I pulled silverware out of the drawer and looked back to see a new 55-pound centerpiece in the middle of the tall dining table. She had leaped and planted herself between two delicate candle holders, tail wagging, umber eyes glowing, tongue bubblegum pink against her coal-black muzzle and white teeth. Immobile, except for that tail. She looked like a Disney version of Anubis --before he became Egypt’s official god of death, but was still a mischievous jackal pup, cruising for a little chaos and destruction. Even terrifying dog gods have to start somewhere.
I informed Coda in a measured tone that she had made a bad choice and she’d have to get down. Now. Part of me worried about the height and the harm to her eight-month-old joints. Down is harder than up. I shouldn’t have worried. She let a huff of air out of her lungs. Her tail stopped wagging and got a crick in it. She stared at me and didn’t budge. I repeated the command, knowing I should never repeat a command. She cocked her head.
My husband, the noninterventionist, kept chopping onions. He knew the diagnosis. I had a severe case of SDS -- Second Dog Syndrome.
David wasn’t the only one acting like Switzerland. Solo, our other German shepherd, lay in the corner, his chin sunk into the concrete floor. Solo is a cadaver dog. He and I had trained and searched for the missing and presumed dead for the past eight years. He had been the canine center of my life for nearly a decade. Solo taught me how to be search dog handler. I’d shed plenty of tears during his early training. He’d been an occasional jerk when he was younger: dog aggressive, happy to ignore a command if more fun could be had elsewhere. Those early training struggles now seemed inconsequential. Any tears I shed over him these days were sentimental. I could barely remember a time when Solo hadn’t used his nose, his intelligence, his inherent drive -- his bond with me -- on a search.
The same passage of time that created a soft miasma around my memories of teenage Solo had been harder on Solo’s body. My canine sidekick, now almost 10, was receding. He was a pro, but an aging pro. His coat was thinner and softer. When he came over to the bed each morning for his head rub, I could feel his big skull beneath his fur and skin, no longer protected with thick ligaments. Coda, his succubus replacement, seemed to gain flow from Solo’s ebb. The world, to her, was not just horizontal, but vertical. She liked to place her body, whenever possible, on top of things -- on top of Solo, on the back of the couch. She hurdled herself at our picture windows when she saw rabbits in our yard, warbling like a banshee. She counter-surfed, rearing like a sidewinder with a parallel movement so she could snake her head over the edge of the kitchen island. She jumped on tables and over easy chairs in a single bound when she was in the mood. She ran like the wind through the woods. Sometimes, terrifyingly, away from me.
I shouldn’t be suffering from second dog syndrome. After all, Coda is my fourth German shepherd. But in the world of working dogs, I am still a relative beginner. Solo and his excellent nose helped me fall in love with the world of scent dogs who help find the missing. My ambitions when I got Coda seemed plausible: I wanted to do the same thing with her, but at a smoother, easier, elevated level. After all, I was that much more experienced as a handler. Training her should be a snap.
If a violinist or pianist is serious and dedicated, she will scale up to a Guarneri or a Steinway to fit her increasing skills. That new instrument accommodates and develops and expands the musician’s talents. As a scent-dog handler who wanted to improve, I had upped the ante with this new canine instrument: a pup from a long line of working shepherds. Despite being warned by experienced dog handlers and trainers that the transition might not be smooth, I had fantasized that Coda -- raven black, beautiful, energetic Coda -- would be my Steinway. Instead, she was turning out the wrong way.
The term “second dog syndrome” carries a bit of pathology with it. It sounds enough like a medical condition that it doesn’t place direct blame on the handler. It was possible to have sympathy, if not empathy, for the condition. Friends who didn’t have dogs, or had companion dogs, talked about me, concerned. While they couldn’t entirely understand my anguish, it was clear that I wasn’t bonding properly with Coda. It wasn’t probably wasn’t as bad as news traveling that a new mother can’t breast her infant properly. Still. The other week, a friend who had been out of the country, said she’d heard about my travails and had been worried. Coda, she declared, seemed perfectly lovely. Coda lay across from us, absorbed with a fresh marrow bone. As long as the bone lasted, she would be lovely.
Some dog trainers who worked with companion dogs counseled me as well: I just needed to find what Coda was meant to become. She might not be meant to be a cadaver dog. Her real métier would reveal itself, like a secret name. She might be “Nursing Home Dog.” Or “Free Style Dance Dog.” Or simply “Pander to Me Dog.” The names were limitless, including the all-too-possible “Kill the Neighborhood Cat Dog.” Coda would find her bliss and her canine calling, and I would become a better owner, indeed, a better human for allowing her that freedom to blossom.
There was one problem with this Zen approach to dog relationship maintenance. It made me crazy.
