Monday, August 29, 2011

Dogs, and a Great Book

Lately I have been reading Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz.

It's an incredible book- insightful, well-researched, and beautifully and engagingly written. I have been reading it slowly, a little at a time, giving myself plenty of time to think and digest, and frequently as I read I find myself looking up from the page and over at Duke, who is usually nearby when I'm at home, and blurting out something like "Wow, really?" I'm seeing my own dog, much loved but somewhat taken for granted, from a new and amazing perspective.

As an anthropologist, I'm especially fascinated by the idea that the evolutionary divergence between dogs and wolves was almost solely the result of the introduction of a new species into their ancestors' environment- humans. All the deliberate breeding of dogs into wildly varied forms and functions since is not half so incredible as the idea that our mere presence inadvertently turned one ancestral species into two new ones.

However, as a SAR volunteer who works mostly with search dogs, the detailed discussion of the canine nose and its scenting capabilities was even more personally relevant and interesting, as was this note on one aspect of dog behavior:

"Not only do dogs not typically hunt to feed themselves- whether encouraged to or not- but what hunting technique they have is, it has been noted, 'sloppy'. A wolf makes a calm, steady track toward his prey, without any frivolous moves; untrained dogs' hunting walks are herky-jerky, meandering back and forth, speeding and slowing. Worse, they may get waylaid by distracting sounds or a sudden urge to playfully pursue a falling leaf. Wolves' tracks reveal their intent. Dogs have lost this intent; we have replaced it with ourselves."
-p. 57

As I read this, I was reminded of an observation from my husband during our least search callout with the canine team. We were driving to our assigned search area during one of our rare moments together on that mission- the dearth of flankers means that he and I do not see each other much in the field- and he commented on how cool it was watching the search dogs move through their areas with such purpose and focus once their search command had been given. He compared this focus to the way our unemployed border collie would run through the same area; Duke would, as my husband noted, have been all over the place, interested in and distracted by everything, but the search dogs- while not immune to a momentary distraction- gave most things only a brief sniff or turn of the head; they remained focused on their intent, the scent they had just been told to look for.Link

Insights like that are one of several reasons that I enjoy Greg's involvement with the SAR team: he sees these dogs and their capabilities with fresh eyes. After four years and nearly twenty searches (I think I'm getting old; I kept forgetting missions when I tried to count them just now), the abilities, limitations, and nature of search dogs have become an accepted and normal part of my world, and I find myself taking these things for granted; my husband's questions and observations help me, too, see these dogs and our work in general with a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of wonder.

Even so, sometimes they amaze me even at my most jaded.

On Sunday morning of our last search, we found ourselves working an area whose main features were a dirt roadway- really just a cleared strip with tire tracks in the grass bordered on one side by trees that opened into the field we had searched parts of earlier in the day, and on the other by a steep-sided creek bed, mostly empty with just a few shallow pools of stagnant water. My team leader's two border collies were working mostly down in the creek bed, but when they decided that there was nothing there, I expected them both to backtrack to a point where the walls of the creekbed were lower and more sloped and bore less resemblance to a ravine. Instead, the younger of the pair took a running leap from the bottom of the sheer wall about ten feet to the top; she hit with her forelegs above the edge on flat ground and the rest of her body still hanging over the wall, hindlegs scrambling for purchase. It took less time for me to move toward her than it did for visions of a fall and a badly injured dog to flash through my mind, and it took even less time than that for her push and claw her way to the top and look at me like I was crazy for worrying.

I probably was; my team leader agreed firmly with the dog's point. That was probably a normal dog thing and no great feat, but technically everything that any search dog does in the field is just a "normal dog thing" in the sense that none of them is using any top-secret alien genetically enhanced superpowers. That in itself is amazing. The canine nose, with its incredible sensitivity, is an evolutionary marvel, though it is a marvel that even the household pet snoozing beside me as I write this possesses. The difference, and the truly extraordinary thing about search dogs, is the drive and the hours and hours of training which produce the focus and intent that so amazed my husband in the field.

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