Read What the Dog Knows Online

Authors: Cat Warren

What the Dog Knows (8 page)

BOOK: What the Dog Knows
3.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The bloodhound's star rose with increasing use in police departments during the mid-twentieth century, and a few became celebrities. When Nick Carter, a tracking bloodhound, and his handler, V. G. Mullikin, would arrive on the scene in Kentucky, wrote Whitney, “great crowds gathered, so many people that they often constituted his chief problem—how to get started, rather than how to follow the trail.” One of Mullikin's longest trails was reportedly fifty-five miles. He had to stop in the middle while one of his dogs had puppies. He sent her and the pups home and kept tracking with another dog. When James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from prison in 1977, bloodhounds tracked him for three miles, finding him in a pile of wet leaves.

The modern bloodhound, in other words, was evolving into a tracking machine that police and search-and-rescue teams still depend on today.

•  •  •

Every dog handler, law enforcement officer, and volunteer searcher seems to have a story about Andy Rebmann, who has trained dogs for more than forty years. Since retirement as a trainer for the Connecticut State Police, he's been teaching across the world, from Japan to Germany to Mexico. He's trained dogs and their handlers for trailing, patrol, narcotics, explosives, arson, and cadaver work. He's a court expert and an author. He continues to train bloodhound handlers. His own bloodhounds tracked hundreds of criminals and lost victims.

In 1972, Andy had been a state trooper for less than two years when he decided to try a patrol dog. A year later, he got a bloodhound, Tina, and fell in love with her nose and her trailing ability. Yet Andy, never sentimental, was noting an irritating tendency in his bloodhounds if they smelled a hiker who had gone beyond hypothermic: The dog would stop, looking hapless. Trail? What trail? Tina did that on her first dead person in 1973. “Not working into deceased subject,” Andy's notes read. Even indomitable Clem—whose famous nose was upheld four times by the Connecticut Supreme Court; who trailed one man on an eight-day-old trail; who got a national award for his tracking nose; who was quite capable of tagging a felon with his teeth once he found him at the end of a trail—was a chickenshit when it came to dead bodies. He refused to trail all the way into them. The one time he did, he turned around and ran out the same way he had tracked in. “He almost turned me upside down,” Andy said. “No way he was going to stay and sniff that guy.”

On some cases, Andy had to tie his bloodhound to a tree and go poking around in the heavy brush himself. It was annoying.

Birth of the Body Dog

This animal exhibited a remarkable ability to detect all forms of buried explosives, and a surprising willingness to work with man. Were it not for the great size of this particular breed (400 pounds or more) and its unfortunate social habits, it might have been the ideal choice for detection service.

—Report #2217, U.S. Army, 1977

Founded in 1947 on the outskirts of San Antonio, the nonprofit Southwest Research Institute is dedicated to developing breakthrough scientific and engineering technologies and practical research that translate into immediate benefits for its funders, from oil and gas
companies to NASA and the Department of Defense. The institute still designs spectrographs for missions to Mars, antidotes for chemical weapons, and compressors for offshore oil rigs. SwRI also plays around with the kind of wacky animal research that makes you think, with affection and wonder, “only in America.”

This genre of blue-sky research wouldn't surprise anyone looking at the biography of the institute's founder, Tom Slick Jr., a Texas wildcatter, inventor, and committed cryptozoologist. He paid for three separate expeditions to Nepal to search for the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. He tried to get permission from the Nepalese government to use tracking bloodhounds, but the country refused to let the dogs in. Slick died in a private plane crash in 1962 at the age of forty-six, but his dream institute, SwRI, thrived, with brilliant scientists and engineers flocking to San Antonio. Today it has a staff of three thousand, one of the largest nonprofit applied-research institutes in the nation.

Slick's passion for mythic cryptids was surely an embarrassment for behavioral scientists at SwRI, who were deeply ensconced in training projects with real-world species. Yet something of his spirit lives on in their work. The institute's honeybee research in 2001, for instance, falls into a similar category. Even before 9/11, SwRI scientists were working on “a controlled biological system”—that's institute-speak for a cooperative critter—to detect bombs. Dogs aren't the only creatures who can be harnessed to help humans. The scientists trained the bees of twelve hives, giving them sugar-water rewards. The worker bees performed beautifully in field tests, buzzing right to their bomb targets and ignoring nearby flowers. Nor did their delicate bees' feet trigger explosions. SwRI researchers even put radio transmitters the size of a salt grain on the bees' backs, to track them as they honed in on distant TNT. The researchers thought they might be on to something big.

