Reposted from One Day at a Time.
I was just informed by my team leader yesterday afternoon that one of my teammates' dogs has been diagnosed with cancer and has only three to six months left to live.
We are a small, close-knit team, and have been told repeatedly that to outside viewers we look more like a family than a search and rescue team (albeit a really morbid and insanely focused family with some strange hobbies), and after three years and over a dozen missions (and I'm the newcomer!) it feels that way. None of us can feel the loss quite as deeply as the handler who now faces losing her partner, but we all feel it, in ways that would probably surprise outsiders.
There is no connection quite like that between a working canine handler and her dog. They share hours in training filled with the shared challenge of teaching and learning- both their respective tasks and the much more complex process of teaching each other to communicate and understand- as well as the laughter and play of fun and reward and the thrill and pride of success. Then they share grueling hours in the field, in heat and cold, in wind and sun and rain, through mud and brush and water, over rocks and rubble, hungry and thirsty and tired but united by shared trials and shared dedication. At last they share the profound fulfillment of a find. It is the dog with whom the handler first shares the rewarding knowledge of having brought closure to a family and dignity to a lost human being. If there is no find, it is with the dog that the handler first shares the frustration and disappointment of failure. It is the dog with whom the handler also first shares her reaction to the emotional nature of the work- the fact that even the joy of a find is a grim thing, and that the things we find are almost never pleasant. And in the end, it is the dog for whom the handler reserves her pride. If the handler has succeeded in anything, it is in teaching, for it is the dog upon whom all else relies.
The other members of a team form their own attachments. Every handler and flanker assists in some way with the training of every dog on the team; all of us share at least some of those hours in the field, some of those victories and defeats and the challenges and joys along the way. That sharing binds all of us, human and canine alike, into something very like a family. The word "team" for me will always carry that connotation, and "teammate" will never mean merely "colleague" or "friend"; it means something more like "brother" or "sister". Now we all grieve the loss of one of our teammates, and we also grieve for the suffering of another teammate as she faces the loss of her partner.
Aspen and her handler have been my friends and my teammates for three years now. I've followed that dog over rubble piles after Hurricane Ike and feared for her safety at every step. I've fallen asleep in the car on the way home from missions using her as a pillow, and I've watched her sleep with her head on my knee on those same trips, drooling down my leg. I've sat behind her on a boat, trying to gauge whether she might be about to alert by counting the wrinkles in her forehead (that worried, hyperfocused expression Rottweilers do so well) and suffered no end of teasing because the resultant picture looks like I'm sniffing her butt. That dog has stepped on my head more times than I can count during training, when I was lying underwater playing simulated drowning victim and she chose to mark my position by walking over me. She has also very patiently been there when I needed a hug- there is nothing in the world quite so solid and reassuring to hug as an amiable Rottweiler.
I remember one search last spring, when we had been out all day in the heat and a group of us accompanied Aspen down to the water for a cool-down. Her handler was tossing a tennis ball into the water for her to retrieve, enjoying a nice cooling swim in the process. The victim's family was on-scene not far away, and a little boy- a younger cousin or nephew of the victim, I think- walked up and asked if he could throw the ball for the big dog. The kid's father was hesitant, not wanting to bother the busy rescue team, but Aspen's handler assented- Aspen is a certified therapy dog in addition to SAR, and the kid was, for a few minutes, not an anxious family member, not languishing in the heat, not wondering why the adults were all so sad- he was just a happpy little kid playing in the water with a big happy dog, and I've always thought Aspen probably changed his entire perception of the day.
Aspen has been a good dog, a good friend, and a good teammate, and we will all miss her.