The Tipping Point

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THE TIPPING POINT

In September 1998, Abby, Jefferson, Duke, and two other candidates entered Sundowners Kennels to learn the ropes from Pluis. Because certain dogs take longer than others, this was essentially our third round of trainees, and for the most part, Pluis had her system down. She knew what it would take for a dog to successfully complete the training, and she really didn’t have any concerns about this new crop. That is not to say there weren’t challenges.

Abby, Murphy’s firstborn, would get in a mood and let Pluis know exactly what she thought of some of the less glamorous training. Direction control—taking hand-signal commands from handlers from one platform to another—was her least favorite. Pluis would give the command and Abby would give her a fuck you glare. Pluis does not repeat commands, so she would try to wait Abby out. Abby would only continue glaring, until Pluis had to physically move her over to the other platform. She had to do this multiple times before Abby begrudgingly obeyed. When it came time for obstacles or searching or anything “fun,” on the other hand, Abby was phenomenal. She was like the star player who loved playing in games but never wanted to practice fundamentals. But once she realized it was Pluis’s way or the highway, Abby had no issue with training.

Jefferson, Abby’s brother, with all her confidence but no moodiness, cruised through training, but did have to be calmed down every once in a while. At one training event, one of the future handlers was passing the time twirling the reward tug around his finger. Jefferson, who’d been lying down and now saw the opportunity to grab his toy, launched a sneak attack on the unsuspecting handler. He leapt up and snatched the toy so fast the handler was not able to release it. The loop broke the handler’s finger cleanly. Everyone made sure Jefferson was safely put away before clowning with the toys after that, and many handlers switched to toys without looped ends. Nobody ever questioned if Jefferson had the drive to graduate after that incident.

Duke, the indestructible strongman, had some problems as he learned his new craft. As was apparent with his behavior before heading up to Pluis’s kennels, he wasn’t the most intellectual dog. When the leash came off, Duke seemed to only hear the perpetual litany of findthepersonandbark-findthepersonandbark. He was difficult to control, and the emergency stop command—the dog’s “emergency brake” for an immediate halt, for the dog and/or handler’s safety, on a rubble pile—was just not a concept he understood. When going fast is so much fun, why would you want to stop? But as with most things, repetition and consistency finally drove the lesson home. Duke eventually became so skilled at the command that his handler would take him to schools to demonstrate a stop-drop-and-roll to children. Duke was also ready to graduate.

WHEN IT CAME time for handler pairing, Debra Tosch was excited for whomever she got, but not being physically large, she probably wouldn’t be the best fit for an oxen like Duke, and she might not be the best to keep Jefferson’s ego in check. Pluis knew this, too, and the boys went to other handlers. When Debra was handed the leash for little black Abby, Debra’s first thought was, Thank God she’s small! It’s a good thing Debra was a quick learner, because Abby came out right away and let her new handler know everything better be right, and right the first time. With the help of the pilot program firefighters, Debra and the other new handlers followed the training-all-the-time protocol. Even though Debra wasn’t a firefighter, she stepped up and put herself through the necessary classes to become FEMA task force ready. She knew Abby would accept nothing less than perfection.

And Abby responded in kind. The pair was soon breezing through searches. Abby’s movements, dancing like a ballerina across the rubble, bore a striking similarity to the fluid movements of the SDF’s first dog and little Golden legend, Ana. And much like Ana, Abby and Debra achieved their FEMA Basic certification just three months after graduating from Pluis’s kennel.

Abby became the model for other handlers who were struggling or were in the queue to learn. But that’s not to say she lost any of her dramatics. On one training outing, Abby was loaned to another handler whose dog had been struggling and needed a break. But not long after the swap, the handler approached Debra with some disturbing news: there was something wrong with Abby. He informed her Abby was searching slow and awkwardly. The handler demonstrated, giving Abby the search command. Abby obeyed, but as the handler had described, she was about half her normal speed and lethargic, almost like she was sick. Debra called Abby back and looked her over. She rubbed down Abby’s shiny black coat. Nothing seemed amiss. Abby was alert and happy. Then Debra ran through her normal pre-search routine and gave Abby the search command. Abby rocketed off, searching perfectly. Debra shook her head in amusement. The other handler had not done something perfectly, so Abby had decided to mess with him. You really had to earn her respect.

Abby wasn’t the only one who toyed with handlers. I took it upon myself to do that as well—for their own good, of course. Abby’s brother Jefferson had been assigned an equally confident handler. They were a great match and a talented team. But I noticed in one training session I was grading they were getting too confident, too relaxed, while searching. To a degree this is good, but not to the extent they were demonstrating. Comfort breeds complacency, and that can have dire consequences in a real disaster. I needed to up the handler’s stress level a bit.

“Watch this,” I said to Debra, and walked over to where Jefferson and his handler were suiting up to start their next search. I pulled the handler aside and gave him a concerned look. “Is Jefferson feeling ok?”

The handler was caught off guard. “Yes,” he said, nonplussed. Up to this point, he’d thought they were acing the session.

“Hmm,” I said, then walked away, leaving the confused handler furiously rerunning every possible mistake he could’ve made through his mind.

I didn’t do this to be cruel. From that point forward, the handler did everything by the book, not letting Jefferson cut any corners, their level of urgency much higher. They continued to excel. In June of 1999, Jefferson and his handler caught up with some of the earlier graduates and passed their FEMA Advanced certification to join Ana, Dusty, Harley, and the Shermanator as ready to deploy in response to a disaster anywhere in the nation.

IN LATE 1999, Zack, the puppy prodigy and his autodidact handler, Jeff Place, achieved FEMA Advanced certification, making five teams deployable worldwide in just over two years. Then we hit a tipping point. Manny, the neurotic Boarder Collie, certified. Billy, the lithe Black Lab who’d been among our second-round candidates, certified. Sky, another big Black Lab, and his handler certified. Abby, the runt of the litter and Murphy’s only girl, joined the flood of candidates in achieving their Advanced certification, making eleven teams total that could deploy worldwide. As the millennium turned, the SDF had thirty-one dogs either with some level of certification, or currently in training.

Our only sad story was Lola, the buckshot-ridden Lab from Tennessee. Lola had graduated from Sundowners and achieved her FEMA Basic certification. Shortly after though, she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease and had to retire from searching. Her handler kept Lola close, adopting her as a “normal” pet and sharing medical expenses with the SDF. Lola was given the best care and a loving home for the rest of her years until she passed in 2002.

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