’t know what to expect. From the corner, Pluis looked on, quiet and seemingly indifferent, but her mind was running a mile a minute. When the dogs appeared she would be watching body language of both canine and human. The chemistry between dog and handler had to be spot-on. Under the extreme demands and pressure of a disaster search, any fissures could grow to cracks and eventually cave.

The firefighters waited in the empty field, pockets full of poop bags, fidgeting nervously. No plastic buckets here. It was time for the real deal—what they’d been training for. The gate opened and the firefighters got the first glimpses of their future partners.

First came Ana. She bounded in, head high, prim and proper, but sped up to the pace of a laser beam. She sniffed the area, executing precise pivots and turns in her calculated way, then introduced herself to each of the firefighters. Pluis watched. The firefighters greeted the high-energy princess in turn, wondering if she’d be their future partner. Rick knew this was the infamous pup I’d warned him about.

Next was Dusty. The auburn girl tore across the field in a full battle charge, all wild emotion. Her hyperactive personality matched Ana’s, but she had more muscle to boost her flood of exuberance. Despite her bold show of force, her confidence was balanced on pillars of sand. It would take time to overcome her past abuse, and any overbearing control by her handler would crumble her confidence. She would need a firm lead to keep her power in check but in a kind way that only built her up. Dusty slowed her jet engines to landing speed and tentatively exchanged greetings with the firefighters. Pluis looked on.

Finally came the kind soul. Harley ran in, full steam ahead. Compared to an average dog, especially one of his size, Harley was incredibly fast. But compared to his siblings, he was more lumbering. Harley’s task-driven personality and big heart demanded a pairing with someone with an even keel and a quiet but steady compassion. Harley exchanged greetings with the firefighters and then was ushered out of the training field.

A thick silence descended on the field with the departure of the dogs as Pluis made her final considerations. The firefighters had their own predictions. This would be a major intersection for their career, one that could affect the rest of their lives. All three dogs were again let into the training area. Without ceremony, Pluis doled out the leashes. Later, she explained her decisions to me. She needed handlers who were the human mirrors of the dogs.

Rick Lee was an intense professional, always seeking perfection. Pluis knew there was one dog that could take that intensity and match it. She handed Rick Ana’s leash. For all his fretting, he should’ve known it was coming.

Randy Gross was laid-back but still had a calculated focus when the situation called for it. He’d raised daughters and knew how to hold an edge, but could be gentle about applying it. Pluis handed him Dusty’s leash.

Rob Cima was pragmatic and disciplined, but he knew how to quietly connect with teammates, when to push, and when to back off. He received Harley’s leash. He was tough enough to handle Harley’s extra muscle, and his introspective personality would meld perfectly with our special boy’s temperament.

“Now,” Pluis announced with an air of suspense, “we may switch.”

And with that, the new teams began their training together. They would not switch.

TRAINING BECAME FAST and furious. We’d start at Sundowners Kennels early in the morning and work until noon. I would’ve kept going straight through until the sun set, but firefighters need to eat. So for an hour, the dogs would take a siesta in their crates and the handlers and trainers would take lunch in a nearby diner. We’d talk lessons learned from the morning’s session and corrections to be made.

By the third day, the chemistry between the dogs and their new trainers was palpable. Instead of looking for Pluis, the dogs were looking for the firefighters. The new teams would be finishing each other’s sentences in no time (metaphorically, of course). I knew there would be more trials to come before they faced FEMA certification, but the critical element for success was there. I could see it in the dogs’ eyes when they looked at their handlers—Ana to Rick, Dusty to Randy, and Harley to Rob. It was a look that said, without question, you are the one.

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