How I used my dog’s scent work in real life to have my dog find my phone
When it all comes home to you…
If you’d asked me a few weeks ago to explain my life in dog training, I’m not sure how I would have done that. Where I’d start or how I’d explain the whys and stages of a dog-centric life in which your work and play have merged into one. But recently, something happened that explained it to me. Or not so much explained it, but put it there right in front of me so that it all made sense.
This post comes to you in several threads. Bear with me, please, and you’ll see it comes together, just like it did for me.
On this day, I’m at Joshua Tree National Park with my friend Jamie Popper from Blue-9 Pet Products, her dog Roo and my own Maggie and Rossi. This was our first hike in the park upon arriving, not on a trail or organized path, just walking out into the sand and scrub and cacti. The Mojave in its natural state.
I remember thinking how nice it was to have a break like this. Jamie and I had just finished up a week at Clicker Expo, working with our dogs over long days in a busy indoor environment. That followed an intense several months for me – Rossi’s arrival, the publication of my book Working Like A Dog, and my entree into scent work and scent trial competitions.
For Working Like A Dog, my co-author/photographer Brandise and I traveled the US meeting and photographing working dogs of all kinds. Even though I work with dogs every day, this was a real learning experience for me as I had no idea just how many jobs dogs could do and I really hadn’t seen the extent of the bond – the total dependence and trust – between working dogs and their handlers. It’s one thing to teach your dog tricks so you can do film shoots and charity shows; it’s quite another when you rely on your dog to warn you about life-threatening allergens or you send your dog into unstable avalanche country to search for victims or into buildings to look for explosives. Suddenly, cute doggie tricks don’t seem so important anymore.
Somewhere along the way in my WLAD journey, I signed Maggie and myself up for scent classes. I’m always looking for new skills to learn and new ways to train so this sounded interesting. The instructor, Penny Scott-Fox, was incredible and very encouraging to us and while it wasn’t always easy, we made steady progress to the point where Penny said we should sign up for our first scent trials.
If you’re not familiar with scent trials, it’s basically a civilian version of canine detection work run by the American Kennel Club. Dogs learn to search for certain scents (usually birch, anise, cypress or clove) in a variety of environments and conditions. The handler lets the dog find the scent and then the dog ‘alerts’ when he believes he’s found it. The handler is mostly passive but needs to know when to confirm the dog’s alert and when to ignore the alert and ask the dog to keep searching.
I went to our first competition not really knowing what to expect. But this was me and Maggie. We’ve done everything together and most of the time, we’ve exceeded all expectations. Whenever and wherever she shows up, she’s the star of the show. It’s been like that for us for nine years. This was just about finding a scent in a box in a room. It’s not like doing a handstand or riding a skateboard or playing the piano. I mean, how hard could this be? I envisioned us going home with prizes. I hoped my car was big enough to fit all of them.
And then we got our adorable, camera-ready, trick-trained asses kicked. Hard. We entered four classes and failed them all but one. Maggie and I were equally terrible, probably me more so than her. Some nice people offered advice, as if I was new to dog training, but it was still nice and showed how great the community is. Penny suggested remedial work for both of us, which I welcomed and hung onto every word she said. It didn’t matter that this was our first attempt at this – I was humiliated.
I had no idea I could be such a failure at something that involved dog training. But I stuck with it and listened to the voices of experience. We got better. Our communication improved. I learned how to be a better handler. Maggie learned the difference between scent work and studio work. I even signed up Rossi for classes.
So all that weighed into my life leading up to this hike in Joshua Tree. For our time here, I wasn’t going to worry about training or classes or clients, I was just going to be out in the desert with human and canine friends.
About a mile into the park, Jamie and Roo climbed some rocks. I took off my backpack and put down my jacket and phone before joining them.
We took in the desert air and enjoyed the views, describing the various cacti in the way people usually talk about clouds.
The sun was getting low and we knew it was time to go back to the car, although with no trail to guide us, we weren’t always 100% sure where it was. But we found it, loaded up three very tired dogs…
…and that’s when I realized my phone was missing. A wave of panic followed by I-know-it’s-here-somewhere semi-calm and then the stark raving truth that it’s not. It’s not anywhere.
Logic. Logic, I told myself. Back to the rocks, not far at all. Jamie and Roo were kind enough to accompany me on the hurried march back to the where I’d left my phone, I let Maggie and Rossi nap safely crated in the car. I imagined myself picking it up, putting it in my pocket, letting that lost/fear feeling dissipate, laughing about it with Jamie. Relegating it to That Time I Almost Lost My Phone in the Desert. A funny story to tell.
The rocks were a solid landmark. We had no trouble finding them again. But my phone was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere.
After looking at every available spot of sandy, identical desert floor, now darkening under the evening sky, we tried to retrace our exact steps home. The conversation started going something like this:
“Roo, maybe can you find it.”
