Meet the dogs tasked with saving the world’s deadliest cat.

I met Michelle Schroeder on a scorchingly hot Hoedspruit afternoon; there rarely are any other kinds in this small town bordering South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Soft spoken and unassuming, Michelle is not someone you would immediately marry with the task of working some very difficult dogs. But, like Purposefully Lost’s dogs, there’s a lot more to Michelle than initially meets the eye.

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Michelle Schroeder and Alex Sliwa using telemetry to find collared black-footed cats in the Karoo, South Africa. Photo by Beryl Wilson

My first contact with Michelle Schroeder was a few weeks prior, an email asking if we assisted on conservation projects and, if so, could we assist her? We get many such emails and dutifully I responded, not expecting things would progress so quickly. A few meetings and telephone conversations later, this quiet American arrived at Purposefully Lost to train and be trained.

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Brothers Dougal and Elliot are trained to cool off on command, however they cannot switch off on command! Photo by Manon Mispiratceguy

Michelle was hoping to use four of our dogs to aid her in scat detection, a non-invasive tool to gather genetic and hormonal information, about one of the world’s most elusive and deadly cats: the Black-footed Cat. My task was, on paper, very simple: train her in the techniques needed to work Dougal, Elliot, Pepper, and Alan in the field.

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The world’s deadliest cat – averaging 14 kills a night, black-footed cats have a ferocious appetite. Photo by Alex Sliwa of the Black Cat Working Group
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The Black-footed Cat Working Group monitors several cats and kittens as part of their study. Photo by Alex Sliwa

What could possibly go wrong? Well, collectively these four dogs have bitten their previous owners, killed livestock, displayed dog aggression, tried to bite children at three months and displayed extreme reactivity to wild game, so really, quite a lot.

 

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Elliot, who had bitten several people before being rescued by Purposefully Lost, has become a sweet-natured and brilliant scent detection dog! Photo by Manon Mispiratceguy

It takes a special kind of person to work with them; a mixture of patience, kindness and an ability to predict and stop certain behaviours before they arise, in essence diverting a dog before the dog has even thought of an aggressive behaviour. Quiet and unassuming is not what most people look for in trainers of aggressive working dogs. Perhaps they should.

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Michelle plays with Elliot and Dougal while they develop an emotional attachment to toys scented with black-footed cat scat. Photo by Manon Mispiratceguy

Michelle has a steely determination and is relentless in pursuit of information. A trainer’s nightmare, at 5am she peppered me with questions: Why do we heel on the left? Which is better, treat training or using toys? How do we divert the dog’s attention away from ground nesting birds? What’s the purpose of the lip? Finally, will we get these dogs to search for the correct scent in two weeks? In general, dog trainers are notorious in their inability to answer questions like the latter – every dog is different, environmental distractions can change outcomes. I know when I started scent detection training years ago I was faced with these very frustrating side steps. My answer was straightforward, as I knew my dogs. I was 100% confident that Dougal, Elliot, and Pepper would be able to find the scents in two weeks.

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Working girls (from left to right): Michelle Schroeder (Black-footed Cat Working Group), Carolynne Geary (Purposefully Lost), Pepper the Pointollie and Manon Mispiratceguy (Purposefully Lost). Photo by Richard Morton

Alan however was a wild card, we had had him for a few months, there was most certainly abuse in his history (he yelped if we touched him when we first got him) and he had been caged for nearly six months. It took 10 days for Dougal to find his first cat scat sans toy or treat, Elliot 11 days and Pepper 12. This was in no small part due to the excellent handling and training by Michelle. Sadly, Alan has not got there yet. Have I given up hope? No. The characteristics that made Michelle an amazing dog handler are present in bucket loads in Alan – dedication to the task, focus and a willingness to work in a team. While it may take him a little longer to overcome the adversities of the past and regain self-confidence after life has knocked him down, with the willingness to learn he will get there. And really that is a lesson to us all…

 

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Alan kicking up a storm. He’s taking a little longer to learn the tricks of the trade but he’s developing the most important characteristic needed, confidence! Photo by Manon Mispiratceguy

First image by Alex Sliwa of the Black-footed Cat Working Group.

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