85: Working for Cheese

85: Working for Cheese

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

Working for Cheese

Fun fact: An avalanche search dog is trained to find humans under up to fifteen feet of snow.

Through most of the 1990s, I rode my Morgan horse, Kelly, in the riverbed that ran through the heart of Santa Ana, California. Many strange and wonderful things happened on those rides. I made friends with gang members who were tagging. I prayed at early-morning SWAT raids. I gave horse rides to children playing at a park. Kelly and I dodged balls from not-very-good golfers. I chatted with homeless people, and they petted Kelly.

Then one morning, my life slipped into another gear when I found a starving dog in the middle of the dirt trail along the riverbed. At first, I thought the dog was dead, but he jumped up when he saw the horse coming at him. I couldn’t just leave this skinny, half-dead dog on the trail.

I slid off Kelly and tried putting the dog on the saddle. He squirmed too much for me to hold him and swing back up, so I got back off, put Kelly’s lead line around him, scrambled back on my patient horse and hauled the dog aboard. He sat quietly in my lap on the flat dressage saddle. Perhaps he was too weak to struggle more. I could feel all his bones under his black fur. We rode back to the stable, and he meekly crouched in my car for the short trip home.

My husband Jeff and I had been married for almost ten years. We hadn’t been able to have children, so getting a dog was wonderful for us. We named our new charge Wolfgang, Wolfie for short, because he looked like a half-sized German Shepherd.

“I think his father is that junkyard dog I see when Kelly and I go north on the riverbed,” I said to Jeff. An identical-looking dog barked furiously every time we went by. After a few weeks, Wolfie gained weight and strength, and would follow Kelly and me, so the junkyard dog had to bark at the three of us.

Wolf adored Kelly, perhaps because he saw her as part of the team that saved him, and he loved to go riding. He would carefully watch me in the early morning to determine if I was dressing to go to work or to ride. Once he discerned that I was going to the stables, he’d bark crazily from that moment on, all through the car ride, until we jumped out of the car at the stable. He never chased or nipped at Kelly. He was a gentleman when he was on the trail, even though he was off-leash most of the time. He learned to respond to hand and voice commands to move out of bicyclists’ way and leave loose dogs alone.

Wolfie never became a people-person dog. Perhaps he’d been abused. He loved Jeff and me and two other family members unwaveringly, and that was it. He didn’t really like people other than his four favorites to touch him. When Jeff and I occasionally argued, Wolfie would pant anxiously, whine, and run from one of us to the other until we stopped fighting. We called him the Counselor Dog.

He learned so many words that we started saying things in Spanish so he wouldn’t get his hopes up that he was included in, say, a car ride when he wasn’t. Eventually, he became bilingual! Wolfie continued to show he was very smart. I was a volunteer with a search-and-rescue team in Southern California, and I began bringing Wolfie to some of our team drills.

One Saturday, our team went to a regional park with grassy hills, steep ravines and miles of trails. Wolfie had been primed to search after being fed cheese sticks by the three “victims” prior to their hiding.

My team and I trampled through the hundred-plus degree heat looking for victims all morning. Two had already been rescued by other teams, and we were walking along a high trail looking for the third, when Wolfie stopped and looked down a ravine choked with chaparral. A trained SAR dog will alert to human scent by doing something like barking or picking up a stick. Wolfie and I were new at this, so what would he do? Wolfie stayed very still. Could he understand what we were doing? Was he after more cheese from the victim? Finally, I said, “The dog thinks someone is down there.”

So we scrambled into the ravine. Sure enough, under the heavy oak limbs of a tree, was the victim, a teen with a “broken leg.”

“You guys took long enough. I was bored,” he said. My team members were overjoyed. “Good dog!” everyone said over and over to Wolfie, who graciously allowed them to pet him even though they weren’t his fab four. The victim fed him his reward: a cheese stick.

After my team packaged the victim, splinting his broken leg and placing him on a backboard, we transported him back up to the trail where a truck was waiting to whisk him away. Finished with my duties, I looked around for Wolfie. He generally didn’t stray far from me. I skittered back down to where we had put our backpacks with our gear and lunch. Wolfie was slinking away.

He had something in his mouth. I caught him and grabbed his jaws. I pried them open and out popped a damp cheese ball about the size of a baseball.

While we had been prepping the victim, Wolfie had been conducting a search of our backpacks. When my team members found out, they stopped with the praise and muttered, “Bad dog! Bad dog!”

Of course, who could blame him?

~Marian Flandrick

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