In my next life, I want to come back as a dog. There’s a reason for the old saying, “It’s a dog’s life.” Never more than in today’s world are dogs pampered: clad in designer sweaters, housed in designer beds, carried in designer handbags. Hell, Leona Helmsley’s dog gets a hundred grand a year to live out its life (of course, it did have to tolerate Leona while she was alive).
But I’d be happy as a clam to come back as just a plain old dog like my black Lab, Jack, who we rescued from the pound and now lives on tennis balls, marrow bones, and lots of love. But, to be honest, what I’d really love to come back as is a Search and Rescue Dog. Now that’s a dog’s life with a purpose. I am able to spend a couple of hours this week with the Search and Rescue team from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. What is actually serious work for these dogs is presented as a game. Find the victim (whether pretend like during this training practice or real like in the Haitian earthquake disaster) and, as their reward, the dogs get much praise, a tasty treat, and toy play.
I watch a black Lab named Chewy (also a rescued pound puppy) follow the scent of a “victim” through a field and find her beneath a tarp (even “playing” victim isn’t for those squeamish about dirt, claustrophobia, and dog slobber). Upon successfully completing the “game,” Chewy receives lots of praise and a tug toy, which he greets with the enthusiasm of a pre-teen opening an Xbox Kinect on Christmas morn. (A quick thought on why I have a dog and not kids: Chewy has seen this tug toy numerous times and still he is as enthusiastic as if it were the first time; months, even weeks later the kid is jaded about the Xbox.)
Next, I meet Jack, also a black Lab who seems to be having a little trouble finding whatever has been hidden underground. The trainer starts him back at the point where he lost the scent, but then I lose focus as I am greeted by a Blood Hound puppy named Roscoe who, at only five months old, has paws the size of a Munchkin’s head. Roscoe then goes on to his own Search and Rescue game, and I turn back to Jack whom I guess must have successfully found his item, because now Jack is getting to play tug, too! (Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy…)
Then I am introduced to Bob Massey who asks me to play the victim (how long I’ve waited for another human to ask me that!). He takes me on a walk to lay a trail for his dog, a hundred-pound Blood Hound named Fausto. Bob and I walk around the vast parking lot of the outdoor mall that contains every store from Target to In ‘N Out Burger. After about half a mile, we pause at two bus-stop benches where Bob wants me to wait for Fausto. I am given a baggie of prime roast beef and told not to praise Fausto until he identifies me as the “victim” by placing a paw on me or even jumping up on me. Once I have been identified, I am to praise as effusively as possible and feed him roast beef. Fausto is nine years old and I guess he’s done with tug toys. Show him the beef. (Okay, so dogs can get a bit jaded, too.)
After giving Bob one of my gloves as a “scent item,” I wait on my bus bench and see him unload Fausto from his crate in the back of an SUV. They start the search, tracing the path I just walked. Not quite five minutes later, I hear heavy, almost asthmatic breathing coming at me. It’s either Fausto or the world’s most obvious sex offender. Suddenly, Fausto bursts around the corner and I almost hug him, forgetting my instructions to wait for him to identify me. Fausto passes by me, then stops, returns, and lays a giant paw on my knee. “Good boy, Fausto!” Bob and I both explode into praise. I quickly retrieve the bag of roast beef and try to delicately feed this hundred-pound boy a slice at a time. “Just give it all to him,” says Bob. I do. Thankfully, Fausto takes all of the beef and none of my hand.
As Bob loads Fausto back into his crate, he tells me of the amazing talents of Search and Rescue dogs. Sometimes the dogs know more than the police, like the case where three separate dogs followed the scent to a house in which the resident was not even a suspect. Yet, trusting the dogs, the police got a search warrant and, in searching, discovered the unique jacket worn by the suspect on surveillance tapes. Ultimately, the resident was convicted of the robbery.
So, basically, the Leonas of the world can keep their money. Because in my next life, I’m going to be a Search and Rescue dog.