I want you to meet a special friend. She is an elderly lady with arthritic hips, a poorly healed right front leg, and dimming eyesight. But she is the embodiment of what the Germanic language calls “Ausdauerngeist”, or “Enduring Spirit”.
- Hiedi- A beautiful working Lady…
I met Heidi and her Mom, Debbie, at a Pet People store in Columbus, Ohio recently. They two make a striking impression as they walk thru the door. It is very easy to tell that some frustration exists between them, not anger or dislike, but more like something unfulfilled. Heidi is obedient in a way that tells she has been well-trained at some point in her life. She watches Debbie for her guidance, but that guidance, when given, is tentative and is always in the form of a question. Before you decide that Debbie is not handling her dog well, and that I’m criticizing her, understand the back story: Heidi was born in 2001 give or take a month. She was bred to be a Police K-9, and that is exactly what this Golden Girl became. She was placed with a handler in Southwest Ohio, with a County Sherriffs Department K-9 Unit. (It has been requested that the exact County be left out for reasons that will become apparent). Heidi became very skilled in Narcotics detection, with Explosives/Accelerant training as a bonus. It is thought that she was deployed for at least a year, when tragedy struck. Heidi was shot while on duty, shattering her right front leg and shoulder. But the strong-willed German Shepherd survived surgeries and her early re-habilitation. She might have returned to duty in a few months, had tragedy not struck her life again. Sadly, her Handler suffered along with his canine partner. He committed suicide while Heidi was in the midst of her own healing.
The close connection of a well-trained K-9 team can make re-assignment with another handler difficult, or even impossible. The emotional connection is deep, and emotional wounds heal far slower than the physical. This is Heidi’s situation…She could not be handled by anyone else, and the beautiful dog was forced into a German Shepherd Rescue. It would take a special person to once again handle her…
The Rescue did what they were capable with her, food, shelter, an occassional run in a large kennel. But Heidi instilled more fear into people than trust. Affection, discipline, and exercise were received in very small doses. Heidi became fearful, bored, and aggressive. But she survived in the Rescue for several years, even though she was a shadow of her former self.
One fateful day, her now adopted Mom, Debbie happened on the GSD rescue where Heidi had been for so long. Debbie doesn’t really know why she took the somewhat bedraggled German Shepherd home with her that day, it just felt “right” to her. Along with her husband, they gave Heidi a fighting chance for a life. She was about 7 or 8 years old at the time, and looked like she was 20. But Debbie saw into her eyes and recognized “Ausdauerngeist” for what it is…
Even though her husband was a long-time Police officer, he had never worked with a Canine Unit. He began to forge a bond with Heidi as only a fellow comrade can. Heidi was part of the Law Enforcement family, even in her “stand down” capacity.
Heidi has proven to be a good family dog, even with the frustrations of Working Dog drives held in abeyance. She is at least 10 years old now, maybe a bit more. Arthritis has begun invading her hips, and she tires quickly. But Heidi’s eyes hold a glimmer of past days of service, she watches over Debbie as a guardian, a protector. And this is where I enter the story, nearer it’s end than I would prefer.
- Heidi working with CarolAnn, one of our Trainers.
Debbie is very open when telling me about Heidi, and the behavior problems she worries that the dog displays. Most dramatic she says is her Dog Aggression. Followed closely by the constant circling Heidi does in her kennel. She is also quite untrustworthy when meeting people…We talk for nearly a 30 minutes as Heidi sits or lays nearby. Debbie is tense at the beginning, but slowly calms as her nerves uncoil. Heidi follows her cues. After 10 minutes of no contact from me, I meet Heidi’s eyes. Now I have no special trick or secrets to share, but it feels like I know this dog. I offer her permission to approach me if she will. She rises and before Debbie can react, nuzzles my hand. My eyes stay fixed with Debbie’s as we talk, and the dog feels no threat. In short order, Heidi is allowing me to touch her under her chin. Debbie has been telling me about Heidi’s past training, and how she cannot fulfill her physical drives even at this age. She feels guilty, but this life is better than being put down as the shelter had wanted to do with her.
