Tuesday, September 22, 1992, 1:29 p.m.
The phone rings, and I pick it up. The caller is distressed. “Do you have a Search and Rescue Dog?” “Yes, I do”, I respond. “Please can you help me? I have a 19-year-old (nineteen!) Schnauzer named “Winnie.” She is blind, deaf and she drags her back end from paralysis. I took her out in the yard on Sunday while I was raking and when I turned around she had disappeared! I couldn't believe she could leave the yard she's so crippled. I alerted all the neighbors and we've been hunting for her for the past 48 hours, but the woods behind my house is so deep, and it has been raining so hard, we're giving up hope.
I called the police and asked about their K-9 Search Dogs but they will only send them out after humans. But Winnie is all the family I have, and I walk with a cane myself. I put an announcement on the local radio station, and an ad in the local paper. I don't know what else to do. I called all around, and someone told me you had a Search and Rescue Dog, and
you're my last hope for help. Oh, my poor Winnie, out in this horrible rain for days! Will you help me?"
It had, in fact, been pouring out since late Sunday afternoon. Naturally, I wanted to do a Search, but the weather conditions were terrible, and I wondered what trail would be left after all that rain. I told her we would be there in a half-hour, and we would try our best. I loaded “Jam” (CAN. CH. Denali's Windjammer) in the crate in the van, and I gave her a fresh bucket of water, knowing dogs smell better when they're well hydrated. Jam is my two-year-old Newfie bitch. I had trained her to track at four-months-of-age, and to air scent at 14-months.
We arrived, and the lady was waiting for me with Winnie's little jacket in a plastic bag. I immediately took Jam out to her back yard, had her get the scent from the jacket, and sent her, with “FIND!” I followed her, my collar turned up against the rain, and she immediately went along the back edge of the yard, where it sloped slightly downward, and entered the first trail into the woods. She went only a short distance and turned to the left where there was a wooden platform nailed to trees about six feet up in the air. Underneath the platform was an old wooden spool, and next to it she gave me the signal of a scent pool. That's where a subject has been for a period of time, but is no longer there. The rain was much less evident in the woods, with the thick canopy of leaves overhead. Then she crossed the trail to the right, went a very short distance, and alerted to the death smell. She does this by giving little spasmodic jumps, as if someone were poking her in the ribs with a stick, and acting frightened.
She circled an area and then hid behind my legs and pressed her face into the back of my pants.I already had a pretty good idea of what happened, but when I searched the vegetation where she had alerted, there was no blood, no hair, and no body. I cuddled Jam a minute there on the trail, and glanced up to see the poor woman with her cane, a towel in her hands, and a questioning look on her face. “Have you found Winnie yet?” “No, not yet”, I replied. I looked Jam in the eyes and said, “good girl, but we're not finished yet. You haven't told me the whole story. Let's go.” I stood her up, faced her toward the area where she had alerted for death, and sent her again. Very confidently she trotted straight down the trail, not casting to the right or left, and I knew she was on a scent. She followed the trail right into a swamp, went several steps into the water, turned around and gave me a very satisfied stare. I knew the swamp was the end of the trail.
Because Jam had done all this in a short time and distance, and because the lady was still standing there with her cane, her towel, and her questions, I wanted to validate what Jam had told me. Not having another Search Dog, I went back to the start and sent Jam again. This time she did exactly the same thing, alerted to the same areas, but was not so upset this time about the area of the death. She ended up in the swamp and this time as she turned around, she had a different expression on her face. Could it be that she was a little bit exasperated with me? Her expression said “How many times…?”
There were many directions and trails into the woods and up and down the street in between the houses, and I sent Jam into all these areas over the next two hours. She quickly cleared one area after another, and returned to me with her “nothing there” expression. In all, she worked steadily for two-and-a-half hours, and we were both soaked. I told the lady the search was complete. I toweled Jam off and put her back in the crate, where she happily curled up for a well-deserved rest. We went into the kitchen and sat down, and I knew the lady was waiting for an explanation.
"Before I tell you anything, I need to ask you something,” I said. “Did Winnie exhibit any unusual activity during the twenty-four hours before she disappeared?” “Why, yes, she did!” the lady exclaimed. “Just that morning Winnie actually got up on her back legs and sort of trotted across the kitchen floor. I called here ‘Lazarus' and talked about miracles never ceasing. That's why I took her into the back yard with me, she seemed so lively.”
"I see," I said. "Well, that validates what Jam told me on the search, so I'll tell you what happened. Just before an animal is going to die, it often will have a burst of energy. Winnie had such a burst that morning. When you took her out to the back yard, you have her the opportunity to follow her instinct to die alone, and she traveled down the slope of the yard where gravity made it easier for her to walk, and she took the first trail into the woods. She spent some time lying next to the spool out of the rain, but just before she was to die, she got up and crawled across the trail where she died shortly after, and rather peacefully. After she had died, an animal came and picked up her body and carried her off, down the trail, into the swamp. I know this because there is no blood, no sign of a struggle where Jam alerted to the death smell. I'm only sorry we didn't find her body so that you could be totally sure that she is gone.
You'll just have to trust that Jam knows that she knows, and that I can interpret her correctly. But I do feel sure that is exactly what happened.”
She started to cry. “My poor Winnie!” I reached across and touched her arm. “I know this is hard for you. But you do have a story now to know what happened.” “Yes,” she said, “it's a comfort of sorts to know how she died, and she's not suffering out there in all this rain.” “No,” I said, "Winnie's not suffering, she followed her biological click and died peacefully."
I left and took Jam home. She was depressed (after all, in training, we always find a live person who gives her treats!). I knew that the death smell had depressed her, and I took her to obedience class with me that night, and let her climb in my lap while I taught. She fine the next day. The lady called several times and asked me to repeat the story, and told me how much respect she had for Jam and the way she worked. I knew that she was working out the loss of her best friend, and I was glad that Jam had given her some consolation.
I wrote this story instead of the usual “President stuff” because I have so much respect for what these wonderful dogs do. We spend so much time and effort making sure our dogs are healthy, comfortable, well socialized, and trained, and it is such a thrill to see them give back to mankind something that we cannot give. The Newfoundland is a working dog in the true sense of the word. Now just look at that goofy Newfy lying on your couch next to you. Think of what he's capable of doing! Far more than you imagined…