The Brains Behind the Dog

In the past few weeks, we’ve talked about working dogs—the roles of dogs, both historical and modern, search-and-rescue dogs and the kind of searches they perform, the role of the canine nose, and search patterns. But while we’ve been very focused on the dogs, we’ve omitted any discussion of a crucial partner in these tasks: the handler.

The handler and dog make up a bonded team. The dog is the nose, but the handler is the brains of the operation. Remember last week when we talked about the challenges of searches due to terrain, or heating and cooling cycles? It’s the handler who acts as the strategist, figuring out how to stack the deck in the dog’s favour to improve the odds that the dog is successful. No matter how good the dog is, if the handler starts him in the wrong location, he’ll never catch the first trace of scent and will never find the person or object he’s searching for. It’s up to the handler to take all the conditions and the location into account, and then let the dog run the search with minimal interference. In the event that the search is not successful, it is up to the handler to somehow reward the dog so that no search day ends in failure.

But we’re not just talking about search-and-rescue handlers. We’re also talking about handlers of police, therapy, and military dogs. It takes a special kind of person to be a successful handler. Most of these men and women live with their dog 24/7, many of them in multi-dog homes. They don’t kennel the dog at the end of a police shift; the dog comes home with them and lives with their family. This kind of constant presence helps establish an initial bond, and then keeps it vital throughout the whole partnership. To reinforce this bond, many K-9s are only fed by their handlers. Food is used to reinforce successful training and proper behavior, and can be the dog’s entire source of nutrition. This also means that training doesn’t only happen at the beginning of the dog’s working life; it continues every day, throughout the day, for their entire working career. Many police and military handlers permanently adopt their K-9 once the dog retires into civilian life. A new working K-9 may then come into the mix, but the first partner is rarely discarded. The bond is that strong. In our upcoming release, LONE WOLF, the relationship between FBI handler Meg Jennings, and her black Lab, Hawk, is the centerpiece of the story. If woman and dog are not in perfect harmony, the killer in the story can’t be caught.

My writing partner Ann is a handler herself. Pictured above with her pit bull, Kane, they are a therapy team, making regular visits to  domestic violence shelters and adult day care facilities. In addition, they are training right now in competitive nosework and have already passed odor recognition tests.

So, the next time you see a working dog, remember the man or woman standing at the other end of that leash. It’s their dedication and bond with the dog that ultimately allows that team to be successful.

Photo credit: Ann Vanderlaan