Written by Jake Lammi
As I lay on a large expanse of granite trying to warm up after an exceptionally cold swim in a glacier-fed alpine lake, I look over at my coworker, Ranger, savouring the life-giving sunshine and cool mountain breeze. I can’t help but reminisce on just how far the two of us have come together over the past three years. At first glance, Ranger might seem just like any other coworker. He is supremely focused on getting work done, loves to hike long distances, and always brings a positive attitude to the “office.” However, if you take a closer look you might notice a few distinctions. He has a short nub-like tail, overly muscled stubby legs, and ears that bear a striking resemblance to those of Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter. That’s because Ranger, my coworker, is a wildlife detection dog with Rogue Detection Teams.
I graduated from college a few years back, with a degree in biology. I was just as lost as most after graduation, wondering what to do with my new degree. I knew I wanted to do something with conservation, and I knew I wanted to work outdoors, but thus far all I managed was a short-term sustainability job at a small university and a part-time track coaching job. I regularly checked wildlife job boards and talked with professors and colleagues who were professionals in the field of conservation. But in the end, it was an article in Sierra magazine that pointed me toward my next adventure, becoming a wildlife detection dog handler.
I had grown up always having at least two dogs in the house, but I had never thought about working with them until I read an article about an organisation that rescues high drive shelter dogs and gives them an outlet for their obsessive drive by teaching them to sniff for wildlife signs on conservation projects. I immediately emailed the program, asking for any information they could give me about how to get involved in this obscure field, and to my great surprise, someone emailed me back! While based in Washington, they just so happened to have a representative in my home state of Minnesota less than an hour from where I was living. We made an appointment to meet at a local park to “interview.”
Minnesota in January is bitter cold but despite that, I thought my meeting went well because I played fetch with two detection dogs. I had read that detection dogs were often obsessed with playing ball, as that is their reward when they locate the correct target in the field, but I was nowhere near prepared for the level of obsession I saw during that short meeting. It was easily ten degrees below zero with gusting wind and this dog looked like he would have happily played ball until his drool froze his mouth shut. I was hooked!
I applied for and was accepted into a training class that was being hosted in Washington State. It is difficult to hire for detection dog work as it takes a unique person to hike around for eight hours off trail, solo, while working together with a ball crazy shelter dog. They were inviting eight people to move to Washington for a month and would choose a subset to hire from those who excelled at the course. At first it sounded a little like The Hunger Games, with the weakest member being cut from the team. I think as conservationists, we can all agree that this field is challenging to break into, as there are so many interested persons but not enough jobs or funding in conservation.
Turns out, training was different than anything I could have ever expected. One might think that it takes a long time to train a wildlife detection dog, but the dogs can be trained in a matter of weeks. It’s the handler that takes several months and even a couple of years of instruction before being able to effectively communicate and work with a dog in the field. The reason being, just about every problem a person might be having with a dog can be traced back to poor communication between handler and dog, and many people do not accept this critique very stoically. Dogs are adept at reading and sniffing human body language as well as subtle shifts in our moods. We are in constant communication with them whether we know it or not. Therefore, every exercise and training question we received in the class was focused on getting the trainees, to think from the dog’s perspective. At first, this was quite a challenge. I failed more often than I succeeded and no matter how bad I wanted it, sheer force of will was not enough to change my old thought process. Dogs are not machines. It takes creating teamwork and a bond between human and dog to be able to work well together. It took a long time, but I eventually started to consistently think in this new way and was one of two people from my training class to be hired. That’s when I met Ranger.
Ranger and I were first thrust together for a wolf scat study in Northeast Washington. I thought I was prepared for the field work after the class, but I soon learned that I definitely still had a lot to learn. Ranger would consistently refuse to give the ball back, which slows down the field work. He tried to trick me by alerting to every single scat pile (data) in the hopes of getting to play with his ball, and he generally ran around like a chicken with his head cut off, becoming tired well before we had reached our daily survey objectives. Obviously, he and I still had a lot of team building to do and in those first few surveys, I learned a lot about myself, my perceptions, misconceptions, and eventually to trust this new bond Ranger and I were forming. Ranger ended up being my best teacher.
Since those crazy first days we’ve been inseparable. Over the next three years Ranger and I would go on to work on fifteen projects together and survey for over ten different species. We lived out of my rig, travelling from one project to the next. Sometimes it felt like a circus show, we were so busy. We climbed mountains, crawled through dense underbrush, forded rivers and post-holed through snow together, just the two of us. We dealt with unpredictable weather, injury and extreme loneliness, but one thing we had never tackled together was a month-long backpacking trip.
This past summer Ranger and I worked on a back-country study in Yosemite National Park. We were surveying for scat from mountain lion (puma concolor) and the endangered Sierra Nevada red fox (vulpes vulpes necator) and ended up having a five-week solo backpacking stint. I had done a few smaller back-country trips and thought I was prepared for the rigours of the back-country, but just like my first project in Northeast Washington, I found I still had plenty to learn.
If you have never been to Yosemite National Park, one of the first things you will notice is that the terrain is incredibly steep and rocky. Part of doing detection dog work is being able to go where your target species live as well as explore other areas to learn whether or not they also travel through or utilise different landscapes. Both mountain lion and red fox tend to travel over high ridges and mountains which means, that’s where Ranger and I had to get to. I thought these mountain passes and knife edge ridge-lines would be the most challenging rigours of back-country backpacking with a dog. In the end, what was most daunting was to be so completely isolated. I had no cell phone, which while normal on our projects, we at least try to work as a team and come back after a day of surveys to a communal camping spot. In Yosemite, it was just me and Ranger, all alone, day after day. There was no fellow human to say hi to at the end of a fifteen-mile survey. On some days it would hit me, looking around, it was just me, my canine coworker and hundreds of square miles of wilderness to search. However, as with many other difficult projects before this one, I had Ranger. Ranger’s endless drive and goofy personality was what fueled me during four thousand-foot climbs and hair-raising descents down snowy glaciers. He was there for me when I got lonely and all too thrilled to share in my joy at finding our target species.
Stealing another glance at Ranger basking in the warmth of the mountain sun I realise that although the life of wildlife detection dog team can be lonely and difficult, none of us are ever truly alone as long as we have our canine companions alongside us. I feel more fortunate than most in our field precisely because I always have my canine counterpart with me to ward off the really lonely nights and quiet days.
For more of Jake and the Rogue Detection Teams, check out @roguedetectionteams on Instagram