Thankful thoughts

For my peeps, whom I love. The extended version.

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I posted Wednesday night on Facebook about how grateful I am for the people in my life. I meant it, and I want to expand a bit on it here.

Believe it or not, I am an introvert. I behave like an extrovert for TJTP, but I do not find big groups of people enjoyable or energizing. However, I really do love people on a personal level. I love hearing their stories, seeing their scars, learning from them and watching them grow.

And I have been richly blessed by the people in my life, with genuine connections to so many people. It makes me tear up sometimes when I think about it. (shhh don’t tell)

The main difference between Orthodoxy and all other strains of Christianity I had explored is literally “Communion,” the sharing in the Sacraments. The Mysteries of God really do connect us in a way that is mystical and sturdy. I find an instant connection with those in the Church.

I often say that training Helo is working for my salvation. I believe that quite wholeheartedly. Training dogs is humbling work. Admitting you don’t know how to communicate in a way that’s understandable is embarrassing to a professional communicator. It’s humbling to fail so much at something into which you are putting so much. It is always very hard for me to ask for help. It’s hard to put yourself out there, with your dog, in testing, or competition or work. It’s even harder when you fail.

Helo and I have failed. Many many times. But we’re getting better. We’re growing.

I know that I have had the support of my Church people, through prayer and encouragement. Thank you all for that. Thank you for asking me at coffee hour how training is going, for listening to me talk about the joys of human remains detection over donuts, for praying for our safety in our work, and for praying for me and asking about the TJTP. That job gets a bit lonely at times and I know I have your love there. It means a lot.

My family and non-dog/SAR friends have been pretty awesome as well. I have been a total chatterbox for two years now on the miracles and wonders of lying in the woods and waiting for a dog to come and bark at me. I have badgered many about coming to hide in holes and boxes, regardless of weather or conditions. I have moaned about our latest struggle and babbled like a brook about any success we have had. Please know I am trying not to take you all for granted. We can’t do this without you and your patience. Thank you. Thank you.

At some level too, not the Mystical one of actual Communion, but at a very deep and meaningful human level– a way that I think it should be for everyone somewhere in their lives– my dog people have saved me this year too. There has been a true communion of connection and support.

When you are passionate about something, and you find others who share that passion and that drive; and who are committed to helping you cultivate it more in yourself, it’s just extraordinary.

New friends whose paths I crossed at seminars or elsewhere, for whom I felt an instant “THIS PERSON needs to be in my life”; Facebook friends who have trained and worked for years, who are quick to answer questions, to offer tips and patience; my teammates who deal with me with unfailing patience and humor, for you all I am so thankful.

Such connections are a gift. To those reading this for whom this is true, thank you. Thank you for investing in my life, in my skills, in my dog. Thank you for caring enough to check on us, spur us on, pull us up when we’ve been down.

I light candles in the back of the Church for those whom I love and who are on my mind. It’s been a veritable forest quite frequently in recent months for all of you.

Love,

Me.

Pieces

We’re 22 months into our SAR journey, Helo and I. It feels like a lifetime. We’re getting scuffed and dented, the shiny-newness wearing off, hidden under the disappointments and the constant fight for growth. It’s a steep, steep learning curve. And it should be, because lives depend on it.

And how’s this for fun. There’s still no guarantee we’ll get it done as a team. Even if we successfully clear the certification hurdle, on which we have stumped our toes and stumbled a few times now. I never thought I would want to quit this, but days like today require an actual verbalized promise to my teammates that I’m not going anywhere.

All the other stuff comes so easily to me: the medical, the navigation, the survival skills, working with agencies at scenes.

But training a dog? Oy. Turning a pet dog into a working dog? Ohmygooodgolly.

Training a working dog like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle.

If you’re doing it from scratch, i.e. a handpicked puppy, a 10-week old blank slate, it’s hard enough. But the edge pieces are kind of all set out for you, placed in their own pile. You can see and arrange the limits for the dog from the beginning. “No, we’re not going to spend our free time chasing rabbits. We chase people now.”

