Not a bad employee, either

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Mandy Mohler
You don’t have to train a dog to love, that comes naturally, but we can teach our furry buddies to do so much more: retreive ducks or balls; comfort veterans with PTSD or senior citizens with dementia; track down fugitives or sniff out illegal drugs; navigate agility courses or leap off docks. They work hard. They aim to please. And when the workday is over no matter how difficult or exhausting it was, they love you as much as they did in the morning.

CAMO

Breed: X Hollandse Herder (cross between Dutch Shepherd and Belgian Malinois)
Occupation: Police dog, competitive dock diver
Handler: Dale Brandeberry

The X before Hollandse Herder seems to hint at the mysterious, as if out of a spy novel, but in fact it merely signifies that the dog is a cross between two breeds. Yet, Camo wouldn’t be a bad partner for a spy.

“The Dutch have been trying to breed the perfect police dog. That’s what she is.”

“The Dutch have been trying to breed the perfect police dog. That’s what she is.”

Under the tutelage of Dale Brandeberry, a longtime police dog trainer, Camo will sniff out a bag of heroin or attack a perpetrator on command. But if no laws are being broken, she’s content playing with a ball or diving off docks. As with so many of us, she tries to strike that ideal balance between work and play.

If you happen to catch her on a break, and perhaps spend some time snuggling with her, you’d never guess what she’s capable of professionally.

“She’s so sweet, but she’d bite you on command,” Brandeberry says. “We like dogs like that: sweet but workable. She’s great around kids, really sweet, but when we send her off to bite a bad guy, we want her doing it because she’s commanded to do it.”
Camo, 15 months old, isn’t yet working with a law enforcement agency, although Brandeberry says she might in the future, or she might stay on as his demo dog. Brandeberry formerly worked for the U.S. Forest Service as national police canine coordinator, lead evaluator and master trainer, traveling to over 20 states to train and evaluate the training of police dogs. He retired six years ago but continues to run his own Kalispell-based company, K-9 Command Services.

Brandeberry has trained dogs for law enforcement agencies throughout Montana, including in Missoula, Lake County, Powell County and elsewhere, in addition to his work across the nation. He has a DEA license that allows him to obtain drugs like heroin for training purposes.

He says Dutch Shepherds, and their offshoots that are bred with Belgian Malinois, are genetically engineered for the rigors of law enforcement.

“She would rather work than eat,” he says of Camo.

This is the first time he has incorporated dock diving into training. Camo’s rippled hindquarters speak to her athleticism, although she hasn’t entered any formal competitions yet. But Brandeberry expects good results when she does.

“She can jump 25 feet pretty easily,” he says.

RIVER

Breed: Belgian Tervuren
Occupation: Agility and show dog
Handler: Caitlyn Franke (with mother, Lori Franke)

Caitlyn Franke was 4 years old when her family brought a new puppy into the home. She’s now 15, which means she’s spent nearly three-quarters of her life with River, and not passively like many children with their dogs. She’s actively trained River, bonded with her as both a friend and teammate, and put the tightness of their relationship on display in the heat of agility and show competitions.

“What’s fun for me is the teamwork and the work that goes into it paying off.”“What’s fun for me is the teamwork and the work that goes into it paying off.”

“What’s fun for me is the teamwork and the work that goes into it paying off.”

Lori Franke, Caitlyn’s mother, says the relationship has given back as much as her daughter has put into it, which is the point.

“Kids learn so much from pets,” Lori says. “They learn responsibility – making sure they’re fed, cleaning up the yard – and they learn empathy. Dogs really respond to what you do and how you treat them.

“It gives kids a base for interacting with other living creatures, with people.”

Caitlyn, a 4.0 freshman at Glacier High School, began working with River when she was old enough, picking up where her elder sister’s training left off. River, now semi-retired at 13 ½ years old, has earned a boatload of titles and certificates through the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), and has won two sets of junior handler titles in the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA). Both Caitlyn and her sister qualified for the USDAA nationals.

Caitlyn has also guided River to three straight first-place junior dog showmanship awards at the Northwest Montana Fair. In showmanship, Caitlyn is judged on how well she presents River using voice and body commands. During agility competitions, Caitlyn helps River navigate over, under, through or around a series of obstacles, depending on the type of course, trying to avoid faults and finish as fast as possible.

But, like any athlete, River can’t compete with age, and though she’s healthy, she’s not the competitor she once was. She visits the chiropractor and spends more of her leisure time lounging around the house. She still enjoys a competition here and there, but she’s just as fond of a long nap in the sun.

