Season Two

Peak Performance

Which factor determines the success of a world-class team of athletes?

Is it an insatiable desire to succeed? Is it the benefits of a comprehensive training program? Perhaps it’s a truly unbreakable level of trust in one another? Or maybe it is an unrelenting focus on the physical and mental wellbeing of the team?

The reality is that, at the top level of any team sport you can think of, all of those elements play a significant part in achieving success. After all, to win a World Series, or a Super Bowl, or a Stanley Cup, you need to have that desire to succeed. You need to train. You need to trust one another. And you need to take care of your team.

It is no different in the Iditarod – the world’s greatest sled dog race, pitting teams of mushers in an annual race through the Alaskan wilderness. In the Iditarod, these crucial components all contribute towards the success of a musher and their team of dogs. The Iditarod is the pinnacle of the sled dog world, and it takes physical and mental endurance to withstand the inevitable obstacles faced in a 900 mile race in treacherous conditions.

When we visited Alaska to witness the Iditarod in 2020, we were fortunate to see first-hand the dedication required for these human-dog partnerships to succeed. The care and attention placed upon the dogs who participate in the Iditarod is of utmost importance to the organizers, veterinarians, volunteers, and naturally, the mushers themselves – one of the most important aspects of good teamwork in the Iditarod is recognizing the health and wellbeing of your team.

We wanted to dive deeper to understand precisely what steps are taken to develop these world-class athletes, in addition to getting more information on the level of care they receive during the race. For this episode, we spoke to a number of people, including mushers, veterinarians, and even the CEO of the Iditarod.

In this episode, you’ll learn about:

  • The difference between a finely-tuned sled dog competing in the Iditarod and a regular pet dog
  • How the Iditarod is a celebration of the passion and purpose of sled dogs
  • The development of canine nutrition to improve performance
  • How the Iditarod’s squad of volunteer veterinarians help to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the dogs competing in the race
  • Misinformation and threats to the race from animal rights groups
iditarod sled dog team

The musher’s perspective

DeeDee Jonrowe is a world-class musher and one of the most well-known figures in the sport. Jonrowe finished as a runner-up in the Iditarod three times in the 1990s. She also won the award for Most Inspirational Musher in 2003, when she competed in the Iditarod just a matter of weeks after finishing chemotherapy following a breast cancer diagnosis.

Jonrowe explains what really makes a great sled dog, and how a musher builds a strong relationship with their team of dogs, enabling them to identify the dog’s physical and mental state. Above all else, mushers have a duty of care to the dogs they are working with, and Jonrowe highlights how this helps them to recognize the potential limits of their team’s capabilities.

As with any athlete, good nutrition can have a significant impact on performance. Jonrowe also covers the importance of types of food; how working dog nutrition has become a science in itself; and why mushers adjust their dog’s food intake based on a number of different factors.

dee dee jonrowe iditarod musher

The veterinarian’s perspective

When the Iditarod rolls around each year, a team of volunteer veterinarians assembles in Alaska. The team works tirelessly before, during and after the event to help ensure the safety and wellbeing of every dog competing in the race.

Veronica DeVall is one of those veterinarians. Her passion and love for animals is evident as she describes the hard yet rewarding work of playing her part in the Iditarod. DeVall’s experiences with dogs in the Iditarod even helped to develop her perspective on veterinary medicine as a whole.

Having worked on numerous Iditarods, DeVall has several memorable stories to tell. These dedicated veterinarians play an essential role in the running of the Iditarod – their invaluable contribution cannot be understated.

Iditarod Veterinarian

The organization's perspective

Rob Urbach is the CEO of the Iditarod. Prior to assuming this role in 2019, Urbach had worked as CEO at USA Triathlon for six and half years, and has over two decades of leadership experience.

Urbach could not have taken on the role of CEO at a more tumultuous time; the 2020 Iditarod coincided with the start of the largest pandemic for a century. The Iditarod was the last major global sporting event to navigate through COVID-19. Urbach was instrumental in constructing a Covid prevention plan for the 2021 iteration of the race.

In addition to the challenges presented by the pandemic, Urbach has had to deal with ongoing threats from animal rights activists to the very existence of the race. He talks about how misinformation can spread like wildfire, leading to false narratives. 

With its unique place in Alaskan history – combined with amazing human-sled dog teams, strong organizational leadership, and support from dog lovers and sled dog enthusiasts around the globe – it seems like the Iditarod has a formidable base on which to build its future.

Iditarod last great race

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Podcast Transcript

Transcript coming soon!

The Iconic Race Of The North

Cast your mind back to March 2020 for a moment.

Across the world, only one topic is dominating the news cycle. The threat of a pandemic is looming larger with each passing day. A deadly virus – with the potential to drastically alter our long-held, cherished routines – is getting closer.

Yet in one corner of the globe, Covid-19 is not the center of attention. Far from it. Here, the air is crisp. The ground is laden with snow. And in this place, there is one long-held, cherished routine that will not be altered.

It’s March in Alaska, and that means one thing – the greatest sled dog race in the world is about to begin.

The Iditarod is here.

iditarod ceremonial start

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be releasing a series of episodes focused on the Iditarod. This iconic sled dog race takes place throughout Alaska each March, running from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and their team of sled dogs battle challenging terrain, sub-zero temperatures and heavy blizzards in their attempts to reach the finish line in first place. Winners typically battle for eight to nine days in these hazardous conditions.

At A Life of Dogs, we were very fortunate to capture the magic of the Iditarod when we traveled to Alaska to cover the 2020 edition. It was an experience we will never forget – and we can’t wait to bring some amazing stories to you in our upcoming episodes.

Introducing the Iditarod

So, you may have heard about this famous sled dog race – but how much do you actually know about it?

In our first episode, you’ll learn a little about what makes this race so special.

Whether it’s the sheer amount of preparation it takes for mushers and their teams to succeed in this treacherous race, or the tradition of the ceremonial start in Anchorage, or to what some mushers describe as the almost spiritual experience of traveling out on the race route with a pack of sled dogs – there are so many interesting stories surrounding the Iditarod.

alaskan husky sled dog

Musher interviews

Riding through the harsh Alaskan landscape with a pack of sled dogs isn’t for the faint of heart. As you may imagine, it takes a special type of person to compete in the Iditarod.

Even with this undisputed bravery, many mushers have to scratch from the race before its completion for a variety of reasons. Mushers may be forced to drop out if they sustain an injury or their sled becomes damaged beyond repair.

In the coming weeks, you’ll hear from some of the most famous names in the mushing world. They include the likes of Martin Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion originally from Switzerland. In our inaugural episode of this series, Buser offers an overview into the origins of the Iditarod. 

In addition, we’ll be bringing you the unique stories behind many of the competitors in this year’s race – from seasoned veterans to rookies embarking on their maiden Iditarod voyage.

The importance of the Iditarod to Alaska

The event begins on the first Saturday in March with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. Mushers and their sled dog teams ride through the center of the city to the acclaim and cheers of locals, sled dog enthusiasts and visitors (and podcast crews!). This opening ceremony is a relaxed affair and a rare opportunity for the mushers to interact with spectators. The following day, the race is restarted at Willow Lake – and this is when the competitive aspect of the race kicks in.

The Iditarod holds an incredible amount of significance to the state of Alaska. Due to the climate and terrain, mushing and sled dogs have been a large part of Alaskan life throughout the state’s history. The Iditarod is seen as a vital link to the heritage of the state.

Sled dogs

Of course, the real stars of the show are the teams of sled dogs who lead their mushers through the Iditarod Trail. These dogs possess a unique mix of strength, speed and endurance, with an unwavering desire to run.

alaskan husky iditarod sled dog

Many of the modern day dogs competing in the Iditarod are mixed-breed huskies, weighing approximately 45 to 55 pounds. A team consists of a maximum of 14 dogs.

As you’ll discover in future episodes, one contentious aspect of the Iditarod is the welfare and treatment of the dogs involved. On one side, PETA and other animal rights groups allege that the race is cruel; on the other side, mushers and fans of the Iditarod maintain that the event harnesses the natural, inherent abilities of these dogs.  The Iditarod Trail Committee has stringent checks in place to monitor the health of every dog participating.

Look out for upcoming episodes!

This introductory episode is just the beginning of our coverage of Iditarod 2020. Remember to subscribe to A Life of Dogs wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one!

iditarod alaska podcast

We would like to thank our episode sponsors.  Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support.  Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.

Royal Canin


Highland Canine Training, LLC


Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Four (S2, E4)
Episode Name: A Climate for Change

Jason Purgason


44:06 minutes

Broadcast Date
October 19, 2020

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Man:               It’s hard not to be a fan of the race if you really think about it and understand how it has evolved and how it has sustained itself and what kind of people are engaged. So you felt it yourself up in this community. I’m really honored to be part of it.

Woman:          I recall one of those checkpoints three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning, I don’t know, and checking dogs and clear sky, full moon, and one of the dogs starts howling and then all the dogs start howling. That’s pretty cool.

Man 2:            This is when the Corona virus was starting to pick up and we have no idea that that was going on in the rest of the world, and your emotional state is so up and down because you’re on limited sleep and it’s cold and you’re racing and you’re tired.

Man:               And it was kind of a similar fashion to how I ran the Iditarod. I found out I was going to run the race one week before I ran it.

Woman:          The freedom of just you and dogs traveling through unmarked territory is such almost a spiritual feeling. And I guess I say spiritual feeling because I think it’s a God-given gift to be able to do so. I mean, how many people even could dream of doing that, much less have that opportunity for years. I just feel so blessed, and part of it is I have such great respect for the people of Alaska and you talk about a difficult environment to come into and to pursue your dreams in. This is a difficult environment, and yet together with dogs, they accomplished an amazing amount and I feel like I am involved in living history when I get to share that.

                        It’s early March in Anchorage and it’s bitter cold. Not record-breaking cold, but still well below freezing and snowy. Planes are busy overhead and the city is bustling with traffic. There’s an energy in the air that is as prevalent as the cold, biting wind. Something quite remarkable is about to happen on a scale that no one can really yet understand. From a life of dogs, I’m Jason Purgason, and this is the iconic race of the North.

Martin:           The sled dog sport is what I call a 9,000-year evolution of co-habiting this earth with sled dogs. National Geographic just concluded the carbon dating on some digs, archeological digs in which they prove that sled dogs had been deliberately bred for performance 9,000 years ago. Now we’re not talking domestication. We’re not talking just having the ore wolf become a family member. We’re talking what they described as deliberate sled dog breeding, meaning the nomadic or semi-nomadic people of the Siberian peninsulas, they deliberately bred dogs for their cohabitation, meaning those dogs pulled sledges. The sledges were big and loaded with their earthly belongings. They were not yet riding the sleds because evidence shows that the runners were upturned on both sides of the sled, ergo you couldn’t just ride on it unless you were sitting on it, which is possible.

                        Freighting then started to give way to the survival dogs, meaning people were more sedentary and supplies needed to be delivered to the outposts as far as your imagination. All that, of course, in the Arctic and the difference between horses who only have been utilized for 6,000 years, they have excelled in the warmer climates, whereas dogs because of their physiology have surpassed anything else in the Arctic climate and not being able to perspire is one of the main reasons they have evolved like that. After the freighting millennia, literally hundreds of years of freighting supplies into the most remote places, then of course the gold miners were a little bored in the winter time because the ground is frozen. You can’t do a lot of digging in the ground when the ground is frozen so they started to have dog races to pass the time. Not only driving races, but betting on races and so it became a pastime of the North to follow the greatest dog drivers and the greatest dogs, and that’s where we are now. We just simply have taken that sport of the early 20th century and beyond. We have taken that sport and selectively bred and helped evolution to a super dog that we now simply lump together on the term of Alaskan Husky. Most of your listeners might be familiar with the Siberian Huskies, which is a pure breed. They are the dogs that would be representing the 1920s. They were often direct imports from the Russian peninsula, ergo the Siberian name. The Siberian Huskies were typecast as a pure breed, and because of that, they still have to look like the 1920s.

                        A good example for your listeners would be in the same era, the Model-T Ford happened to be the fastest car. Nobody made a standard for automobiles that’s how they have to look or drive, whereas any dog breed that gets typecast has to stagnate because you’re no longer letting evolution evolve. You’re stagnating, you’re stopping the evolution. And if the clock is your judge, you don’t care whether you’re brown, black, white, or polka-dotted, and that’s where the Alaskan Huskies are. A term I use a lot to describe my dogs cause it’s hard for people to look at them and say, well, what are these dogs? I often say, they are like a term you probably know – Americans. And then people look at you and say, yeah. Of course, we don’t care whether you’re black or white or polka dot. What matters is the intrinsic values, your physiological makeup, your morphology, the way you move down the trail, way, way more important than whether you have blonde hair or polka-dotted hair. So that gives people a bit of an idea of what the Alaskan Huskies, which is 99% of all the competitive teams are made up of those dogs. That’s what those dogs are.

Jason:             That’s Martin Buser, a legend in the dog mushing world and 4-time Iditarod champion. Martin came from Switzerland and has run 36 Iditarods. During our time in Alaska, we had the opportunity to get to know more about Martin and we’ll share more about him later. Each year on the first Saturday of March, an amazing event takes place starting in Anchorage. Many of you know it as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. We had the fortune of covering the 2020 Iditarod and it was truly an experience like no other. This event and all it entails is indescribable. However, over the next few episodes, I’m going to try to bring you the story of the race, but first we’ll need to rewind several months and learn more about the people who compete in this more than 1000-mile journey, and what it takes to prepare for such an endeavor. We start with Wade Marrs, a 10-time competitor, top-5 finisher and the owner of Stump Jumpin’ Kennels.

Wade:             Well, my mom and uncle used to train dogs with me strapped on the wheelers with a car seat, and then mushing. Ran my first two-dog race when I was 5 years old and running few dogs since I was probably 4 years old. I got my first race dogs when I was about 10 years old. I ran my first race on my own was the Goose Bay 120 and the junior Iditarod in 2007. The name Stump Jumpin’ Kennel didn’t come to fruition until probably around 2010, 2012 but the kennel has been building ever since about 2007. I’ve ran the Iditarod 9 times now. My first one was in 2009. I was 18 years old. Ran it as early as possible, and I took a couple of years off after my first one and started back in 2012 and have ran every race since 2012.

Anna:              My name is Anna Berington and my twin sister and I, Kristy we grew up in Northern Wisconsin, probably about as far north in Wisconsin as you can get. We had pet dogs and cows and horses and chickens and things just on a farm growing up, and our neighbor had sled dogs. So that was our first experience with sled dogs and we’d been fans of Gary Paulson’s books and Disney movies and things like that and the outdoors. So that’s how we first got our feet wet, I guess, with sled dogs being able to run and work with our neighbor who had sprint racing dogs, which was quite a bit different than what we do now.

