Rewind to the end of last year, just after we'd moved and before I had any hint of what would happen with Alfie. My brother Paul and his family went to Florida over the holidays to visit family, and asked if I'd care for their menagerie -- border collie Jamie, mini dachsund Hickory, an assortment of cats, and a hamster called Reepicheep (who doesn't really enter into the story, but what a cute name!)
Jamie -- seen here, as usual, with a ball!
Everything was going great until New Year's Eve. When it came time to feed the dogs their supper Hickory came trotting up happily but...no Jamie! The gate wasn't open and nothing was obviously wrong, so it was hard to figure out what had happened. The girls and I searched and called...first around the house, then widening the circle, on foot, to the neighborhood.
Of course I was immediately overcome with guilt. HOW could I have left her outside that afternoon? (Never mind that it was a pretty, sunny day; she had water, a cozy shed with bedding for shelter, and her buddy Hickory; and it was normal for her to spend an afternoon outside even when her family was home!) We called friends and neighbors, but no leads. I was forced to call Paul and give him the bad news...then we resumed our search, in the car, in the dark (I know it sounds crazy, but I was desperate!) The sun having set, it was well below freezing by this time but we crawled through the neighborhoods with windows down, calling til we were hoarse and, at last, had to give it up for the night.
After settling the other animals in I turned to leave for home -- and was pretty sure I heard something! A whine, a bark? It was very brief -- from the neighbors' yard? The neighbors weren't home so I hoisted myself up and peered over their fence with a flashlight. Nothing. Frustrated, I turned to go again...and again, just as I was leaving, I definitely heard something. More looking, STILL nothing. But this time I was sure of what I heard -- it was definitely Jamie, and very close by. Disregarding the frozen mud, I flopped down on my belly and squirmed up to a hole leading under the back deck. Eureka! Sure enough, she was there, as far back as she could possibly get. We'd actually been passing within inches of her for hours without knowing it! When she saw me she flopped her tail halfheartedly, but nothing...and I do mean NOTHING...could induce her to come, despite the fact that she's normally very loving and friendly.
To make a long story short, Operation: Free Jamie took a good deal of that night and much of the next day as well.
At first I tried digging/crawling my way under the deck, but all I got was...
With Paul's permission, we finally tore up some of the deck, reached in and pulled her out. She seemed disoriented at first, and it took her a while to warm up, eat, and return to her normal self.
Gently pulling her out, with hot dogs for encouragement.
Success! We warmed her up with towels heated in the dryer.
Fortunately there were no lasting ill effects, except to the deck! My best guess is that something (possibly some early New Year's fireworks?) scared her into that hiding place, and she suffered some sort of panic attack. She was quite literally unable to move -- physically OK, but immobilized. Still, all's well that ends well and I'm happy to say she's quite a normal girl again!
But the one thought that kept recurring to me that day was: Oh, if only I'd had Alfie there, I would've known she was under that deck much sooner! Maybe I'm dreaming, but with Alf's flair for finding things, I'm pretty sure he could've alerted me to her presence somehow and we could've gotten Jamie out a lot sooner -- saving us hours of useless searching around the neighborhood, and her a night of dangerous exposure to the cold.
OK, back to the present! Since adopting Alfie as a permanent part of the family, I've wondered what our next project should be. Some have suggested therapy work -- but although I'd enjoy it, I'm not entirely sure Alfie would enjoy it that much. He does love people, but he's much more of an "up-and-doing" kind of dog.
I'll admit that ever since helping start diabetic alert dog Dakota on his scent training a couple years ago, I've been fascinated by scent and the teamwork between dog and handler in any kind of scent-related work. I've been reading all I can, and just enjoying learning about it, at the same time idly mulling over Alfie and what we might enjoy pursuing together.
After the Jamie incident, though, I found myself noticing lost-pet fliers everywhere and thinking: This happens to people all the time, and most of the stories probably don't end as well as ours did. Then the two thoughts kind of merged: What if I could train Alfie in scent work/trailing and we could work together to help locate people's missing pets?
My research indicates that training a dog to any level of competence in this area would take time and effort: likely at least a year of focused work would be necessary. Am I up for that? At first I thought of joining a local tracking class but come to find out, competition tracking is a completely different activity than the air-scenting that I would need Alfie to learn for search work. So we're sort of on our own, yikes!! Then to complicate the issue further -- I have found that although there are a few reputable "pet trackers" or "pet detectives" out there...there are also many who seem to be using it as a way to scam distraught pet owners out of a few bucks. Hmmm, not something I want to be associated with in any way! So, as you can imagine, my feelings went back and forth.
But it's hard to get the idea out of my mind. I love, love, love the idea of helping people! It's far more interesting to me to do something like this than to simply take on a dog sport for fun -- just the way I'm wired I guess. And secondly, what do we have to lose? At the very least, Alfie and I will have enjoyed a new type of training discipline together. I feel like I want to give it an honest effort -- at the same time giving myself permission to quit and change my mind if it doesn't work out for some reason. I'd love your feedback, especially any of you who have experience in scent work of some type. Tips, resources, experiences?
At the moment we're still in limbo, waiting on our Austin house to sell and (hopefully) relocating to a place of our own soon here in Springfield. So for now Alfie and I are playing a lot of scent games, and doing some short "runaways." But as things settle down I plan to start him on more serious work and we'll keep you posted as to whether he seems to be a good candidate or not. In the meantime, happy trails and wagging tails!