DOGS OF COURAGE
On January 20, 2012, the U.S. Post Office unveiled a new series of stamps to honor a very special kind of canine: the working dog. To some people, they’re also known as Dogs of Courage.
From guide dogs for the blind to search-and-rescue dogs working at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, the dogs featured on the new “Dogs at Work” series of stamps have countless chances each day to show their courage, not only to their handlers but also to any human they encounter. The sheets of 65¢ stamps show four different kinds of Dogs of Courage just doing their jobs: a military working dog, a guide dog assisting a blind owner, a therapy dog, and a search-and-rescue dog.
“We are proud to commemorate these specialized dogs on stamps,” said U.S. Postal Inspection Service Homeland Security Coordinator Michael T. Butler in announcing the stamps. “These animals are critical to serving individuals with special needs and critical to enabling successful rescues.”1
The postal service printed eighty million sheets of the stamps, and many dog lovers said it’s about time that these courageous dogs were recognized for their service.
Dogs are born with courage. It’s up to the humans who surround them to draw it out of them and finesse it in a way that benefits dog, human, and society as a whole.
What Is a Dog of Courage?
Dogs of Courage are many things. Tucker, a black Lab, works alongside researchers in the Pacific Northwest to help determine the cause of a significant decrease in the orca whale population. Magellan and Moses patiently work regular stints as therapy dogs in an elementary school classroom in San Marcos, Texas, to help children strengthen their reading skills when they read books aloud to the seemingly attentive canines.
There’s also Fagan, a Czech shepherd who spent eleven of his thirteen years sniffing out narcotics and chasing after bad guys with the Southaven Police Department in Memphis, Tennessee, alongside his human partners. “He was absolutely fearless,” said department chief Steve Pirtle. “Fagan was truly a working dog and he loved to work.”2
Captain Wayne Perkins, who served as the commander of Southaven’s K-9 Division, worked alongside Fagan for most of the dog’s tenure. His colleague, Lieutenant Mark Little, tells a story that exemplified Fagan’s bravery. “We had one pursuit that raced into Memphis, where the driver bailed out and ran into some woods,” Little said. As the car’s other passenger also fled the scene, “Perkins released Fagan, who followed the suspect into the woods, found him and then brought him back out of the woods. As Fagan got the driver, the driver hit him in the head, but after a few minutes of recovery time, Perkins then released the dog on the trail of the passenger in the vehicle. Fagan tracked the passenger to an apartment house about 100 yards away. He made both catches on the same case even though he had been hit.”
“The only term that comes to mind is ‘countless,’” said Pirtle about the number of officer injuries—even possible deaths—that Fagan had likely prevented. “We always said that if we could have taught Fagan how to drive, his handlers would have been out of jobs. He was just that good.”3
At the same time, a Dog of Courage could be a Hollywood dog from the 1930s who was heroic because he served as the bright spot in the day of millions of people who had the misfortune to live during the Depression.
But many more Dogs of Courage go unnoticed to all but their human companions. Their courage and valor are smaller and quieter, but no less important.
Of course, anyone who has spent any amount of time with a dog—especially one who’s been abandoned and unwanted—already knows that while he may feel that he’s the one saving the dog, in most cases the dog is actually saving him.
Case in point: David James Knowles from Oak Brook, Illinois, adopted Lucy, a Lab and whippet mix barely six months old with a surfeit of energy. He realized he had his work cut out for him.
Considered to be unadoptable because of her nonstop curiosity and motion, Lucy required patient training. Knowles had no way of knowing that he and Lucy had begun an eighteen-year relationship that would forever change his life.
“Life is about the simple details,” Knowles said. “The simple details are what dogs understand. That’s what they convey to us—the simple details for genuine quality life.”4
And so that’s how Knowles approached training the dog. But the changes Lucy would bring to his own life would turn out to be profound. You see, at over three hundred pounds, Knowles ignored his own health while he doted on his canine companion.