Kristy:             This is Kristy. I first moved up here in 2007 to kind of scout it out and then shortly after that, we both moved up here. When we were kids, we were involved in it as much as we could be, and when we graduated, we both joined the Army National Guard and did some school and took a small break from it, but felt that yearning to go back to it. And after our commitments with school and the military, we found ourselves in California working at a Sundog tour place, which eventually brought us to Alaska to look for dogs to purchase for that touring outfit. And we met Iditarod Campion Dean Osmar and he was looking for a kennel help. They’re called handlers when you work for a kennel doing basic chores and exercising the dogs, so he offered us a job right then and there and we’ve been up here ever since. At the time, we were living in a tent in the Sierra Nevada mountains, so we packed everything up on our backs and have called Alaska home ever since. Got a one-way ticket.

Anna:              This is Anna. I’ve run 8 Iditarods and Christie has run 10 Iditarods, and then she’s also done the Yukon Quest, which is another 1000-mile race that gets started February 1st, but we’re not in that one this year, but it’s in the back of our minds for the coming next season.

Jason:             That was Kristy and Anna Berington, identical twin sisters who own Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing, a kennel with over 50 dogs. Kristy has been running the Iditarod since 2010 and Anna since 2012. Up next, we hear from Kaci Murringer, a native of Michigan and one of several 2020 rookie Iditarod mushers that we spoke with.

Kaci:                Where I grew up in Michigan, they have a dog sled race called the UP 200, and the trail goes right behind my old house where I grew up in when I was a kid. Always loved dogs, always love winter. And one year I just said, Mom, Dad, this looks fun. And they found a musher in the area and I went and tried it out. Did my first race when I was 7 years old. Two-dog, I think it was like a mile or so; a little fun race. And the guy said, all right Kaci, what you have got to know is don’t let go of the dog sled, and I thought, well, why would that be an issue? I’ll stand up straight and sure enough, flipped over and got dragged for about half of it and never let go. And the guy came out, got me right-side up said, good job and I went on to finish the race. Come a long way since then.

Jason:             So you did half the race flipped over?

Kaci:                I think so, yeah. Or at least pretty close to that. I couldn’t quite figure out how to use my feet to pop up, but we’re good now if that happened. And then two years later, I got my kennel started with my first few sled dogs and took off from there. And now 20 years later, I believe we’re up here signed up for our rookie Iditarod, so it was good to finally be coming full circle.

Jason:             This annual race, often termed the Superbowl of Alaska, requires an enormous amount of training and preparation. For many mushers, the work to prepare for next year’s race begins as soon as this year’s race is over. Here’s Wade Marrs again.

Wade:             Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of work. So we’ll probably the biggest work dubs are the training of the dogs obviously. We’ll train them between 20 and 100 miles a day. They’ll put on about 2000 to 3000 miles of training runs before the race ever starts. And then also starting the food drops for the race itself. We’ll send out about 2000 pounds of cut up meat and kibble and stuff like that for the dogs to eat along the trail so that’s a lot of work too. I almost immediately put in my order for the booties. Dogs all wear booties on their feet. We’ll send about 3000 booties out on the trail for the dogs to use, so we’ll order those up right away and get those matched together and bagged and ready for next year and try to get done as far ahead as possible so when training season comes, we can focus solely on training as much as possible.

Anna:              Oh yeah, there’s about 20 checkpoints along the trail that we’ll send gear to, and you send out about anywhere between 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of stuff to the checkpoints, and the stuff is dog food – a lot of dog food – dog booties, runner plastic, extra socks and gloves for the people, people food, more dog food, gloves, socks, batteries, other gear for the dogs. We send out dog blankets and the dogs will wear; besides the booties, they wear coats. They have the little powder skirt for the coat. They have these sleeves that they sometimes wear and we send out massage liniments and so it’s all those things. That stuff is sent out about two weeks before the race starts, so you have to have somewhat of a plan of where you want these things, and certain parts of the race have a reputation of being extra cold, extra bad weather or things like that, and you know there’s certain long runs that you need to prepare for where you’re going to camp out, where you’re going to want to extra, extra things. So you sit down and you plan all that out and leading up to it is a lot of meat cutting. We cut a lot of meat. So we buy all our meat in about 50 pounds blocks, and we cut that into small pieces about the size of a loaf of bread. I compare everything to people food. A slice of bread, and the snacks are about the size of a Snickers bar. Just different kinds of meat. We send out fish, beef fat, beef, chicken, tripe, horse, lamb, lots of chicken skin, beaver, lots of different food.

Wade:             I do scheduling for the race so I can stick to the schedule on the trail and training and stuff. So I’ll start writing that as soon as I finish the Iditarod while it’s still fresh in my brain. I’ll jot down a schedule for the next year’s race while I’m remembering all the different things that I thought of out on the trail. Usually we replace our sled every year and get that ready, so we have to build a new sled.

Kaci:                Yeah. I literally just bought all the pieces today when I was in town so we’re going to start building that here this evening and get it ready for Iditarod. Basically, going to model his exact sled design, and actually do a race with it. It was awesome. Handled really nicely so I had to buy the sled runners from a specialty store up in Fairbanks, Alaska that sells them. And then I went to a welding place and bought aluminum stanchions and the framework for my sled. And then I had to go to a plastics place to get things like the handlebar and the brush bow and the sled basket bottom that I am going to put my gear on top of that will support it. A few different places, but thankfully Matthew’s a handy man. We’re going to pretty much custom build all of our parts and pieces to save a lot of money because typically a sled, if you were going to buy it outright, it’s usually around $3,000 up to $6,000 sometimes, but we’re probably going to build mine for $1,000, maybe $1,500.

Anna:              Oh yeah. We did build our sleds and have been maintaining them since. Sometimes we’ll get a little help from the flood builders around here to update some things, but when you build your sled, it’s a lot easier to fix it if you bust it out on the trail, so that’s good knowledge to have and we have to build all our dog houses. We mix liniments and massage oils for the dogs, so those are the things we make. We’ve made special treats for the dogs before and my mother-in-law can sew anything, so she’s really great about doing stuff for our dog coats and the sled bags and the sleeves and everything else that the dog wears. But we do order all our booties from our favorite local mushing supplies store that has them because we use so many. It just takes so long for an individual to make 4,000 booties, and that’s just for Iditarod. We do a lot of middle-distance races and training that we use booties in. We wash them and reuse them, but they eventually wear out.

Jason:             In addition to preparing food, equipment and supplies for the race, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s lots of work that goes into training and caring for the top athletes that will actually move the sled. Teams also have other hurdles to conquer before entering the Iditarod. We’ll learn about all this and more when we return, so stay with us.

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Martin:           Because we know the involvement, the commitment the year round daily, not only time and financial-wise, but lifestyle wise commitment that it takes, we’re very, very cautious in not having people fall into that lightly because it’s such a huge commitment. Anytime you work with living things, you have to be there all the time. Then if we cannot talk them out of it, of course I do my absolute best to be a good teacher, a good mentor, a good coach.

Matthew:       It’s kind of a weird role reversal. I never really thought that I would be a mentor, so it’s flattering to have if she called me that cause my buddy Martin Buser who is like the Dale Earnhardt of our sport up here is Martin Buser. He’s a four-time champion. He’s in the Hall of Fame and he taught me and now I’m at a point where I can take his teachings and then pass them on to the next generation, which is kind of cool. She’s an awesome dog musher. She’s very patient with them, very loving with them. She is a hard, hard worker. I’ve never heard her complain once. She has never asked for a day off. I mean, if you own a business, that’s the type of employee you want. Someone who’s ready to go to work every day and this is what she loves to do and she’s been dreaming of it since she was little, so I’m really happy to be able to provide her the dogs to go down the trail.

Kaci:                It might sound like a common-sense thing, but we’re always just saying go have fun. If things get rough, don’t let it get you down. Just look at your dogs and how amazing they are, and just keep moving on.

Jason:             This commitment, and more importantly this positive attitude, is vital to making it through the Iditarod. A lot of work goes into raising and training these extreme canine athletes. We return to Wade to give us an idea of what this is like.

Wade:             The dogs we use are called the Alaskan Huskies, which are just a fancy word for a mutt. They’re just mixed bred dogs. Back in the day, they took the more tough fluffy Siberian type of dog that is built for the outdoor elements and they mixed those with different kinds of hounds like Greyhound, Wilkies, Pointers, dogs like this. And eventually it came down to a nice, even breed between them to where we have the high energy and high attitude of the hound, but we still have the toughness and the endurance of the Husky so they can handle the outdoor conditions and they can travel much faster. Some people today still use the traditional purebred Siberian dogs. Those guys are usually three to four days slower than the Alaskan Huskies, so the mixed breeds came out a lot better. They have great health and longevity. So they’ll start training for their first time at 6 months old. That’s only about half mile to a mile run at a time. With some older dogs, they’ll start coming into shorter races, 150, 200-mile races as yearlings – year and a half old. Two-year olds, they’re very solid for middle distance racing. Every once in a while, but rarely a two-year-old will make the race team for the Iditarod. We try to start them mostly in the competitive side of things at three years old, because that’s when they’re more fully developed physically, and then they retire usually between 8 and 12 years old, which is pretty long working life for the dogs. On average, they live till about 17 years, I would say.

Anna:              We have 40 dogs that are in training and some of those are our younger dogs that are essentially trying out for the team and experiencing all their first races and just getting a grasp. They’re like a freshman/JV dog, but they’re also our bench warmers in case of somebody who’s ill or a female comes into heat and causes a huge distraction on the team. We opt to leave those ones at home in a case like that, so they’re training for it, but definitely not on the dream team yet. Next year they will be prime time. It’ll be exciting to put those guys on the varsity teams. When it comes down to picking each of us our top 14 dogs, that’s going to be hard to only pick 14 because we’ve got a lot of really nice dogs to work with.

Jason:             Yeah. That was my next question. How hard is it to get it down to the 14, and when is the final decision made? How do you approach that?

Anna:              It’s a slow process, but Iditarod has a lot of qualifications for the dogs to even run the race. The first thing they go through is blood work and an EKG so you can submit 24 dogs for that whole process. And then a week after that, you have to submit 20 dogs for a physical health check so they force you to slowly whittle that number down.

Wade:             I guess the process starts as puppies and the number one thing with puppies is socialization, making sure that the puppies love interacting with people and are good interacting with people and interacting with other dogs and stuff like that. So that’s where our process begins and those two things are very important. We’ll have veterinarians on the trail and volunteers and stuff that they’re gonna be interacting with constantly. A lot of the kids from the villages come running out to say hi to the dogs, so that’s the number one thing that we look for in the dogs early on is just human and other dog interactions. And then as they get older and start running on the team, next attribute that we look for is attitude. Attitudes are very important for ones that just want to do it and love to do it. Very rarely these days, but every once in a while, we’ll find one that just is not interested in running, and usually those guys become a house potato somewhere or a couch potato somewhere. But most of the dogs these days just absolutely thrive on running in the team so that’s the next thing we look for as we’re training them as young dogs is just their attitude and their love for doing it. As they get older and start leaning towards making the race team, a little bit more comes into play. Athleticism – the dogs have to be able to run at high speeds, 17 to 20 miles an hour, and then they have to be able to continuously move smoothly at 10, 11 miles an hour for long, long distances, and so we look for that kind of thing with the athleticism and the endurance on the dogs.

                        Appetite is a huge thing for our team because on the race they’re eating 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day, so they have to just really love to eat and put food down very quickly, and so those are some of the things we look for. Obviously make sure that the dogs are hardy and built well, have a smooth gait. That way they don’t get sore wrists or anything like that. If the dogs are getting sore, then they maybe can’t handle the speeds we are going or something like that. So if the dog doesn’t fit into the race team from the B team and usually they’re just a little bit different style than what we prefer in our team, a lot of us mushers will sell or trade each other dogs that might fit better with their team versus our team, and that works out really good because the dogs still get to do what they love. And they get to a place where they fit in good and are going to perform well and excel.

                        So that’s kind of the processes going through from puppies into race team, and then once they’re ready to finish with the race team, you can kind of tell by both their attitudes again and their eating habits and also their performance on the trail. So if they’re starting to slow down a little bit on the runs, then obviously they may be getting a little bit too old to keep up with the pace, or if they’re stopping eating, then maybe they’re getting too much exercise and it’s taking their interest off of food, or obviously if they’re acting pouty or sad that they have to run, then maybe it’s a little bit past their time or something along those lines. You can see it in the dogs very well that they’re ready to end their career or be done running, but you can tell when they’re ready to go to. Some of the old dogs, their attitude never changes, but you can see it in the performance.

Wade:             There’s 18 of them that are training on my main race team, and most likely I’ll start with 14 of those 18. And then we have about 14 that are training on a B-team and most of those guys are one and two-year olds and a couple of older dogs that don’t need the harder training as a race team does. So a couple of those older dogs might come back into the team for Iditarod, but we have a second driver this year who’s training up that second team and he’ll be running them in a couple middle distance races getting qualified for Iditarod next year. We start pretty late in August. We start just kind of like you would as a human athlete. We start very lightly in August with like 3 mile runs and stuff like that, and slowly build them up with 5 and 10 until eventually we’re training between 20 and 100 miles a day. In training, we’ll do camp outs 200, 300-mile camp outs and kind of simulate our race and stuff like that through those camps. In the summertime when their time off is, we give them between a month and two of just relaxation and recovery time to make sure that they all come back 100 percent from anything, and then we start free running them loose and running them in the swamps and playing in the marsh. They love running down in the water and cooling off on hot summer days, so we’ll do a lot of that kind of training with them in the off season.

Jason:             As I found out, entering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is far more involved than just signing up and showing up on the day with a team of dogs. Each participant must run a number of shorter races prior to the Iditarod in order to qualify for the race.

Anna:              Yeah as a start, 750 racing miles, so they ask you to do two 300-mile races, at least that distance. So, for myself that was the Copper Basin 300 and the Kobuk 440 race, and you need to have one race of at least 150 miles so I did the Goose Bay 150. But not only do you have to finish all those races, you have to have race judge and race ushering approval saying that, yes, you rode on a trail and you were able to take care of your dog and yourself out there in the wilderness of Alaska, just to make sure when you get on the actual Iditarod trail, you’re prepared and you know what you’re doing out there. So, it is a process, but they do it for very good reason.

Wade:             So before you run the Iditarod for your first time, you have to qualify and you have to run 750 miles of qualifying races, so two 300 mile races and 150 mile race or 200, and those races take place anywhere from December to April all over the state. There’s quite a few of them in the lower 48 and in Canada as well that people use for qualifiers. Once you run the Iditarod, you’re permanently qualified once you finish unless there’s a special committee that can review you and say you need to requalify under certain conditions. But once you’re competing in and finishing the Iditarod, you’re permanently qualified, but each year we will compete in other races sometimes for purse money and sometimes just for fun, and the dogs enjoy getting around other teams and going to new places so we’ll sign up for a couple other races every year, just for those experiences.

