I grew up in Parke County, Indiana, on a road with only four other houses. Our road was a favorite for people who no longer wanted their pets. We even found a pony one year that someone let loose in a field.
We never lacked for a dog or a cat. I never picked out a dog of my own until I was 23 and had graduated from college. I went to the Vigo County Humane Society and picked out a fluffy puppy and named her Pica (I was a journalism major and starting a career in the newspaper business).
She was followed by a succession of animals; all from animal shelters. I got a border collie from the Mount Vernon Humane Society; another border from a rescue that had pets at a PetsMart on Washington Street in Indianapolis. I adopted Batman from the Humane Society of Indianapolis as well as a few cats from that facility.
While I had always adopted pets, I didn’t get into animal welfare seriously until around 2010. Then I was really on the bandwagon: Adopt Don’t Shop. Spay and Neuter. Dogs die when you don’t adopt.
And yet, in December of 2008 I bought a puppy. Even my Mom was incredulous and read me the riot act. I remained in animal welfare and even become more of an advocate for shelters and shelter pets. And yet I had this dog that I bought. When I was first offered a job at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, I brought up the subject in my interview because I wanted to be transparent and I wanted to show I was not ashamed of what I had done.
To top it off, I had a purchased male dog that I didn’t neuter until he was four years old. I was always thankful that Condor had really long fur so when I had him at the shelter no one could tell he wasn’t neutered.
I ended up walking a line between the world of working/sport dog people and animal welfare people. Having Condor helped me bridge this fairly wide chasm. I tried to help both sides of the line take a breath and see the gray and not just the black and white.
Animal welfare people often take a dim view of purchasing a pet and a dimmer view of having unaltered pets. I know several animal welfare organizations that have a hard and fast rule that they will not adopt a pet to any household with an unaltered animal in it. I had to go to bat for an adopter once because she had world-class border collies that she bred, but she wanted a rescued dog for a pet for her son. The shelter was set on not allowing her to adopt because her breeding dogs were unaltered.
I know sport dog people who think dogs in rescues and shelters are there because they have some type of serious behavior or medical issue that caused them to be given up. Also, many sport/working dog lovers don’t want dogs that have been spayed or neutered. So often they bypass dogs in rescue or shelters for that reason.
Condor taught me you have to see both sides and understand each other to have a meaningful dialogue.
So, why did I buy a dog? At the time I was into a dog sport called Schutzhund. I was using Batman, who was 40 pounds on his best day. Schutzhund is a sport built around larger dogs. They don’t change the jump height of obstacles if you have a smaller dog. Batman had the heart and soul of a Schutzhund dog, but jumping a meter-high jump carrying a dumbbell was just too much for him. If I really wanted to be serious about this sport I knew I needed a bigger dog. This is a sport dominated by German shepherds; so at trials we would often encounter other shepherd owners.
One day the Schutzhund club I belonged to hosted a trial and a man showed up with several dogs including two 12-week old puppies. The man was there to get some titles on the mother of the two pups. The mother dog was super sweet and did well at the event. I also watched several videos of the father of these puppies doing Schutzhund in Colorado.
It was a two-day event and it is hard to resist something as cute and fuzzy as a 12-week old shepherd puppy. But, I was adamant I would not be buying a dog.
Because the female had not titled at all until this trial, the puppies were less expensive than many working line German shepherds would normally be. People in the club kept telling me I should consider getting one of the pups. They had awesome pedigrees. I met the mother and she was great. The pups were both great temperaments and loved fetch. The father of the pups was fairly well ranked in Schutzhund and the pedigrees of both parents were impressive.
I finally decided to seriously consider getting one of the pups. Luckily, the club members were thinking with their heads and not their hearts and suggested a couple of simple tests to see the individual personalities of the pups. It turned out the black fuzzy teddy bear puppy I had fallen in love with was not very confident when it was dark. On a long walk he stayed between my feet and wouldn’t explore. The sable pup was more confident. He would go into the grass and explore, but come right back and check in with me. The sable puppy also had an automatic fetch. Whatever I threw, he went to get it and brought it right back. And he wouldn’t stop.
And that’s how I came to buy Condor. It is something I will never regret. I soon gave up Schutzhund however as Condor and I both decided it wasn’t our thing. We moved into the world of search and rescue and found our home. Condor certified several times in human remains detection with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and through Law Enforcement Training Specialists. I have no idea how many searches we have been on, but it was a lot. And Condor had some finds over the years. He was an amazing dog. I knew nothing about Search and Rescue before I got into it with Condor. Now I know countless people who devote their lives to a job that pays nothing, requires you spend a lot of your own money, requires countless hours of training each week and at times puts you in situations where the police are wearing bullet proof vests and you are wearing a bright orange shirt that says K9 Handler.