It took a crisis to turn everything around. In July 2000, Lucy was diagnosed with cancer, and it served as a wake-up call for Knowles. He knew that his remaining time with her was extremely limited, but while others might have used the excuse of the loss of their best friend to wallow in self-pity—not to mention food—Knowles was inspired.
In an effort to boost Lucy’s precarious health, the two began to take long walks around the neighborhood before venturing farther afield to nearby parks and forests, something that was new to the both of them. Knowles also learned about good nutrition and began to eat better.
To his delight, Knowles began to lose weight. By the time Lucy succumbed to the cancer, he had lost sixty pounds. Knowles was of course devastated, but he continued to work on his lifestyle changes, and by the end of 2001, he had lost close to half his body weight. He wrote Lucy’s Lessons: Thirteen Lessons to Help You Find Joy and Happiness in Your Life, in which he detailed their history together in the form of the life philosophies that Lucy had taught him through the years.
“The lesson here is not about my weight loss,” said Knowles. “Your pets want to get out and enjoy life, they want to exercise, and maybe that’s a lesson for people. All of the lessons are intertwined with each other. My lifestyle changed, and that allowed me to understand the lessons she was giving me.”5
Indeed, Marjorie Garber, in her groundbreaking book Dog Love, writes that “the dog becomes the repository of those model human properties that we have cynically ceased to find among humans. Where today can we find the full panoply of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues—from Courage and Responsibility to Loyalty and Family Values—but in Lassie and Beethoven and Millie and Checkers and Spot?”6
It’s no wonder that humans look up to dogs. After all, they embody many traits that people aspire to—and often fail at. This makes perfect sense, because the truth is that when it comes to people and dogs, we’re not really too far apart. According to gene-mapping research, humans and dogs share about 75 percent of their DNA.
“Working dogs often act as human surrogates and share many capacities with humans,” writes William S. Helton in Canine Ergonomics. “Dogs, like humans, are products of uncontrolled evolution—they were not built with a purpose in mind. Dogs, unlike machines, do jobs roughly the way humans do.… Dogs, like humans and entirely unlike machines, are flexible. No machine in existence can replicate all the tasks a dog can be trained to do. Like people, dogs cannot really be forced to work; they must be persuaded, encouraged, threatened, or enticed and the possibility of a revolt is always present.”7
There have been Dogs of Courage as long as humans have had canines as their companions and their coworkers. “Dogs are sharers in human fortunes and have been since the Mesolithic Era,” said Diana Schaub, professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Loyola College in Maryland. “Whether in times of rising or falling civilization, dogs share not only our lot but also many of our virtues and vices.”8
But contrary to popular sentiment, dogs don’t derive their courage from their relative the wolf. Another well-known writer on dogs, Vicki Hearne, points out that a wolf “will not have the courage of a good dog, the courage that springs from the dog’s commitments to the forms and significance of our domestic virtues.”9
Here’s just a small sampling of Dogs of Courage throughout the centuries:
• In the Swiss Alps, Great Saint Bernard Pass is named for the heroic dogs who rescued hikers who had lost their way or were caught in avalanches.
• As early as the eighteenth century, police learned to train dogs to work alongside them.
• In the 1920s, the aviator Charles Lindbergh developed his flying chops with a dog named Booster sitting shotgun in the passenger seat.
• During World War II, dogs helped patrol the beaches and borders of the United States to keep an eye out for spies and intruders.
Dogs have proved their mettle in recent disasters as well, from helping to recover survivors after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 to searching for people left behind in flooded homes in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And of course dogs played a vital role in New York City in the weeks and months after 9/11, first to search for people in the rubble and then to serve as therapy dogs for workers and volunteers who needed a bright spot in weeks filled with despair.
More courageous dogs throughout history are explored in each chapter of Dogs of Courage.
Senses: Where Dogs Excel
One of the reasons that dogs can become Dogs of Courage is because of their highly acute senses of smell and hearing. That, combined with their unique capacity for loyalty, gives most dogs the ideal skill set for doing their jobs.
