At 5:00 AM, mentally exhausted, I sprinted a short distance from the garage to the back door of my home. Early February, it was dark, the frozen snow creaked beneath my feet and the bone chilling prairie wind nearly blew me over. Somewhat stressed from a mind numbing 12 hour shift at work, I fumbled with the house key as I discovered the howling wind had frozen the door lock. With a little finesse, and a great deal of blasphemous prayer, I gained entry to my humble sanctuary. The warmth of home, and the sight of a large wolf like shape near the door, was comforting and eased the soul sucking experience of the previous twelve hours.
No matter the time, my four legged partner is guaranteed to greet me at the door. This particular occasion, however, was unique. Black Dog was nesting on his bed near the door, with my shirt. While mildly amused that he feels the need to grab clothing out of the laundry to sleep with, I had to ask how it came to this. A little reminiscing of this symbiotic relationship helps.
A Meeting At The Old Pizza Hut
It was a crisp October evening, in 2007, when my phone rang. Call display indicated a private number, which normally meant work or a slightly paranoid friend was calling. As an eager new dog handler, six weeks from the date of my previous dog washing from training, I picked up the phone. A gruff voice, on the other end, said that my dog had arrived from Indiana. “Go pick him up at the kennels.” That gruff voice was my sergeant (he was far from gruff).
A dog handler without a dog is like an artist without a brush. For those unfamiliar with patrol dogs or the working dog world, a great deal is expected from a potential four legged partner. While the sport and working dog worlds have similarities, and can learn from one another, a patrol dog must perform in many areas to meet the expectations of the job. Suffice it to say, I quickly went through two dogs in my early months with the canine unit. Neither could track, and tracking is the most important skill of a tracking dog, so both were sent back from whence they came.
Arriving at the kennels, that October evening, I was greeted by a chorus of dogs. While the old building resembled a 1960s architectural vision of Pizza Hut, the smell and noise left no confusion as to what this was. With no ventilation, and narrow hallways, it makes one wonder if people of the past were leprechauns with massive lung capacity. It’s more likely that civic planners of the past were as short sighted as planners of present day. The sound of excited dogs reverberated against the concrete walls like a doggy jail cell.
Familiar with the stress of extended stays in doggy jail, I excitedly greeted my new dog. Like a correctional officer in prison, I pulled the steel bolt back from its locked position. Opening a creaky steel door, like the “boss man saying yard up,” I was met by a four legged Wookie. “Oh my goodness,” Hans Solo landed the Millennium Falcon and left Chewbacca behind.
I gazed upon a long haired tan and black German Shepherd in a concrete cell. While Wookie was my first impression, overgrown Muppet was my second. Familiar with changing full diapers after the consumption of plenty of liquids, I quickly surmised this Wookie had a rather unique aroma. I’ve come to name this the barnyard smell, or ode to urine.
Retrieving this Wookie named Ilo, I was suspicious that he may not be my final stop in a quest to find a suitable patrol dog. I’d gone through two dogs in a relatively short period of time, and the previous dogs likely appeared suitable to someone at first glance. While the Wookie was about to be my third, I was cognizant of the fact there was no guarantee he’d work out. I gazed across the hallway, a mere two feet away, to see a twelve month old black German Shepherd in run number three. I closed up the Wookie’s cell, with a loud clanging of the jail like door. Since a short sighted leprechaun had designed this building, it was impossible to open doors of nearby cells at the same time. On several occasions, like the reaction between managers of a bureaucratic organization, fingers were squished between opposing doors. I opened run number three to greet a very social black dog.
Beginning Of A New Relationship
On my knees, with arms wide open, I called this unique animal to me. With ears down, head and tail in the same position, the black dog approached with a quick tail wag. His name, Nox, was rather unique as this is the Latin word for black or darkness. Nox is also the Roman translation of Nyx for the primordial goddess of the night in Greek mythology. Nox has also been used figuratively to describe death. Let’s just admit this is a spectacular and powerful name. As I knelt with Nox, on that memorable October evening, I whispered that he’d be mine someday…I had no idea how true that would be.
A month later, November 12th to be exact, a number of events cemented my journey with Nox. Ilo had equipment fixation issues. Equipment fixation is acceptable in the sport dog world. Youtube and Instagram are rife with examples of people training their dogs to fixate on equipment. Some profit royally by selling such dogs for a king’s ransom. This type of training is not ideal for real world applications. A dog’s ability to engage an exposed sleeve will certainly not guarantee success in a volatile environment. This was the same day that Ilo’s back legs collapsed in the middle of a running apprehension…a serious health concern. While sad for Ilo’s plight, this was business and I formed no attachment to him.