Jason:             I had the fortune to spend months getting to know more about what the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was all about. From the mushers to the dogs, all the volunteers and everyone else that makes this event happen, it truly is a massive undertaking. One odd fact that demonstrates this is that crews often spend an incredible amount of time hauling in dump truck loads of snow to cover 4th Avenue and the other streets of Anchorage to ensure that the ceremonial start takes place.

Kaci:                Nope, that’s real. They’ll haul dump truckloads of snow a few days before the race or they’re making it so we can run through downtown Anchorage and other year when it was such low snow, they had it hauled in by rail car from Fairbanks because they needed to do some sort of ceremonial start here in Anchorage. That’s one of their preparations for Saturday, that day is to get something for us to run on in town. Like where we live, there’s more sled dogs than people, and we don’t have Super Bowl or professional teams for anything so it gives people in the state something to follow and rally around and it’s a really fun time of year. The frivolity that happens with the sprint racing and Iditarod. It’s just a great time. There’s so many races up here to do that you can travel from where we’re at within 360 miles, you can get to almost every single race that Alaska holds, and then if you’re in the Midwest, if you want to go all the way out to Montana or to Colorado or any place like that that has a race, it seems like more of a trek and there are just so many other mushers around here that it is a community and it has a very historic hold out here that there’s a lot of old timers that can tell you how it was and they will help you out with things and see all these trails and places. It feels like the place to be if you want to professionally pursue dog mushing.

Jason:             It’s the Superbowl of Alaska.

Anna:              It is, yeah.

Jason:             This race is a spectacular event to experience, even as a spectator. As a competitor, even more so. Kaci, the rookie explains, and she also expresses her desire to become part of an elite club.

Kaci:                Yeah. Every rookie musher that finishes Iditarod, they give you a belt buckle and you become part of the Iditarod Finishers club. It’s a pretty elite club. There are actually more people that have been the top of Mount Everest than have finished this Sled Dog Race, so I’m looking forward to being a part of that as well.

Jason:             Being a musher and competing in the Iditarod is incredibly time consuming, expensive and demanding. What has been covered in this episode is only a fraction of the work and commitment it takes. So, some may ask why do they do it? The answer is pretty simple, actually. It’s for the love of the dogs and to continue to allow these dogs to do what they love. When the Iditarod is mentioned, most people immediately conjure up images of Balto or Togo, and think of the serum run that saved the people of Nome in 1925. But as Kaci explains, the race has more to do with Joe Redington, Senior and a commitment to save the Alaskan sled dog.

Kaci:                And then we get a lot of misconceptions too about Iditarod and the connection to the serum and people always go, why didn’t you talk about that? What about Balto and all this? The Iditarod was not actually created for that reason. A guy by the name of Joe Redington, Senior, he’s the father of the Iditarod is what they called him. He noticed back in the 1960s that the machines, the snow machines were actually replacing the sled dogs up here for transportation. He didn’t like the thought of that at all, so he came up with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race to keep those sled dogs around and keep that traditional alive up here in Alaska. Today, actually dogsledding is the official state sport up here so the Iditarod while it does cover part of that serum trail from Ruby to Nome, it wasn’t actually created to commemorate that run at all.

Jason:             I want to thank you for joining us for our first episode covering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and how that you’ll subscribe to hear our upcoming episodes that guarantee to deliver some spectacular stories from the trail.

Marcus:          They want to kill the Iditarod and they’re experts at killing. There’s no question about it.

Jason:             In our next episode, learn about the controversy surrounding the race and what it takes to care for these special canine athletes. Until then, we leave you with Redington’s Run by Hobo Jim Varsos.

                        [Hobo Jim Varsos singing Redington’s Run; 41:42 to 44:00]


A Climate for Change

A Climate For Change: How Conservation Detection Dogs Are Saving Species Around The World

As saddening as it sounds, it is estimated that 150 to 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct during the course of one day on our planet. Climate change, loss of habitat and other factors continue to put more species at significant risk of being completely wiped out.

Many of these animals play a critical role in maintaining the natural balance of our planet’s ecosystem. Without them, our way of daily life would be completely different, from the air that we breathe to the food that we consume.

This episode explores the fascinating stories behind three special people who are determined to make a difference. Each of them uses the amazing capabilities of dogs to help preserve our natural environment and protect endangered or at-risk species.

bumblebee detection

Jacqueline Staab & Darwin, the Bumblebee Detection Dog

Jacqueline Staab is a 28-year-old grad student from Appalachian State University. Jacqueline owns a German Shorthaired Pointer, Darwin, who has been trained to detect bumblebee nests.

The Alpine bumblebee is particularly important. These bees all live above 11,000 ft, with changeable weather and unusual conditions for bees to survive. As one of the few pollinators who live at such a high altitude, their importance cannot be understated – they have developed such close relationships with flowers for pollination.

Staab acquired Darwin when he was a puppy – on a mission to train him to be the first Alpine bumblebee detection dog in the western hemisphere. With bumblebee populations in decline – some research suggests they have dropped almost 30% in a generation – their work is more important now than ever.

During this episode, Staab describes her journey with Darwin, and how their amazing work will help to preserve the Alpine bumblebee for generations to come.

green sea turtle

Christian Fritz & K9s 4 Conservation, protecting sea turtles

Christian Fritz is a military veteran, who founded a non-profit – K9s 4 Conservation – on the coast of Texas, focused on saving sea turtle populations.

Six of the seven sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered. Despite living on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs – over 110 million years ago – sea turtles are at risk due to a variety of factors. Although other animals such as raccoons and seabirds can feed on sea turtles, and climatic changes pose a threat, human interference from plastic contamination and poachers is an even greater danger.

With his dogs certified for search and rescue, Fritz and his working dogs scour the sand for any indication of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Using sand from the sea turtle nests, Fritz can train his dogs to detect the scent of the nests.  

The second part of this episode focuses on the fascinating and rewarding work Fritz and his dogs undertake to help preserve sea turtles.

koala conservation

Dr. Romane Cristescu & Detection Dogs for Conservation, protecting koalas

Dr. Romane Cristescu co-founded Detection Dogs for Conservation to help protect one of the most prominent symbols of Australia – the koala.

Koalas made the news recently during the scenes from the terrifying bushfire crisis in Australia. Even prior to this situation, koalas were struggling. The Australian Koala Foundation estimates there are anywhere between 43,000 and 100,000 koalas left in the wild.

Dr. Cristescu and her team are passionate about protecting the koala. She pioneered the use of dogs to locate koalas through scat. Her team looks for energetic, playful dogs – and harnesses their natural working qualities of canines to learn more about koala populations and habitats.

The final part of this episode of A Life of Dogs highlights the amazing work of Dr. Cristescu and Bear, as they try to help preserve the koala population through Australia.

We wish to thank everyone who was interviewed and shared their story in this episode.

You can find out more about Darwin the Bee Dog on his Facebook page.

You can learn more about Christian Fritz and K9s 4 Conservation at their website.

For more information about Dr. Romane Cristescu and Detection Dogs for Conservation, visit their section on the USC website.

We also want to thank our episode sponsors.  Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support.  Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.

Royal Canin


Highland Canine Training, LLC


Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Three (S2, E3)
Episode Name: A Climate for Change

Jason Purgason

Jacqueline Staab; Christian Fritz; Dr. Romane Cristescu

57:01 minutes

Broadcast Date
February 19, 2020


Jason:            Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at and by Highland Canine Training, offering professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Learn more at

                        I’m Jason Purgason and you’re listening to A Life of Dogs, the podcast that explores our life with man’s best friend and the amazing ways that we work and live together. You’re listening to Episode three of our second season. If this is your first time listening, be sure to check out our other episodes in our first and second seasons to hear some pretty amazing tales.

                        Across the globe, it’s estimated that between 150 and 200 species of plant, insect, bird, and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. In this episode, we discover the stories of some special people who are determined to save some interesting animals with the help of well-trained dogs. Many of these animals play a critical role in our ecosystem.

Jacqueline:    Some plants can only be pollinated exclusively by bumblebees, a thing called buzz pollination where they vibrate at the perfect frequency for the plant to release its pollen. It’s actually a really cool evolutionary thing they got going on with some plants.

Jason:            In 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added the rusty patched bumblebee to the list of endangered species. Due to loss of habitat, diseases, climate change, pesticides and parasites, bumblebee populations have dropped almost 90% in the last 20 years. Considering the fact that every third bite of food that we eat is attributed to pollinators, this is clearly a dire situation.

Jacqueline:    Basically, Alpine bumblebees are some of the only pollinators in the Alpine area, so they’re like a Keystone species, so without them like basically … a Keystone species means that a lot of ecological functions and stuff kind of rely on something that that species does. Like sharks are a Keystone species in the ocean and so without these Keystone pollinators, the Alpine ecosystem is completely going to change.

Jason:            This episode begins with Jacqueline Staab, a 28-year-old grad student from Appalachian State University who’s paired up with a young German short haired pointer to help save the Alpine bumblebee.

Jacqueline:    So the Alpine is kind of like a canary in a coal mine for climate change. Things that are happening up there. It’s happening drastically, like really quickly and over the past 10 years, the number of bumblebee species in that area have gone from two to three to five to seven. And obviously – well, you don’t know this – but bumblebees are limited. Their populations are limited by the number of nest sites and we know bumblebees can’t dig their own holes. So they live in abandoned mammal burrows, which is where Darwin comes in. But since they only have a limited number of resources and all these species are moving up in elevation, are able now to move up in elevation, they’re competing for those resources. And this could drive certain species to extinction, and change ranges, change populations. So it’s really important that we need to know that. Also, a lot of bumblebee nesting, ecology and biology information. getting that information has been hampered due to the inability to find bumblebee nests, so the only two ways I did a literature search and the only two ways, three ways I found. So the first way was to just systematically search yourself, which I did one summer.

Jason:            Visually and just looking for them?

Jacqueline:    Yeah. And I literally spent hours and hours and hours looking one summer and I found three nests, and I was out there five days a week looking for nests.

Jason:            Pinpointing bumblebee nests can be incredibly difficult. They can consist of a tiny hole buried in the grass, recognized by a single bee going in or out every few minutes. To improve efficiency and finding these elusive sites, other strategies have to be used.

Jacqueline:    So I looked into other ways, and there have been other successful people had used volunteers where they all kind of like walk next to each other in a line and look for it, but if you’re in the Alpine environment of Colorado, that’s not safe. First of all, you’re in Park County. You’re not going to find that many volunteers that are going to stop mining or whatever they’re doing day to day to go and help you find bumblebees. There just aren’t that many people and they’re all busy working. It’s not like a college/university town where you can just find all kinds of volunteers, so that wasn’t going to happen. Plus, the terrain’s a little bit dangerous to have a bunch of inexperienced hikers. They’re long days, long miles, and so we had to find another way and so I ran across this paper in my research, Waters 2011 out of Great Britain and they actually had the British army train a dog for conservation, for bumblebee conservation to find bumblebee nests.

                        So it was a two year old Springer spaniel that they found and they trained him up to do it and they tested him, tested the efficacy and stuff, and he did great. He found all five nests in a 250 by 50 square meter plot. They had five different species. So they found the cues they used to find bumblebee nests are the same across species. So they’re able to find, like Darwin has found in his training, he’s been able to find nests in wax from [unclear audio] and he’s able to find them from different species, which is really important and what we need. So that’s really great.

Jason:            So at this point you may be asking yourself, what makes someone want to go out search for bumblebees that are known by most people for their painful stings?

Jacqueline:    First of all, they’re not scary at all. They’re actually really cool and fuzzy and cute. Like if you’re a dog person, you could totally be a bee person cause they’re fuzzy and wonderful. They won’t just sting you for no reason. I’ve only been stung twice – once because I exploded a paint pen on one of them and the other one was actually under turgor, which means it was frozen. Basically, they go to sleep when they’re really cold. So I was handling it and I basically stung myself and I handle these guys all the time. So they’re actually really great.

Jason:            There are currently over 250 species of bumblebee. So what makes Jacqueline so interested in the Alpine bumblebee?

Jacqueline:    Alpine bumblebees specifically, they are different because they all live above 11,000 feet, which is really high. You know there’s a lot of spatial heterogeneity and just from place to place, it’s windy, the weather changes all the time. It’s really hard for bees to live up there so these bees have certain adaptations that have allowed them to live up there. And so since they’ve been up there by themselves with the flowers for such a long time, they’ve developed really close relationships with these flowers as far as pollination goes. So they have longer tongues. So flowers that require bees with longer tongues for pollination maybe won’t get pollinated or could go extinct so that’s really important. Basically, Alpine bumblebees are some of the only pollinators in the Alpine area. So, they’re a Keystone species.

Jason:            In order to adequately survey the Alpine bumblebee, researchers are required to locate their nesting sites. These nesting sites are becoming more sparse, which creates some pretty interesting behavior from the bees.

Jacqueline:    Basically, they live in abandoned mammal burrows because they can’t dig their own nest, but it’s like a big fight. In the spring when the Queens are competing, they’ll actually stab each other over nesting sites and try to circle one another, kind of like Game of Thrones. But the bees – they do! It’s pretty intense.

Jason:            I first met Jacqueline at our facility in North Carolina, where she brought this lanky German short-haired pointer puppy to be evaluated. She was on a mission, a mission to develop the first bumblebee detection dog in the Western hemisphere.

Jacqueline:    I got Darwin as a puppy. I decided to go with German short-haired pointers because I read that they smelled close to the ground. They kept their nose low. So I was like, well, if I’m looking for bumblebee holes, I might as well get one of those. Also, I’ve always kind of been into German short-haired pointers – they’re beautiful dogs. Anyway, I got little Darwin from a breeder in Virginia and I got him at eight weeks. He had good hunting and championship lineage. I got him for the purpose of my research.

Jason:            As we found out, there are a lot of things you’re going to need in order to train an effective bumblebee detection dog. A great dog and a proven plan are critical to make it work, but more importantly, you’re going to need lots of bumblebees.

Jacqueline:    I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was my first bumblebee colony ever. I’ve had honey bees, so I was like, cool, I can do this. No problem. But it was too cold barren, because I was doing it in the spring cause I wanted to get the project underway so I ordered them online. You can get them, I think it’s Koppert or something is the company, but you can order bumblebees online and they’re shipped to you, overnighted and then …it’s really funny, I get this frantic email from the Biology apartment. There are bees here. Somebody needs to come pick them up, and I walked into the mail room and they’re just buzzing in the corner.

Jason:            They are in a box, right?

Jacqueline:    Yeah, yeah, yeah. But anyway, so I brought them home and you just opened the door and let them go. There’s one exit/entrance hole. They basically come in a box and there’s like one entrance/exit hole and I just put them in my window with the entrance facing out and just block the rest of the window with towels, but after a while the hive starts getting big. That’s the fun part and they start to try to find ways out and increase their space. So they would start to chew the air holes open on the boxes and you could just hear them crunching it while you were sleeping. So that was really interesting. You’re just waiting for them to escape and sting you. But it was fine. I got stung once.