When it comes to sense of smell, dogs clearly excel. Whereas humans have around forty million olfactory receptors in their noses, dogs have around two billion, which means their sense of smell can be up to one hundred times better, depending on the breed.
“Their sense of smell is so good—for instance, with a cheeseburger, we might only smell the cheese or the burger, but they smell the cheese, the pickle, the tomato, and the lettuce,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Patrick D. Spivey, a military working dog handler teamed up with Bodro, a Belgian Malinois. “It is almost as if they smell it all in 3-D.”10
“A dog can actually detect whether a scent is coming to his left nostril or his right,” said Louise Wilson, head trainer at Wagtail UK, a company that trains dogs in several areas of detection, from explosives to drugs. “The dog’s brain and the dog’s nose is amazing—I don’t think there is any machine that can rival their senses.”11
“A K-9 can find what he is looking for in a box of black pepper hidden inside a container of mothballs,” says Marilyn Jeffers Walton, author of Badge on My Collar: A Chronicle of Courageous Canines.
And they can do it at a distance, too, up to 250 yards away with no distractions and about 50 yards away with wind and lots of competing scents. In fact, one study conducted at the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University in Alabama—which has a department devoted to studying military working dogs—theorizes that dogs have the ability to detect the equivalent of a single drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool, which translates to fewer than five hundred parts per trillion.
“If it has an odor and that odor can be identified, you can teach a dog to locate it,” said Jill Marie O’Brien, cofounder of the National Canine Scent Work Association. “The dog’s nose is like a machine. Nature has created something that human beings can’t duplicate artificially.”12
“Dogs have the incredible ability to determine the direction that a person has walked because the fact [is] that the odor in the direction walked is always fresher than the odor in older sections of the trail,” explains Allen Goldblatt, of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior for Security Purposes at Tel Aviv University. “Dogs are even capable of determining the direction of travel by detecting the concentration gradient when the difference in concentration of the scent at the start of the trail was only two seconds older than the scent at the end of the trail.”
And once a dog is hot on a trail, you better get out of the way. “When a dog is searching for an olfactory cue, the amount of sniffing increases, and the more difficult the task, the greater the sniff rate,” Goldblatt adds.
In a remarkable example of the power of a dog’s nose, Goldblatt tells this story: “In a controlled experiment, the FBI gave a Bloodhound a letter written by a woman who had moved to a new house in a different state 6 months prior to writing the letter. Using the scent from the letter, the dog was able to select the house where she had previously lived even though she had not approached the house for 6 months.”13
“I tell people they’re buying a nose with four legs to carry it,” jokes handler José “Pepe” Peruyero of the J&K Canine Academy in High Springs, Florida. “They love to eat, love to smell. It’s what they live for.”14
Lieutenant John Pappas with the New York City Police Department agrees. “The real technology [in police work] is the dog, and a lot of it is centered on the nose,” he said. “That’s the most useful tool we have.”15
They’re no slouches when it comes to hearing, either, which is at once broader and more selective than humans’. A dog can hear up to 35,000 Hz per second while humans can barely manage 20,000, which means it’s a piece of cake for them to hear footsteps nearby even if a fighter jet is taking off right next to them. They’re also more sensitive to high-pitched noises and have the ability to close off their inner ear, which can help them block out background sounds in order to concentrate on a noise that’s directly in front of them.