However, taking a pet dog, a 2-year-old running buddy who thinks chasing squirrels is awesome and who was heavily obedience trained (largely by coercion) into a free-thinking, good-decision making working dog. Well, that’s been hard.

Really hard. And a constant boot to the face of the ego. Oh, you thought you had it? Well, aren’t you cute.

Add to it my tendency to push to perfection, to win every fight, every ball, and to then mull over, dwell on, and worry about every little misstep, let alone the big problems we still need to fix, and well, that’s just a hot hot mess.

Our thousand piece puzzle is one of the crazy-ass black-and-white photos of a steam engine. And I damn well know I haven’t even found the edge pieces yet. We’re starting from the dead center.

It’s hard to explain to those who do not do THIS what THIS entails. How do you describe the heartbreak of a dog so tired and frustrated, he just can’t bark when it’s time?  How can you get someone to understand the very parts of your personality that make you competent and successful, that have served you fairly well for most of your adult life, are now the parts that stand in your way, that make you question him too much, that make you get in your own way?

He can’t tell me what it will take to make it all clear for him. He has the edge pieces, probably, tucked up in his furry little head.

So I’m going to have to walk behind him, the leash off and draped over my shoulders as he pushes forward. I’m going to have to figure out how to shut my mouth, or mumble the Jesus Prayer, so much that my desires for perfection, for the flawless dog, the easy search, the simple solution, the thing that makes me successful and looking good, disappears from his view.

 

Hopefully, in time, (how much longer I shudder to think) the edge pieces will reveal themselves.

Handsome SAR dog
Handsome SAR dog

An icon in the ditch

Our team had a good week. We kept a search a “rescue” instead of “recovery.” Our dogs did what humans couldn’t. Thank God for that. Early Friday morning, two of our dogs and two of our handlers pushed law enforcement to extend the search for just one more run, one more time. And they brought an elderly man, suffering from dementia, to his family, to a warm and comfortable house in suburban Fort Wayne. The place he belongs was just a few thousand yards from where he would have probably died, had a handsome rescued German Shepherd named Tick not pushed through the brush, scampered down a ravine and found the man, in the dead, cold middle of the night, and told all the humans in the vicinity “he’s here!”

That’s what I wanted to write about yesterday and this morning. I thought about all the times I hide for Tick, how much fun I have with him, regardless of how tired I am, or how cold or hot it is, so that he believes that humans in random places in rubble piles or forests or buildings are the absolute bees knees.  I wanted to write about how Tick’s handler is one helping to turn my Helo into a fierce, feisty little search-beast.

That’s what I was going to tell you.

But as we had our de-brief this morning, and the handlers talked about how they walked and walked, through deep mud and brambles, and how they felt when they got to him, I realized this is a different story.

SAR is about humanity. It’s about icons. It’s about the image of God, what makes us of infinite value. It’s about our souls. It’s about helping, bringing home, about restoration, and hope.

It’s about taking great care, covering the wounds, warming cold limbs, bundling up, and touching softly. It’s about removing your own coat, taking your own time, expending your own effort. It’s about asking a name, looking in eyes, holding a hand and making one safe.

It’s about Mercy. Grace. Hope. Love. And it might not even matter why a person does this, but in that moment, it is about that connection. It is about human. It is about the Image. It is about Love.

It is about all of us.

 

(But K9 SAR is also about puppies. Here’s Tick.)

tick

 

Chasing deer and Forgiveness Sunday.

Helo and I failed our second attempt at an area search certification back in December. He chased a deer. It’s an awful powerful distraction to work through, particularly when you (the dog) are yards away from your handler, already in a hunting mode (looking for a human) and a deer pops up out of the underbrush right in front of you.

It’s an awful powerful frustration to work through, if you’re the rookie handler and your dog just disappears, the little ringing of the bell on his collar fading to nothing. You call out and pray his loyalty to you and commitment to a recall is strong enough to overcome the lure of the escaping prey.

It was. But neither of us recovered. He came back to me looking like a crack addict, pupils dilated and crazy, his brain done for the day in a flood of adrenaline. For my part, I felt like I was losing a fight in the end of the last round. Punching wildly, I sent him back out to search. He found his next “victim” but instead of barking, sat down next to him and gave him a kiss. He then trotted back to me, looked up at me with his intense amber eyes. “I was supposed to do something differently there, wasn’t I.”