I have gotten to work with numerous police organizations and a few fire departments. I have a tremendous respect for law enforcement. I feel so bad for them now as all anyone hears about are the few unfortunate incidents in which a police officer made a bad call. But, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that the vast majority of police officers are simply amazing. The police I worked for were always kind, patient, grateful and loved working with us. On Condor’s last search, we had to cross a railroad trestle and Condor fell between some slats. I was panicked thinking he was stuck and a train could come along and hit him. One of the officers with me assured me that if Condor had truly been stuck he would have made sure no trains came down that track until he was freed. All of the police officers I worked with would have protected me and my dog; I have no doubt about that.
Condor also gave me a family. My teammates at Midwest Search Dogs are more than people I train with. They are a family. My teammates helped me move two years ago when I divorced. Like any family, we don’t always agree with each other and we all have individual personalities, but cross one of us and you have the entire team to deal with. My search brothers and sisters have my back and I have theirs. When I was deployed on a search one of my teammates (and often more than one) would be with me helping keep me and my dog safe and helping me by allowing me to just handle the dog while my teammate took care of navigation, note taking, safety, etc.
SAR isn’t easy and over the last seven years I’ve thought about quitting a lot. I don’t mind
the searches and the training, but I have serious test anxiety and the certification process is terrifying for me. I’m also one of the oldest people on our team and I am definitely the most out of shape. Training is physically difficult for me. After you fall down a hill a few times you have to wonder if you are just insane to keep going. When it is 10 degrees with a 20mph wind you really have to wonder if you are insane. Our team trains all year no matter the weather. The only time we call off training is it would be dangerous for the dogs.
Condor on the other hand loved every minute of training and all of the searches. He lived for his ball and he knew that there was always a good chance he would find something that resulted in me throwing that ball when we were working. He climbed ladders, he swam rivers, and he jumped on shifting debris. He crawled through the smoking ruins of a home. He worked no matter what; including when he was dying. He went on a search one week before he died. We were out for a couple of hours and he worked as he always did despite the fact that there were tumors I didn’t know about growing inside of him.
On Thanksgiving Day, one of those tumors burst filling his belly with blood and I made the difficult decision to relieve him of his pain and set him free; even though I did not want him to go.
Condor taught me not to be so black and white.
I do have several things though to clear up before some of the people on both sides of the fence start yelling at me.
One: I do NOT condone buying a pet from any pet store. The vast majority of those dogs are from puppy mills (I don’t care what the pet store tells you). The parents of those dogs lead horrible lives. You did not “rescue” your dog from a pet store. You bought that dog and condemned his parents to breeding more puppies. I also do not condone buying puppies for some person who had a boy dog and a girl dog and decided to let them have puppies. I do not understand paying $1,000 or more for some made up breed like a chiwennie. You can go to any animal shelter and find a made up breed for a lot less.
If you are going to buy a dog from a breeder; do your research. Only buy from a breeder who stands behind his or her breed. A good breeder only breeds to put something back into the bloodline, not to make money. A good breeder will have breeding records that show their dogs are free from whatever ailments might be common to that breed. A good breeder will have dogs that are house pets and not living in a kennel in the barn or the back yard. A good breeder will allow you to meet the parents of your puppy. A good breeder will not meet you in the parking lot of McDonalds and give you a puppy once you hand over some cash. A good breeder often is active in breed rescue for their breed as well. A good breeder makes sure you will be the right owner for that puppy rather than a person willing to pay a fee. Two of my favorite German shepherd breeders have a long questionnaire that you have to fill out to even be on the list for one of their litters. You have to wait for them to find the right pup for you. A good breeder will take your puppy back, no matter what, if something doesn’t work out. A good breeder will ask you for progress reports and want to keep in contact with you. A good breeder will have a limited number of litters and ensure the females are not bred every heat cycle. One of my favorite breeders neutered her breeding male after one of her litters produced a puppy with a serious issue even though there was no true science to say if the parents could have produced that issue. She didn’t even want to take that chance.
Second: Can you find a working dog through a rescue? Absolutely. I know several police and fire departments that scout shelters for dogs. A friend of mine just adopted a dog for the Indy Mega Adoption Event who turns out to be a natural in several sports. I am seeing promise in Skywalker in terms of search and rescue training.
Third: in regards to spaying or neutering; I am absolutely for the spaying and neutering of shelter pets. Yes, there are responsible people like me who can have unaltered dogs without ever allowing them to breed. However, the vast majority of people who adopt don’t realize what it takes to keep dogs from succumbing to the call of nature. I also think science is changing and showing us that there are consequences in terms of long-term health especially in cases of pediatric spaying and neutering. So, sport and working dog people who responsibly choose not to s/n are not the enemy.
Thank you Condor for showing me a path. Walking the path without you is going to be very lonely.