Monday, November 4, 2013

Dogs in Action: Interview with author Maria Alomajan

Maria Alomajan has the best job in the world. 
This month SAT interviewed Maria Alomajan, author of Dogs in Action: Working Dogs and Their Stories. Lets be clear: working dogs work hard (some of our readers are today attending the inaugural Working Dog Alliance Australian Working Dog Conference - we don't need to tell you guys!). Maria spent a lot of time getting to know and working with working dogs around the world. She was even dug out of a snow cave! 

Tell us a bit about yourself - how did you become a writer?

I live in Auckland with my boyfriend and a moveable menagerie of animals that I share with my mother, 3 dogs, 4 cats and 4 fish. They’re all rescues and each has their own quirky personalities and preferences for each other, or not as the case may be which makes life interesting. My long-term ambition is to move to the country where I will be able to surround myself with more animals, I think that’s what makes Peter hesitant about it, funny that. The love of my life was a young elephant, but that’s another book.

I’ve always loved writing, right from early school days. Dogs are a passion of mine and being able to combine the two in this project has been a dream. I have enjoyed writing this book more than anything else. Surrounding myself, literally and figuratively, with these awesome dogs and their humans every day for around a year was a profound pleasure.

Your latest book, Dogs in Action, is about working dogs in many contexts, from police dogs to cancer-detecting dogs, sledding dogs and assistance dogs. Where did your love of dogs come from?

I have to say I have always loved dogs, so it must have come from my mum and my grandfather who both also love dogs. As far back as I can remember dogs have always been present and participants in my life.

When it comes to working dogs, my grandfather’s dog Topsy a slightly neurotic Doberman, would walk up the drive, get the newspaper out of the letterbox and bring it back. That seriously impressed me at a preschool age!

Then our first family dog, Kurt was a failed police German Shepherd. The word ‘failed’ didn’t mean anything to us, the fact that he held that association gave him a lot of ‘cred’ with us as kids. We thought that made him extra special amongst dogs and very, very clever. (Actually I have to admit I’m still seriously impressed with police dogs.)

Many dog professionals and pet owners will say “if only I had that dog now” and in this case I would love to have that time again with Kurt knowing what I do now about dogs. I know I’ve talked about this in the book but it’s such a huge part of my primary school memories. Kurt would track us and turn up at school. We’d be sitting in class and see him walking around or standing on the field and just shrink with shame knowing that we were going to get in trouble again. Sadly, but understandably, his presence wasn’t very welcomed and we would always get told off and then asked to take him home at lunch time or tie him up to the school fence or someone would call mum to come and get him. And being a german shepherd, no doubt there was probably a fair amount of barking that accompanied his visit. Of the hundreds of students at the school no other dog did this and I wish we could have appreciated how special his behaviour was and what we must have meant to him. It’s very special to be able to honor him in this book, and tell the world some of his very naughty antics!

Crashing through a large pain glass window to try to get to a bitch on heat miles away was the most dangerous thing he probably did. Or, perhaps stealing the neighbour’s roasts off their dinner table on Sundays in front of them could have been more dangerous! Alerting us to the kittens a feral cat had birthed on our bedroom floor was probably the gentlest. We were going to bed and he was sniffing and licking what we thought was his poo and I recall yelling to mum that Kurt had pooed on the floor. Surprised at this as he had never done it before the soon discovered it was a litter of kittens still in their umbilical membrane. My stepfather peeled it off and have them mouth to mouth and they lived! That’s how awesome my animal childhood was.

Later, I loved watching Wonder Dogs, a tv show here in NZ where dogs would compete in a number of trials that consisted of things like agility, article selection and bring the sausages back without eating them! Eventually they got to the winner. From the first time I saw that show wanted a wonder dog!

It would take a few years but I finally got one better.

You aren't just a writer - in your spare time you help dogs. What sort of things do you do?

I’m lucky in that my schedule is so fluid and my time gets divided depending on the greatest need. I love working with dogs and continually study canine behaviour and science. I have a particular passion for rehabilitation of what most people would label ‘difficult’ dogs, dogs that have sadly been damaged in some way by humans. Dogs that other people won’t or can’t work with. I do also get involved in basic training, hopefully helping people create what I like to think of as ‘a dialogue’ with their dogs to enable them to live happily and peacefully together.

I’m involved in rescue and re-homing dogs, particularly with life chained or caged dogs and dogs that have been rescued from animal testing and puppy milling. Facebook makes it so much easier to support groups around the world, which I like to do. And, when I can I travel to Thailand where I work with street, temple and pound dogs, and of course battle the dog meat trade. It’s heartbreaking stuff and it feels like there will never be an end to the cruelty in this world, but then you have a success, a perfect adoption or you see again how resilient and forgiving dogs are and it inspires you on.

Maria with dogs in Thailand.
In order to research the book, you had some unique experiences with dogs. What did you get to do?

