Monday, November 24, 2008

The Refind

One of the rituals of Thanksgiving at our house — including a (welcome) passel of relatives and the surreally early screening the networks choose for How the Grinch Stole Christmas — is the equally puzzling timing of airing The Wizard of Oz.

Straight men tread on this ice with care, because of the cottage industry gay dudes have made of this movie, as well as of Judy Garland [1]. But this deceptively simple film provides rich mining for all sorts of folks at many levels.

I remember, back in grad school, thinking out loud to one of Heather’s friends about how, at the end of the movie, the two Wicked Witches are gone, the Wizard is gone, and who just happens to be there to pick up the pieces? Glinda, the one who was pulling the strings all along, that’s who [2] [3].

Wide-eyed, his only reply was a sarcastic, “I’d never thought about the power politics of The Wizard of Oz before.” There are none as blind as those who will not see, I suppose.

But that’s not why I called you here today. Today we discuss an issue that is sacred — or ought to be, anyway — among search-and-rescue dog handlers. I’m talking about The Refind.

A bit of definition, since SAR dog handlers are notorious for using the same words to mean exactly opposite things, and getting into eye-gouging fights over whose meaning is the right one.

My definition of a refind is when a dog finds the search subject, returns to the handler, and then leads the handler back to the subject. It is the basic, most critical part of SAR dog training, since as I like to say, any dog knows how to find people — the trick is getting her to tell you she’s done it.

A proper refind is — and I use this word with trepidation — magical. I say trepidation because too many SAR dog handlers seem to think that you get it from pure magic, or at least without a ton of work. There is more than one way to put a refind on a dog — but none of them allow you to shortcut the work, which you have to keep doing to keep it sharp.

But when it does come together, it makes you look much, much smarter than you are. Imagine, you’re in the woods, maybe with a thick layer of undergrowth. You can’t see much farther away than 10 or 20 yards. Suddenly the wind kicks up; your dog lifts her nose into that wind, and she’s gone. Way out of sight, and as it’s a long time before you see her again, you get to count plenty of your own heartbeats.

It’s natural to doubt at this moment. Humans do that. It’s natural to want to call her back, assume she’s chasing a deer, get on the radio and ask anybody in the neighborhood whether they’ve seen her. Shut up; stay still; wait.

She comes running back — not a leisurely trot, she’s a dog who’s clearly on a mission. She runs up to you; she sits; she barks; she lays down; maybe you just look at her and interpret her body language; whatever you’ve trained her to do. But you know she has it.

You tell her, “Show me.” She runs back the way she came — or maybe a slightly different way, she’s been thinking on the way back to you and maybe has a better route in mind. Don’t panic, don’t blow it now that you’re so close. You follow her, knowing that she’s got it because she stops to look back at you — or because she doesn’t look back. And you crash through the brush, and there she is, sitting in your search subject’s lap.

And the state trooper walking beside you, who’d barely concealed a sneer at your silly affectation that a dog could be any use in this venture, throws his eyes wide. And there’s one more believer.

The Refind, as you know unless you’ve been sealed up by a daisy-cutter in Tora Bora for the last 69 years, is that immortal moment when Toto escapes the Wicked Witch (under spear fire, yet), runs back to Dorothy’s friends, and then leads them back to rescue her. I kid you not, my eyes mist every time I see this scene; it’s everything we want of our SAR dogs, the primal expectation working at the back of the minds of maybe everybody who gets into canine SAR.

We actually have our own version of this gantlet, by the way: in our operational testing, we expect our dogs to be able to encounter a scary, agitated subject (entirely possible on a real search, if the lost person is hypothermic or has dementia) and still perform the refind. The dog can protect herself by keeping at a safe distance from the crazy subject; but she can’t growl or bite, and she can’t be too scared to lead you back. (Sophie, God bless her, tried to charm the subject into throwing the stick for her.)

Flash to a much-earlier scene, from our beloved Lilly’s puppyhood, when the 12-month-old SAR trainee, accompanying us on a backpacking trip, needed to walk along a log to cross a rain-swollen stream. She’d done this sort of thing without thinking about it hundreds of time, but that was without roaring water, way too deep for her to walk across, below her. Now she was just plain scared.

We did our best to protect her. We put her harness on, and clipped her into a safety line that Heather held from the shore, while I walked along the downstream side of the log [4] to reassure and coach her. She cried all the way; but she didn’t hesitate, because we’d asked her to do it. And because she trusted us.

I won’t comment on that kind of trust, except to say that no human being deserves it; it’s a gift you take, and be God-damned humble about. This Thanksgiving — every Thanksgiving — one thing I will be thankful for is the responsibility of living up to that trust. Haven’t quite hit that high note yet, but I will keep trying. I think it makes me a better man.

But on the far side of the creek, as we clapped and squeaked and danced and gave Lilly the brave-puppy party she so richly deserved, I do remember thinking that this was the very definition of courage: being scared, but doing what you need to do anyway, without hesitating.

Fast forward to last week, when we were watching The Wizard of Oz and The Refind came on. I turned to Pip — the worthy inheritor of Lilly’s mantle as chief of staff for our little pack (as well as for the farm, which sadly Lilly didn’t live to see) — and just said, “Spears, Pip. Toto did it while they were throwing spears at him.”

Pip eyed me sidelong, without raising her head. Heather commented on the rarity of a sense of sarcasm among dogs.

Sacred to handlers, yes; by God, yes. Sacred to dogs? Well, maybe not so much.

Happy Thanksgiving to yinz and yinz’s from the frosty northern rural-burbs of Pittsburgh.

[1] OK, we’re secure; just not that secure.
[2] My humble proposal for a drinking game: you take a swig every time you want to say, “Glinda, you bitch.” Watch the movie again; you’ll be surprised at how many opportunities you get.
[3] Great minds, it appears, think alike. I haven’t read Wicked, but it sounds like my kinda book and it’s on my “to read” list. But check out Tin Man, one of the few Sci Fi Channel films that didn’t suck (OK, the ending was saccharine pap; but everything before that was great). Folks who tuned in to see a literal retelling of the L. Frank Baum books tended to hate it, but those of us who saw darkness even in the originals loved it. Sci Fi’s producers apparently have literally no taste at all, either good or bad — their films either rock or suck.
[4] Crucial crucial crucial: if you walk on the upstream side, you risk getting swept underneath the log if you lose your footing.


Anonymous said...

There are a couple of witches (believe it not) who hang out on the Born Again Online chat room on AOL. I managed to crack up a bunch of them once by reciting some lines from memory:

"Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?"

"Oh, if you please, ma'am, I'm not any kind of a witch at all. Witches are old and ugly!"

[Laughter from the Munchkins]

Barb said...

My favorite shirt reads "Are you a good bitch, or a bad bitch?"