It’s this combination of natural sensory perfection that makes Dogs of Courage so much better attuned to the world. Sometimes it seems like they’re clairvoyant and have a sixth sense that helps them to do their jobs. One bonus is that it also helps the humans around them to save a huge amount of time. “[Dogs] help the investigators try and determine if it was an arson or an accidental fire,” said Chief Garry Alderman of Horry County Fire Rescue in South Carolina. “[They have] helped us tremendously as far as pinpointing some arsons throughout the county. The sensitivity of their noses is just unbelievable. If we didn’t have a dog, you’d have to go in there with a piece of instrumentation, and it would probably take you five times longer.”16
Conventional thinking in the scientific community when it comes to a dog’s abilities has come a long way. “In the eighties, we thought, Let’s build a machine that can mimic the dog!” said Robert Gillette, the director of the Animal-Health and Performance Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University in Alabama. “But you can’t mimic a dog. It’s just a superior mechanical working system. So in the nineties we began to think, Hmm, let’s put some of that research into the animals.”17
Significantly, training methods have changed as well. “You used to wait until the dog did something wrong, then corrected it,” said Michele Pouliot, director of research and development at Guide Dogs for the Blind. “Now you’re rewarding a behavior you like before it goes wrong. If you’re constantly on top of him—punishing, punishing, punishing—that behavior is not going away. You have to get that dog to try to figure out what you want.”18
Indeed, the study of dogs is spreading throughout the culture. It’s not just for dog trainers anymore and may go a long way toward helping those who are experts in the study of humans to expand their horizons. “For psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees,” said the psychologist Paul Bloom. Bruce Blumberg chose to address this question by offering a course at the Harvard Extension School titled “The Cognitive Dog: Savant or Slacker.” It turned out that Blumberg was on to something; the topic was so intriguing that the course quickly turned into the second-largest psychology course offered that semester, though Blumberg came in for a fair bit of criticism for suggesting that dogs could ever be slackers.
“In the last couple of years there have been a number of scientific studies … on certain social problems involving humans, [and] dogs seem to be better able to perform the task than chimpanzees,” said Blumberg. “For example, using pointing gestures to find hidden food is something the dogs respond to better than chimps. A dog has been shown to learn words really, really quickly based on one or two repetitions, so they are able to associate a novel word with a novel object. This is something never seen in chimps.”19
Every Dog Needs a Job
Whether they do it full- or part-time, all Dogs of Courage are working dogs, and in many cases they’re just doing what they were born to do.
In fact, dogs have always worked. It’s been only in the last few decades that humans have thought the best way to treat dogs is to coddle them, serving as a kind of helicopter parent to their canine companion.
Certainly, some breeds do best as companion dogs, particularly the toy breeds. However, the vast majority of dogs—like people—thrive when they have a task to perform that serves a useful purpose. And when they don’t, watch out.
“Before the industrial era, dogs spent their days in the company of men doing serious work: hunting, fishing, herding, guarding, and hauling,” writes Diana Schaub. “Now imagine today’s suburban or apartment dog, utterly without employment or even companionship for most of the day. Children are at least sent to daycare, but dogs are left to their own devices. Is it any wonder they end up as canine delinquents, barking and biting inappropriately?”20
Every dog needs a job. Ebony, a black giant schnauzer, is living proof of this credo. Her owners, Mike and Melenda Lanius, own a cleaning service in Pekin, Illinois, including a sideline business called MoldBlasters. They sent Ebony to the Florida Canine Academy for three months to learn how to become a mold-sniffing dog, for two reasons: They wanted to use her services in their business, but more important, they believed that providing the dog with a clear purpose would help to calm her down, since she was hyper and prone to fits of excitement.
Both hunches panned out. Today, both Ebony and her owners are living happier lives. And the Laniuses started yet another business: Top Dog Inspection Services, where Ebony and two other schnauzers work. “Before Ebony went to school, she was hyper and bored,” said Melenda Lanius. “She was bouncing off the walls. Now she’s a lot calmer. She has a job, and she loves it. Say ‘work,’ and her ears prick up. She is one working girl who never has a case of the Mondays.”21
While dogs like Ebony typically work for food or praise after they locate the item they’re looking for, some trained dogs don’t require rewards since their drive to work is so strong. “For certain types of work, the task serves as the reward,” said William S. Helton. “Reinforcers such as food and praise are not needed. Access to the task is all that is needed to reinforce correct behaviors. Denying a dog an opportunity to work is punishment.”22
Sometimes Dogs of Courage connect with people because of a commonality. In the case of Belgium, a four-year-old Australian shepherd, that commonality strikes when she meets someone in her line of therapy dog work who is also disabled in some way.
