She bit him on the ear. It wasn’t a serious bite, but in this battle of wills, the little puppy wanted to make it clear to my husband Rich that she did not want to go potty outside. Outside was for playing and sniffing. There were far more comfortable places to go potty inside.
The day we adopted her from the animal shelter was bittersweet. Cancer had just taken Zero, our perennially upbeat and bouncy Boxer-Pittie mix. We were still grieving her loss, but we had an opening and this tiny puppy needed a home. For us, adopting another dog in honor of the one who passed was the only way we knew to survive the grief. But life with dogs had taught us that Heraclitus knew his stuff—you can never step in the same river twice. The new pup could never replace the lost one.
For seventeen years of our marriage, we had Roland, a diabolically clever, ninety-pound Doberman–Shepherd cross who never really took to other people, although he loved us. Then, because no single dog could fill his paw prints, we adopted Sammy and Zero. When Sammy came to us, he was a severely malnourished, yellow lab-like dog, with a pink nose and a chronic lung condition. We used to say, if you couldn’t get along with Sammy, you couldn’t get along with anyone. Sammy was the Webster’s dictionary definition of sweet and, if you flipped back a couple of pages, you’d see Zero’s picture under the definition for joy.
At the shelter, the new puppy had a look of hopeful expectation that grabbed me by the heart. Her paperwork said that she was a Plott Hound mix and I remember wondering about that. I had never heard of this breed, but she was cute, and she was the last of her family group left in the shelter. Her mother had been a pregnant Plottie from a South Carolina kill shelter, transported up north to spare her life. She birthed her puppies in New Jersey, but had a rough time of it, with most of the litter dying from parvovirus, leaving only our little girl and her brother. With both her brother and mother adopted, this small and helpless puppy was alone in the world.
Because we wanted to name the new puppy in remembrance of Zero, we tried to choose a fitting name that had a ‘z’ in it. She was named Maple in the shelter, because of her coat color, but this dog was no Maple. For a while she was Ozzie, but that didn’t stick. Eventually, while thinking about entertaining things to do in the vet’s waiting room, we finally hit on a name that worked. Our vet’s name was Dr. Zaccheo. We would name our girl Zackie-O, adding the glamour of Jacquelyn Onassis to the possibility of amused guffaws from the veterinary staff.
As Zackie-O grew, it became clear that hounds were different from anything we were used to. This hound, in particular, had an intense willfulness that would have been off-putting had it not been for her goofy, playful nature. Her essential goodness made it possible for Rich to forgive her for biting his ear. It also explained why Sammy tolerated her pushiness and crazed yowling whenever their food was served. Our gentle Sammy was labeled a hooligan by the pet sitter after she witnessed him pushing Zackie-O on to her side, the aftermath of the puppy getting on his last nerve.
Zackie-O soon claimed me as her own. I had to make a special effort to ensure Sammy got enough attention when she’d force my hands away from him to give her more pets.
“You don’t own me,” I told her during one of these episodes.
“Wanna bet?” she seemed to respond, cocking her head at me and pushing on, unperturbed.
The pushiness and willfulness escalated as time went on. Out of desperation, we read as much as we could about Plott Hounds to understand what we were up against. We finally came to realize that the behaviors she was displaying and expanding upon were the direct result of her heritage. Plott Hounds were bred in the hills of North Carolina since the mid-eighteenth century to hunt big game—bear, boar and mountain lion. Being headstrong was part of the breed and Plott experts emphasized that training had to be accomplished with a firm, consistent hand and always through positive reinforcement. One training site stated flat out that these dogs weren’t afraid of bears and they won’t be afraid of you.
It wasn’t long before we saw the first evidence of her incredible scenting ability. While the puppy was crated, Sammy stole her pig ear, taking it two rooms away, behind a chair and under a blanket. Upon Zackie-O’s release from confinement, this little puppy stuck her nose in the air and followed the scent to Sammy’s hiding place. We’d had dogs all our lives and we’d never seen anything like this, especially at such a young age.
As she grew larger and stronger, our house came close to bursting at the seams, with her wild running and boundless energy. The flip side of the coin was that Zackie-O was relentlessly cheerful and deeply affectionate. We came to believe that she came from hunting stock and harsh correction to stop her natural inclinations would end up breaking her spirit. Even though she was becoming hell to live with, we didn’t want to change her.
We carved out special time in our schedules to help her get her ya-ya’s out. We went on long walks and played endless games of chase in the yard.
If you looked up our house on Google Earth, you’d probably see a brownish red streak in the backyard. We endured dirty looks from the neighbors, as her ringing bark and excited baying carried for miles through the suburbs. (Some people say Plotts are a bag of lungs on stilts.) Zackie-O was not yet full-grown, but she was a blur of high energy and a crisis was looming.
Salvation came in the form of a warning from a website that said Plotts needed an outlet or they’d destroy your home—owners must either hunt them or put them to work in something like search and rescue. As she approached the one-year mark, we realized that we had no desire to shoot anything. Fearing that structural damage to the house was imminent, we began looking for a search and rescue team that used dogs to find missing people. Because Rich used to compete in orienteering, he was already an expert at map and compass navigation. He would be the flanker, taking charge of communication, navigation, keeping watch for safety hazards and looking for signs and clues from the missing subject. I would train as Zackie-O’s handler.
When we first met the team, the K9 officer told us Zackie-O was ahead of the curve in her abilities. Even more encouraging, we saw other members of the search team with dogs just as crazy as our Zackie-O. We learned the term “high drive” and how this was a valued trait for search dogs. Dogs like this became hell-bent on finding the missing, never giving up or becoming distracted from the search. Dogs like this saved people’s lives.
This epiphany was the turning point and was a moment so charged with happiness and optimism, that it carried us through the rigorous training to come. It was a sense of finding Zackie-O’s true calling and a chance for her to reach her potential. My girl could do this. My girl might even excel at this.
And so it began, with me behind the eight ball from the get-go. I had no prior training in wilderness navigation and I completely lacked a natural sense of direction. Zackie-O came into it already knowing how to hunt, so it was simply a matter of subverting her natural instincts from tracking big game to following the specific scent of the missing person. K9 training became a focused effort in teaching me how to read her and learning how to interpret what she was communicating to me in the context of the terrain’s topography and its effect on scent.
Clearly, I was the weak link, but Zackie-O was patient with me. Over time, I became better at seeing subtle clues in her behavior and feeling changes in the tension of the lead, as she hunted down hidden subjects. For her part, Zackie-O became more overt in telling me what I needed to know. It was like learning ballroom dancing with an expert instructor as your partner. After nine months of intense training, we certified as a K9 handler team. We’ve been called out to find lost hunters and hikers, despondents, elderly people with dementia, autistic children and vulnerable people with neuropsychiatric disorders. We sometimes go for miles, following the trail of the missing. And when I grow tired, my girl drags me up the next hill, driven to find the person with that special scent.
At seven years old, Zackie-O has largely given up biting people on the ear. But if you don’t stop her, she still has a strong attraction to ears and will happily give a wet willy to anyone who doesn’t struggle hard enough.
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