Jason:            Did they escape?

Jacqueline:    Yeah, totally. Sometimes, I’d come home. Well, I have a great roommate, Paige Anderholm. She was my roommate at the time and she would sometimes call me, at the beginning, she would call me and be like, Jacqueline, there are bees everywhere. Can you come home? Yeah, I’ll be right there. But eventually she got to the point where she would get in there when I had to get the nesting material, she’d get in there with me and handle it. So she really evolved as a bee person.

Jason:            What exactly attracts a dog to the nesting sites of bumblebees may come as a bit of a surprise to some. A key difference between the honeybee and the bumblebee is what aids in their conservation.

Jacqueline:    Honeybees are actually really neat and they usually poop and defecate outside their colonies, but bumblebees stink. They smell so bad so that definitely helped Darwin out in the beginning phases.

Jason:            Even though Jacqueline and Darwin’s efforts are now focused in the Rocky Mountains of the United States, she has plans to use Darwin’s unique skillset to help with bumblebee conservation elsewhere.

Jacqueline:    The plan with Darren eventually is to like do international bee conservation work. I want to go all over and help people with pollinator conservation cause it’s really important for the people too.

Jason:            Bumblebees are in drastic decline across North America and Europe. Studies suggest that bumblebee populations have declined 30% in the course of a single human generation. Climate change, among other factors, seems to be having a huge impact on bumblebee numbers making Jacqueline and Darwin’s work more important now than ever

Jacqueline:    Actually, now because the time bees are emerging and the time certain plants are emerging in the Alpine are super wonky now. They’re not as they were before, and that’s really important because in the Arctic for example, Bombus frigidus which is an Alpine bee, they always emerge within 24 hours of this Willow Catkins, which is like a Willow Bush, their flowers blooming, which is really interesting. So if the weather’s all crazy and the plants aren’t emerging at the right time, it could throw them off. And in that time when their colonies are so dependent when they first started establishing, if their plants are not out, that colony is going to go down, so it’s really important. Climate change could really have a lot of negative impacts on bumblebees, especially if the flower blooming timing keeps changing and stuff like that, with strange weather patterns, that could really mess them up. So that’s why we want to get in there now and get an eye on them, and the only way to do that really in this area is with Darwin

Jason:            Up next, we hear how dogs are being used to combat declining numbers in turtle populations, and stay tuned to learn how scientists are using dogs to help save the koala, one of Australia’s most iconic marsupials.

                        Our next segment features Christian Fritz, a dog trainer and military veteran who founded K9s 4 Conservation after finding his calling to help sea turtles in Texas.

Christian:       We have sea turtle nest detection dogs that we worked down the Texas coast with the national seashore and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. That’s a pretty rare field of detection work at this point. As far as I know, there has been two other sea turtle nest detection dogs prior to ours.

Jason:            With six out of the seven sea turtle species classified as threatened or endangered, caused primarily by human activity, it goes without saying that they need all the help they can get. Christian got involved in their conservation to some degree by accident.

Christian:       I initially started working doing search and rescue, so I trained the human remains detection dog. I also trained them for tracking, and I trained a lifeline dog, so I had experience with detection dogs doing search and rescue stuff and was trying to figure out what to do for my girlfriend’s birthday last year. And she really liked sea turtles. And so I was trying to Google sea turtles in Texas to see if there’s anything we could go to – aquarium or something- and ended up finding the National Seashores website, where they talk about their sea turtle program. They have a nesting program here and I was reading, I saw it on the click hole. I was reading all the stuff about it. It was really interesting and they were talking about they have people that drive up and down the beach, that patrol the beach looking for nesting turtles, and ideally they will see the turtle on the beach and they can go over to the turtle and they can get measurements and check on her health and they’ll actually mark the nest while she’s still laying the eggs, and then they move back, let her finish laying the eggs and then she crawls back into the ocean.

                        Later on, they’ll come out and we’ll actually collect the eggs cause, in Texas they collect the eggs. There’s few enough of the nests and there’s enough threats from tides, predators and also from people, because you can drive on a lot of the beaches down here, but they actually collect the eggs and either re-nest them in protected corrals or they have an incubation facility at the National Seashore. So they collect those eggs and they move them, but sometimes they’re not there when the turtle is nesting. A lot of times we’ll be driving by and we’ll see tracks in the wet sand and the turtles that they’re specifically dealing with are Kemp’s Ridleys, which are the smallest sea turtle in the world. They are still about a hundred pounds. They’re not little turtles, but for sea turtles, they are little, and they like to nest when it’s windy. So the combination of high winds and small turtles means that the tracks they leave in the dry sand can be completely gone in 30 or 40 minutes. So the turtle crawls up, she lays her eggs, she goes back in the ocean and 30 minutes later you drive by and you might see some flipper prints in that wet sand so you know that a turtle crawled up and you know that a turtle crawled back into the ocean, but you don’t know where on the beach that turtle went. You know she could have laid her eggs the second she got off the wet sand. She could have crawled a hundred feet back and laid her eggs. You really have no idea. Did she turn? Did she …? I don’t know, and so at that point, when they don’t have any tracks, they employ a lot of different methods to try to guess where the turtle laid her eggs. Well, they often lay them in these areas or in this kind of sand. They’re looking for broken vegetation or places where loose sand is piled up on some vegetation where the turtle was fleeing, sand in the air. So trying to get every little thing they can and then they basically take their best guess and they have to go probe for the nest.

                        So they take these probes and they carefully insert them. You need years of training to be able to do this. They carefully insert them in the sand. It’s like looking for a landmine – very, very carefully, going through the area until they find the soft spot. It’s about eight inches across, and that will be the neck of the nest, and then they can dig it out. The problem is that can take them a couple of minutes. I’ve seen them. It’s pretty amazing. I personally witnessed one of their turtle techs come out and look and go, I’m pretty sure the nest is right over there, and I’m looking at it and there’s nothing on this beach that tells me anything. And he walked over and I think on the fourth poke, he got it. These guys are really good, but there are times when they don’t find them for hours, days and sometimes they never find them.

                        So, reading about probing for nests for hours, I was like, man, I bet they could use dogs for this, and so that’s when I sent an email in and Dr. Shaver replied to me, and she said, hey, we don’t have this capability anymore. And so I said, would you want that capability? And she was like, well, we don’t have a whole lot of money, so we can’t really afford $50,000 for a specialized dog, and so I offered to do it as a nonprofit. We can train the dog and handle the dogs for them and then they don’t have to even worry about it. We’re just there to help them out. I drove down to the beach. I met with Dr. Shaver. We talked for a number of hours and I went home and started training dogs that day.

Jason:            As you heard in our previous story, Jacqueline was able to simply purchase bumblebees to train Darwin. In Christian’s endeavors to help save the sea turtles, getting the material he needs to train the dogs is difficult.

Christian:       Yeah. So, what we use is sand from the nest. So once the turtle patrollers see a turtle, they mark the nest, they come by later on and they collect all the eggs, and at that point, it’s just a hole in the beach. And so we’ll scrape some of the sand out of the area where the nest was, and that’s what we use to train the dog. So they’re getting the smells of the turtle nests without actually having to have any turtle stuff, which is controlled cause they are an endangered species. One of the problems that we have with using the sand is that I don’t know how much scent is in any given scoop of sand. So, it’s impossible for me to say I’m going to start big and work down to minute amounts of smell because I don’t know how much smell I have. I can’t smell it. There’s no way to look at it and see. And so I just have to assume essentially that the scent is evenly distributed throughout the sample, even though I know that it’s not. And so that’s one of the big factors that’s kind of holding me back at this point, training-wise. I wish that exceptions were easier, but at the same time I understand why they are not. There’s, probably a lot more people trying to steal sea turtle eggs that are trying to train dogs to help the government find them and protect them. So I get it. I do wish that it was otherwise, but unfortunately that’s kind of where we’re at.

Jason:            In his quest to preserve the sea turtle population, Christian trained with his dogs every day for months prior to actually exposing them to nesting sites on the beach. His work required lots of travel and tons of hard work.

Christian:       We did daily training. I live in San Marcus, right between San Antonio and Austin, and we did daily training up here for about two months, and every two or three weeks, we would go down to the beach and we would practice on the beach and we would get to practice on real nests. So we would go out on days that we expected high nesting activity and the turtle patrols would mark a nest and we would come by and I’d worked the dogs on known locations. So I know there’s a nest here. I know where the nest is. I can work the dogs on it, and they were doing really well. I have some cool videos on the Facebook and on our Instagram page of the dogs working through those nests. There’s a great one where Saul is coming up the dune and he has this really, really great, probably 140 degree change of behavior where he snaps almost right back to where he was going as he came into the scent cone, works the scent cone perfectly, goes right up to the nest and indicates. It was a really great example of a detection dog working. So we train them up like that for a while, and then July I spent working the dogs only on the beach. So we worked a lot on the beach

Jason:            After putting in lots of work to find sea turtle nests, Christian and his dogs finally got the call that they’d been waiting for. It was now time to see if all this work would pay off.

Christian:       We got a call from the Marine Science Institute. The animal rehabilitation team runs their turtle patrol for Mustang and San Jose Island, and they had found tracks from a loggerhead turtle on Mustang Island …or not Mustang, it was on San Jose Island, and they’d gone out the day before and they spent four or five or six hours looking for this nest and they just couldn’t find it. They probed and they’d dug and dug and they probed and they couldn’t find it. so they called me up. They were like, Hey, can you come out? I was like, yeah, absolutely. This is literally what I’ve been spending these hundreds and hundreds of hours of training to do. Yes, please. Let me come help. So we had to take a boat out to the Island cause there’s no road that goes out there. It’s a privately owned Island, and the owners graciously allow the Marine Science Institute to come out and look for turtles and collect eggs on their property, which is really nice of them.

                        So we brought the dog out. We brought Dasha out on the boat and we had to take a little UTV halfway across the Island to where these turtle nests, where the turtle tracks were, and I let Dasha out and she started working and very, very early on, she crossed right by this one spot. She head-checked into a club of grass and I noted that to myself. I was like, okay, that was really good head check. That was definitely some interest and I mean, we’re dealing with some really, really faint smell. It’s really tough work. There’s not a lot of scents for them to work with. So, she checked that, worked some more and a couple of minutes later she started working from downwind, started working towards that same area, and after working through that for a little while, she finally got just about to where she had head-checked in that first sprig of grass and indicated the nest was right there.

                        From where she very first had that head check, it was probably three feet away. So she was able to go in, found the right spot, indicated and the biologist was out with us was able to probe and find the eggs and then we got to bring the eggs in, and it was only like 110 loggerhead sea turtle eggs. Loggerheads are an endangered species, so a nest that I got to go to help save that otherwise probably would have been predated. That was pretty cool.

Jason:            It’s not only nest and that eggs are in danger. Weather in the winter months can also create a perilous situation for sea turtles. So Christian and his team of dogs are working on strategies to save sea turtles affected by cooler temperatures on the Texas coast.

Christian:       One of the things we’re working on is to train the dogs so there’s another thing that happens with these Kemp’s Ridleys so much, at least not here in Texas. We have these barrier islands that go basically along the entire coast and inland of the barrier islands are these bays that are relatively shallow, and the juvenile green sea turtles like to go hang out in those cause there’s a lot of food there and they’re safer from predators. Not a lot of 14-foot sharks swimming around in 12 feet of water. So the juvenile green sea turtles will swim in there and they live there. The problem is when we have a really big temperature change, so we have these big Arctic fronts come through from Canada and it’ll drop the water temperature cause it’s so shallow in the Bay from 70 degrees to 45 degrees sometimes overnight, but certainly in a matter of a day or two. And that drastic of a temperature change doesn’t allow the juvenile greens enough time to swim back out to the Gulf of Mexico, cause there’s only a very few places where there’s cuts in the islands where they can get through. What happens is the turtles get hypothermic, we call it cold stunting. So the turtles get cold stunned at about 48 degrees water temperature and they can’t move. So they just kind of float in the water and the wind pushes them up along the shore and they get washed up on the beach, so they’re vulnerable to getting hit by boats cause they can’t swim out of the way and they’re floating on the surface. They can drown because they can’t do anything. They can’t even have the energy to lift their head out of the water to breathe. They can also freeze to death, and then when they wash up on shore, anything can just come along and eat them.

They can’t get away. There’s nothing they can do. They are just stuck there on the beach, and so one of the things that we are trying to train the dogs to do is actually to go out and help find those turtles. In fact, last Wednesday, I went down and helped save some of the Simpson Golds and Greens, and you are walking on the beach and you’re like, there’s one, there’s one, there’s one, there’s one, just lined up along the beach. but there’s other places where it really looks like a mud island. It’s only an inch out of the water and you jump in and you sink up to your knees in mud and you’ve got to slog across this Island to see if there’s any turtles, if there’s bubbles or grass. These are all things that people aren’t going to be able to detect a turtle in, right? If there’s a bunch of bubbles, you might not be able to see a turtle inside that. Well, the dogs aren’t looking; they’re smelling. So the dog picks up the scent. They’re going to be able to go in; plus, my dogs love it in the cold and the mud. You throw him out of the boat into knee-deep mud and it’s 40 degrees outside. They’re going to have the time of their lives. They love that stuff. So they can go cover an island and if they detect the turtle, we can bring the boat around, swing by, jumped out, get the turtle and bring it back, and if there’s a turtle, we put the dog on the boat and go to the next island and not have to get off ourselves and trying to slog around through this island.

Jason:            Training dogs to save sea turtles is phenomenal work, but as Christian explains his work has some other pretty cool perks.

Christian:       Getting to watch the turtles come up on the beach and lay their eggs is really, really, really cool. The whole first year, I kept missing it. I would drive up right after the turtle went back into the water just again and again. This past summer, I was actually the first one there on a couple of turtles. One day we had a small rainstorm and we had four turtles crawl up within a mile of each other, and all right about the same time. So, getting to see the turtles come up was something really cool, but I think probably the coolest thing is watching the babies going into the ocean. There are just hundreds of them. They’re adorable. They’re running off into the ocean. In the water, they just start swimming and they’re really, really cute, and I think that’s one of the coolest things to watch is the little babies hit the water and swim for the first time.

Jason:            Be sure to stay with us as our episode continues. When we return, we head to Australia and learn how a dog named Bear is helping save animals that are often mistaken for bears.

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Announcer:    The bush fire crisis has had a huge impact on South Australia’s wildlife. Tens of thousands of koalas and kangaroos killed and grave concerns about the survival of some of our unique species. The Army and volunteers…

Romane:        My name is Dr. Romane Cristescu. I’m a research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast and I created a special team that trains dogs to look for koalas in koala habitat, and we are called Detection Dogs for Conservation and we are in a little part of Australia called the Sunshine Coast. It’s in Queensland and we work all around New South Wales and Queensland, where koalas are quite vulnerable.