We were done. Back to the drawing board…which for us is not my search strategy or building his alert, but overcoming very understandable and natural desires to do what we do: to hunt and to fight/defend.

Today is Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, where we gather together as parish families and seek the forgiveness of each other while we sing the hymns of Lent and the Resurrection. If I were closer to church, and not over-committed in my day, I’d be there. Sometimes though I feel like I’ve had so few interactions with my parish family that, apart from being offensive in my absence, I pretty much need to seek forgiveness from everyone else.

I chase deer all the time, my eyes glaze over as I relentlessly pursue being right or having a fight. I am easy to anger, very quick to speak, to flash hot with indignation or defense. I use a particular word, the “duct tape” of the human language, frequently as a subject, a noun, or a descriptor, in some sentences all three.

I never really understood the Orthodox idea of the “passions” until that Saturday afternoon in the woods near Camp Atterbury. These things I do are often justified, certainly in my mind, by reasonable needs, desires or wants. I am right, ergo it is OK for me to throw a fit to prove how right I am. Or you are wrong and it is hurting people, therefore it is perfectly fine for me to lose my cool and my mind. It’s not unusual for a dog to chase a deer. It’s not even a bad thing, under most circumstances.

But we’re not in most circumstances. We have a very specific job to do, and that job, finding lost people, requires us to put aside what we would rather be doing, or even could be doing. I have to ride his fuzzy little ass now to keep that hunting instinct in check, or better yet, channeled to the proper quarry for him now: humans.

My life isn’t actually most circumstances either. It’s a world populated with people with their own critical needs, hurts, fears, and losses. It’s a world that doesn’t need me losing control, even if understandable or justifiable. It’s a world that needs me to be what I am called to be: a little Christ, a person who loves well and fully, without regard for my own position. I don’t believe that means I am a pushover, but it probably means I can’t tell my bosses their ideas are %&$^# moronic. Probably, at least, not.

So for all those here in the digital world, or in my flesh-and-blood world I have offended, hurt, irritated or just generally treated badly: Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.

Blame the dog

(Or How Dogs Change Everything)

There’s a sign hanging in the training building I have seen or heard with every trainer I’ve ever worked with: “It’s never the dog’s fault.”

It’s true. It’s not Helo’s fault if I can’t figure out how to get him to understand what I’m asking of him. It’s not his fault he’s a dog and not a person who walks on all fours.

But I blame him, and his predecessor Sunshine, for so much anyway. And it’s ok. I think my trainers will let me.

On April 15, 2006 I met my sister at the Hacienda Restaurant in Warsaw to collect a middle-aged Golden Retriever. Three days before I got the dog, I came back from Rome, having cancelled the wedding plans with the Great Italian A$$hole (it’s a great story, ask me about it sometime when we’re drinking adult beverages). It needed to happen, and one of the reasons it did happen was because I knew I had something waiting for me very soon.

I grew up with dogs, a dog specifically, a beautiful Lab from hunting trial lines who kept me sane and kept me safe from myself for more than a decade growing up in that house. But in my adult life in Fort Wayne, I had not been able to get (or was afraid to allow myself) a dog.  Sunny was the perfect dog to bridge that gap.

As I drove away from the restaurant, I looked into the rear view mirror and saw a scene I would see constantly for the next six years–that big soft red-gold head propped between the back seats, dozing as she watched out the window. That big sweet dog accompanied me to therapy sessions, got me off my couch and introduced me to my neighbors. My desire to give her more room led to the purchase of my house. 381512_10150514677219437_278700776_n

She slept under my desk in the bureau, and went with me to everything from fire scenes to school board meetings. She spent an afternoon with the Bluffton police chief while I covered a court hearing.

I know that her constant presence in my life healed my heart in a way I could not have predicted that day I watched her hop into my car. I know that what she nurtured in my soul prepared the way for A. When she became ill at the end, A came to my house and helped me put her on her bed. As Sunny was unable to stand or walk, my friend J came the next morning with me to take her to the vet. When it was time for her to cross the Bridge, I held her head in my lap and her leg in my hand as I thanked her and told her it was OK to go.