Where to start…I had yeehaa, raise the roof with excitement experiences while researching this book.I got to mush a sled of dogs and it was even more awesome than I expected!! The speed, power and drive of the dogs was truly something that has to be experience to understand. What an amazing feeling being pulled along under a blue sky, white mountains and 6 incredible dogs doing what they do best. It’s the only thing with dogs that has ever made me nervous as the number one rule of mushing is NEVER let go of the dogs, no matter what happens! So the responsibility fell heavy on my shoulders as Ray entrusted me with his team. If you have heard of the great races like Iditarod or Yukon Quest, the reason many mushers never get to finish is not because of the dogs but because of the human just isn’t strong enough or fit enough to hold onto the sled with all that pulling power. 

Mushing. Humans can't always keep up.
Volunteering with search and rescue dogs was a huge eye opening and challenged my clostrophobia and fear of heights. I got to cross the river on a small boat in Bangkok with dogs and handlers in the early hours of the morning. Hid under large chunks of filthy concrete rubble in the cold, dirt and rain in Auckland while heavy machine thumped away. I “sucked it up” and was buried in a snow cave up on Treble Cone in Wanaka and tramped through bush in the Waikato. If you let yourself go for a minute and truly believe you are experiencing each terrifying situation of being buried or lost, it really is an extraordinary relief to hear the scuffing, deep inhaling, the pawing and then finally the loud barking of a dog coming to find you. Even right in your ear it’s a joyous thing.

Maria is dug out of a snow cave by a rescue dog.
When you're trapped under rubble, this must be the happiest site.
I must mention here that what astounded me the most is that these incredibly committed rescue workers who regardless of weather of family commitments train all year round and are volunteers! I wonder how many people know that?

Another thing I have always wanted to try was a bite suit. One of those sleeves or body suits used when training dogs to apprehend someone. So I was extremely excited to get the opportunity to have a go at being a run away ‘baddie’ for a young very handsome police dog only in his third week of training. Well didn’t I just provide the most hilarious lunchtime story for that squad! All I remember is looking back at this boy running at me, I’m grinning from ear to ear because this is so much fun, recalling my instructions to let my arm go with the dog but I went one better, I let my whole body go, over and over, several times, before coming to a stop. 

It takes a special lady to don a "bite suit" in the name of good journalism. Not sure I would have it in me!

Yep, I would be more like this.
Realizing even the dog had let go because he’d never seen that happen before and neither had any of the guys, I quickly re-raised my arm for the dog to grab, just in case he was looking around for something else and to the surprised constable, who was doing a great job of not laughing, said “that was awesome, let’s do it again!” I told the squad I was merely helping build confidence in the dog but apparently what I helped more was the ego of the handler who could now claim to have the best dog in training. Envious yet?

You highlight the role dogs play in a range of contexts. Most people are at least aware of Guide Dogs and Police Dogs, but were dogs involved in any kind of work that you hadn't expected?

Absolutely, and even now I am still learning new and exciting ways dogs are helping the world. The jobs I hadn’t heard of before I started researching the book were things like seizure alert, illegal dvd tracking and water rescue dogs. Whale scat detectors, elephant poacher trackers and bed bug sniffers - all these jobs seem so obvious for a dog once you learn about them but most people have no idea dogs are out there doing this work!

Do you think working dogs are adequately recognised for the work they do? If not, how do you think we could do it better?

In general, they are absolutely not recognized for the work they do. By the people working and living with them they are totally. In fact, all dogs are under-appreciated and misunderstood. As far as working dogs are concerned, I think one thing we can do and hopefully this book is a start, is educate people on what dogs are doing, right next door and in the far reaches of back and beyond, and hope that they look at them in a whole new light. I’ve had people say to me they don’t really believe dogs can do some of those things, like detect cancer and I think that’s great because it most probably means that they go on to discuss it with others or research it further themselves. 

Anyone who lives with dogs knows how incredible they are. But this book will increase your respect.
There are still some ‘old school’ ideas about how working dogs should be housed and taught but thankfully even working dog trainers are getting up to speed with new science and training. Certainly all of the dogs in this book have great handlers and trainers.

Working dogs save lives. They make our jobs easier. They do things that neither people nor machines can do. They’re happy about it, they’re keen to do it and need so little in return. Personally, I think the world is indebted to dogs.

Maria is not afraid to get close to her subjects.
For dogs worldwide, the best thing we could all do is accept that they are ‘just’ dogs, do our utmost to understand the nature of their species (which is far from human!) and do our best to fulfill their species needs as best we can. As for domestic pets in many urban situations I think we could reduce the needs of our species on them and allow them to be dogs. My dream would be that people read this book and look at their own dogs in a slightly new light and get out and do more with them.

Why do you think it is that we bond so tightly to dogs?