Working-dog trainers understood “second dog syndrome,” but they were distinctly less inclined to give the concept a slack lead. No, if Coda didn’t succeed, and I didn’t dump her and find another cadaver dog candidate, I might easily become what experienced trainers dismissively call “a one dog wonder.” That’s the kind of handler who works with one dog, has some success, but is never able to hit that groove with another dog. The handler blames the dog. She and everyone around her know where the real problem lies.
Objectively, Coda possessed every single attribute I dreamed of for my second search dog. She had everything she needed. She was a nose artist. Once she found scent, she didn’t look back. She had prey drive and hunt drive. During training, she didn’t give up or give her alert until she could get as close as possible to the source of the scent. As David noted, “at least she’s very moral when she searches.” She also had what her breeder, Kathy Holbert, called “environmental hardness:” nerve that would help her ignore pain, work through heat and cold; see hills and rocks and cliffs and barbed wire as minor inconveniences. She was a dog who knew exactly where her body was in space: the candles on the dining room table hadn’t wobbled with her catlike leap. She was a dog who could work in rubble and be able to crawl through collapsed buildings. She levitated over obstacles, pushed open closed doors, ignored impediments. All those skills might ultimately help her search in North Carolina woods and fields until she found what she was looking for.
Of course, she occasionally considered me as another impediment in her young life. I prevented her from using our entire house like her personal gymnasium and our open yard as a invitation to hunt. Independence is important in a search dog; it was a trait that she had down pat. She needed it to be able to ignore me when necessary so she could concentrate on the task at hand. A working dog can’t stare in adoration at its handler all day. Still, independence needs to work paw in hand with a deep bond. All my prior shepherds wanted to be with me. They could be called off even a quick chase after tempting wildlife. Coda would have preferred to finish the job herself. I can imagine her in the wilderness, thriving instead of starving, as most domesticated dogs would. But that’s not what I needed her for.
Two trainers who had seen me through working with Solo were sympathetic and amused. “You sound stressed,” said Nancy Hook. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. She’s a teenager and that sucks.” Mike Baker, who has trained law enforcement canines and their handlers for decades, kept reminding me that I was forgetting how much work it took to get Solo to the point where he and I worked on autopilot, moving as one. It takes time, he said. She’s not yet sure of the game. She’ll put it all together. I didn’t bother correcting Mike. I knew Solo had always been perfect. Coda would never be.
Then came a day last week when Mike decided to push my and Coda’s training a bit further. He forded a swollen creek to hide some training material -- some forest floor material harvested from underneath a suicide victim. Mike securely wedged the opened Mason jar in rocks on the banks on the other side, and let it rest for a half hour, so the scent would start to swim around in the air. He didn’t tell me where it was. That was Coda’s job.
“Watch your dog.” Mike gave me his quiet standard warning as we came around the corner. Coda started pacing back and forth on the creek bank, throwing her head in the air. She had clearly worked her way into the scent cone. But she didn’t want to cross the creek. Every dog has its issues; otherwise fearless Coda wasn’t in love with fast, deep water. It unnerved her. She whined and paced, tried to put a foot into the water, pulled it out, ran downstream to see if the current was calmer there, came back upstream. She stared across the bank, right at where the scent was coming from. She tried to will it to jump over the creek to her, but that’s not what the scent of human remains does. She whined. She didn’t look at me.
Nonetheless, the independent brat needed me. Finally. I’m not that fond of deep creeks either, but I heeded her cry. I crawled and waded across the creek, slipping on algae-covered boulders, catching myself. Mike was already on the other side, lending a hand to haul me up the bank. Once I was on the other side, I did what every working dog handler should do. I had actually learned something over the years. Instead of using a comforting wheedling voice, I called her once in a happy voice. Then I simply walked away into the woods, away from the creek bank, away from Coda. Goodbye. I heard sharp yelps of displeasure. Then I heard a splash.
Perhaps the end of the story should be that she came running to me, slow motion, love and affection in her eyes. She did not. Maybe there was some affection in her eyes. I don’t know because I was walking away. But Mike saw what she did.
She swam, pulled herself out of the creek, started running toward me, and then fish-hooked. She remembered what she had come down to the creek for in the first place. Not to follow me, but to follow scent. She crawled down close to the swift water and the boulders. She put her nose in the dark crack that hid the training material.
And I came galumphing back in my muddy boots to where she was lying crouched in her standard alert -- and rewarded her like crazy. For caring about me, for overcoming her fear. And ultimately, what was best of all? For ignoring me in favor of the scent she was trained to find. I slipped and slid again, getting back across that treacherous creek. Coda was already back on the side where we’d started. She had found a narrow bend in the creek on her return and leaped across without touching the water. She was flying, high as a little black kite.
She stood there waiting for me. Her tail wagged. Her umber eyes glowed.