Monday, March 26, 2012
The story was horrific, with TV levels of both melodrama and evil.
The young handler's accomplished SAR dog had been kidnapped from his kennel, and the nefarious dog thief had phoned with vile threats on the beloved animal's life. Someone was jealous of the dog's success.
The nascent internet -- or at least, the little corner of it where search and rescue dog handlers hung out in 1997 -- caught fire over the course of the morning. The check is in the mail, came the feverish emails to the SARDOGS listserver, from all over the country, the world. Anything to help a brother get his partner back, including ransom.
Ummm ... guys ...
Shut up! We're being hysterical here!
Good reason to be hysterical. Sam the Newfoundland was found drowned in the river later that day. There was a plastic bag over his head, secured by a cruel wire around his neck. Murdered. What monster could do such a thing? How could we console his stricken handler? And also, send money to the reward fund. Bring the sociopath to justice!
Ummm ... guys ... can we just hold on ...
Why are you such a bitch all the time?*
Well, I'm the chairman of a regional SAR unit that covers that county, and I've never heard of this guy or his unit.
He says that his dead puppy has made six finds. I'm not aware of six searches this year in this area.
The puppy was eight months old. You all claim to be SAR handlers. Some of you are training officers who administer your unit's operational standards. How many of you have operational dogs that are eight months old? How many of you have operational dogs that are eight months old and have six finds on searches? Giant breed puppy dogs with more finds than most seasoned handlers can claim? Really, how many?
He claims that his search and rescue dog excited hatred by virtue of his great success in finding lost people.
Is any of this plausible to y'all?
Don't harsh our righteous buzz with your infernal skepticism and snobby logic.
No, I guess I can leave that to the police chief. Who just arrested the "handler" for killing his dog and filing a false police report.
If you are going to lie to the police, and lie badly, try not to do it with parts of the murder weapon clearly visible in the back of your truck. Try not to lie to a chief of police who is not a born fool.
I called my friend Martha, president of a SAR unit in the county to the south of dog-murderer Ron Shawley's group. Ever hear of this clown?
Oh, she had. She knew him quite well, and, while as appalled as anyone, Martha failed to be entirely surprised. Because, among other things, Ron Shawley's previous dog had also died under shady circumstances. "Poisoned," Shawley claimed, "by bad dog food from Walmart." Buried months before, no necropsy. The food not retained or tested. (And thus, no lucrative settlement money from Wally-world, oops.) Martha hadn't believed that one, either. But when a pet dog dies under mysterious circumstances, CSI does not swoop in and get to the bottom of it.
As for the pup -- he was a nice pup, but not trained to do anything, much less SAR. They used him for fundraising and to impress schoolchildren. Shawley loved to go to malls with the puppy in his official-looking vest, and get money and lots and lots of attention for being the owner of a hero dog. This bears emphasis, because the news reporters couldn't grasp this one: The same guy who says the dog was a "trained search and rescue dog" is the one that murdered the dog to get attention and invented a vicious kidnapper on whom to try to pin the crime. This is not a credible source. This is not a story about a real handler of a real SAR dog gone bonkers. The bonkers goes back to the very beginning.
Newfoundlands are not a long-lived breed -- one reason they are unsuitable for SAR work -- but Shawley's Newfs were setting new records for brevity.
Martha told me several more things about her estimation of Shawley, his character, and likely motives for murdering one and almost certainly two dogs, but what made my blood shiver and clot, the detail that never made it to news reports:
"He and his wife were trying to have a baby. Thank god ... "
Thank god Samson, an innocent being who was totally dependent on Shawley, was just a dog.
I'm one of those people whose hackles rise when someone dismisses a loss as "just a dog." In this case, I did it myself, and continue to do so. I'm so sorry Samson. I'm sure you were a sweet boy. I never knew you, you've been dead for fifteen years by the hand of the human you loved best, and I still tear up when I think about your short life and last moments of panic and pain and betrayal. I'm still glad you were not a human baby.
I'd heard about Munchausen by Proxy as it applied to parents and children. Hadn't considered it -- or something similar to it -- in the context of a dog.
Thing is, a sick pet doesn't buy much attention. You can milk it a little for a murdered pet, with tales of shadowy enemies who stole or poisoned or otherwise harmed your dog, but that only goes so far. It's unlikely that a news van will be in your driveway over it.
A murdered hero dog† is another matter.
Lionizing dog led to drowing, police theorize
Of course I'd by that time in my career encountered quite a few people who used "SAR dogs" as a proxy to bring unearned and disproportionate attention to themselves. It was two years on from the Oklahoma City bombing, the first time search and rescue dogs had found a national media spotlight, and the tiny world of search and rescue dogs had started changing overnight. I'd started a clippings file for "Nuts, Flakes, Frauds," and it was plumping up. Because more persons of unstable ego formation had found a new way to command the spotlight. Some of them were swindling money for it. All of them were putting lives in peril when they responded to a search.