A week later, that little fuzzy ball of black fur with the speckled tan paws showed up, a polar opposite of that old Golden in every way possible.

With Helo, it became clear from moment one he needed a job. Sunshine possessed no motivation for anything beyond rawhide bones and belly rubs. Helo, though, he wanted to be with me all the time, assist me in whatever task I was doing, climb on my lap, chew on my hands and shred anything he could find.

Within a few months of his arrival, we were in obedience classes. We walked every day to the football field at a nearby college campus and I wore his furry little butt out with tennis balls and soccer.

When I moved in with A, Helo’s life became fields and groundhogs, barns to explore and new roads to run. But it wasn’t enough. So we got him another job (hopefully) and with it, more people for me to meet, friendships to build and adventures to have.

I blame Sunshine for so much of this, for starting me on this journey by being safe. I blame Helo for the rest of it, for needing so much more from me than I thought I could give.

In the book of Tobit, there is a dog. The dog came out with Tobit’s son and journeyed with him. That is all we know.

1426301_10151916285291743_240149804_nFor me, the dog has often led and I’m fine with that.

 

Humans (and dogs) being

My training coordinator got my blood pressure up tonight with a simple message asking about a picture of my dog training yesterday. I’ll spare you the inside baseball discussion about the picture and what the issue was. She was concerned about the picture itself. I was concerned about the behavior the picture may have portrayed (funny thing about pictures–they may be worth 1,000 words, but they rarely tell the whole story).  We take a ridiculous amount of pictures while we train — cell phone cameras, actual cameras, whatever happens to be handy. The pictures provide, not just fun pictures of dogs, but also provide instant documentation of how we work and what the dog can do and has done. Anyway, someone else took the picture and at that moment in time, that split second, it looked concerning. My fear was that the picture was the whole story and that we were done.  It wasn’t. We’re not. We’re fine for where we’re at. Phew.

But I did not climb off that ledge for hours. And while Helo nonchalantly shredded a box in the living room, I worried.  Are we going to get this done? Is he doing what he’s supposed to be doing? Etc. etc. ad nauseum.

As a bit of a control freak, this whole training-dog-for-search work is SO hard for me. There is this whole other variable here, and it’s huge. It’s like 80 percent of the whole equation. I am, to quote our leader, a dope on the end of a rope. This largely depends on Helo, a 50-pound fur covered animal with his own reactions, instincts, desires and ideas. This is his show, his work. And I am having the worst time getting out of his way.

All my life, the few dogs I’ve worked with in either 4-H or in our home, it was about getting the dog to DO something. To sit. To stay. To high-five. Helo’s early life (his first 18 months with me) was largely getting him to do things. He is extremely good at doing. He aced his obedience classes. He will wait for me patiently outside a coffee shop for hours. He is, officially, a Canine Good Citizen. Helo is a very good dog.

But this thing we’re doing together, I’m asking him to BE something — a Search and Rescue K-9. I need him to be 100% dog, 100% of the time AND to use that dog-ness to perform a task humans cannot perform. I need him to be willing and able to work away from me, to use his nose and his instincts in an extraordinary way.  There is talk in our group of “putting obedience” on the dog after the beginning of the search training is done, like a title. It struck me the first time I heard it — “putting it” — as an odd thing. But it makes sense now. It is restrictive to their being.  The obedience work is merely so we can live with them, exist with them in social settings, so they know what’s expected of them in public. Because we weren’t planning on this little adventure we’re on, Helo and I did it backward. Now we’re having to go back and undo some of what I did before, what I put on him–Helo, obedient family pet.

This whole work is so amazingly difficult for me, the control freak, the person who works largely on my own. I pick my stories. I cover my beat. I design my class and I teach it.

I have to slow down with this. I have to be quiet, like ACTUALLY QUIET, while he works and let him figure it out. It makes me want to climb out of my skin. Of course, he senses it and the “good dog” worries that he’s disappointing me. See? It’s a vicious cycle.