Jason:            Dr. Cristescu has studied koalas for years. Her dedication to the species led her to crawling around on her hands and knees in the Australian bush for months at a time looking for koala scat, a critical piece of information that provides insight into the current state of the koala population. After years of collecting scat on her hands and knees, she felt that there had to be a better way. Suddenly she was struck by the idea of training a dog for the job. She presented her idea and was quickly laughed at and ridiculed, until she met a dog trainer who felt that the concept was valid. With some help, she developed and began to work her first koala scat detection dog. Soon thereafter, she was able to prove that the dog was a better option for the koala population.

Romane:        We couldn’t do that with threatened species. We need to be better at it. And so we published that work, and we started talking to government and we started talking to researchers and to university to say, look, the current method is not that great, and you need more accuracy in your surveys because otherwise you’re going to make the wrong decision for this endangered animal. And this is how it all started. And then after that survey and after that comparison between my first scat detection dog and the human team, I was never going to go back to look for scats myself. The difference is just too big. We need to work with detection dogs [unclear; 6:30] much more than we are currently.

Jason:            This idea took off and now she has a number of dogs in the field helping with her conservation work.

Romane:        Four of our dogs are trained on scats; two on every scat – young one, old one, year old one. It’s all good. It’s too much habitat and the other two are trained on fresh scats only. So they ignored everything that is more than a week or two old, and now only take us to the freshest of the freshest scats. And then we had our only dog that is trained on the koala itself, the animal and the training was so different. the same training on scats is so you, I like dogs are excellent. I mean if you have a dog at home, they’re probably really good at sniffing poo, right? so that’s the easy part. They sniff it in their routine daily life anyway. So you just have to introduce that special poo, the koala poo and tell them when you snip that, that’s when we’re going to play.

                        And so the training for us, and that goes back to the old dog being OCD for play. It’s just a very simple association learning. So there’s a target scent you want, and for us it was koala scats and there’s a reward that the dog wants. And for all our dogs, it’s playing and so you just associate those two things, and dogs are obviously extremely intelligent. So that association happens in only a few days and very quickly they understand that each time they smelled that, they’re going to get to play and therefore they really, really actively search for that scent, and then when they find it, it’s right there in front of their nose. We tell them to drop to get rewarded and so that’s an easy thing to teach as well and then we have a detection dog for that scent. Now because they are conservation dogs, we then have a lot of work around them not chasing wildlife, reinforcement testing.

Jason:            Considering the specialized work that is required and the environment that these teams have to work in, where does one find such special dogs for this amazing job?

Romane:        We often say that it’s one in a million, and maybe it’s exaggerating, but not that much. It’s really hard to find a perfect dog for this job because they need to be ball-obsessed and want to chase small, fluffy quickly moving tennis balls. But at the same time we asked them to not want to chase small, fluffy little rabbits or possums that would run in front of them when we are in the bush, because they are conservation dogs, they actually are deployed in national park and really beautiful environment and we’ve got a duty of care for all the animals that live in that environment. And so we look for the dog that has a very high play drive, wants to play all day with us because that’s the motivation. That’s the reason why they are so happy to be with us, but at the same time we’re asking those dogs to not want to prey on any of the animals that are working, or that are living in the environment we work. So it’s a very difficult trade to have both that high play drive that they will prey drive and never wanting to chase any wildlife. and so it’s lucky for us that we are able to assess a lot of dogs in pounds because it’s very rare for us to find the right dog.

Jason:            Dr. Cristescu goes on to explain that the dog they’re often looking for is one that many people wouldn’t be interested in.

Romane:        It’s an interesting process but we select the dogs that are probably the people’s worst nightmare. They are high energy. They are totally obsessed by playing. They will not leave you alone. that’s because they want to play more than anything. They want to play more than they want to be patted or they want food for instance, for example. And so we actually go and rescue them. They are often abandoned because they are too much as a pet. and so we, we go to pounds and dog rescue groups and we ask them for their most crazy dogs, and the dogs that will never stop, that wants to run all day and that’s we want, which is good for the dog because obviously, that gives them a second chance at being who they really are. And the reason we want the craziest dog possible is that this is a way for us of forming a relationship where the dogs gets what they want out of it as much as we do.

                        So they want to play all day. We want to collect ecological data all day. And so it’s a perfect match because each time they find what we want, they get to play and they want to go to play every day. I often say, even though they are classified as working dogs, our dogs are play dogs. They only come with us because they want to play with us, and each day that we don’t go into the field, and that’s sometimes happen on weekends rarely, they’re very disappointed. They hate holidays and they hate Sundays if we don’t go to work because they find it very boring. So this is what we look for. a personality really that is, we call them what year if you want. just that obsession for playing is what we look for first and foremost

Jason:            Training scat detection dogs to survey the koalas was something that the team got really good at, but in time they felt as though they needed something more. The koala is an elusive creature, spending most of their time sleeping or hiding in trees. Because of this behavior, the group took on the challenge of training Bear, a task that would prove not to be as simple as the dogs before him.

Romane:        The scent part of the scat detection dog line of work is really easy. When it comes to Bear who was trained to indicate on koala, on the animal itself, that was actually extremely hard, and that took us a long time to really nail it and narrow down what it is that we want him to find, because we didn’t want him to find the urine or we didn’t want him to find the scats because we knew everywhere that would be a koala out, they would be urine and there would be scats. So we would be wasting a lot of time on those two odors that are always present, no matter where we are able to find a koala, because that’s their environment. That’s where they poop and that’s where they pee. So we actually use those odors as an odor to be trained not to indicate on, and so those were all negative odor, if you want, non-target odor.

                        We didn’t train Bear to indicate on those odors, but we always had fur in the lineup, and so we first we train him with fur and it was quite an interesting process because obviously you have to collect fur, which is not as easy as collecting scats. And so we had to work with vets and koala hospitals who very nicely donated all their fur to us. Then we had a lineup between fur from koala and fur from other animals to really teach Bear this is the animal we want, and all of that was really easy because we had collected this fur. We can put it on the ground. He can go straight to the source of the odor and you can reward. Obviously, the hardest part was to actually graduate from fur on the ground to an animal, a live animal in the tree, so we did a lot of working in parallel with people that had koala and knew where koala had walked and training Bear to scent the track. And then we did a lot of work with people that had animal that were wearing color because it’s easy for me to go around and drop koala scats and test the dogs on the scat, but I don’t have a koala in my pocket. So I couldn’t easily just drop a koala in the environment, and then teach Bear where the koala was, so the training and the testing of Bear was much harder and involved a lot more partners because we needed people that koala wearing red, you’re tracking color so that they couldn’t know every day where the koala were, and so we could then test Bear on those koalas. So it was a very long process and much, much more difficult and a very different training at the end than the scat detection dog

Jason:            Bear’s job is substantially more difficult than the other dogs on his team. The location in which the koalas live and their elusive behavior makes his job quite challenging. This often leaves Bear slightly frustrated with his handler.

Romane:        If you can imagine a koala up to 10, 20, 50 meter in a tree, and Bear is trained on their scent. So he’s on the ground. He’s not climbing trees obviously, so he needs to tell us where on the ground is the strongest scent of koala, and so sometimes if there’s no wind and the conditions are great, the scent just trickles down and Bear can find a scent at the bottom of the tree, but sometimes the scent is actually quite far from the tree, so he’s definitely got the hardest job of all our dogs. All the dogs are actually sniffing things on the ground that are koala droppings so that they’ve got an easy life there. So we both train down air scenting, so scenting the smell of the koala that trickled down from the tree, but also I’m tracking when koala move from tree to tree, they leave a track and dogs are good at following tracks. So he’s also doing that. Then trying to switch from one to the order and get us as close as possible to the koala that he can.

                        And then when he’s pretty confident that he’s as close as can be, he drops, so we actually train him to not bark because we don’t want to be frightening the koala obviously, and so he’s very quiet and he just drops and stays there and wait for us to actually see the koala, and poor Bear has to work with a team of humans and we often let him down because koalas are so hard to spot in trees, even though they are quite big, arboreal animals, they’re very quiet and they don’t tell you that they are there. They are often sleeping, but sometimes they’re looking at you when they see where you are and they quietly go around the trunk to hide from you, cause they don’t want you to find them. We always have a very tough job and we can only reward Bear if we hit a koala because this is part of the training they get to play with their toy when they found the odor. so Bear sometimes gets a bit frustrated at us for not being quick enough in our tasks when he’s done such a good job.

Jason:            Over the years I’ve learned from my Australian friends that koalas are not to be called koala bears, as many Americans make the mistake of doing. As such, I found it ironic a dog trained to find koalas would be named Bear, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn about the origin of Bear’s name.

Romane:        It’s funny that Bear is called Bear because it is true that a lot of people call koala koala bear, even though obviously they are very, very far from bears, and in that tree of life that I was talking about, they are marsupials so very far from bears. The funny thing is that this is just a coincidence because we rescue all our dogs, and when we are lucky, they come with their history and they come with a name and that was the case for Bear. So we didn’t have to name him because we actually had a bit of his history and we knew that he was already called Bear, and so we kept his name out of respect for him. Apparently, he was originally called Panda and then became Panda Bear, and by the time he reached us because he was rescued and abandoned a few times before we got him, by the time he reached us, he was Bear, which is a funny coincidence.

Jason:            Australia is often known for being the home of some of the deadliest animals on the planet. In order to find a creature as cuddly as the koala, Romane and her team have to work in an environment that provides some considerable challenges.

Romane:        So obviously some times of the year, it is a little bit hot, so that’s one of the thing that we have to be careful with our dogs, to be mindful of how quickly we can get really hot, and that’s also true for the handler, but our beautiful eucalyptus forest that we work in and we ecologists actually love being there, but a lot of people have told us how scared they are to walk into the forest because Australia is famous for snakes, and it’s got some of the most venomous snakes in the world so we have to be careful of that. There’s no zero risk, but all of our dogs ignore snakes. They are obviously not going to chase them so that decreases a little bit the risk, and then we also train them on very good commands so if we see a snake, we can stop the dog in its track and react to that, but we do have to be a little bit cautious of that for sure. And then the last thing people tell us is that the bush is very dense. It’s very scratchy. It’s very hard work. But I think both the dogs and us are just loving that environment. Put us in the middle of the big city and that would get a different response, but put us in a big forest and we are quite happy.

Jason:            Even though the work for both the dogs and humans is hard, Romane explains that it also comes with some substantial rewards.

Romane:        It’s just every day that you get to spend in nature and the natural environment is very special. And I think often I just stopped and I’m here and surrounded by beautiful old trees and the dog running around at my feet, and you just stop and you wonder how lucky one can be, and you wish that more people could spend more time in the bush because this is what sustains us. I think the beauty of nature, the beauty of the flora around us and when we are lucky, because wildlife does want to hide from us because we are the top predator really. But when we are lucky and we see some wildlife, whether it’s the lizard or the bird or when we extract a koala in a tree, we are just reminded how little we are and how much more important the natural ecosystem is, which we are part of, but we sometimes remove ourselves from and I think it’s not good for humans to be far removed from the ecosystem that sustained their life and because of its beauty that we shouldn’t forget, but also because we really must be aware that we need to protect that life support system. Otherwise we’ll be in a lot of trouble. Just a reminder of how beautiful nature is and that we need to stand up and protect it. This is the time.

Jason:            The work of these conservation teams is more important now than ever. With koala numbers in decline over the past several decades, the recent wildfires in Australia have only increased the need to save the koala. It’s estimated that more than a thousand koalas have been killed in these fires, not to mention the loss of their precious habitat and food sources.

Romane:        So koalas have a wide distribution in term of area they can live, but they are pretty limited to the coastal area. That’s the primer, if you want a higher density. You can call it quite a hotspot if you wanted to, and sadly, this is also where humans love to live, the coastal area, but also those are the most fertile area in term of agriculture. So, for quite a long time now we’ve been in direct competition with each other and humans tend to win obviously. so that’s the basic of where koala lives, and then those fire came this year and they are more intense than almost any fire that we had since record time, and since we had recorded fires and they also hotter and they also outside of the normal fire season. So those fires are unusual and obviously I’m not a climate scientist so the fire people call them mega fires now are unusual. And even though I’m not a climate scientist, I read enough paper and I’ll talk to enough climate scientists who think that these fires are out of the norm because of climate change. And so it’s not a good news for koala because the area that have burned, especially this year, is what we call prime koala habitat down in that big coastal fringe in New South Wales in particular and Queensland. And if you look at a map of where koala like to live and where those fires have been, there is a very good overlap, which is obviously adding to all the stress that koala already have to cope with, and in a changing climate and the koala are not going to cope very well there.

                        Climate change is one of the threats listed under the IECN classification and for good reason, because as we seen, there’s a direct induced death by fire, which is terrible and has hit really big well-known koala population where hundreds are feared to have been lost in the fire. So that’s the direct, very visible impact. Maybe direct but maybe not as visible is the threat of heatwaves. Koalas are not really good with coping with very many hot days in a row if you want. They’ve always lived with some hot days, but many in a row, it’s very difficult for them to regulate the temperature. And so they are actually dying of overheating, which is terrible and has potentially impacted a lot more population than we’ve seen because it’s a bit harder to detect if you are not there in the forest. Does it happen? And then there’s threat that maybe we don’t quite understand yet, but is the threat of the impact of increased CO2 in the atmosphere on plant growth. Plants move as quickly. The distribution to adapt to new climate conditions. So maybe some of the food trees that koalas use are trees that are not going to be able to adapt quickly enough to climate change. So maybe just basically the trees that koalas need are not going to be there anymore.

                        So all those things are a bit more uncertain, but we know that with all those different impacts, climate change is not going to be good news for koalas, and basically it is adding to the many heavy threats that are koalas are already struggling with. You know, every species deserves that we fight for them in this climate, but yeah, koalas have a special place in my heart for sure.

Jason:            Thank you for joining us for this episode of A Life of Dogs. Be sure to head over to our website at for some great bonus content, and to learn how you can support these remarkable conservation teams and the work that they do. A special thanks goes out to Jacqueline Staab, Christian Fritz and Dr. Romane Cristescu for helping us bring you their unique stories. this episode was produced by Jason Purgason and Abby Trogdon. I hope you have enjoyed these stories. Don’t forget to subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to leave us a review




Zero Zero

Zero/Zero: How a Blind Hiker and His Guide Dogs Tackle America's Toughest Trails.

This is the inspirational story of Trevor Thomas and his two guide dogs, Tenille and Lulu.