Training a SAR dog and handler to a credible operational standard is hard. It takes a long time. There are no shortcuts. Even the smoothest course will present ego-deflating setbacks. Success, when it blesses one, is the result of a progressive process of profound and transformative humbling. The difficulty, time, and humbling are part of the deal even when success does not grace the supplicant. No guarantees.
Buying an orange dog vest, a blue light, and an embroidered ballcap is cheap, easy, and yields the exact same amount of attention and credibility from the public as does the hard and genuine road. More bling generally brings more attention. Time not spent training can be devoted to self-promotion.
Leading to the generally-accepted rule of thumb among old-timers, that the more lights and stickers on a claims-to-be handler's vehicle, the less dog will be inside it. Big hat, no cows.
The line between deluding others and self-delusion is pretty furry here. If one carefully avoids learning much, starts a "new unit" rather than joining one with standards, doesn't work real training tasks with other operational handlers, certainly never lets them see you work a task -- it's fairly easy to convince oneself that "worse than useless" does not apply. Delusions of adequacy follow. Delusions of grandeur are a tiny jump.
Among SAR professionals, no one ever asks "How many finds does your dog have?" Not in a serious light. We know that a dog or handler can work flawlessly for years at the highest levels of competence and never have the good fortune to be assigned the hot area. We know that a dog who says "No, not here" and is telling the truth is as valuable to the search effort as the one who says "Yes, this is it." They are the same dog.
The attention-seeker who has never followed the hard and humbling path cannot grok this ethic. It isn't supported by "the public" or the media or, more often than not, other public-safety disciplines.
So then come the "finds." One dog had 1,651 finds and 5,876 missions over a fourteen-year lifespan, which may or may not have included any puppyhood or retirement. That's not a typo. That's straight from her "handler's" website. As is a great deal else. I'll leave it to each reader to do the computations; there's a little calculator right on your computer desktop. Every media hero dog has, of course, been at all the high-profile disaster searches -- Oklahoma, WTC, Katrina, the Columbia crash -- and made miraculous live finds at all of them. (And never, ever, has her handler been escorted off the scene for trespassing and held for questioning.)
Most attention-seekers stop at the finds. Or at piling on the multiple disciplines -- the dog, three years old, is "trained" to do SAR. And find drugs. Explosives. Endangered species' fewmets. Currency. Bad guys. Pets. He's my service dog for my unspecified disability that somehow does not interfere with my work as a world-famous disaster SAR handler and so you have to let him on this airplane . Therapy dog for crippled children. Protection dog -- this one has always routed a mugger or six, though the assailants are never caught. Hunts pheasants. Contacts the everlovin' dead.
Most attention-seekers carry on for years. The dog's resume steadily inflates. Additional dogs are added. They often have eager audiences in the local media and/or internet communities, but peer review, as it were, is a bit scarcer. It's common for a breed community to have one or two tellers of tales. The Famous Siberian Snarklehound SAR dog and licensed bartender, living in a state where you've never visited, can be a point of pride among owners of Siberian Snarklehunden, who offer constant validation to an owner they've generally never met, and are quick to defend this total stranger from any cheeky questions about details such as external certifications or verifiable credentials.
The "handler" may manufacture a bit of drama if interest flags. A medical emergency -- maybe it really happened, maybe it didn't, but an accidental cut on the paw will become assault and battery. This may be the time to worry about the dog's welfare. Most attention addicts do not murder their own dogs, but the sympathy rush they get from a real or manufactured assault on the dog can push some of them in that direction.
The unwitting "hero" dogs whose owners invent another dog to take their places, the mere mortal meatdogs standing in for a fantasy creature through which their owners live an imaginary life -- like poor young Samson, they have no idea. If they did, being dogs, they'd forgive most of it. Because, being dogs, they know better than anyone how desperate their owners are to be the center of attention, to be showered with unearned love and approval, respect and admiration. Isn't that a dog's job, after all? Their only question would be, is my love not enough for you?
* NB, I was not the only Betty Buzzkill warning colleagues not to send money to the ransom-turned-reward fund that day, and many listers grokked the problem and exercised prudent restraint, silently. But I did seem to be the designated bitch du jour, by virtue of proximity, and, you know, not being a fatuous sucker.
† The other "hero dog" that is easy to fake is "my service dog." For someone with a pathological need to be the object of attention (not, as far as I know, a disability under the parameters of the ADA), it's hard to beat a "service dog" -- and fiendishly hard for anyone to even raise a question about it. Because then he is bullying a disabled person. (Observe Catch-22 hiding in this setup.)