To be a bit boring for a minute, I think there is both a bit of science behind our bonding and as well as plain old emotions. To begin with, we share an evolutionary history with canines that we don’t have with any other species which means we’ve spent millennia being around each other. I certainly think dogs have done a way better job of it that we have but we’re catching up now…Dogs generate the production of oxytocin while lowering cortisol, which physiologically means they should illicit feelings of love from us. And those are just a couple of key “science based” reasons.

On a more emotional and personal level, they are one buddy that will happily come most places with us, will stand by in the ups and downs, will look at you and tilt their head but not open their mouths, that will run up and lick your face when you fall over to say sorry even though it’s not their fault, will howl at nothing while you yell at the TV during sports, will eagerly sit in the car waiting while only smelling the delicious aromas coming from the cafĂ© where you stopped for a treat, will turn summersaults when you get home whether you’ve been out to check the mail or working sixteen hours. How people could not bond with a dog or worse abuse a dog is way beyond my comprehension.

Can you tell us a bit about your own dogs, who are featured in the book?

Brats, all of them!!
Jet is the youngest and has what could be classified as the best work drive. He is so much fun to “work” with and train. He was rescued from the middle of the road as a beaten up, starving young puppy who was terrified. I had hoped he could be a proper working dog, search and rescue but turns out he was terrified of large machinery, the dark, the rain, strangers…need I go on?

He did however come into his own for photo shoots, although I discovered recently only if he can see me and for TV commercial work. I was so proud of him when he did his first ad. Have I mentioned yet that I’m quite competitive when it comes to my dogs? A bulldog was required for an ad but it was proving difficult to train one to do what was required so behind the scenes I trained Jet up for 2 weeks to do the desired behavior of holding a phone in his mouth while looking at the camera for 7 seconds. Well, hello “Omen”, all that head spinning was nothing compared to what Jet did when I first suggested he put this offensive hard plastic thing in his mouth!! We finally got there, I generalized the behaviour in numerous situations scared he would fall apart on set with all those strange people, big lights, equipment etc. I never got a wink of sleep the night before, you know what they say, never work with…

Anyway, to my utmost bursting pride, two hours had been booked to get the shot and my boy had it down in 4 takes!!!!!! Awesome!!!!

After meeting certain dogs in the book I thought I’d try some truffle detection – well Jet’s truffle career started and ended as soon as I opened the pottle! Drool! Fight to get into it instead of accepting an ultimate rewards means fail. Possum tracking, he loves that. I wish I hadn’t started it because anywhere we go he likes to clear the area for possums now! Jet is a staffy, collie, boxer type cross mutt dog and the most handsome of the pack.

Jesse is a red golden retriever type, not sure what else but he has a ridge, and he is the optimist of the pack. I believe that is the only thing that kept him alive during the six years he was chained! I rescued him off the chain starving, furless, covered in fleas, no muscle mass thus he couldn’t walk much or even jump on the bed. Jesse loves food and is the dog for tricks and anything to do with water. Jesse kind of looks up to Jet and defers on all things except toys and bones and spends lots of time at my house. My mother failed fostering Jesse and kept him after bringing him back to life although my five-year-old niece claims Jesse as her dog, and like to play ‘training’ with him. Jesse the kind of dog who likes to be all over you.

Lulu is the kind of dog who likes to be all over you only if she feels like it and while she watches what everyone else is doing. She is an old (but very young looking) Rotti that we rescued from a druggie going into rehab. From what we can gather she had never had any vet care, had old open weeping wounds, untreated arthritis, was terribly underweight as she only got fed if and when there was something to throw her and had lived much of her life in a shed being milled for puppies - that were mostly sold to pay for drugs. Lulu is a very high status dog and likes to make sure everyone curtails to her. She likes male dogs more than females but has come a long way in accepting females over the last few months thanks to the help of staff at a place here called K9 Heaven. She was even reunited with one of her pups (now five years old) recently at K9 Heaven. Lulu would have been a great mother and now loves to sleep under the duvet with her face on a silk pillow! So would I!

Although I have lived with bigger dogs I lover smaller ones too and the tiniest dog in my life was a teacup terrier who I used to foster and at his best he only weighed around one kilo!

You mentioned that working dogs work hard and play hard - with handlers ensuring these dogs enjoy their work. Do you think as humans we can learn something from this?

Totally. Dogs can switch from one mode to the other in an instant without any baggage, and all work for them is fun. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t do it, they would shut down. Dogs don’t ruminate on what they could or should have done, what will come tomorrow, if they will succeed or not, or what so and so things or said about them. They do the work when it’s there and they play when it’s there (and sometimes even when it’s not) and rest in between. To work well they need to be balanced, they need to eat well, stay mentally agile and physically fit. Don’t we all?

Thanks Maria for tearing yourself away from the hounds in your life. It is a beautiful book.