Stop and think for a second – how many steps do you take each day? You may have heard of the ‘10,000 step’ goal, a good daily target for most of us. 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is an ambitious feat. Stretching across 2,192 miles through 14 states, to complete the A.T., you’d need to complete a total of five million steps. Given that a thru-hike expedition typically takes five to seven months, that equates to almost 30,000 steps per day.

Now, imagine you’re doing 30,000 steps, by yourself, every day while hiking the A.T. – the world’s longest hiking-only footpath, across undulating landscapes and constant elevation changes. You’re at the mercy of hazardous weather conditions and the dangers posed by animals who may frequent the trail. 

Finally, imagine that you’re doing all of this after being diagnosed with a rare eye disease which has left you completely blind. 

This episode of A Life of Dogs features the incredible and inspirational story of Trevor Thomas – the first blind person to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

trevor thomas blind hiker

Embarking on the A.T.

After Trevor’s diagnosis in his mid-thirties, he decided to pursue hiking to maintain his independence. After getting a taste of long-distance hiking, he set off alone and completed the A.T., followed by solo-hiking other notable ranges such as the Shenandoah Mountain Range, the Smoky Mountains and the Grayson Highlands.

Trevor decided to embark upon the notoriously difficult Colorado Trail, but after struggling to complete it on his own, he realized he needed some help.

Obtaining help from Tennille

trevor thomas hiking

After speaking with Guide Dogs for the Blind in California, Trevor met Tennillle – his first guide dog. Tennille was athletic, intelligent and eager to learn; after a year of practice and training, Trevor believed they were ready to embark on their first long-distance trail together – the Mountains-to-Sea trail in North Carolina.

The weather throughout was terrible, making the trail difficult – but Trevor and Tennille completed it, and were the only ones to complete the thru-hike that year.

Following on from completing the Mountains-to-Sea trail, Trevor and Tennille have completed over 10,000 trail miles together. Together, they tackled The Long Trail, the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Ozark Highlands Trail.

trevor thomas blind hiker

Lulu - Trevor’s second guide dog

With 13,500 miles under her paws – more than halfway around the world – Tennille had earned a rest and a happy retirement. 

In October 2018, Trevor decided to train up a new guide dog partner, Honolulu (Lulu). 

Lulu recently demonstrated her capability as she helped Trevor thru-hike the Collegiate Peaks Loops in Colorado – a breathtaking 160-mile loop at high altitude.

trevor thomas hiking
trevor thomas being interviewed

In this episode of A Life of Dogs, you’ll hear the detail of this amazing story, and how Tennille and Lulu have played a crucial role in helping Trevor to maintain his independence and act as an inspiration to all of us.

For more information on Trevor Thomas, you can visit his website.

A Special Thanks to Trevor Thomas for sharing his story. 

We also want to thank our episode sponsors.  Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support.  Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.

Royal Canin


Highland Canine Training, LLC


Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season 2, Episode 2 (S2, E2)
Episode Name: Zero Zero Blind Hiker

Jason Purgason

Trevor Thomas

59:39 minutes

Broadcast Date
January 19, 2020

Jason: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at, and by Highland Canine Training offering professional dog training solutions and premiere canine education. Learn more at

                        I’ve had the fortune of being a professional dog trainer now for more than 20 years. In those 20 years, I have had an opportunity to do some pretty remarkable things with dogs and I’ve also had the opportunity to meet other people and see them do some pretty incredible things with dogs as well. None of those things, however, compare to what you’re about to hear in this story.

Trevor:           Had just left Munson, Maine and that is the last stop on the AT before you go into the 100-mile wilderness and the last before you will get to Katahdin and finish. It was getting close to the end of the season. Rain had come and there was threats of a hurricane. Hurricane Kyle was supposedly going to be closing in on the 100-mile wilderness. Well, I decided at that point that I didn’t want to hike 2100 miles and not be able to finish, regardless of whether it was a hurricane or not, so I made the decision to go into the wilderness knowing that a hurricane was coming and it hit with full force. As far as hurricanes go, it wasn’t a bad one according to North Carolina standards, but it was a Class 1, and I don’t ever recommend trying to go hiking in a Class 1 hurricane in the most remote section of the AT, because what you do is when you walk in, there’s a big sign and it warns people take 10 days of food because there is no exit point once you go in the 100-mile wilderness.

                        I suffered through four to five days of the worst. The trail was flooded, tree limbs were coming down, the worst rain I’d ever experienced, the worst wind I’d ever experienced, and I basically muddled through. With the trail being washed out by water, I couldn’t feel the trail. I’m being battered by everything. It was basically I prayed just to get from point A to point B. The one thing that Maine has that most of the rest of the AT doesn’t is they decided to let you cross your own rivers. They don’t put bridges over them, so I nearly drowned in the first five stream crossings that I had and finally thought I caught a break. The hurricane blew through and we got sunny weather and I left the shelter in the morning thinking, okay, the hurricane is gone. It’s going to be smooth sailing. I got four days to get to Katahdin. I walked around the corner and smack dab into a river I knew was there. I knew the dangers, but in the chaos I’d forgotten that that was the day I was coming up on it. It was the widest river crossing on the AT. It’s dangerous in good conditions to the point where they string climbing rope across the river so you can hold onto it to avoid getting swept down the stream. It was also 38 degrees, so it was going to be a cold river crossing. I had two choices – wait for somebody to come, which I hadn’t run into somebody in four days. I didn’t have enough food to wait, or risk it. Grab onto the rope and cross the river.

                        Well, I started crossing and the hurricane had dumped so much water that the river was swollen, and so the little eddies that I should have been going across was a full blown torrent of water coming down. Made it halfway across and walked into an underground boulder field and that was pretty much my disaster. I couldn’t go around it because there wasn’t enough rope. I had to go through it. So I went through it and I actually managed to – I hate to say it at this point – but I managed to rim rock myself in the middle of a river. I got to the point where I stood up on a boulder to get out of the water so I didn’t get my legs broken between boulders and I realized that I couldn’t go backwards and I couldn’t go forwards. I also realized I couldn’t balance on that rock forever. So I devised a plan that I was just going to ditch my pack, because that’s what you do in a river. You ditch your pack so if you do dump in, you’ll be able to hopefully swim to the side.

                        When it’s 30-some degrees and it’s 20s at night-time, I realized I couldn’t afford to lose my pack, cause it would be gone downstream forever and then I’d be wet and I’d be pretty much going to die. So I made a gross error. I tied my Para cord onto my pack and I tied the other end around my waist. I ditched my pack so I could get my balance and hopefully jump to the next rock, and in about half a second, a hundred feet of Para cord paid out and my pack had turned into an anchor and it ripped me off the rope. I went into the river and basically, I don’t know. It was nothing I did that was miraculous. I didn’t save myself. The river spit me out 100, 200 yards down on the side of the stream. So now I was in a river, I just almost drowned myself. It was 38 degrees and I was sopping wet. I got my pack back because I pulled it in, but everything was wet. All my clothes were wet, my rain gear was wet, my sleeping bag was down and the dry sack had failed so it was wet. So all I could do was pretty much just put on every piece of wet clothing I had, wrap myself in my rain gear and then realized I don’t know where I am. I had to figure out, go upstream, upstream, upstream, periodically feel the ground to try and find the trail to find the trail to find the trail and eventually found it. Couldn’t stop hiking for about 11 hours because if I stopped, I got cold. If I got cold, I got hypothermia and die. So I kept hiking, hoping to God I would run into someone that could build me a fire because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find the wood. I didn’t know how to build fires. I was horrible at it and I got to a shelter and I was just spent. Hadn’t found anybody, and I just sat there and I’m like, Oh God, this is bad. The sun is going down, the temperature is going down. I am still wet.

                        So I was like, okay. I started shivering and I’m like, I’m going to die. That’s it. I blew it and I’m sitting there. I had this little panic unit and I can press this button and somebody’s gonna come and get me. Then I realized in the 100 mile wilderness, it could take them days to get me. And I’m like, I’m not going to go out like that. So I said, I’m not pressing the button. I’ve been cold before. Maybe I’ll do jumping jacks all night. Well, I didn’t know.

                        And all of a sudden I heard people and I’m like, God, please stop at the shelter. Stop at the shelter, stop at the shelter. And it turned out to be friends. People I hadn’t seen in months. They were probably a week behind me for a month. They knew I was up ahead. They got to Monson and they heard that dimwit me decided to go into the wilderness. So they went in after me and … it was surreal. They built me a fire. It was so hot that it burned my shoes when I was trying to dry my shoes and those guys basically … now they saved my life. So yeah, that was probably the worst. But the best thing was, it was also my best day. I didn’t quit. My name is Trevor Thomas and I am the only professional blind long distance hiker in the world.

Jason:            From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Purgason and this is the story of Trevor Thomas who relies on a guide dog to help him navigate some of the most gruelling long distance hiking trails in the country.

Trevor:           I didn’t start hiking until after I went blind and that was back in 2006. I started recreationally. I had to teach myself because I found out after you go blind, you’re not supposed to do those things. You’re not supposed to do any of the crazy things that I did before I went blind. So against my orientation and mobility instructor’s advice, I learned how to hike and instantly found out that it was the one thing in my life that I could control as a blind person. It was the one place that I felt alive and in control. So what started off as recreational therapy turned into an obsession and then I found out that there was a thing called long distance hiking and everything spiralled from there. I actually walked into a gear store because I kept breaking my cane. The little white thing with the red tip that identifies us as a blind person when we’re going around town, they don’t work on a trail. Kept breaking them and I was getting in trouble with my own instructor because she figured out what I was doing. So I was at the outdoor store talking to this kid here in Charlotte, North Carolina. His name was Matt and I’m like, help me. He said, okay. He showed me these trekking poles. They are like ski poles for hikers. And while he was telling me or while he was showing me these things, he was talking about an expedition that he’d just been on. He was out in the woods for six months. He nearly froze to death. He came across bears, all sorts of these things and I was enthralled and it sounded like something that I needed to do and I don’t know what possessed me, but I asked him, I said, what was it? And he said, I just through hiked the Appalachian Trail.

                        He explained what it was. He said, I started in Georgia and I hiked 2,175 miles without stopping to Maine. Something clicked in my head. I decided that’s what it was going to be. If I would be able to do that like everybody else, not have somebody drag me from one end of the trail to the other – I wanted to go alone – then I’d get my life back as a blind person. So that’s how it started. And once I got into it, I found out it was much, much more than just putting on a little day pack and walking, stopping, camping, getting up the next day and doing it again. It turned out to be a full blown expedition.

                        Before I went blind, I was into extreme sports. I was the quintessential adrenaline junkie. Started skiing at the age of 3. Was into back country skiing and out of bounds skiing by the time I was in my early teens. That got a little bit too tame for me. So I got into mountain biking, downhill mountain biking. Graduated to skydiving, and then eventually it was racing Porsches. When I went blind, all of that was gone. Everybody said you can’t do that anymore, and I needed to find something and that’s something was hiking. I had never done any overnight hiking before I went to the AT. I trained myself, I day hiked, I set up my tent and I practiced using all my gear in what I called advanced base camp in the little woods in my mom and dad’s backyard, and so the first time I sat on trail and the first time I did an overnight hike was the AT.

                        Well, my plan was simple when I left for the AT. I know that, or I knew at that point that the AT was 24 inches wide and it was the most well-travelled trail in the world, so I counted on the fact that there would be other people there. If I got in trouble, I could ask for help. But I also knew that every sign was etched. So they engraved each sign with side trail to shelter and it had an arrow, or it said, you know, next shelter, 12.5 miles. So what I learned to do is I kept track of cadence, which is how fast I hiked and I kept track of time and that gave me distance. So hiking for me is a lot of math. I would keep track of my cadence and time, give me my distance. When I got close, I’d start paying attention to what it was that I needed, and then when I came to a trail intersection or came to a road crossing, then I’d go from basically pointed to point B. I called it the highest stakes games of connect the dots is what I was playing. There were times I got in trouble where I simply didn’t know the trail would split and there was no sign or the sign was knocked over, and if you could see those little white blazes, you knew which way to go but I didn’t.

                        So my backup plan was to sit and wait, and I’d wait and wait and wait until somebody would come by. If it was a through hiker, then I’d say, Hey, I’m going to Maine, which way’s the AT? And they’d tell me. If it wasn’t a through hiker, I carried a copy of the Through Hikers Companion with me, which was the definitive guide map book, everything you would need to hike the AT. And I would simply hand it to the person and say, where am I? I need to go north. And after they got over their shock value and all of that, then they’d open my book, they’d find it, and then they’d tell me where I needed to go. There were a lot of places when I got into Northern Terminus where there was no one. I didn’t realize when I started the AT, I knew 4,000 people were going to start. So I figured there would always be somebody around, but there’s also an 80 to 90% drop off rate. So the further north I got, the fewer people there were. And by the time I hit say someplace like Massachusetts and into Vermont, everybody I’d met down in the southern part of the trail was gone, and I would go a week, two weeks with no one around.

                        So it was a lot of make sure I’m going in the right direction. A lot of going forward, feeling the trail with my feet. The AT, since it’s heavily travelled is a very worn trail. So I learned through the feel if I was on what I called the ‘mother’ trail, which was the AT or a side trail, which would not be as well travelled, things like that. I’ve also learned over the years to sense what sighted people see. I can use wind patterns to tell if I’m going into a valley. I’ve used the old trick that a lot of Special Forces do. Am I going north by feeling the moss on the sides of trees or on the sides of rocks? There are a lot of places that it was simply I went on my gut feeling, because you go into a boulder field, which is a blind person’s worst nightmare, getting out the other side. A lot of times I’d get on the other side, but there was no trail so I’d have to go up and down the side of the boulder field until I found the trail and could keep going.

                        So it was a lot of trial and error, but my one rule of thumb was never go forward unless you’re absolutely positive you know which way you’re going, because I didn’t want to be the idiot that the search grid kept getting wider and wider and wider cause I didn’t know where I was and I just made things worse and worse. And I also carried a little spot unit with me in case everything went sideways. And that’s a little GPS, emergency personal rescue beacon. If I really got into trouble, I could press the button and it would send out my coordinates and then my hike would be over, but at least I wouldn’t be dead.

                        I started let’s see, April 6, 2008. I finished October 8, 2008, so six months and two days it took me, and a whole lot of adventures in between.

Jason:            For Trevor, completing the more than 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail was a phenomenal accomplishment. But with his thrill seeking attitude, he knew he had to do more.

Trevor:           After the AT, I decided I had to go farther and found out that while I was on the AT, people like to write, you know, reporters like to write stories about me and people read those stories and they watched the interviews and they listened to the radio, and some of the people that listened and watched and read were gear companies of the gear that I was wearing. So I got calls from these companies and they said, hey, what are you doing next? We would like to sponsor you. So I said, wow. Ended up finding a way that I could do what I wanted to do, what I needed to do and get paid to do it. So I took about a year to figure out how to do the next step, which in long distance hiking is part of the Triple Crown that was the PCT. It is 2,654 miles from the Mexican border into Canada. I did my research, figured out if I was going to be attempting it the way I did the AT, I would be dead very, very quickly because fewer people started the PCT when I did it than actually finished the AT.

