It was clear when we got the tiny bundle of fur that was Coco, she was very different to Dougal. Dougal, a Pointollie (German shorthaired pointer cross border collie) was difficult to say the least. He never just accepted things, if you left him in a room he’d chew his way out. If you wanted to watch TV, he’d force a ball on you. Once he was in a bedroom for five minutes and he managed to pull all the leaves off a tree just outside the window. At three months he tried to attack a toddler. Dougal was, and is, a high-drive field working breed. He cannot sit still, he is not quiet and he is basically the world’s worst pet. However, as working dog’s go he is amazing. At six months he could track multi surface tracks for over two kilometres. By a eighteen months he could track cold tracks several hours old.
Coco, well, she’s a little different. Coco is a big softie. When Dougal met other dogs as a puppy he’d bark at them, Coco initially would urinate in fear. Although tiny when we got her, she’s a massive 40kg dog now. Full size she ran away from a Yorkshire terrier that barked just once. Initially my plan was to train Coco as a hearing service dog, but when Richard got a Cochlear implant she was jobless. Coco was never going to be a field dog, but that didn’t stop me trying.
On free running tracks (where you release the dogs to go find the target) we’d invariably have to go find her. Most of the time she’d be sitting somewhere, wagging her tail and staring off into space, no doubt contemplating her next meal. On leashed tracks she was even worse, after a little while sniffing the ground she’d look up at me as if to say “ok mom, where are we going today?” She’d meander between bushes, listening attentively for lizards and sitting on my feet if she decided they were too close to deal with on her own.
It was clear Coco needed a new job. Something involving her first two loves; food and people. I had always been interested in training service dogs so we contacted the City of Cape Town to find out if Coco could work with some of the children’s homes, as an emotional support dog. Just like Dougal on a track, Coco was born to do therapy work. As a trainer if you get the job right for the dog there should be very little work. Coco was not trained to be calm when some of the children were raging (a product of some very difficult past experiences). She was not trained to approach them when the anger subsided and the sadness overwhelmed them. She just instinctively knew. When the children’s home closed down we were devastated. One child in particular had formed a special bond with Coco and when he was placed into a centre for children with severe emotional difficulties that made mainstream life difficult we were no longer able to continue. I did resolve however to continue working Coco with children.
A few months later we moved from Cape Town to Hoedspruit, a small town in northern South Africa, near the Kruger National Park. The field working hounds had found their home, doing conservation scent detection work – both training new dog handlers and assisting conservation projects with data capture. Coco was however jobless again until a very sad incident changed everything.
Our field rangers asked us to come to the site of a poaching incident. Dutifully we arrived to assess the scene, a hyena had been trapped in a aardvark burrow and the poachers had packed burning coals into the hole, burning him alive. I can be quite analytical about such things: a lack of education, economic hardship and hunger drive a lot of poaching here. Perhaps the hyena was mistaken for something else. That was until I saw the hyena paws, two feet crossed over just the same as many of my dogs did, so similar to my wonderful pets. It suddenly made the whole experience of the hyena very real. I was heartbroken but, as is so often the case, extreme sadness results in moments of clarity.
If I was transported to the moments of the hyena’s death by seeng the paws surely if a human had a strong connection to their dog they’d be less likely to kill hyenas? My empathy for an animal I’d never seen came from the empathy I had for my own dogs. Could this be the key to changes in perceptions around carnivores and therefore their conservation in the area? I quickly started reading up research on the subject – and yes, a strong connection with a pet or companion animal did change attitudes to wildlife. Suddenly I realised that of all our dogs, Coco might have the most important future in conservation of them all – working with children to help change their feelings towards dogs and, in turn, the wildlife around them.
Coco will start her community outreach workshops in April as part of research conducted by Anita Nielson from the University of Copenhagen. Due to the fact that Coco worked previously with vulnerable children no photographs of her at her previous job exist.