What does she know, I wonder, a friend on the Internet asks about my search dog. She has caught me online in real time. She wants to know what I know also: if we are going to Haiti, Puzzle and I, if she can send something, do something – anything at all. She has offered money and transport. She has a friend, she says, with a boat in Puerto Rico. Would that help? And she wonders again what my dog makes of all this commotion on television and my sparky, disordered movements from the house to the trunk of the car, where our search gear sits ready.
I am dashing off one-sentence responses to the flood of emails received in these early days after the earthquake, where the surly ground still shakes from time to time, like a boxer working himself loose after his hard blow has laid an opponent down. Don’t know, I’m typing mostly when friends and strangers ask if we’re headed out, but we’re ready, whenever. When I sit, it’s probably as many of my SAR colleagues do, worldwide, tilted forward a little to the news, our weight resting on the balls of our feet as though we could spring up any minute, whistle to the search dog, and be out the door.
And so we could.
What does Puzzle make of all of this? Though her search work is driven by her ability to locate human scent, like most search canines she brings all available senses to bear on the job, and before the job they seem to be working overtime, too. She is aware of the changed rhythm here, the texture of my movements. She follows me back-and-forth from the house to the car, where I’m double-checking my already triple-checked gear list because it keeps me grounded. When in doubt, do something practical, if not for this search, then for the next one. There is always a next one. So I re-count gauze rolls and antiseptic pads and review HAZMAT identification and test the stethoscope again by listening to the sound of my dog’s strong heart, her pulse slightly quick with her curiosity and concern. She stands very still for the auscultation, halting even the impulse to wag. Huff, she says when I release her, and she looks up at me like what’s next?
Scent is only one gift the dogs offer calamity. Puzzle is more responsive to the sound of hurting humans than I had earlier realized. Just a few days ago, while I was working in the back part of the house and Puzzle was napping in the front, I heard her suddenly scramble up and begin to bark, racing from one front window to another, hitting the closed door to a bedroom so hard that she knocked it open and rushed to the window to bark there, too. I was about to scold her for her noisiness when she ran to me with a whine, running back to the front of the house, back to me again, back to the front of the house. Puzzle is not generally a noisy dog at home. By the time I put my work down and processed how unusual this alarm bark was for her, she was slamming her paws against the front door. This set all my little dogs off on a roar, too, but they were barking because she was barking, and she barked because something wasn’t right.
I looked out a front window, and in the verge between our sidewalk and the street lay a toddler beneath an overturned tricycle, wailing, clutching her head and dripping blood across the frozen grass. Her nanny stood over her but seemed unable to check for injuries, console the child, and at the same time release the little girl’s pantleg from the pedals of the trike, where the cloth had caught and apparently in her struggle, overturned her onto the curb. The little girl had a raw place on her arm a hands-breadth wide and a purpling knot on her forehead the size of a generous egg. Between us, the nanny and I got the child free and the bleeding stopped, the child’s mother and emergency services contacted. I glanced up once and saw Puzzle’s furrowed brow through the window. She no longer barked, but she didn’t look happy, either. When the child left for the emergency room, and I went back into the house, Puzzle sniffed me with great concern, particularly my hands. A long inspection, and then she let me go. Was it the sight of the child down on the sidewalk or the sound of her wailing that had called my dog in the first place? Scent here seemed the less-possible reason for Puzzle’s response and her alarm.
And now, as news footage shows an island’s horrific numbers, I don’t know if Puzzle can process at all what she sees on a screen, and I’m sure she cannot comprehend the meaning behind what she perceives on television, but the sounds of Haiti’s screams and tears clearly worry her, as though she recognizes such sounds mean something is far wrong. I cannot blame my dog. We are similarly disturbed. I’m pretty sure she can smell it, too: Puzzle seems to have absorbed some of my ready-set-wait. We turn the TV volume to half-measure and get on with it. When in doubt, do something practical.
So we play obedience games and do go-left, go-right drills. We practice a few agility commands. The energy is infectious. When I stop to answer the phone, Puzzle begins to pull socks out of drawers, her signature move when she knows something is up. She is good with her paws and her nose. She prizes open a drawer and pulls out socks and carries them through the house, dropping them like stones in the woods that could lead us somewhere. Still on the phone, I move through the house and find seven stray socks. And one glove.
And so we wait: Puzzle ready-ready-ready and I aware of time passing and bodies failing and people suffering beneath rubble, terrified and uncomforted.
Puzzle and I are not unique, and my thoughts are with colleagues en route or already in Haiti, experiencing all this in real-time. Search personnel spend countless hours training for such disaster and for the girding up to do the job and bear it, but sometimes the smallest thing can pierce that fortitude. A firefighter I know once dropped to his knees at the sight of a child’s bloody sock in the street. He’d been recovering bodies all day, but it was the sock that choked him voiceless. The dogs, too, have been prepared to work through the discomfort and the overwhelming, frantic noise of disaster recovery — they are so keen and smart and strong — but I’ve seen many of them sit trembling after hard sectors, overwhelmed with fatigue, eyes closed as though just for a minute, they could be somewhere else.
What do the dogs know? Onsite, these dogs know what is asked of them. They know the coming job. And as they wait to deploy, with every gust of new wind over devastated ground, they know a whole lot more than we do. I’m sure of it.