“Ultimately, she’s a pet, and I want her to live healthily in the house,” Lori says. “She’s picked her favorite couch. She’s a happy old girl.”

PENNY

Breed: Redbone coonhound
Occupation: Search and rescue tracker
Handler: Julie Balch

Sometimes the difference between life and death is a nose – Penny’s nose, to be specific. It’s a pretty cute nose.

“Hounds put their nose to the ground and they’re gone. They get such tunnel vision, nothing can distract them. Not cars, not people, not anything.”

“Hounds put their nose to the ground and they’re gone. They get such tunnel vision, nothing can distract them. Not cars, not people, not anything.”

Penny, a 3-year-old redbone coonhound, is a tracking dog for Flathead County Search and Rescue and North Valley Rescue Association. When someone goes missing, all she needs is a scent from the person, perhaps an article of clothing, and she’ll put her nose to the ground as if her life depends on it, though it’s not her life that she’s saving.

She has a proven track record of either leading crews to the missing person or giving them enough information to finish the mission. Even a state-of-the-art Two Bear Air rescue helicopter might need a nudge in the right direction, and it comes not from the highly sophisticated technological controls on its dashboard but from the finely tuned biological functions of Penny’s nose.

“It’s amazing to watch her work,” says Julie Balch, a Flathead County Search and Rescue volunteer and Penny’s owner.

Balch was inspired to train a hound for search and rescue after watching her son-in-law use redbones for mountain lion hunting. She figured that a hound’s relentless zeal for locating a lion would transfer to tracking a human.

Balch, who runs a truck driving company in Columbia Falls, travels regularly to Billings to work with a North American Police Work Dog Association trainer, constantly honing Penny’s skills and earning certifications relevant to their jobs.

Hounds follow the trail of microscopic skin “rafts,” made up of shed skin cells. Balch either tethers Penny to the end of a 35-foot line, constantly keeping tension as they trek through all types of terrain, or she attaches a GPS collar and lets the dog work her magic solo. Through Penny’s GPS coordinates, search parties can begin piecing together potential routes and locations.

Penny might not always find the person herself, but she plays an important role for the rescuers, often members of Two Bear Air.

“It doesn’t matter who finds them; we just want a happy ending,” Balch says. “We’re one tool in this great big tool box.”

ABBY and EMMA

Breed: Goldendoodles (cross between golden retriever and poodle)
Occupation: Nursing home therapy dogs
Handler: Cheryl Lowe

When Cheryl Lowe, activities director at Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s Brendan House nursing home, shows up for work, residents immediately seek out her dogs, Abby and Emma. When she takes the day off, they still look for the dogs. If the pooches are nowhere to be found, a very mellow riot ensues.

“Sometimes I’ll find one of them in the bed with a resident, and they’ll be in a full-body hug.”

“Sometimes I’ll find one of them in the bed with a resident, and they’ll be in a full-body hug.”

“They don’t even ask for me,” Lowe says. “They ask for Emma and Abby. The residents really miss them if they’re not there.”

So Lowe sends the pups to work even if she stays home. It’s a two-way street: the dogs miss the residents, too.

Lowe, who has worked at Brendan House since its inception 30 years ago, says Abby and Emma are equally cherished by long-term and short-term residents alike. The temporary residents often have dogs at home that they miss, and Lowe’s goldendoodles soften the blow of separation. For long-term folks, the dogs essentially become their own.

Through daily visits, residents get to know Abby and Emma intimately, and they experience the kind of truly unconditional love that only dogs can offer. Having both a small and big dog works out perfectly, Lowe says, because people have different preferences. Abby, 1 ½ years old, is a full-grown mini goldendoodle at 17 pounds. Emma, 6 months old, is a 40-pound standard goldendoodle who will top out at about 55.

“We have residents with dementia who often won’t remember staff’s names, but they remember the dogs’ names,” Lowe says.

“That’s a good example of the power of their therapeutic value.”

Lowe previously had a cockapoo – a Cocker Spaniel and poodle mix – who died at the age of 17 ½. That dog’s sister was also a therapy dog. Lowe got Abby from a breeder in Toronto and Emma from Spokane. She says the dogs’ therapeutic merit extends beyond residents.

“We have an enclosed courtyard where they play,” Lowe says, “and the window is always full with people watching them: residents, visitors, staff.”

“If I had one underlying theme,” she adds, “it would be, ‘This is good medicine.'”