Written by Jennifer L. Hartman
I am coming up on my 15 year marker working in the field of conservation biology, surveying for sensitive species all over the world. The work has been gruelling and gritty and for those of us in this field, it is often a solitary toil.
But for me, I have never felt particularly lonely or alone working in the field … until recently. Conducting field work suited my introvertish love of the natural world. I have to admit though, I was not completely alone. There was Max, my “co-woofer” and conservation detection dog. These smart, energetic canines are much more than essential “equipment” in this work – they are teachers, companions, confidantes, and our best friends.
This blog is dedicated to those who work with animals. To the dog handlers, mushers, zookeepers, horse whisperers, and to anyone who understands the intimate connections we establish with animals.
I have conducted research in Nepal, Cambodia, Mozambique, and British Columbia but also along polluted streams in New York, or bushwhacking through overgrown and rugged Oregon mountains, and surveying lonely highways in Utah and Wyoming. This career path typically requires a degree in biology and extensive field work experience. My degree is in English Literature. I had lofty plans to pursue graduate school in wildlife biology so that I could continue to climb the proverbial ladder, but then I met Max.
Max was a spunky, white-whiskered, paper-eating, sweet natured rascal. He was also obsessed with playing fetch, a requirement for all of the Rogue Detection Teams (RDT) dogs. RDT is a conservation detection dog program currently with sixteen fetch-obsessed, high energy detection dogs, all rescued from shelters or as owner releases. We work with the dogs to be scent detectors of scat, toxins, plants, or other animals, and then deploy them on projects with their bounders (handlers) to locate specific data. My dogs and I have surveyed for species as diverse as African lion and cheetah, pangolin, storm petrel, wolf and cougar, and even orca (yes, orca scat floats, if just for a little while). I’ve lived in bush camps with chatty hyenas as neighbours, backpacked through the stunning backcountry of places like Yosemite National Park, slept in jungle hammocks in Cambodia, battled blood sucking leeches in Vietnam, and taken all means of travel, from helicopters, snow mobiles and rickety boats to arrive at remote field destinations to survey for cryptic odours.
When I first met Max, I was a new trainee on what was supposed to be a temporary 4-month summer research study to survey for northern spotted owls in California using scent detection dogs. The goal of the work was to learn about habitat use of the owls by collecting pellets that the dogs detected. What I soon came to understand and what Max taught me from day one, is that a dog handler (or bounders as we call ourselves at Rogues), is much more than just a person in the field with the canine. Max understood in his very nature that for us to work together, we needed to have a bond. He was not a “tool” to be handled, and as such, I was not a dog handler. Rather, Max taught me what it was to become a bounder. For the methodology to work we need to be bound to one another for a common goal, to seek out data on cryptic species, yes, but also to be bound by love.
But I’m jumping ahead too soon. Let me backup. After accepting a job to be a detection dog handler, I packed up and left sunny New Mexico behind, arriving in a grey and overcast Washington. Upon arrival, I was immediately introduced to the pack of conservation dogs. I was greeted with raucous loud barking. “Who is this intruder?!”, the dogs seemed to be shouting at me. Or maybe they were shouting “Ball! Ball! Ball!” I scooted into the break-yard and was soon covered in their muddy pawprints, my ears ringing with piercing barks.
My impression after my hectic first day was that the job was not the best fit for me. I like cats. I like quiet. I like sitting alone and reading books in some tucked away corner. These energetic dogs threw my world into a chaotic, noisy place and seemed more than I could handle. What had I gotten myself into?
I kept at it though. I had just moved across several states and I needed this job. Everyone told me that I was lucky to find work in this field.
I met Max a few days later – or rather, Max found me. I was working outside, helping to construct a fence, when I noticed a shadow. As I moved around the yard getting tools, a pointy-eared blue heeler who seemed more coyote or wolf than dog, was following my every move and stayed close to my side. I wondered if I smelled funny and if he wanted me to play ball with him. Being new to this work, I was definitely exuding more nervous energy rather than any, “I’m fun, come hang out with me” signals. Why was this dog attracted to me?
