Solo has no idea that I have a split life, or that he's partly the cause of it. Why should he? He's a dog. He's unaware that human death and decay cause disgust or ambivalence. For him, death is a tug toy.
For me, Solo is the ideal intermediary between me and death. When we search - but even when we train - he becomes the center of my universe, narrowing my scope to the area we're searching. My job is to guide him when needed but let him do his job independent of me, to make sure he has plenty of water and isn't too close to traffic or a backyard Rottweiler, and to watch him closely the entire time, as he tests the air currents and reacts to them.
Looking for a body is an idiosyncratic way of walking in the woods. If I come across a snapping turtle or see an indigo bunting flash in the trees, or if the winter woods open onto an abandoned tobacco barn surrounded with golden beech trees, the pleasure remains, though the reason for being there is a somber one. And it's not all beauty out there: The hidden barbed-wire fences, the catbrier and poison ivy, the deadfall, clear cuts, and garbage dumps that litter the woods all demand my attention, and they get it. Though Solo doesn't love pushing through briar, other than that, even in junkyards or abandoned homesteads, he enjoys sticking his nose into the dark hollows and spaces created by piles of rusted-out heaps and old foundations. I worry more about copperheads, jagged metal, and broken glass than I do about the dangers posed by people, even when a case involves homicide. I do know more about the drug trade in North Carolina than I did before, and I avoid certain truck stops along the I-40 corridor, even if the fuel gauge is near empty.
Overall, the world seems less frightening with a large dog at your side - and that is perhaps especially true when one faces death. For thousands of years, and in numerous religions, from Hinduism in India to the Mayan religions in Mesoamerica, the dead have depended on the continued assistance of canines to help guide them wherever they are going. The Zoroastrians wanted a dog present at funerals, though not just any dog. Preferably a "four-eyed" dog, with a spot of darker fur above each eye. I imagine an ancient shepherd version of Solo doing a gleeful slalom through the mourners.
Tragedy, occasional incompetence, and inevitable cruelty are part of the work, a given. I don't forget those facets: They are relevant, but they don't shine, and not just because Solo is present. Savvy police and sheriff investigators, experienced search managers, locals who know every dirt road and creek in the county, and families and communities that care - because most do - end up occupying much of my selective memory space.
Working with this one ebullient German shepherd and his good nose was the beginning of an odyssey that has started to merge worlds I've loved separately for decades: nature, researching and writing about biology and applied science, and working and playing with animals - especially dogs. The dog's nose has led me to environmental biologists, forensic anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, medical examiners, and military researchers. I've been able to interview, meet, and apprentice with talented working-dog trainers and handlers - people I've ended up liking as much as I like dogs. I've trained alongside canine handlers and trainers who work with drug, bomb, and patrol dogs. In that world of law enforcement, dogs are not just good friends but irreplaceable extensions, lending noses and ears and sometimes bodies and teeth to their human partners, smelling and hearing things their human handlers cannot, going places most people are reluctant to go.