It was an inspiring experiment, but bees have their limits. They tend to die sooner than dogs, with a life span of about six weeks during high pollen season. They hate the cold, the dark, the rain. Using them
at an airport security checkpoint isn't practical. I know this because David and I keep hives in our yard in North Carolina. Our bees hate three things we love: garlic, wine, and bananas. We can't consume any of those products before inspecting the hives, or we risk their displeasure. We love our bees, and need them for pollination, but I'd rather train Solo than a bee.

The idea that bees might have potential in both war and peace was the continuation of a long tradition, not just at SwRI but nationwide. The tumultuous early to mid-1970s were an enormously fertile time for detection research generally and research using animals for detection in particular. The Vietnam War was winding down. At the same time, Department of Defense–funded researchers noticed the skills of military dogs and wondered what else dogs might be capable of. There was enough intellectual and experimental curiosity—and money—to percolate from the military labs on the East Coast clear to San Antonio, Texas.

Nick Montanarelli, now retired but then a project manager at the U.S. Army Land Warfare Laboratory, remembers that era clearly: It was just a few years before he went on to co-develop the bulletproof Kevlar vest with Lester Shubin, an invention that continues to save thousands of lives. But at the time, Nick and a small cadre of other researchers across the country—including veterinarian and behavioral research scientist Edward E. Dean, behavioral psychologist Daniel S. Mitchell, and William H. Johnston with the U.S. Army Mobility Equipment Research and Development Center in Virginia—were starting to work together on detection projects.

That era, Nick said, was special: You could launch ideas, get results, and have an application in the field in six months. The military would provide up to three thousand dollars and tell Nick to start solving a problem. Often, he said, he'd fly out to San Antonio to brainstorm projects with Ed Dean. “I was down at Southwest Research every other week,” Nick recalled. “Dean and I would go to lunch, and we would try to devise some methodology for trying some things.”

SwRI and various army laboratories and centers worked together and separately, trying to determine how good dogs were at detecting land mines, punji pits, and trip wires, all of which were killing citizens and soldiers in Vietnam. There were new problems at home: assassinations of prominent political figures during the 1960s, from John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King Jr., and during the 1970s, bombings protesting the war, as well as airplane hijackings. Could dogs be used to help find bombs in convention centers and guns at airports?

Jim Polonis, a project manager at SwRI for thirty years, helped manage a number of the successful and even some of the not-so-successful animal behavior projects. Like Nick, he has fond memories of those chaotic, fertile times. If someone had an idea, he said, talented researchers, trainers, and handlers were there to try to realize it. Jim Polonis's job was to make sure that when the ideas got turned into projects, everything went smoothly. It could be a challenge, hauling dogs from one end of the country to another. One spring, he, his wife, and their two children dodged killer tornadoes in a pickup while hauling a forty-foot-long horse trailer filled with German shepherds and Labradors from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to San Antonio. Jim took care of dogs, handlers, and researchers on test sites across the country. One winter, he helped run mine-detection tests while fighting hip-deep snow and blizzards in Wisconsin. He and SwRI employees commandeered a utility truck with an attached telephone-pole digger to break test holes and plant mines in the frozen midwestern ground. Another year, he had to figure out how detection dogs and their handlers might cope with dust storms and 118-degree temperatures in Arizona.

Dogs weren't the only potential detection species to interest SwRI and the military. They added pigs to the mix, which wasn't actually much of a stretch: The Italians and French had used pigs to find pricey truffles since the fifteenth century. SwRI used red Durocs, an old handsome breed with drooping ears and the mahogany coloring, if not the fine feathers, of Irish setters. Unlike Irish setters, Durocs were exceptionally mellow. Jim Polonis remembered one that could detect
buried mines at much deeper levels than any dog could. “That pig could detect anything,” Polonis said. Partly, he thought, the pig wanted to please its talented, petite female handler. The final army report on mine detection, sadly, didn't give full credence to the gender of the best pig handler; instead, the report noted the pigs' great willingness “to work with man.” No, that particular pig was clearly willing to work with woman.

