K9 to 5: Meet six working dog super heros

The term “man’s best friend” has endured since the 1700s, when Frederick the Great of Prussia coined it. At home, dogs are family members and loyal companions. And at work, they’re valued team members who take their jobs seriously.

Meet canine celebrities Nadine, Bluto, Bruno, Sky, Irene, and Forest. From farm shepherds and truffle hunters to K9 cops and medical alert dogs, a good dog can tackle jobs that humans can’t, making the difference between profit and loss, escape and capture, and in some cases, life and death.

Kyle LaFerriere

Nadine: Truffle Hunter

Nadine is on a mission. She romps through the rolling hills and woods near Rixeyville, tail up, nose to the ground, on the hunt for the elusive scent of the black Perigord truffle. Trained to paw the ground once she zeros in on her target, she is Virginia Truffles’ working truffle dog. This happy girl loves her job.  

A culinary delicacy, black truffles are rare and can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound. “Black truffles add so much depth and flavor to dishes,” says Olivia Taylor, whose parents, John and Pat Martin, established Virginia Truffles in Culpeper County in 2007 when they inoculated tree seedlings with black truffle spores. They waited 11 years to discover their first truffle, but each year their yield increases. 

Taylor joined her parents as farm manager and truffle dog trainer in 2018. Odds are Virginia Truffles wouldn’t be nearly as successful without Nadine on the hunt.

“Dogs have about 200 times the smelling ability of humans,” Taylor explains. Their noses possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to six million in humans—and the part of a dog’s brain that analyzes smell is also about 40 times greater than ours.

Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living Dogs (Truffle)

They also have something called neophilia, which means they are attracted to new and interesting odors. But Taylor notes that a sensitive nose is not enough. “I have known dogs bred from champion truffle dog lines, who make terrible truffle dogs because they don’t care to do the work,” Taylor says. “It’s all about intelligence and work ethic.” Labradors and Logotto Romagnolos are among the most popular truffle hunters, but mixed breeds can be just as successful.

“All dogs on the farm are part of our family, whether they become truffle dogs or not” explains Taylor, each with their own personality. “Nadine is a very high energy, reward-driven girl,” she says, while Pozzi and Harley, both in training, are not far behind. “Harley has a lot of potential. She’s my mischief-maker of the bunch.” Pozzi is high energy, but a bit stubborn. “He’s been more of a challenge to train,” says Taylor.

Virginia Truffles offers two-hour truffle hunts, accompanied by Olivia and Nadine (and maybe Harley or Pozzi) from November-March, by reservation only. “When truffle-hunting visitors arrive, the dogs love all the attention they get.” The experience also includes refreshments, tips on cleaning and storing truffles, a culinary demonstration, and a peek in Virginia Truffles’ lab. VirginiaTruffles.com

Bruno & Sky: K9 Cops

Major Scott Neff was off duty when he heard the sound of the car crash in the distance. Soon Neff saw a man snaking through the brush directly under his perch in a Cumberland County deer stand. Disheveled and out of breath, the man appeared to be on the run. Was he in the crash? Neff remained quiet as a mouse until it was safe to call 911. 

Officials combed the area without luck, so Neff, an officer in Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) Conservation Police, called in fellow agent Tyler Blanks and his highly trained canine partner, Bruno. Once on the scene, Bruno picked up the man’s scent. The fugitive, who’d stolen the car before fleeing the accident, was captured within minutes in a nearby field thanks to Bruno’s tracking skills. 

Kyle LaFerriere

Bruno and the agency’s five other canines—Bailey, Sky, Reese, Lily, and Grace, mostly labs—specialize in “conservation,” a term that encompasses evidence recovery, wildlife detection, and human tracking. This elite team works side-by-side with VDWR police officers, thanks to Virginia’s K9 Conservation Program. The agency took notice of the successes similar agencies throughout the country were experiencing when canines were added to their teams. So in 2011, Richard Howald, Senior Conservation Office, helped launch VDWR’s program. For him, it was tailor-made: he’d grown up on a farm in Missouri and understood how farm and hunting dogs could be huge assets. To build Virginia’s K9 program, he headed to Indiana for nine weeks of intensive immersion with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the mecca of K9 conservation training. 

