In Stanislaus County, Dogs Really Work It
Here in Stanislaus County, it’s a dog’s world. At our local lakes, dogs help keep reservoirs free of invasive species; the Del Rio country club touts a dog that keeps the course geese free; the law enforcement departments have canine units doing everything from sniffing out drugs to helping locate lost kids, not to mention the many area service dogs that help the blind and people with other disabilities get through each day.
In fact, it seems like just about everywhere you look in the Valley, there’s a dog holding down a job.
And that’s not new. The relationship between dogs and humans dates back more than 30,000 years, and the tradition of using dogs for specific tasks is thought to go back nearly as far. As time marched on, new dog breeds came along that were perfectly suited to herd other animals, to aid in hunting and to protect our homes. Today’s working dogs are clear inheritors of these traditions. These days, our canine companions are valued throughout society for their sensitive and accurate noses, the inborn instincts that help them complete tasks (and love doing it) and, of course, their remarkable trainability.
Job #1: Police Work
If you ask Marcy Matos, it’s those very generations of instincts that make her dog such an effective daily partner and friend. Matos, who is a Deputy in the Patterson Sheriff’s Department’s K9 Unit, has been the handler for Sam, a highly-trained Dutch Shepherd, since 2011.
“We choose dogs based on their temperament and drive,” says Matos on why Sam and many other dogs in the department’s ten-canine unit are chosen from the rare Dutch breed. “You don’t want a dog that’s too crazy. You want a dog you can train. His breed is just awesome for that.”
Like most officers assigned to the K9 Unit, Matos’ relationship with her dog doesn’t end when her shift does. Off duty, Sam transitions from police dog to pet. “From home to work, Sam is a totally different dog. That’s what you want, a dog that can turn it on and turn it off.” However, Matos adds that maintaining discipline is key, on duty and off. “Obedience is the number one thing. If the dog won’t listen to you, you’re not going to get them to do what they need to do on the street. We’re pretty low key at home, but we just practice a little bit of obedience every day. If they think he can pull one over on me, he will, and I don’t want to lose that dominance.”
According to Matos, Sam and the other dogs on duty are bred, chosen and trained to be elite. “We get the dogs down in Riverside, a trainer down there will go to Holland and buy only the best of the best. He brings them over and trains them, then we go down, test them and only bring back the very best ones.” Even after the dogs join the unit, their training continues. Each week, an in-house trainer comes in to keep the dogs’ training up to date. The dogs and their handlers are also often sent for advanced training classes to broaden what the dog can do during the course of its 10-year career.
And what a dog can do covers a lot of territory. “In our department, all our patrol dogs are single purpose: find and bite,” says Patterson Sheriff Tori Hughes. Other local agencies employ dogs for everything from tracking to narcotics detection, arson investigation, search and rescue, dogs trained to sniff out decomposing bodies and much more. According to Hughes, dogs and handlers can specialize in one of these areas or “cross-train” to put a compatible series of skills to work.
Job #2: Mussel Detection
Debi DeShon knows first hand how effective this cross training can be. DeShon, who has decades of experience with training dogs, has handled narcotic detection dogs for schools across the valley for years. But in 2007, a new threat began making headlines across the country: invasive mussels.
Zebra and quagga mussels are two species of tiny shellfish that have meant big problems for lakes across the country over the last few decades. The freshwater mollusks invade lakes and rivers and, over a few short years, can completely change habitats. Once they gain a foothold, the tiny mussels ultimately destroy a lake’s flora, deprive native wildlife of food sources and cover every surface—from docks to boat engines—in thick coats of shells.
Until now, the invasive species have hitched rides on the undersides of water vehicles to transfer from lake to lake from the East Coast all the way to Southern California. DeShon aimed to break the cycle. So she cross-trained her chocolate Labrador Retriever Popeye to detect the invasive shellfish by their smell. Now, on any given weekend, DeShon and Popeye can be found at lakeside docks from Mendocino to Waterford, searching local boats for signs of the mussels.