                        So I called up some of my hiker friends from the AT and said, I got a crazy idea. I want to do the PCT, let’s go. So I started what I called team Pharsight, which was a group of my hiking buddies that would do anything and everything to make sure that I got to the other end of the trail and did it alive. So we did that and followed that with the John Muir trail, the AT Tahoe rim trail. I went back and did most of the AT in sections so I could actually enjoy it. Pretty much hiked anywhere and everywhere I could nonstop.

                        I headed to Colorado, I wanted to do the Colorado Trail, which is probably one of the most difficult and demanding trails in the United States, and I found out while I was hiking with my team that though I was paying for the expeditions, I was outfitting them. I was blind, so I was getting paid; they weren’t. I was a professional; they were amateurs. They couldn’t keep taking off six months here, three months there to keep going on these crazy adventures with me. So eventually I was running out of hiking partners and I went to Colorado and had a friend of a friend recommendation. You can probably see where this is going. I wanted to start trying to go solo because I had the experience at that point. Didn’t have everything really set in stone as how I was going to do it. So I showed up in Colorado and my partner never showed, so I couldn’t walk away from the state without even giving it a try. So I did. I made 5 sections, 124 miles and I did it simply by fumbling through, but I knew I wouldn’t finish. Had to get off trail and that was my first non-complete that I ever had. I decided then and there that it was never going to have a human partner again.

Jason:            Trevor suffered his first non-complete because he didn’t have the support he needed. To learn how his first guide dog helped him overcome this challenge, stay tuned as our episode continues.

Jason:            Support for A Life of Dogs come from Royal Canin. Royal Canin delivers precise nutritional solutions so your dog can perform at their very best level. To achieve a perfect balance of nutrients for each dog, they rely on extensive network of canine experts across the globe, including veterinarians, universities, dog professionals, and their own research and development center in France. Royal Canin helps your dogs train and perform at their full potential. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at

Abby:              Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Highland Canine Training. For over a decade, Highland Canine has been the premier provider for reliable quality service dogs. Our program emphasizes extensive socialization as the backbone of a dependable service dog. An endless variety of exposure while in training provides you with a solid, well-rounded service dog and lifelong partner. Whether you need a service dog to assist with the safety and well-being of your child with autism, or you’re looking to expand your independence limited by mobility or seizure concerns, our experience allows us to pair you with the right dog to ensure a successful future together. In addition to providing a perfect match in personality and temperament, we also tailor the tasks and abilities of your dog to your specific needs. With lifetime support from our expert trainers included, we guarantee you’ll receive a service dog you can always count on. To learn more, visit or call (704) 500-8281 to talk with one of our service dog training experts today.

Trevor:           I had to figure out how was I going to navigate, because up until that point I was memorizing the trail. The trails that I wanted to do were so remote, so rugged that there would be sections that it was map and compass. There weren’t signs. There were no people. So I got a great deal when I got my first iPhone, which actually you could turn on this accessibility feature and it would talk. So I said, Hmm, if I could get somebody to write down all the data that was in a data manual, in little sections and email it to myself, then I could pull up an email and I would have my first guidebook for a trail. That was navigation taken care of. I was already doing my cadence and time and getting my distance, so I had the big picture on these trails and I decided, but I still needed a little help and I said, I’m going to get a guide dog. How hard could it be? I’ll have a guide dog. I can get around town. I hated my cane anyway, not because I couldn’t use it, but I hated the stigma that it attached to me. I’m like, a guide dog is a win-win. In town, everybody loves dogs. It’ll make blindness a positive experience, but the dog could also fill in the blanks. If I needed a stream, that dog could find it. If I needed a campsite, the dog could find it. So I started to apply to schools and then I found out that all the people that were seeing the articles written on me, seeing me on TV, well, the guide dog schools, we’re seeing that as well. And unlike the gear industry, you thought it was a great idea to sponsor a blind guy. And the people that were saying, oh, you’re really inspiring, the guide dog people said, you’re dangerous. We don’t want to give you a guide dog.

                        So I contracted every school in the country starting most locally to me and got the same result. They knew who I was. They said, no, you can’t have a dog. A couple of them even told me that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing, and I was a bad experience or a bad example for other blind people. They might get the idea that they could do what I was doing and they’d go out and get hurt or killed. I was a bad example and it shocked me because their job was to help me achieve my goals. That’s why they are in business. So I finally got to the last school on the list – Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, on the other side of the country. Called them up and said, I’m Trevor Thomas. I’m a blind long distance hiker. I would like to apply for a guide dog. However I need my dog to do everything that they do in town, but I need it to do guide work in the back country.

                        Expected the same result. And they told me, well, we think it’s fantastic that you want to do that. We don’t know if we can do it. It’s never been done before, but we’re willing to try. So I waited and waited and waited, and then finally, after about a year, year and a half’s wait, they called me and said, we have a match, and they said, we’ll fly you out and come to school and I met Tennille, which was my first guide.

                        She came perfectly trained, wonderful and wonderful abilities. She was athletic enough to do the 20 mile days that I needed her to do. However, they said, we don’t know how to train her to what you need because we don’t know what you need. So they sat down with me and in addition to the regular training that I needed to do to use my guide dog in town, they taught me how to train a dog and they said, we’ll give you the tools. Then it’s up to you to train the dog as you come into situations to do the things that you need to do. When you get a guide dog, they have, basically the dog knows what they’re doing. You go to school to learn how to use a dog, so you can make sure that their personality fits yours, their cadence fits yours, or your lifestyle is going to be conducive to their personality, so that’s what you go to school for and they usually send you for either some schools are a month, some schools are three weeks, or some schools are two weeks, depending on your specific needs.

                        I went for two weeks and that would have been fine if it was just go and learn how to use a guide dog, but I learned that there was a lot of extra things that I had to do. So while all my friends in class were taking time off to play with their dogs or just doing fun things around campus, I was out on trail with my dog. I was doing extra things to learn how to train a dog, things like that, so it was pretty much nothing that I wasn’t used to. I immersed myself into it and spent a solid two weeks, eight to 10 hours a day, learning how to use a guide dog and then learning how to train dog to do new things, but when I got home, that’s when the real work started. I had just a thumbnail ability to be able to train a dog. When I came back, it was sitting down and putting into practice over and over and over again when I got home. Fortunately, my school has what we call field service representatives, and if I ever got into trouble with anything, any of the crazy things I needed to train my dog or any bizarre question that I came up with, they were there to help me. So that’s why it took me quite a bit of time before I decided I’m ready to risk not only my life, but her life and go out into the back country.

                        So I took a year off from doing my hiking. I told my sponsors, I’m going to get a dog. When I come back, I’m going to shock the world. I’m going to do what’s never been done and I’m going to take it to a whole new level. I’m going to go hiking just with me and a guide dog. No GPS, no maps, no human partner, no guide, just the two of us. And so they said great. And I worked with Tennille for a year. She became my job – every day, all day. We worked together, we trained together. I had to learn dog physiology. I had to learn dog first aid, back country first aid for dogs, so it too like hiking was much more than just training a dog to walk on a trail with me, because I knew she had the traits. She wanted to learn. She’s a genius. She had the physical ability to do what I needed her to do. Beyond that, it was basically can I teach her? Will she enjoy the work, because you can train a dog to do anything? The thing that I had to have was a dog that could perform it, had the physical attributes to be able to go through that kind of rigorous exertion day after day after day after day, but would love to do it. There are lots of dogs that could have been trained, but if they don’t love to do it, they won’t perform the job well, so we really didn’t know and the biggest thing that I was warned is even if I managed to train her to go out on trail and we went on trail, nobody knew if she would come back and still want to do her guide work in town.

                        They didn’t know if she would be able to go from back country to town and then the back country again and go back and forth seamlessly. The only way we could try that was to actually take her and do a through hike. And amazingly enough, all I had to do was put her regular harness back on when we got home and it was like we never stopped. So she could go back and forth and back and forth at will. She learned bridges. She learned trail. She learned how to find me those blazes. She learned how to find me all the different types of signs that I needed, and it became a running joke. I always told people she will always find me a sign. She will always keep me on trail, not necessarily the sign or the trail that I need because she can’t read the signs. That was up to me. So I called her my detail girl and I was the big picture guy.

                        When a year rolled around, I decided we were ready to go and I decided to take a little stroll in North Carolina, the Mountains-to-Sea trail, a thousand miles from Clingman’s Dome in the Appalachians, all the way to the farthest reaches of the outer banks and we were going to go alone. The weather was so bad that year. The trail conditions were so horrible that literally we were the only two who completed the trail that year. The only two through hikers at all. We ran into a grand total of 13 people on trail. Not through hikers – people! So it was a true test of what I wanted to do. Can a blind person and a guide dog go out and not just not just survive, but thrive in the back country? And we did it. So that was the first experience I had with Tennille. Luckily she was a trooper because I know she’s going through her brain, she was sitting down and thinking, what the heck are we doing? Why did you do this? But every day she’s like, let’s go. Let’s keep going. Let’s do this.

                        I started that trail on April 6th in honor of starting the AT. I like to start my East Coast trails on that day. Got a freak snowstorm. They actually closed the Smokies, so we had to push our start date back about six days to let the snow melt so we could literally get to the top of Clingman’s Dome. Got pounded with snow on the first part. Got rain after that. The first month we had nothing but rain and snow every day, all day, and we were just wet and miserable, cold. I began to wonder why the heck was I doing it because we just couldn’t get a break. All of a sudden, the weather went from winter to summer and we got scorched after that. We ran through two hurricanes. That was quite interesting weather. One of them under a pecan tree in the Outer Banks. Don’t recommend doing that. We just had horrible, horrible weather, but the cool thing was is that the outpouring from people that we met along the way was just amazing. People started showing up at trailer receptions just to meet us; more so they wanted to meet her, but it was really cool. It was a great way to see a state, no pun intended.

Jason:            The Mountain-to-Sea Trail may have been Trevor and Tennille’s first long distance hike, but it definitely wouldn’t be their last.

Trevor:           Some of the bigger trails with her would be Mountains-to-Sea, the Long Trail, Denton-Mackay, Tahoe Rim, the Colorado Trail. She got me back and helped me complete the one trail that I was unable to finish in my career without a dog, so she got me about back to that. We summited 9 of the 13 tallest mountains in the contiguous United States together. We did sections of the PCT together. We have done the John Muir, did Shuckstock in Washington. Let’s see. Parts of the Penn-Hoady, the only parts that we wanted to do. Sheltowee Trace and those are just some of the notable ones. Documented trail miles, I don’t count training miles or anything like that, but she was at 13,500 when she let me know that she was ready to retire.

Jason:            To put that number in perspective, 13,500 miles is more than halfway around the earth. Tennille, who Trevor describes as one in a million, retired in 2018. She continues to live with Trevor as she watches her successor fill some pretty big dog boots.

Trevor:           Honolulu, I returned from school with her November 14th of last year. She’s already proved her mettle. When Tennille let me know she was ready to retire, we are actually on the collegiate loop on the continental divide in Colorado on a 14,000 foot peak called Mount Yale. We were almost at the summit and she let me know. So I decided when and if I could train another dog, I wanted to pick up exactly where I left off. So I worked with Lulu for 9 months, 10 months solid, just like I did with Tennille. I thought it would be the same training, another dog. She had the same traits, everything like that, but I learned it wasn’t. They have different personalities, different things motivate them, so I had to learn a new training technique for her, but she took to the work, just like Tennille did, and after 10 months I said, okay. We did our shakedown hikes and it was time to go to Colorado and I took her on probably one of the toughest trails that you could take a dog on. She was the first dog ever to do it, not first guide dog, first dog to complete the trail.

                        We went to Colorado and basically the collegiate peaks are a series of 14,000 foot peaks along the Colorado Trail and continental divide. It’s a gigantic loop and you simply hike, summit, hike, summit, hike, summit, hike summit, and that was her first experience. It was a horrible snow year so the trail was in bad condition. We had a lot of avalanches that we didn’t know they were there. They weren’t in the guidebooks. Water sources were wiped off the map. Rivers or streams that were supposed to be there were gone. They had a lot of blight in the trees so the topography was not what we expected. It was a real learning experience. But for a dog that had only done shakedown hikes on the East Coast, going to high altitude, which I didn’t know if she could do, going into that type of environment where we had snowfields to cross, which she’d never seen snow in her life. We had boulder fields to navigate through that we had never come across boulder fields like these before. She was just a trooper. The trail was so bad in certain places that I went through two pairs of boots and her pads were still ripped up and she still kept going and kept going and kept going.

Jason:            Working with a guide dog had a remarkable impact on Trevor’s independence on trails, but it also fundamentally changed the way he approached long distance hiking.

Trevor:           Well, in one sentence, my days of ultra-lighting are over. Yes, everybody always packs too much. Over the years you learn what you actually do need and what you don’t need on trail. I learned that and I became avid into the whole ultra-light craze. How light can you go? You know, the lighter you are in your pack, the happier you are while you’re hiking and that’s what you’re there to do. The less items you have, the less comfortable you are in camp, or if you get into a serious situation such as weather, things like that, that are going to bog you down because you just don’t have as much available to protect you in a survival situation. Now when you hike with a dog, most people assume my dogs wear packs. They assume that they’re packing their water, their gear, their food, everything like that. Well, it’s not the case with me. It’s my idea to go, and these are my guide dogs. They are working animals. They are not pack animals. Their job is guiding so I pay the price. I carry their food, I carry their gear, I carry everything that they need, other than they choose a toy to take with them. They will carry that. Their packs are great for packing out small amounts of trash. They also carry a jacket so I have easy access to it and their boots. That’s it. So they really don’t carry any weight at all.

                        I learned very, very quickly that I needed to modify the types of food that they eat while on trail because kibble is very heavy. They actually eat as much on trail in weight as I do. So I doubled my weight for my gear. I doubled my weight for my food and I doubled my weight for my water, because it’s really hard to explain to a dog when you have 18 miles between your water source and the next one. They don’t really understand that if they don’t want to drink. So it’s one of those things where I go slower now. I have to, not that it’s a bad thing cause I’ll fall less, but it’s one of those things where I earned my trails even more than I used to.

Jason:            Trevor mentions that now with his dogs, he falls less. Over the years, he’s had a lot of experience with that.

Trevor:           My injury count is long. Let’s see, I hiked 300 miles on the AT with splinter fractures in my left foot because at a place called Jump Off, outside of the NOC, I literally did that. I took a trip and fell down a very large rock staircase and broke my foot. That was bad. I’ve cracked my skull open. I broke four of my ribs when I was in Maine and still kept on hiking. Actually ended up, they didn’t heal properly, so I have a deformed rib cage now and it looks kind of funky, but it’s kind of a badge of honor for me. That’s another thing I can thank my dogs for is they keep me safe and I’ve had much, much fewer injuries with dogs than without. I kinda think they’re smarter than I am. They know not to walk up the side of cliffs. They judge situations a little bit more rationally than I do, so they’re a little bit more cautious and therefore I am. So they keep me safe.

