Working dogs do superhuman jobs
When we add a dog to our family, there’s work to do. We must house-train him and keep him fed. We must walk him and teach him not to bite the neighbor’s children or jump up on our houseguests. Then, with amused detachment, we teach him to sit, speak, fetch, and play dead. Depending on your dog, maybe “sit” is as far as you get.
But there are dogs out there that do a whole lot more than fetch and bark on command; dogs that can learn the meaning of over 300 words, identify the scent of marijuana versus methamphetamine, safely cross a busy highway, or find a lost child. While some dogs live the Life of Riley in suburban backyards, barking at squirrels and waiting for you to accidentally drop your sandwich, others have serious jobs.
Jack, Hope, Cliff, and Lanie are part of a team of nine Border Collies who live in Wilton with Chris Santopietro, founder and owner of a company that “manages” unwanted flocks of Canada geese. Jack, Hope, and the others are employees of Geese Relief, LLC, of Greenwich Conn.
“We don’t use the word ‘chase’ and we don’t harm the geese. We just encourage them to go away,” says Santopietro. He’s been in business for more than 17 years. An animal lover inspired by his entrepreneurial father and grandfather, he always knew he wanted to start a business of his own. He worked for some years selling equipment to maintain golf courses, and that’s where he saw the goose problem firsthand. He watched as a single dog would race around the fairways and make the geese decide that they would be happier elsewhere.
Santopietro knew it wasn’t only golf courses that needed to have the birds sent away; it was corporate parks, beaches, airports, playgrounds, and campsites. The goose droppings—an icky average of two pounds per bird every day—were unsanitary, slippery, and unsafe. The birds themselves are a danger on airport runways. Somehow, they needed to be herded up and told to move on.
All of Santopietro’s dogs are Border Collies. “They’re the smartest dogs,” says Santopietro, and research bears that out. Search “most intelligent dog breeds” and every website, every study, will put Border Collies at the top of the list. “Retrievers are right up there, too,” Santopietro says, “but there’s that ‘retriever’ part. They want to bring back their prey. We don’t need the dogs bringing me back any dead geese.” Border Collies get their satisfaction from stalking and herding, as opposed to retrieving.
Dogs that work ridding places of honking Canada geese have been bred over the last 200 years or so to herd sheep in Scotland. They respond to traditional sheep herding commands: “Come by” to run clockwise around the flock; “Away” is counterclockwise; “Lie down” simply means to stop; and “Walk on,” well, that means to walk on. Once the dogs learn verbal commands, they respond to whistle commands. A sharp whistle can be heard from further away.
But the Border Collie’s talent out there is pretty much instinctual. They have been bred to respond to shepherds, so they work well with humans. They stalk, circle, and gather like wolves, but the need to kill has been bred out of them.
And they have The Stare. Frozen in place, hunkered down, and focused on their targets, they can stare down any animal from a bull to a duck. It’s hypnotic and it works. Don’t blink.
Some dogs work from home. Ella, for example, a two-year-old German Shepherd, lives in Branford with Bobbie Randazise who, as a result of congenital glaucoma, is blind. Ella is Bobbie’s guide dog.
“I realized that my cane could not reach everything, but my dog can see everything,” says Randazise, reaching out and scratching Ella behind an ear. “Getting a dog was life-changing. I’m alive. There are things I want to do, need to do. I can do them with Ella.”
Ella is Randazise’s second guide dog. Yardlee, lying comfortably under the kitchen table, occasionally licking the ankles of houseguests, is retired. “She’s nearly 12 years old,” explains Randazise. “She deserves some fun.” But even retired, Yardlee is part of the family.
Both Yardley and Ella came from Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, a Bloomfield-based non-profit organization that provides guide dogs to the blind and vision-impaired. That demographic is growing dramatically as the population ages. “We work very hard to make sure the dog is right for the client,” says Pete Nowicki, a senior placement specialist at Fidelco. “We’re hands-on when we introduce the dog; we schedule follow-up reviews. Every year. It’s an important relationship.”