Finally, I tell Debbie what we do as K-9 Handlers. This good dog wants to work still, in fact, she doesn’t know HOW to stop working. My heart goes out to this dog and the nice family that has saved her life. Maybe if she has the opportunity, she’d bring back the training she has in her very soul. I invite both of them to our Wednesday morning workout, which takes place at a local middle school. I promise Debbie that we won’t push Heidi beyond what she can physically handle, but I will allow her to do what she’s capable of doing. As we part, Debbie is crying at the prospect of helping Heidi. All she wants is for Heidi to be happy…
- My partner in helping Heidi…Hans of Omorrow.
Wednesday’s exercise begins, with Debbie and Heidi arriving right on time. CarolAnn and I have been working Hans in Obedience, and he is sufficiently winded to start helping Heidi. We first address her feared “Dog Aggression” issues. I suspect the problem is actually the emotion that Debbie projects whenever another dog is present. I ask her if she minds if I take Heidi from the car and walk her away. She seems incredulous, worried about my safety, but she agrees. My thinking is that Heidi needs to be away from the emotion of her Mom. CarolAnn has been directed to take Hans 50 yards away onto the training field, and occupy his mind with something…CarolAnn has come light-years in her own handling of the big, black Meat-head, and she does well.
I clip Heidi’s leash, and she responds immediately. I tell Debbie that I’ll take her on a brisk walk and try to build a friendship. Debbie is about to cry again, so we turn and move away. I don’t want her to see my own reaction to this sweet dogs willingness…
We walk away, with Heidi at a tight heel. We make two large circles around CarolAnn and Hans, and finally we begin to circle in toward them. The two dogs see each other, but there are no “locked-eyes”. A good start.
The meeting ritual between two dogs starts and ends quickly. There is nothing here to indicate Dog Aggression. The 4 of us move off toward where Debbie has settled in. She is almost as shocked as I am…My initial idea is coming true.
Earlier today, I have planted 8 different scent packages in and around the school. Narcotic scents. Heidi’s specialty, and I hope, her means to fulfillment. I invite Debbie to follow me as I track this veteran for the first time in many years. I don’t know what she’ll do, but I have high hopes.
The thought occurs to me that she needs to mark this occasion, maybe a reminder of her past. I produce a nylon tracking Harness from my Dog Bag and Heidi goes ballistic! She knows what this means! We put her in it as easily as if she wore it everyday, and we walk together to the start point. I present her with the scent we want, her brown eyes roll back, and she gives a pull. Debbie has gotten very excited by Heidi’s re-awakening, and gives her the Search command before I’m ready, but it’s okay. The smile on her face is worth the oversight…Heidi enters the school, and finds the first stash behind the doors. She tries her old Indicator, Laying down, but it appears that her hip hurts enough to prevent it. Instead, she turns to us with a look that says’, “I found it! Do you understand?” We do…and I give her a small chicken treat for the find. We do this thru the entire school, Heidi finding all but one of the scent marks. The one she misses is small, and hidden in a pipe, 4 feet off the ground. More than acceptable work.
Heidi’s tail is threatening to fly off her back side at this point, but she is also telling us that the last 45 minutes have tired her out.
She is STILL a Detection Dog…born and bred to work. The whole crew here, including two school officials just observing, celebrate with the now smiling German Shepherd. She has come full-circle to the place that God intended her to be, and I am proud to be her travel agent. Debbie is speechless, CarolAnn and Hans share a moment of Heidi’s licks of affection.
I invite Debbie and Heidi to train with us on Wednesdays regularly. My suspicion is that Heidi has something besides endurance and will-power to teach us yet, and I welcome her as a Teacher. Her time left is short, but she will leave a legacy. She will leave her “Ausdauerngeist” to me and we will celebrate her life and her wisdom.