90: The Reluctant Volunteer

90: The Reluctant Volunteer

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

The Reluctant Volunteer

Fun fact: There are two types of wilderness search-and-rescue dogs: air scent dogs can pick up the scent of any human, while trailing dogs pick up the scent of a specific person.

When my husband joined the New Mexico Wilderness Search and Rescue team as a communications volunteer, I cheered him on. What better way for him to make good use of his amateur radio license?

Then he started coming home from his training sessions talking about the various dogs in training. Uh-oh. I knew what was coming.

He wanted to train a dog to join him in the woods as they conducted search-and-rescue missions. Please don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. I love all animals. But we already had a black Lab, a huge German Shepherd, four cats, countless fish, desert toad guppies, and a turtle… all in a 1,000-square-foot home. Oh, and lest I forget, we had three children under the age of eight.

While my husband would technically be the volunteer who trained her for search and rescue eight hours a week, you-know-who was going to be the reluctant volunteer for the rest of the week.

My suspicions were confirmed. At dinner one night, Paul said, “What do you think about getting another dog?”

Even though I knew what he was getting at, I pretended otherwise. “We already have two.”

“Well, I was thinking about training my own search-and-rescue dog.”

There it was. Out on the table.

“How will you know a dog is good enough to train?” Yep, I opened that door.

And he was off at a full gallop. “Well, first you look for a dog with a strong play drive. They need to be intelligent, so I’d want a German Shepherd.”

“We have one,” I pointed out.

“He’s a little old. I want a puppy.”

Oh, dear. This was worse than I thought. It was one thing to get a dog, but a puppy? I’d already done that, over and over. No thank you. We didn’t argue. After that night, we just avoided talking about it. I didn’t bring it up because I knew he would see it as tacit permission. He didn’t because he didn’t want to hear an explicit “no.”

Then one day, he phoned from work. “Our team trainer just called. There’s a female German Shepherd, six months old, and she needs rescuing.” I could hear it in his voice, the cautious enthusiasm.

Darn him. He knew how to get me. But I wasn’t going to give in quite that easily. “Why does she need to be rescued?”

“Well, it sounds like she’s a busy girl. Um… she chews things.”

Like what? Bones? Shoes? Small children?

“And when her owner’s away, she tends to damage things.”

I cringed at that.

“Then last night she dug up about 100 feet of newly installed television cable and chewed it into one-foot hunks. I guess that was the last straw.”

Wasn’t this just sounding better and better?

“The owner is going to put her down tonight if someone doesn’t take her.” I could hear in his voice he wanted this dog. He hadn’t seen her. He hadn’t evaluated her. But another woman had already stolen his heart.

Because I love my husband, I said, “Go see her. If she has any potential at all, bring her home.”

“Thanks, honey.”

What had I done? Exactly the opposite of everything I’d intended. But I wouldn’t ignore an animal in need.

I got home shortly after sunset and saw my husband was already home. When he opened the front door, the distinctive silhouette of an erect, alert profile with its characteristic pointed ears appeared.

As I came up the walkway, my husband opened the door, and the dog approached.

“Her name’s Sadie.”

I knelt down and crooned to her, “Aren’t you a beauty.”

Sadie buried her head in my chest and was still. Silently, she begged me to open my heart and allow her to stay.

“Welcome to the family, you sweet thing.”

The next day, after my husband went to work, my true volunteer work began.

Sadie chewed everything. Socks, shoes, the edge of the dog-food bag, raw potatoes, even wallboard. At least she didn’t chew the small children.

Every time I left the house for even the shortest of errands, she caused significant damage. Once she pulled down a wall of pegboard that held our pots and pans. Fortunately, they were aluminum and didn’t harm her. The next time she knocked an entire Costco-sized box of powdered detergent into a newly opened bag of Science Diet dog food. Neither the detergent nor the dog food was salvageable.

Something had to be done.

I took my volunteer duties seriously. By leashing Sadie to my waist, I encouraged her to bond with me and lose her fear of abandonment. During the day, Sadie and I were constant companions… until my husband came home. I figured my volunteer stint was up in the evenings. Sadie soon bonded with both of us. She loved playing with the kids and seemed to really enjoy playing dress-up.

“You really think she’s going to be a good search-and-rescue dog?” I asked. We looked at Sadie, the longest tongue I’d ever seen hanging out the side of her mouth. She wore a gold bolero, a green bandana around her neck, and a green pair of clown-sized sunglasses on her nose. “That’s the goofiest-looking dog I’ve ever seen.”

Paul laughed and said, “Well, at least she’s socialized and likes kids. That’s a good sign.” Leave it to him to look on the bright side of things.

The following weekend, Paul took Sadie deep into the wooded mountains that were our home. There he met with the rest of the dog team to do weekend drills. The smile on his face when he came home that night told me all I needed to know. “She’s a natural! She figured it out right away. This is going to be wonderful.”

Sadie and Paul spent hundreds of hours training together. I even allowed my eight-year-old son to accompany them and be their pretend victim. Sadie found him every time. I know, not every mother would tell her child, “Go get lost in the woods.” But that’s exactly what we did. It’s how the dogs learn.

I continued my role as the off-duty volunteer, conducting obedience training and socialization at home. Eventually, Sadie passed her test and joined the Wilderness Search and Rescue team and went on many missions. Sadie worked hard and played even harder, becoming a beloved member of our family and an asset to the community.

~Kathleen Birmingham

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