On the other end of the spectrum, Nox did nothing but impress. In the same manner one may have a cup of tea at the start a day, Nox displayed his love of work through a bite suit engagement. As I disengaged him (dog handlers understand this process), Nox continued to impress by attaching himself to my left forearm. This is where the arm chair quarterback may get confused, so stay with me. While temporarily struck with pain, I was impressed. My previous three dogs hadn’t shown such devotion to engagements. I could write a story on how important this is to real world applications, as there’s a considerable difference between a dog that bites an exposed (hard) sleeve and one that seeks dangerous suspects. Nox followed up, later in the day, with his second non equipment engagement. A quarry tripped over a tree root as Nox lined up for a quick engagement with a hidden sleeve (soft burlap covered sleeve under clothing). Nox’s drive is best compared to a high end European sports car that hits like a locomotive. A slight miscalculation in direction, as Nox launched himself six feet away, resulted in an unfortunate back engagement. Don’t worry…it was a minor graze with a few stitches. An unfortunate day for Hans Solo’s friend, and an impressive day for Nox, sealed my journey with the black dog.
A Dog’s Bond
Four months later, in the dead of winter, the Black Dog and I anxiously awaited our patrol certification. Despite rigorous training, I was inexperienced with a steep learning curve ahead of me. I also naively believed I had a fairly strong bond with my future partner of eight years. The day before our much anticipated certification, the Black Dog decided he had better things to do when requested to return. German Shepherds are intelligent creatures, after all. The intelligent creature aspect implies they’re autonomous beings. Until robots become as intelligent as Data from Star Trek, I think dogs will have a significant leg up on the autonomous aspect…I’ll touch upon this later. I was not willing to admit defeat with my highly driven partner, so I stooped to bribes. For the mere sacrifice of five bucks, and the discovery of tasty bacon flavored treats, I won this temporary battle of wits. I was the master who bribed the Black Dog with a tasty treat every time he returned. I don’t know who the dummy was in this experiment…I suspect it was me.
Some believe dogs bond because we feed them. While there may be some truth to this, as displayed by my act of bribery, there’s much more to this. The scientific types, or Datas, would likely conclude the act of feeding a dog will create a strong bond. Time and positive experience creates strong bonds.
A mere two days later, in the final aspect of our certification, the Black Dog displayed his willingness to protect. Nox and I patiently waited outside the doors of a warehouse, occupying our time by vacating my furry partner’s bladder. “Pissing the hound” is a practice I adopted early in training to avoid accidents inside buildings. Perhaps a veterinarian can explain why it appears my dog has an extra bladder. Since we’d completed other tasks, such as tracking, obedience, evidence, building searches, and call offs, I knew the attack on handler scenario would commence shortly after walking through this warehouse door. I’d barely made my announcements, a practice employed in almost every building search, when a puffy quarry attacked from my left. His puffy appearance was due to the fact he’d donned a black bite jacket. As enticing as this was, and lovely that it matched this member’s cargo pants, the requirement for bite pants became abundantly clear.
With my faithful partner heeled to the left, and his head slightly below waist height, one might assume it’s natural for a dog to engage the bite jacket. What one might assume and what actually happens can be a different matter, as the black donkey chose the path of least resistance on this date. The quarry had barely attacked when I discovered Black Dog had instantly attached himself to this poor fella’s calf. My Catholic upbringing was evident as I prayed aloud to sweet baby Jesus. While this incident left a permanent scar with another member, it was clear the Black Dog would protect when it mattered most.
Depending upon which news site one reads, the average person changes careers every three to seven years. Since the Black Dog and I partnered for nearly eight years, it’s safe to say the two of us have beaten the odds for time spent together in a workplace or simply riding around together.
Age and longing for a better day tends to encourage a recollection of happy moments. The Black Dog and I share more than the simple fact that I’ve fed him over the years. Since day one of training, the Black Dog and I have gone to work with each other. I’ve put up with his gassy moments, in an enclosed vehicle, and tolerated his howling and barking as we raced around an area of roughly 900 square kilometres every shift. Since my designation as the Black Dog’s chauffer in 2007, I’ve had the honour of being the dummy at the end of the line when his skills are required.
As I knelt by the door with Nox, I couldn’t help but think of the happy moments. I’m well aware of the moments in which he’s physically attached himself by accident, or dragged me down hills, the impalements, the scars, and barking in my ear. I’ve had the honour of working with the most dedicated partner one could ask for. He was bred and trained to give his life and health without question, and has his own aches and pains because of it. Nox has done a remarkable job of making me look good over the years, as I can only take credit for putting him in the right place at the right time. While a partial explanation of his bond can be explained through a reflection of favorable events, the remainder can only be appreciated by a dog person. It’s okay if the Black Dog needs my shirt to get him through a twelve hour period these days, as I still need him greeting me at the door.
Take a moment to view our latest Black Dog Journey. Let us know what you think of our recent bonding moment and experimentation with iMovie.