You see, Belgium is blind and partially deaf; her condition is common among a particular type of Aussie known as a lethal white shepherd, which is most often caused by irresponsible breeding. She works as a therapy dog mostly with hospice and cancer patients around Mesa, Arizona.
But it almost didn’t happen. Her original owners gave Belgium up when she wasn’t getting along with another dog in the household. She was scheduled for euthanasia, but a volunteer at the shelter called the organization Amazing Aussies Lethal White Rescue of Arizona, which took her in and placed her with a foster family that ended up adopting her.
Photo: Lauran Beebe
Lauran and Jay Beebe, her new owners, had some work to do, since Belgium hadn’t gotten much exercise at her previous home. After about six weeks, Belgium worked up to walking a mile every day and now enjoys her daily walks and even plays nice with the other family dogs.
This by itself would have been enough of a success story, but once Belgium’s true colors showed through, the Beebes decided that she might have the kind of temperament suitable for therapy dog work. After an initial assessment and training program, in January 2009 she began visiting local hospitals, long-term care facilities, and hospices once or twice a week.
Due to her own disabilities, she works solely on intuition to provide comfort and relief to both patients and their families, who are often emotionally and physically drained as well. She often visits a paraplegic patient who cannot talk and is able to move only her left hand. When Belgium visits, the dog sits on her bed and the woman visibly relaxes as she strokes her coat. Nurses on the floor refer to Belgium’s ultrasoft fur as “the healing coat.” She also often sits with patients in the infusion room while they receive chemotherapy.
People relate to Belgium because of her disabilities. Many of the patients she visits have lost their eyesight or hearing due to trauma or age, and they readily feel a kinship with the dog, who has to deal with her own challenges. Belgium maneuvers around beds, chairs, and other obstacles in a patient’s room with grace—and also the occasional bump on the head.
“Belgium is very responsive to sick and elderly people and really seems to shine at her job,” says Lauran Beebe. “She is truly blessed for this job and has made a difference in many people’s lives. Belgium will continue to volunteer her time and love as long as she is physically able. Belgium is living proof that disabled does not mean disposable.”
“The role of working dogs in society is far greater than most people know and is likely to increase, not diminish, in the future,” Helton writes. “Working dogs are unique because of the ease with which they work in complex human settings and integrate into human society.”23
And just like people, each dog is different in the way he approaches his job. “Every dog has its own unique style, its own unique ability to scent,” said Matt Zarrella, a corporal with the Rhode Island State Police. “Some scent dogs are physically better at negotiating obstacles and hanging in there on long, hot days and working through for longer periods of time than others. We think the German shepherd is a great animal. They transition well when trained to perform two or more types of specialties.”24
At the same time, though dogs may display great enthusiasm for the task at hand, it’s important for the people who work with them to realize that again, just like humans, they do have their physical and emotional limits. “Dogs aren’t machines, they can’t be turned off and placed on the shelf, and they vary as individuals,” said Aimee Hurt, cofounder of Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based group. “They come with unique strengths: They are very mobile, they are able to problem-solve, they are able to learn and adapt.”25
With that said, it’s important to note that some people—dog lovers and not—don’t believe it’s wise for dogs to work. Instead, they insist dogs are best served by being spoiled rotten, with three meals a day, some cuddling, a couple of walks, and as much Animal Planet as they can stand. Especially in today’s society where most people choose a pet primarily for companionship, some dog lovers think it’s cruel for a dog to herd sheep, help a police officer do her job, or work in a war zone.
Indeed, even respected animal experts have expressed ambivalence about the issue. While a card-carrying member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would probably think it was heartless or dangerous for a dog to be out herding cattle or heading into an abandoned building to pursue a suspect, Kristin Mehus-Roe said that it wasn’t until she had adopted Desi, one of a breed of cattle dog called an Australian kelpie, that she had second thoughts about adopting a dog for the sole purpose of giving it a good home.