Nowicki continues, “It costs $45,000 to breed, train, and place each dog. Puppies go to volunteer puppy raisers when they’re eight weeks old and stay there for 14 months before coming to us for training. But for the client, for the dog’s new owner, it costs nothing. We provide the dogs and 24/7 lifetime service. You can’t put a price on it. For our clients, the dogs are priceless.”
All Fidelco dogs are German Shepherds, which on that “smartest breeds list” is right up there with the Border Collie. But Border Collie would be a rather poor choice for a guide dog, unless the visually challenged client wants to be herded into the kitchen along with her dinner guests whenever anyone decides to leave the room to refresh a cocktail.
Fidelco’s German Shepherds are an intelligent bunch. “I had to learn to trust the dog,” admits Randazise. “Sometimes we disagree. But I had to trust that when the dog disagreed with me, it was intelligent disobedience. I think the first time I had to grit my teeth and trust Ella was when we crossed a busy intersection here in town where there is no audible crossing signal. She got me across. I knew I had to trust her then.”
“We raise dogs who are stable, loyal, intelligent, and accepting of change,” says Nowicki, “a dog that can be part of a household.” And those dogs who need more excitement, more activity, those dogs who are too curious or demanding to fit Fidelco’s requirements as a guide dog for the blind? “Well,” says Norwicki, “some go back to their puppy raisers to be household pets, and some dogs get a career change. They go to the military or become personal protection dogs, guard dogs, or police dogs.”
Puppy-trained as a Fidelco guide dog, Thor came to the Windsor Police Force when he was less than a year old. Intelligent, confident, energetic, and strong, he was a perfect candidate to be a member of a K-9 unit. His handler, Michael Tustin, says Thor loves to go to work. “Every day is Christmas for him,” Tustin says. “He challenges both of us on the job, and at home, he’s a big part of the family.”
“Most of the dogs are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, or a mix of the two breeds,” says Daniel Lane, master trainer for the North American Police Work Dog Association, “but breed or gender is not important. The vendors we use specialize in canines specifically for police work. There’s an extensive selection test. ”
On a rainy day, over a dozen police officers and their dogs gather in the parking lot of Waterford High School. “It’s not easy in the rain,” says Lane, water dripping off his chin into his collar. A few hundred yards away, Nico, Groton Police Officer Shawn Lisee’s dog, snorted around in the wet grass, making progress toward where a fellow officer had hidden a pull-toy. “They’re tracking,” says Lane. “Nico is following ground disturbance and particles of skin left behind by the officer who hid the toy.”
After a 13-week basic training course in all aspects of patrol—search & rescue to locating cadavers, drugs, and explosives—K-9 officers are required to continue to train with their dogs 16 hours a month. For the dogs, that’s a party. The officers enjoy it, too; it’s an energetic mix of work and play.
This rainy day, after tracking, the dogs practiced apprehending a suspect. In an empty corridor of the school, the police officers took turns being the “bad guy,” hiding in a classroom while a very eager dog sniffed at the doorjambs and found them. And found them again, and then, finally off-leash, the dog was allowed to charge and bury his teeth into a protective sleeve the bad-guy officer is wearing. The “bad guy” screams in pain, the dog wags his tail, and everyone shouts, “Good dog!”
In a celebratory sharing moment, the officer slips off the protective sleeve and lets the dog have it. The dog trots off merrily with the “arm” in his teeth. One can’t help but wonder how disappointed the dog is going to be in an actual bad-guy encounter when he is not allowed to have the arm after a successful capture.
K-9 dogs live with their officers and their families. And how do they know the difference between horseplay with the children and going to work? Tustin says his dog just knows. “When I put on my uniform and open the car door, Nico knows it’s time to get serious.”
Dogs were born to herd, protect, hunt—and play. But even our most domesticated breeds sometimes need more than a meal, a tennis ball, and a fenced-in yard.