There were just a few problems with the test Durocs: They were pigs, with “unfortunate social habits” and a certain stigma: “Would you let a German shepherd in to search your house or a red Duroc?” Jim asked me. Another problem was that red Durocs were highly regarded for their “excellent rate of gain,” a plus for slaughter but a minus for mine detection—especially when the four-hundred-pound pigs got excited about finding mines. They would pull on their leashes. “They'd really drag you around,” Jim said. More problematic than their enormous girth, and potentially more dangerous, was the pigs' “irrepressible desire to root in the soil,” which needed to be discouraged during a mine search. So even though domestic pigs were especially effective at sniffing out all sorts of materials, SwRI ultimately rejected them as sniffer animals.

The test pigs weren't wasted. Joan Johnston, whose husband, William Johnston, was a researcher with the U.S. Army center that co-sponsored the study, remembered the great picnic SwRI hosted the year of the pig study: It featured a delicious pork barbecue.

The experimentation didn't stop with pigs. Coyotes, coyote-beagle crosses, deer, javelinas, raccoons, foxes, a badger, coatis, timber wolves, a civet cat.
kinds of skunks: spotted, striped, and skunk-nosed. And the occasional indigo snake and rattlesnake, thought uniquely suited for mine detection because of an unsurpassed ability to crawl into holes. Researchers even tried raptors for mine detection.

The behavioral scientists, project managers, and trainers at SwRI were beginning to realize, with some disappointment, that wild animals had issues: They were wild. Wolves and foxes considered people
“a menace to be avoided.” The raccoons weren't awful when they were young, but as soon as they became adolescents, they started rebelling: They bit. The teen javelinas wouldn't listen to or perform for their human handlers. The coatis (a cousin of raccoons), despite their great snouts, were “lethargic.” The deer couldn't search systematically. The rattlesnakes weren't prone to biting; they simply fell asleep in the sun.

The dog, ordinary
canis planus
, became the fallback. The dog might not have the most wonderful nose of all the animals in the kingdom, nor is it necessarily the most intelligent. It can't slither into tiny holes like a snake or leap over obstacles as nimbly as a deer, but it can go a lot of places. It's the right size for a number of tasks. It can walk at your side. The dog lives long enough to make the training worthwhile. It isn't nocturnal or diurnal but is happy to be awake when you are. Above all, the dog wants to please.

The dog, SwRI and the army concluded, was just right.

“We found the dogs so useful,” Nick Montanarelli said. “That's how I got into detection work.”

That wasn't the end of tweaking and experimenting. Both SwRI and the army tried a number of dog breeds for a multitude of purposes and climates, from Australian dingoes and Norwegian elkhounds to Dobermans and cocker spaniels. The scientists and project managers didn't experiment with mutts. The reason had nothing to do with blue-blood snobbery or the German propensity for creating an über-shepherd that could best represent the nation-state. It was a science thing. Mutts couldn't be replicated easily, and if you were trying to get uniform results, you needed consistency.
Canis planus
isn't that plain at all, genetically speaking. While other breeds worked fine, the best all-around dogs for a multitude of tasks were the German shepherds and Labradors. They had hunt drive and play drive. They were the right size. They had fine noses. No one would laugh derisively at the handlers. The two breeds weren't without faults, especially the German shepherd. Even then, the army was trying to develop a solid breeding program for shepherds, to make them confident and capable of being
aggressive when needed but not nervous and without hip problems—sadly, both propensities that American-bred shepherds, thanks to Rin Tin Tin's popularity, were starting to exhibit.

BOOK: What the Dog Knows
3.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Superviviente by Chuck Palahniuk
Secret Weapon by Max Chase
Home by Larissa Behrendt
JACK KNIFED by Christopher Greyson
The Dark Glory War by Michael A. Stackpole
Piece of My Heart by Peter Robinson