If you’re reading this, and you’re prone to praying, throw one up for us, for me, that I’ll let him just be. It’s a lesson I need to learn in just about every area of my life anyway — letting those living, free-will-endowed beings around me just do their thing without me worrying about them every minute of every day. I never could keep them all safe and sound, protected and whole, and God knows I tried. It’s no different with the people I love than it is with my dog. I can’t control. I can’t change.

Helo’s not the only one learning how to “be.”

The limits of observation, part II

There are cases that I can’t forget, stories I’ve written that I wish for all the world I could unwrite, erase from my memory, look into that pen held by the Men In Black, or shake out of my head like the drawings on an Etch-a-Sketch. To be honest, most of the dead children, those I remember. (what is wrong with me, though, that I say “most” and not “all”? yikes)

Michael Plumadore is one of those stories. And when it snows, like it’s been snowing, and there are Christmas lights on the trees and bushes outside, and little girls are wearing Christmas dresses, I can’t forget him. I can’t forget what he did, what we couldn’t do as a community, and the limits of what I could do as a journalist. Hell, the limits of what is available to you as a fellow human being is the most maddening of all the particularly maddening things about life here, no?

Anyway, a little girl went missing at Christmas. I blogged about it then, as best I could, but packed it back up, buried it in the back of all the other homicide stories, the robberies, and the daily debris of my life as a crime reporter. But now, two Christmases later, I still remember her. I remember how I left work on a Friday night, mentioning to our police reporter that there was something weird about a “missing child” at that time of day, at this time of year. I remember coming back into the office at 6 a.m. the next morning, and hearing the county police continuing their search. I remember my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. I remember calling a police source, and asking if we could help, if it was time to say something to the public about this way-too-small-for-her-age girl and how she was not where she should be.I remember her little face, in the picture the police sent us, wearing her Christmas dress at the funeral of her grandfather. I remember posting those stories that day to the newspaper’s website. I remember listening all day to the scanner, my face buried in the soft fluff that was my old Golden Retriever who always accompanied me to the newsroom on those lonely Saturday mornings. I remember praying, praying, praying. I remember hearing them organizing volunteers. I remember them calling in the search dogs.

When I left that night, I went to church. It was Christmas Eve. By this time, the whole city knew. By this hour, this snowy evening, everyone was praying or begging or hoping. I lit a candle in the narthex. I prayed for her, by name. Someone asked me, she’s going to be found, right? She’ll be fine. I remember deciding right then to lie, at least partly. Yes, I said. They’ll find her. I sat in the pew, in the candlelight, thinking of so much that had nothing to do with Christmas, tears absolutely pouring down my face. Of course, I knew how this ended.

They found her alright. Cops cried on my shoulder the next day, at the press conference, where they told the city what we feared. As the story moved from the trailer park into the courthouse, becoming words on paper, hearings in cavernous rooms, drawing vultures like Nancy Grace into my world (she’s nuts by the way),  I remember just being stunned at this creature who did this. I was never in my life so grateful for a guilty plea. Only worthwhile thing that man ever did, I am damn sure. 

Saturday morning, I sat in a cold-ish barn, drinking too much coffee while I looked at excel spreadsheets and phone trees, planning out my goal for search training for the  year.  The people to the right and left of me, these really interesting and generous and smart people, and their amazing dogs — their names are all over the witness list in that horrible case. They did try. They did something.

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that the case of  that sad little girl didn’t push me a bit into wanting to try to help. I told one of my judges at the time I felt like a carnival barker in hell, doing nothing more than publicizing the sad freak show.  I know, at some level, that my work as a journalist did help a bit that day. We got the pictures out, we pushed the community to want to  help, if just for one day or so, to look out for things larger than the sales at Macy’s. At least I have told myself that for a couple years now.

I just want to do a bit more. And to my very core, I am so very grateful for this weird opportunity to try. I am still a little disoriented by the way in which I found myself here, and the rightness of how it seems to me. Tonight, when I got home after an hour-long commute, I put on my boots and Helo and I went out into the snowstorm, working on our stuff in the driveway. We have a long way to go, but I promise the one missing a year or two from now: We will absolutely be ready.