Now Howald and his black lab partner, Sky, train handlers and K9s from across the country, and even Zambia, which sent handlers seeking dogs trained to track poachers by detecting ivory and rhino horn. “When we’re tracking—whether it’s a fugitive or evidence—dogs can literally get the job done within minutes,” Howald explains. The K9 cops and their handlers ricochet all over the state, searching for fugitives, crime-scene evidence, runaways, dementia patients, poachers, and human remains. 

You name it and Sky has probably found it, including a diamond ring lost in a field. “Once I was in an area the size of three football fields, with grass up to my waist,” Howald recalls. “Sky found three shotgun casings within eight minutes. Without her, recovering those casings would have been impossible.”

Bluto: Gum Tree’s Guardian

It’s lambing season at Gum Tree Farm and ewes are giving birth in the fields. It’s an otherwise bucolic scene here in Middleburg, but there’s a looming presence overhead. Vultures are circling, with their minds on one thing: newborn lambs for lunch. Guarding the scene, Bluto, a Kangal Shepherd Dog, is on patrol. Since Bluto arrived at the farm in 2019, not one animal has been lost to predators. 

Gum Tree Farm’s owner and chief human shepherd, Franny Kansteiner says, “Sheep raising, in the beginning, was pretty peaceful.” But as their flock expanded so did the threat from coyotes, bears, vultures, eagles, even dometic dogs. “We were losing a dozen sheep a year,” she says. 

Kyle LaFerriere

They brought in a protective guard llama—Mama Llama—who would move the sheep to safety if predators got close. But when it came to lambing season—paydirt for vultures and eagles—the flock needed more protection, so they settled on a livestock guardian dog. The dog needed to be bird-alert and comfortable around people, children, and other livestock. Kangals, an ancient Turkish breed, are large and powerful. They fend off predators and have the most powerful bite force of any domestic dog. “They are in the mastiff family,” explains Kansteiner, “but have been bred over the years to be lean and fast.”

“Working dogs are born knowing what to do,” she says, “so it’s always a good idea to get a working dog from actual working dog parents.” A good guardian farm dog can decide what’s safe and what’s not. “They’re not alarmists, but they’re not afraid of confrontation.” Young guardians learn to make good decisions from senior dogs. “It’s a work in progress.”

Olive, a year old, has just joined the farm team. “Bluto is teaching her the ropes,” says Kansteiner. “He and Olive live out with the sheep. We interact with them during the day with big hugs of gratitude, and we make a point of introducing them to visitors on the farm.” They’re happy to say hello but after that, they’re all business and quickly get back to work.

Without Bluto on patrol—and Olive behind him—there would be far fewer sheep, and without sheep, there would be no Gum Tree Farm, where artisans turn their ultra-fine merino wool into luxury goods for homes and humans. “We know and love the sheep that make our clothes, from beginning to the end,” says Kansteiner. “We see them born, and we see them grow up to be mothers themselves all while producing our wool. We raise our sheep organically, process the wool organically, and hand weave, sew, or knit the wool into beautiful pieces that keep us warm.” GumTreeFarmDesigns.com

Irene: Tail-Wagging Miracle Worker

In 2015, I was the healthiest middle-aged person on the planet,” says Tamera Mason, an EMT who lives in Staunton. Then she got stung by a yellow jacket and her life turned upside down. 

Although Mason had no history of allergies, the sting triggered a cascade of autoimmune disorders that landed her in the ER dozens of times over the next several years. Each of the four disorders that have been identified are life-threatening. “I was three minutes away from the next crisis,” she explains. “It’s nothing for my blood sugar to drop 100 points in three minutes, for no reason,” Mason says. That’s where Irene comes in. 

“She’s made the difference between life and death,” says Mason. A beautiful yellow lab, Irene arrived from Charlottesville-based Service Dogs of Virginia (SDV) in 2018. The organization matches dogs and clients based on temperament, diagnosis, size, responsibilities, and family dynamics. Years of training worth tens of thousands of dollars go into SDV’s dogs, but, remarkably, clients pay nothing for dogs placed in their home.

Kyle LaFerriere

“Instead of being in the ER every few weeks,” says Mason, “I’ve gone almost a full year between trips because of Irene.” Among other skills, this “scary smart” seven-year-old, tail-wagging blond, is trained to detect fluctuations in blood sugar. “Anything below 70 and Irene hovers over me until it gets above 70.” Miraculously, Irene can also detect when Mason’s blood sugar drops 15 points within 15 minutes. And when Irene senses her steroid levels are low, “she’ll nudge me until I self-inject,” Mason says.