“Right now, all our searches are voluntary,” says DeShon. “More than anything, it’s about education. We want boaters to know to keep their boats clean, drained and dried. We want them to know that there’s the possibility of unintentionally spreading the mussels if they’ve been to an infected lake.”
This education is essential, adds DeShon, and the addition of Popeye makes it much more effective than the usual methods. “I was recently at a ramp that does self certification, every boater fills out a piece of paper in which they declare that they’ve checked their boats for mussels. But when we show up with the dog and tell people we’re looking for the mussels, they’re like ‘what are the mussels?’ Here are people who have been filling out these self-certifications for years who don’t even know what they’re looking for. The dog helps us start the conversation.”
DeShon says making it as a mussel dog is all about energy. “We look for the hunting breeds, the absolutely ball crazy dogs that would drive a normal person crazy. A lot of our dogs are actually donations. They’re dogs that are bored in somebody’s backyard and are tearing up the lawn and chewing through the fence. We channel that energy into this job.”
Job #3: Guide Dogs… in Training
There is perhaps no class of working dog more iconic than the seeing-eye dog. It is in this relationship, that the great trust that humans place in their animal companions becomes most evident.
But every loyal and trusted guide dog was once a puppy. Bridging that gap is what the Stanislaus Guide Dog Association was made for. The puppy club, which is known to members as Stanislaus PAWS (Puppies Assisting With Sight), serves as an essential production system for the San Rafael-based nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has matched the blind with well-trained companion animals for over 70 years.
Stanislaus PAWS members raise puppies from about two months old until they can enter the training program at 15-18 months. In the process, the puppy raisers help establish some of the good traits the dogs will use throughout their lives. “Our job is to teach them a lot of things,” says Club Leader Carrie Mesches. “There are things we can’t do with them that we do with our pets and there are lots of things they get to do that a pet puppy can’t. We work really hard with them to make sure they’re really well behaved in the house, and really good about coming when they’re called because a blind person will have to rely on them.”
Mesches adds that socializing the dogs is a large part of the task, as well. “We take them pretty much everywhere. They go to the grocery store, Costco, the movies. The kids in our club even take their dogs to school. I like to look at it like we have them from kindergarten to high school, then they go to college,” says Mesches. “We give them a really good base and then they go to guide dog training to learn all those really special skills they’ll need to be able to safely guide somebody.”
After leaving their adopted home, the dogs must pass through Guide Dogs for the Blind’s strict training process. Nearly half of the pups who enter the program don’t qualify to become guide dogs due to health issues or simply because they can’t perform flawlessly during the rigorous training. “They’re all really nice dogs, but when they’re working with a blind person, the dog has to be pretty much perfect,” adds Mesches.
The club—which currently includes 27 puppy raisers who vary in age from as young as 10 years old to seniors—is the largest puppy club serving Guide Dogs for the Blind. Puppies raised by the local club have been sent nationwide and today even work as far away as Canada helping guide people with disabilities.
If a dog doesn’t graduate from the training program dog, its puppy raiser can choose to adopt it as a pet or can opt to see if it qualifies for a career change, which would place the dog in another assistive role that may better suit its qualifications. Many career-changed dogs go on to work with Dogs for Diabetics, Search and Rescue, with the Wounded Warriors and more. “A lot of the dogs that get dropped from Guide Dogs get dropped for reasons that wouldn’t ever affect them in some other work,” says Mesches. “They’re amazing, sweet dogs with a lot of training and they often go on to do other great things in the world.”
And Many More…
These three jobs hardly scratch the surface of the variety of ways dogs are used every day in Stanislaus County.
From dogs used in agriculture capacities, employed for their incredible senses, used as therapy animals for a variety of disabilities, disorders and conditions or simply kept as loyal companions, canines continue to be an essential part of everyday life here in the Valley. And from day to day and season to season, they are undoubtedly the only group guaranteed to keep working like dogs.