“Was that the little cactus we pointed at?”
“Oh wait, I think that’s the one.” (points to another identical cactus)
“Do you remember this crushed beer can?”
“Maybe we walked over there?”
It’s only a phone, I told myself as I got in the car. Don’t let this ruin your time with Jamie. But my mind was racing ahead, thinking of all the calls I’d have to make, getting a new phone, running down the list of things I’d consider irreplaceable.
Like all the photos and videos of my dogs. Rossi’s entire puppyhood. Edited training videos. Unedited training videos. Silly moments at home or out at the park. Me with the horses I ride. And all that friends and family stuff – it doesn’t have to have an animal in it to be important, right?
I know you’re supposed to back up your phone and sync it regularly but really, who does that? Or rather, who doesn’t do that until after they’ve lost their phone and everything on it.
Back at our airbnb, I was fixated on the fate of my phone. I knew sort of where it was and exactly what it was doing – lying in the sand, desert breeze blowing over it, night creatures strolling by. Maybe an honest hiker would find it. Or a park ranger. Or no one, ever. Of course I’d tried Find My Phone but in that part of the Mojave there was no service, which is lovely when you’re trying to get away from it all and be one with the desert but not so great when you’re like poor ET trying to phone home.
I put in in Lost Mode and tried to let it go. It’s only a phone. It’s only a phone. We’ll go look for it tomorrow, I told myself. None of that positive self-talk stopped me from checking on it about every five minutes.
Things looked a little brighter in the morning. One nice surprise was that my co-creator of Working Like A Dog, my great friend Brandise, insisted on joining our little search party. She had all the confidence in the world that we’d find the phone, despite the fact that it was a relatively tiny, unresponsive iPhone lying somewhere in an 800,000 acre desert.
As we walked out into the morning sun, retracing our steps as best we could, the dogs were running around, oblivious to smartphones and their complications. Jamie started jokingly asking Roo to go find the phone. On our WLAD adventures, Brandise and I had met a dog that is trained specifically to find objects like cell phones, so I knew that this was possible. However, that dog works full-time for the West Sacramento Police Department and has years of specialized training.
But that got me thinking: Maggie is trained in Handler Discrimination (HD) which is a part of American Kennel Club scent training and competitions where the dog is tasked with finding its handler’s scent. Usually this will be on a glove or sock hidden in a box. Was Maggie good at this? Let’s just say the TSA wasn’t going to be signing us up anytime soon.
It was worth a try. I called Maggie over and gave her the cue to find my scent. Ok, here goes. She ran off… and peed on a stick on the ground and came back. Oh dear. I knew it was a longshot but I tried again. And again. With each repetition of the cue she’d run around dodging cacti and leaping tumbleweeds. She was trying, at least, and she looked pretty damn cute but I didn’t see this heading toward success. For some reason, Brandise did. She’s amazing that way.
We got to the rocks. The rocks that ruined my week. If I hadn’t felt the need to ditch my bag and climb up, what was I thinking? I knew at this point, we were getting closer to having to give up. There weren’t any other places to look, we were almost at the end of our possibilities. As if to acknowledge that, we all stopped walking, just three girls and three dogs and millions of cacti and joshua trees in a sea of sand under an endless desert sky. I gave Maggie the HD cue again and she launched into action once more. Nose in the air, running, turning, working like a dog. She backtracked a bit, turned again, then stood tall and stock-still.
‘She alerted’, I said. Maggie likes to stand with her foot on the scent box to alert me. It’s a trick-dog habit, Penny says, and we’ve been trying to train her out of it. Except that right now her paw was on my iPhone. She found it. In the unmapped, no-cell-service, off-trail sand of the Mojave Desert.
Where Find My iPhone and all technology failed us, my little Maggie came through in a way I never imagined. Yes, I know, for the zillionth time it’s just a phone, but if you saw Maggie at that moment smiling at us with her foot firmly on the phone, you’d agree that she knew exactly how much that moment meant to me. ‘It’s right here! Now can we get back to having fun?’
Our jaws dropped. We cheered. I might have cried. Jamie got a photo of Maggie in that moment. Then I kissed and hugged my incredible dog.
On our triumphant march back to the car, Brandise admitted she was just being a good friend when she said she was sure we’d find it. Actually, she was sure we’d never find it. She said, ‘You guys had no idea where you walked!’ She was right, we really didn’t. But Maggie did.
It’s just a phone. By now you see how this is so much more. That this is about trust and learning and learning to trust and taking your failures and turning them into opportunities to improve your trust and communication so that when it matters, you and your dog can rely on each other to be each other’s superhero.
A few photos from the rest of our adventure together with Jamie, Roo, Maggie and Rossi…
*The majority of the photos taken from Joshua Tree in this post are from Jamie Popper. I’m forever grateful to not only have my phone, the memories we made together, but also these photos Jamie captured from our time together. She also makes a mean burger.