After a stranger chided her for keeping Desi as a pet, saying it would “break [the dog’s] spirit,” Mehus-Roe came to terms with the lecture. “She’s had a fine life with a lot of walks and playtime, two annoying little ‘sister’ dogs, and a lot of people who love her,” she wrote in her excellent book Working Dogs: True Stories of Dogs and Their Handlers. “I instinctively cringed away from the idea of using a dog as a beast of burden, but is that really what it is? We’re shocked by their desire to do the work they were bred for, but if some dogs are unsatisfied with the lives we give them, would a working life be better?”
She then admits the uneasy truth: “Desi has never been particularly happy. She’s really only content when we’re out doing something. Some dogs are made to work.”
Indeed, only then can they receive the opportunity to show that they are truly Dogs of Courage.
Mehus-Roe also points out the tragic effects when dogs born to be heroes don’t get the chance: “Millions of dogs are relinquished to animal shelters each year simply because their families don’t understand their need to work,” she said. “High-energy Border Collies or Jack Russell terriers are abandoned or euthanized because they’d become destructive after being left in a backyard all day. It is tragic when a dog is abandoned simply for doing the job we bred it to do.”26
Even the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, believes it’s better for everyone if a dog has a specific purpose in life. “Animals need to work for food and water,” he noted. “The ones that get food and water just because they’re cute—those are my clients.”27
On the brighter side, some dogs are able to show their courageous sides by just being themselves, and can often bring levity and cheer to an environment that sorely needs it.
Like in Washington, D.C., for example. No Border Collies here, but fluffy smaller dogs who help clear the air of tension in a place where stress is second nature. And regardless of the political affiliation of their human counterparts, the dogs’ constant presence has helped at least one legislator to reach across the aisle.
Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) regularly brings three dogs to his office on Capitol Hill: Julep, a Labrador mix; a Scottish terrier named Bosley; and a Jack Russell terrier named Nigel. He believes that their presence helps bring a sense of humor and sanity to a place that tends to be full of self-importance. “I think the atmosphere is better, because it’s hard to be very formal when you have a dog jumping around the office,” he said.28
The Human Bond
In the end, even though every canine walking the earth is a potential Dog of Courage—some just haven’t had a chance to prove themselves yet—the truth is that it usually takes somebody on the other end of the leash to help bring it out.
Indeed, developing a strong partnership rewards both dog and human many times over throughout their lifetimes, even if that partnership is a short one. Dog lovers are already gratified with the instant smiles that appear on the faces of complete strangers whenever they and their dog walk into a room. But the dogs obviously benefit as well.
“We want to know how the animals are benefiting from the exchange,” says Rebecca A. Johnson, who leads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. She’s studied how dog walking has helped humans to become healthier and exercise more—many even boosted their non-dog-walking exercise sessions during the week—but she has also turned the spotlight on how it’s helped the dogs.
For instance, most animal shelters and humane organizations encourage volunteers to come in and walk dogs who are up for adoption. “We found that [the dogs] were significantly more likely to be adopted if they were in the dog-walking group,” said Johnson. She theorizes that regular visits from friendly humans help make the dogs more socialized and help to even out canine hormones, which can get quite stressed due not only to the shelter environment but also to insufficient exercise.29
There’s some scientific evidence for this. A 2004 study at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa, discovered that after a twenty-minute session together, the good-mood hormones oxytocin, prolactin, and endorphin jumped for dogs and humans. More intriguingly, cortisol levels decreased significantly during the experiment; cortisol is a hormone produced by the body in times of stress.
Dr. Johnson agrees with the study’s findings, and particularly zeroed in on the boost in oxytocin levels. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting,” she said. “Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.”30
In the end, the simple truth is that dogs make us feel better and act better, not only for ourselves but for the world at large.
“So long as they remain by our sides,” writes Diana Schaub, “we have the possibility, through the canine mirroring of qualities that humans praise or blame, of recovering the heroic sense.”31
Copyright © 2012 by Lisa Rogak