The Shermanator and Stretch Armstrong

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THE SHERMANATOR AND STRETCH ARMSTRONG

While Ana, Dusty, and Harley checked off FEMA certifications, one other area we were having more and more success with was finding dogs. As word spread of what we were trying to do, I started to get volunteers checking more shelters outside of Ojai in places like Santa Barbara and San Diego. Because of our Foreign Legion, take-all-comers policy, we started to acquire a colorful cast of characters.

Sherman was a dark Chocolate Labrador with eyebrows that turned upward like he was permanently asking a question. He was less than a year old but already built like the main battle tank that shared his name. His adopting family became overwhelmed with his brute strength and almost-scary power. In their defense, the Russian powerlifting team probably would’ve been overwhelmed by his strength. The eight-foot fence that surrounded the backyard of Sherman’s prep home before he came to the SDF was no match. He would throw his huge frame against the fence so hard it shook and get his front paws over the top.

Then, with the pure muscle of a gymnast doing a pull-up, he’d get himself over and out into the world. The family knew there would be no way they could handle this dog as a full-grown adult. Before Sherman could be surrendered to the shelter, he came to the attention of an SDF volunteer who evaluated potential search dog candidates. She saw instincts in Sherman that mirrored what was needed in a search dog: he would bark alert on a toy; he would chase that toy ceaselessly; he had the strength and endurance to continue the chase all day. I welcomed him into the SDF with open arms. No shelter for the Shermanator; he had a new career. In late 1997, the giant pup was crammed into the car and transported to Sundowners Kennels to begin his tutelage under Pluis.

BILLY WAS A Black Labrador with soft, knowing eyes that gave the impression that, if the pup could talk, you’d have a very nice conversation together. Billy was the antithesis of Sherman. He didn’t look like what you would think of as an athlete dog. When he would sit down, his shoulders would round, and his neck would slump. Even early in his life, the fur around his mouth had a sprinkling of white, like he’d just eaten a powdered donut. At a glance, Billy would easily be mistaken for a lazy couch dog. On the contrary, his small and wiry frame made Billy quick and agile on any terrain, and he had a hell of a prey drive. A local woman rescued Billy from a shelter in Apple Valley, California. Billy’s energy and toy-obsessed behavior quickly became too much for the woman to handle, but she got word to one of our SDF volunteers, who then evaluated the dog. Thus, Billy came to live with me in Ojai.

I saw Billy’s potential, but didn’t realize the full extent of his drive until one day, John was throwing a toy ball for him in the backyard. On one throw, the ball took a bad bounce and skipped through our wrought iron fence. Before John could move, Billy charged the fence. As he neared the fence, he didn’t slow down. Instead, he wriggled through a gap so small he yelped when it came time to get his hips through, but he stretched out as thin as he could and that dog made it. And then he got the ball! No need to question his drive after that. I knew Billy would make a great candidate, and I knew Pluis could harness his drive and “Stretch Armstrong” abilities to make him a first-class search dog.

ZACK WAS A Chocolate Lab puppy who never grew out of being a puppy. He had a lean but angled frame like a sharp arrow and a diving board of a tongue. From the moment he was born through his fourteen years, Zack maintained the same inexhaustible energy level. Unlike other dogs, Zack did not mellow with age. He might’ve had solar panels hidden on his slender back because his switch was always on and his battery never ran dry. Zack was a lot to handle, but his owner, firefighter Jeff Place, was prepared and knew this was his future partner. When Jeff was looking through the litter of puppies, Zack bounded out, grabbed the keys to Jeff’s truck in his mouth, and started tromping over to the vehicle like, C’mon, let’s go!

Jeff was not only a firefighter but also an animal rescuer: he dedicated his time to caring for abandoned and abused dogs in the San Francisco Bay Area shelters around where he lived. He’d already wanted to be a search dog handler, but lacked the local support of his fire department. Undeterred, Jeff began working with his little perpetual motor Zack as soon as he adopted the puppy. He began putting himself through the courses necessary to be a canine handler on his own dime and his own time. I was impressed with Jeff’s dedication, but a little worried. When a handler raises a puppy, the dog is usually not able to reach its potential as a search dog. It would be like trying to be a drill sergeant for your own children—on some level, you’d probably overlook their weaknesses. But Jeff was determined.

With Sherman and Billy already on deck, and Ana, Dusty, and Harley just a few months beyond graduation, the SDF did not have the funds to send Zack through Pluis’s training. Again, Jeff refused to give up. He paid himself. I had to admire his persistence, and as long as he met the standards, I wasn’t going to stand in his way. I was honored to have Jeff on the team, and thought his driven Lab would be a perfect fit. Zack, teeming with endless puppy enthusiasm, followed Sherman and Billy to Sundowners Kennels for training.