When she heads to work in a local ER, Irene stays at Mason’s side in a soft crate. “When something isn’t right, she gets restless and wiggly.” Equally remarkable, Irene has alerted blood sugar problems in five of Mason’s ER coworkers, including one physician. As Mason explains, “Hypoglycemia is a universal scent.” 

When a dog alerts to one of the odors they are trained to detect, explains Sally Day, SDV’s director of development, “it prevents a life-threatening medical emergency. Their amazing ability to smell what humans cannot decreases emergency room trips and hospitalizations and provides enormous peace of mind.”

But perhaps the most extraordinary event occurred in February of this year. “My adrenal pump failed, and I went into full-blown crisis,” recalls Mason. “But I didn’t know it—it was 4:00 a.m. and I was in bed asleep.” Ordinarily when Mason needs her rescue kit, she tells Irene to fetch it. But this time Irene knew to get the kit first. Mason awakened to Irene’s gentle paws and nudges, the rescue kit squarely on her chest. “Her ability to problem solve is incredible,” says Mason. “Another five minutes and it would have been too late,” she says of the stark reality. “Irene is literally a lifesaver.”

Like two peas in a pod, Mason and Irene are side-by-side, day and night. “She’ll sleep with a paw touching me so she knows when I move. She needs to know where I am and that I’m OK.”

Forest: The Neal Family’s Lifesaver

“He has completely changed our lives,” says Jessica Neal of her family’s English lab, Forest, an autism support dog for Neal’s son Sam, 13. Forest and this family of four—Sam, his two brothers, and mom (Jessica)—live just outside of Charlottesville.

Before Forest entered the picture, “our world was becoming incredibly small,” Neal, a single mom, recalls. “A trip to the grocery store, anywhere in public, was almost impossible. Something would trigger Sam—lights, sounds, just waiting in line—and he’d have a total meltdown that I wasn’t able to get ahead of. Over time, you eventually just stop going to things.” 

Neal studied Sam’s diagnosis, soaking up advice and information to create a powerful toolbox of resources. But raising a profoundly autistic child can bring even the best-informed parent to their knees. “Autism is an invisible disability,” she explains. “When your autistic child has a meltdown, people think your kid is being bratty or a nuisance, and you don’t have the mental space to get into a conversation, explaining the behavior.” So you hurry away, head down and embarrassed.

Kyle LaFerriere

When she heard about autism support dogs, she contacted Service Dogs of Virginia (SDV). Forest, a handsome, three-year-old black lab, arrived on the scene in 2018, trained to reduce Sam’s anxiety and regulate his emotions. When he senses an oncoming meltdown, “Forest will calmly lay his head in Sam’s lap and apply deep pressure for two to three minutes,” Neal explains, “enough for Sam to calm him down. English labs are big dogs with big heads—so he’s heavy,” she says. Most times Forest is able to de-escalate a situation that might otherwise turn chaotic. And when Forest senses Neal is particularly stressed, he’ll lay his head on her lap, too.

A year later—by Christmas 2019—the entire family traveled to Disney World, Sam and Forest sitting together on the plane and enjoying rides like Ariels’ The Little Mermaid and It’s a Small World. Neal struggles to describe this remarkable milestone: “A family trip wasn’t even on my radar, let alone Disney World,” she recalls. “I had very low expectations and thought we might get a nice dog out of the process.”

Kyle LaFerriere

“Autism Service Dogs become constant companions,” explains SDV’s Sally Day. “They help improve social interactions and relationships, expand verbal and nonverbal communication, teach life skills because the client plays with, feeds, and cares for the dog.” Autism service dogs also teach social cues, body language, and empathy, which Sam can come to model. 

And there’s another big benefit to having Forest on the scene. “When you’re walking with a service dog, people immediately clue in,” explains Neal. “I’ve noticed that the amount of empathy you get is amazing. They might not know exactly why he’s there, but there’s an instant level of respect and space.” 

“For so many years, we were all on edge nearly 24/7. Life was so hard,” Neal says. “But about a month after we got Forest, the stress wasn’t there anymore,” she recalls. “One day I looked around and thought, wow, things are kinda chill.” It’s hard for Neal to quantify the incredible difference this loveable, lumbering lab has made for the whole family. “We were all in a constant state of anxiety,” she says of life before Forest. “With him, it’s all gone. It’s almost like magic.” ServiceDogsVa.org 

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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