Max had been with the program for about a year before I arrived and was much loved by the Lead Instructor. He doled out dog attention equally, though, and couldn’t always be focused on Max. For reasons unbeknownst to me, Max chose me. Out of all the handlers in the program who had come and gone or were there currently, Max had attached himself to me. From that day forward something shifted for me and I would do anything to be with him.
This meant that even if I was working with another dog, on another project, I still thought of Max. I stayed with the program long after my temporary 4 month owl gig because I wanted to connect with Max, even if that meant volunteering. I guess it was sheer persistence but I finally got to work with Max. Our first project was searching for grizzly bear scat in Montana. It was a glorious assignment, despite the 3 am wake up calls, trekking through dense devil’s club (or Boudner’s Bane as we refer to it now), and avoiding any moose we came across, mainly because Max and I spent all of our time together. I admit that I cried when I had to say goodbye to him to go to another project without him. Then, when I was being furloughed during a slow spell, I begged the Lead Instructor to let me take Max with me for the winter. For months, we were vagabonds together, living out of my car until we could return in the spring for projects.
Max opened up something in me that I didn’t know I was missing. He was my second half, my better half. He was all the things I wanted to be – a courageous, spontaneous, and playful counterbalance to my shy, serious, introversion. He was silly, patient, accepting, and understanding. And he was smart! He could find any scent in any terrain in any country – grizzly bear, spotted owl, marten, fisher, mink, lynx, bobcat, cougar, wolf, moose, and even tiger and leopard scats over the course of his career. His contributions to conservation science are immeasurable, but an untold, unsung song because the dogs who do this work are often not mentioned by name, just as “scat dog” or “detection dog” in research papers.
Max was something else, something beyond being my co-worker and my best friend, something so dear and special that I still have not found the words to describe.
Max retired from fieldwork last year after 10 years in the field. He was 14. Soon thereafter, I learned he had a rare cancer. What should have been his golden years, getting to chase balls whenever he wanted or sleeping by a cozy fire, we spent precious days traveling back and forth to the vet for chemotherapy treatments and blood work check-ups. Max had always been eager for an adventure and jumped into my car ready to go explore new scents. But he came to avoid the car, drawing back, ears flat, tail tucked. I would sit on the floor with him as he received IV treatments of invisible drugs that were supposed to help save him. Losing Max would be devastating. I had never felt alone until I realized I was losing Max.
It’s autumn now and several months have passed since I said good-bye to Max. It happened on a cold spring morning, about the time COVID started to kick in, which meant, cruelly, that I was not allowed into the hospital with him. The vet though, was so kind. They brought Max outside so we could be with him in his final moments.
I think I am still in denial that Max is really gone. Max became my world, my reason to be. He was my teacher, my friend, my mischief-maker, and my endangered species data finder. He taught me how to be a better human, how to listen, be patient, and laugh more, not take life so seriously. With him, I learned to appreciate all the tiny natural wonders the world has to offer: Look, a bug! What’s that flower? Whose scat is this? What a big, beautiful tree over there! His absence leaves a hole in my heart and makes me realize now just how incomplete I was before he entered my life.
I wish I had had more time with Max. If I could go back in time and relive even the most challenging times – like how I initially struggled to read his subtle alerts, or how I felt like I was failing at being a good handler if we did not locate data – if it meant I got another moment with him, I would go back in a heartbeat.
I should not say that I am really alone. I have worked with and fallen in love with many other detection dogs in my career. Scooby, a black lab bundle of love and cuddles, was Max’s cohort and the three of us often went on projects together. He also recently retired, and I just learned that he has cancer too. Even though they came from different shelters and we all met late in life, I am always in awe about how dogs are so willing to accept newcomers into their pack. These days Scooby has helped me welcome in our newest pack member, Filson, another blue heeler mix. I am grateful to have them in my life and I know Max would say, “Get your head out of the sand and go play!”
To all the Lonely Conservationists out there, a message from Max: You are not alone! Happy trails and happy tails to you from #roguedogs, Max, Scooby and Filson. Thank you for reading about Maxi.
For more of Rouge Detection Teams, check out @roguedetectionteams on Instagram