IN THE FALL of 1997, Sherman and Billy and Zack started their course with Pluis. This was round two of the Search Dog Foundation. We now knew it was possible, but was it replicable? Sherman and Billy and Zack brought their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Pluis began their training to see if they would be able to follow in the paw prints of their predecessors.

Sherman’s only issue in training was stopping. Pluis had to accumulate a lot of bruises in order to get Sherman to control himself after he got a head of steam and attacked an obstacle. She also had to be cautious about what was in Sherman’s path; an unanchored obstacle would be smashed to pieces because Sherman had no fear of consequences. Once Sherman was throttled down a tad, he excelled. Four stars in all training phases.

Billy’s “Stretch Armstrong” body didn’t smash things like Sherman’s hulking frame. He had tremendous drive but was much softer in terms of training. He was a very thoughtful dog and he loved to be correct. If, in a training iteration, he did not succeed, he would take it very hard. Pluis had to approach him much like she did with Dusty in the pilot program, gentle but firm. As long as she walked the line, Billy did not dwell on his defeats. Being a master, Pluis kept Billy on an even keel and soon he was excelling right next to Sherman.

Zack did not struggle with the individual training but when it came time to go back to his firefighter, Jeff Place, things became a little more difficult. Even with Jeff aware of overcompensating for the dog, Zack was such an intelligent creature that he knew exactly how to play his handler when he didn’t want to do something. Pluis had a delightful time watching Zack push boundaries. At first, Zack would refuse to complete a task and Jeff would make excuses for his dear pup, just like a parent would do for his child. Then Pluis would step in as the handler and Zack would perform the task correctly. It took a little time, but eventually Jeff learned to keep Zack in line and the pair improved more and more. It was soon clear to everyone Zack would be an excellent search dog. In early 1998, all three dogs were paired with handlers and set for graduation.

SHERMAN WENT HOME with his handler, firefighter Steve Swaney, for the first time. The long drive back to Steve’s home near San Diego allowed the big Lab to settle in and get some well-deserved rest. Steve had a young daughter strapped into a car seat next to Sherman, and the two became fast friends. An onlooker might be dubious about pairing such a massive dog with the father of a toddler, but anyone who knew Sherman would not hesitate—the big guy was the gentlest giant in the world. As Steve went to get burgers at a pit stop along the drive home, Sherman just wanted to stay in the car with the rest of his new family. When Steve returned, Sherman was snuggled up asleep next to his daughter, content as could be.

Sherman was immediately dropped into the training pipeline with his handler. Sherman was a bull in a china shop, except the whole world was his china shop. At his El Cajon firehouse, he wasn’t satisfied with the miniature firehouse chew toys, and instead opted for the super size, pulling an entire fire hose across the yard. His strength became legendary. When other handlers watched after Sherman, they first had to review a long checklist of dos and don’ts—not for Sherman, but rather for their own safety.

Once, Debra helped out as a “buried victim” at one of Sherman’s training searches. She held his reward toy tightly in her hand. “Make him work for it,” Steve had told her. So she clutched it close to her body and only had a short wait before Sherman’s deep baritone bark shook her hiding spot. Steve called the find, and Debra held out the reward tug toy. The next thing she knew she was flying through the air. Sherman had snatched the toy and was dragging Debra across the entire training site like a fish on a line.

Sherman was unstoppable on a search. When he was on the rubble pile, nothing else in the world existed. During one mock search, Sherman was so focused on finding the buried victim, he ran headlong into a plate glass window blocking his way. Instead of being stymied, Sherman re-cocked and rammed the plate glass window again. Before any of the shocked onlookers could stop him, Sherman charged a third time. The still-shaking glass held, but finally Sherman got the idea and took the easier route around the window and found the victim.

Going into the FEMA certification tests, Steve wasn’t even nervous. Sherman was unshakeable. In the fifteen minutes they were allotted for their FEMA Basic certification, Sherman found the victim in less than four minutes. Some dogs have drive but this dog was driven. In February 1999, Sherman rumbled into his FEMA Advanced certification and left victorious. He was the first to do so since our pilot program.

Seeing the enormous progress the dogs were making in their training, we weren’t exactly on the edge of our seats waiting for this milestone, but it was nice to finally get confirmation that we could successfully replicate the training. The validation of our model was heartening and fantastic for the morale of our foundation, but there were still so many dogs to rescue, and many were promising candidates.

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