Jason:            Trevor goes on to explain that the terrain is not the only danger when you’re in remote wilderness.

Trevor:           I’m constantly talking to my dogs. I’m either asking them things or yes, I do have conversations with them, so we scare a lot of wildlife away. On the East Coast, I found that bears are hunted by people with dogs, so bears smell us. They smell the dogs and they give us a really wide berth so that’s kind of nice. I really haven’t had too many encounters with bears since I’ve had either one of my dogs. That’s not to say out West, my dogs are on the menu so that has me concerned. Probably Tennille did a great job and so does Lulu with snakes, things like that. They alert me to them. They make sure that I give them a wide berth. All snakes to them are the same so it’s not they’re finding rattlesnakes for me or anything like that. It’s just if there’s a snake, we go around it. Tennille and I did have an encounter … well, we had two of them. We had one in Colorado and we had one in the Long Trail and that was with moose. And most people don’t think moose are very dangerous or anything like that. They’re just big, stupid oaf-looking creatures, but in actuality they can be the most dangerous creatures in the back country. They’re very, very mean. They were very nasty. They’re territorial and they will kill you. Especially when I ran into them when they’re in rut. Anything that enters their territory is free game. First one we encountered on the Long Trail, we were just walking by a marsh and I heard trumpeting from one of them a ways back and it’s kind of on guard. We walked up around the bank and then all of a sudden it came out of the water onto the trail, and there was two tons of very angry animal versus me and a 60 pound dog and I knew what to do. It’s very hard to do it but moose have a lot in common with me. They are nearly blind. If you can manage to muster the strength and the fortitude to stand perfectly still and you’re downwind from them, they can’t see you. So I froze like a statue and I thought for sure Tennille was going to start lunging at it or she was going to try and run away because I taught her anything big like that we go.

                        She must’ve sensed it. She must’ve known that this is bad. This thing is meaning a lot of bad ill for us. So she just eased right in back of me and stood perfectly still. We must have stood there for seemed like hours, probably 5, 10 minutes and all of a sudden the thing decided, I guess it wasn’t anything here in the first place and just sauntered off on along the way, and I waited and waited and waited for about another 30 minutes to make sure it wouldn’t come back and we went on. But that was another one of those things. It was just very … I mean people go out to find and see moose. I don’t want to, and yet I managed to walk right up into it.

Jason:            In talking to Trevor, it’s pretty clear he’s far from finished and he’s got some pretty big plans for himself and Lulu in the coming year.

Trevor:           I am finally through my Foundation … I’ve got a generous gift from some donors that I’m going to be able to fulfill a promise that I made to Tennille but wasn’t able to fulfill. I’m going to fulfill it for Lulu. I am redesigning the traditional guide dog harness, one that is comfortable for a dog and one that’s ergonomically correct for a person, and we’re training. We are getting ready for probably I would consider my most ambitious season that I’ve ever had. We’re going to start by going to Tahoe this summer and we’re going to do the Tahoe Rim to Reno. We’re going to solo that and then we’re going to keep going south and we’re going to hit Yosemite. We’re going to start in Yosemite and we’re going to do the John Muir southbound and we are going to summit Mount Whitney, which is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, and we’re going to do that solo as well. So that’s going to increase the altitude record we’ve already set for working with a guide dog, a little bit higher. Lulu will be coming into her own, not recycling trails that Tennille has already done. I’ve decided that I want her to do trails and basically not live in a shadow, so we’re going big. It’s all high altitude. It’s all very, very technical, very, very rugged, very remote hiking.

Jason:            Trevor’s dogs have to work in both the city as well as some pretty rugged back country. So it got me curious. Is there one workplace that they prefer over the other?

Trevor:           Both dogs love trail work more than they do city work. They enjoy the city work. They enjoy the mental challenge, but there’s a different spring in their step. There’s a different excitement when we approach a trail head and their regular harness comes off and either their pack or their trail harness goes on. They know, it’s now it’s more fun for them. They make more decisions. They’re more in charge than they ever are out in the regular world. So I think it really pushes their mental state and plus they are dogs. They are Labs. What Lab wouldn’t want to hike on a trail all day long, be able to jump in a stream, get muddy, get dirty. That’s what they like.

Jason:            What am I forgetting to ask?

Trevor:           Let’s see.

Jason:            Interesting story that I don’t know about?

Trevor:           Well, both dogs have already proved it thus far, but I used to have a rule that I will not go forward unless I’m 100% positive I know where I’m going. I have relaxed that rule now because my dogs have proved that I don’t necessarily need to know where I’m going. I’ve gotten into situations with both dogs where I’ve gotten to a section of trail that I just don’t know. I’ve gone down every avenue. I’ve come to a trail intersection. We go down one leg of the trail. It’s not right. We go down the other one a few hundred yards; it doesn’t feel right. Go down the other one; It doesn’t feel right and there’s nobody around to ask. I’ve literally asked them. I’m like, I don’t know which way. Both dogs have proved it. They’ve chosen correctly. So that’s something that nobody can tell me how they’re doing it. Are they following the smells of another hiker? Nobody knows how, but instinctively they know which way to go, better than I did in certain situations.

Jason:            In working on bringing you this story and interviewing others about their experiences on the AT and other through hikes, one of the major upsides to many of the hardships of this experience are the breathtaking views along the way. As Trevor is completely blind, I wanted to know if he felt as though he was missing out on a big part of the experience.

Trevor:           Yeah, I would say partially it’s different, but partially it is the same. I’ve gotten that question a lot of times. Why hike if you can’t see the view? And pretty much for me, I’m a long distance hiker for the same reason that everybody else is. Nobody in their right mind is going to go through months and months of suffering just for the view you get at the top of a mountain that you could get on a postcard at the gift shop. We do it for the accomplishment. We do it to find something that’s in you, to push yourself, to push your limits, to discover things about yourselves. But I actually, and it sounds kind of ironic, I would consider myself fortunate when I get to the top of a mountain where other people are sitting down with their cameras and getting a picture. I’m taking in everything else. So my experience is not the one-dimensional thing that you get on, on a photograph. I remember the sounds. I remember the weather. Was it warm? Was it cold? Was there a mist? Was there dew on the grass? So it’s pretty much a multidimensional thing for me. It’s more robust memory of any summit that I’ve been on, and I have my memories from it. I take rocks, I don’t like to publicize it and they’re only little rocks, but I take a little rock from each one, and each mountain has a different rock. So I have my pictures to go with it. But pretty much if I asked any of the sighted people that I’ve been with on a mountaintop, hey, what do you remember about it? They remember very, very little. I remember almost everything.

Jason:            With a little help, Trevor had performed something rather miraculous with these two guide dogs. Earlier, he was accused of being dangerous and a bad example. As such, I was curious what those early doubters thought about Trevor’s accomplishment.

Trevor:           Ironically enough, I thought after I proved everything with Tennille that those people would see the light or would have seen the light and would have supported me when it was time for me to get my next guide. It’s not like I was going to go to them and ask them to find me a guide. I found a school that not only could give me the dog I wanted but believed in me, but just when people heard Tennille was retiring and that I was going to have to get another guide, many of the experts in the industry still came out and said Tennille was a one-in-a-million. Yes, she was, but they also guaranteed that I couldn’t do it again. They guaranteed that I couldn’t train another dog, instead of saying he’s done it once, he’s got a chance. So you know, I would really hope that maybe after my second guide, they might sit down and say, hey, obviously it can be done and we grossly underestimated what these dogs can do so we should modify our own training practices. Maybe that’ll happen. I hope so because I have people call me, email me all the time saying, I want to hike with my dog. How do I do it?

Jason:            Long distance hiking is not only a battle against the environment and Mother nature. More importantly, it is a battle of will. One of the greatest impacts that many experienced hikers discuss is the loneliness that sets in during these hikes. I asked Trevor if this was an issue and how it impacted him.

Trevor:           Not anymore. It was when I was on the AT. It was when I was hiking alone. It’s not now. I’m not alone. I have my dogs. They may not be the best conversationalists. They listen really well. So I’d say, yeah, you do get a little lonely for talking to someone, but for the most part, I’m perfectly content with my dogs. They understand me and we have a type of communication that I guess is not verbal, but it’s really special.

Jason:            We want to thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Jason Purgason and Abby Trogdon, our website, a life of Support for this episode of A Life of Dogs comes from Royal Canin. Learn We want to send a special thanks out to Trevor Thomas for allowing us the opportunity to bring you this remarkable story. I’m Jason Purgason. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple podcasts, Google play, or wherever you get your podcasts, and stay tuned for episode three of our second season where we share more stories of A Life of Dogs.


Battle for the Alley

Rats have been reported in New York City since the colonial times.  Today, scientists believe that the rat population has grown to over 2 million in NYC.  New York has been called the “Worst Rat City in the World” by some.  Most of the city’s rat population consists of the the Norwegian rat or Brown rat.  Some Brown rats can grow to become two pounds and 20 inches in length.  Controlling this population of disease carrying rodents is a huge challenge, but we found a group of hunting enthusiasts that are up for the challenge.

Ryders alley NYC
Ryders Alley, NYC

Ryders Alley is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in NYC.  The Alley is a rather short corridor that is lined with rat poison bait boxes.  This particular alley gave rise to the Ryders Alley Trencherfed Society, also known as R.A.T.S.

R.A.T.S began in the 1990’s and was founded by Richard Reynolds. With an interest in preserving the working abilities of the terrier breeds, this group of volunteers venture out most weekends to hunt Brown Rats, also known as Norway Rats.  These rats are much larger than most people imagine.  Weighing in at around two pounds and growing up to 11 inches long, these creatures wreak havoc on the inhabitants of NYC.

The group uses a variety of breeds, most from the Terrier Group. These feisty little dogs are tenacious in their pursuit of rats.  Terriers are known for chasing and killing vermin, even underground.  As such, the dogs are typically divided into two groups, push dogs and catch dogs.  “Push dogs” often burrow through trash piles and garbage bins, primarily using their noses, in order to push the rats from their hiding spots.  The “Catch dogs” are incredibly fast and chase after and catch the rats as they flee from the garbage.  This team effort is what makes this group of dogs so successful.

patterdale Teerrier and rat
Patterdale Terrier with a rat.
Richard Reynolds with a Jagdterrier

R.A.T.S has become internationally known for their work in NYC, New Jersey and other parts of the United States.  As such, they have been featured on a number of documentaries, news stories and other features.

In December 2019, we had the pleasure to go to New York and hit the mean streets of NYC to follow along on a Friday night hunt with R.A.T.S.  We saw a variety of dogs, met some great people and had an opportunity to see some awesome working Terriers in action.

RATS Group photo

With a lack of other options for effectively dealing with the massive rat population, this group and their fierce bunch of Terriers are making an impact on the rat problem of NYC.  As a result, they are regarded as “heroes” by many of the people in the communities where they work.

For more information on rat terriers and the history of ratcatchers, be sure to take a look at our article!

A Special Thanks to Richard Reynolds,  James Hoffman, Jason Rivera, Bill Reyna, Eli,  and the rest of the rats crew for sharing their stories.  Thanks to Bill Reyna for allowing us to share his photos with you.


Royal Canin


Highland Canine Training, LLC


Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode One (S2, E1)
Episode Name: Battle in the Alley

Jason Purgason & Greg Vaughn

Richard Reynolds, Jimmy Hoffman, Jason Rivera and other R.A.T.S. members

49:04 minutes

Broadcast Date
December 19, 2019

Jason: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at, and by Highland Canine Training, offering professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Learn more at

[RATS Members hunting]

Jason: Thanks for joining us for episode one of our second season. This episode contains curse words and graphic sounds, so if you’re squeamish or have small children, this may not be the episode for you. From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Purgason and this is Battle for the Alley.

Greg: My dad tells his story from when he was a cop in the city. They used to take the night-shift rookies down this specific alleyway and you would not be told why you are going down this alleyway, but just that you had to go and see it for yourself. As they turned down this tight corridor, there were two small ledges that ran on both the driver’s side and the passenger side at about head level. The driver would take the spotlight and kick it on and slowly pan from right to left, and when this happened, all of a sudden this onslaught of rats would come running at head level. This terrifies most of the passengers of the squad cars. This alley became known as Rat Alley amongst the cops working the night shift in the city. Meanwhile, it was actually called Ryders Alley and the Ryders Alley that we were standing in front of 30 plus years later looked very different. This particular story begins in this same alley – Ryders Alley – on the lower East side of Manhattan.

[RATS members out on a hunt at night]

Greg: We train police dogs, detection dogs, and search and rescue dogs. That was one of the most impressive displays of working dogs. That was one of the most impressive displays of working dogs I have ever seen.

Richard R.: The name of our group is the Ryders Alley Trencherfed Society, and it’s cleverly designed to parse the acronym RATS, and it’s been around for about 30 years at this point. So the funny name comes from the fact that back in the old days when dogs – specifically hounds – were hunted in packs. Some of them lived in packs and lived in kennels, in the hunt kennels if you had a few bucks. If you didn’t, the individual hunters kept the dogs and they came only when they were going to hunt those together. They were fed from trenchers and it was called a trencherfed pack. So that’s where the trencher comes from. A trencher is actually a funny looking wooden bowl. Ryders Alley is pretty simplistic. It’s an alley in lower Manhattan. It actually was the place where the American Revolution started.

The folks that lived in the neighborhood weren’t all that friendly with the British, and they were kind of surly and intractable. So Ryders Alley was a hotbed of revolution and it was also not only the birthplace of the revolution, but the birthplace of rats. Thousands of rats! There’s no way that I can adequately describe to you the amount of rats that used to be in Ryders Alley. If you take a one block street and populate it with thousands of rats, you don’t begin to have an idea how many rats were in that particular alley. People have written books on it. Well, not too far away from there, there was a gentleman by the name of Kit Burns that had a little business establishment that was known as the Rat Pit, and we’ve gotten up to about 1870 at this point. And not very far away from Ryders Alley was Kit Burns’ Rat Pit on Water Street. And as this picture shows you, you had a lot of very high class gentlemen with their top hats willing to part with money, based on how many rats a terrier could kill in a certain amount of time. It actually figured heavily in the development of sports in New York City, but that’s another story for another time.

The record, by the way, was held by a terrier by the name of Billy who killed 100 rats in 6 minutes and 25 seconds. I don’t know how much money transpired in that, but that was it. Well, people have been rat hunting for a long time and it was a family thing, and you see this handsome little kid over here on the side with his rat stick and his shaggy dog. Well, not much has changed. We still have a kid with a rat stick and a shaggy dog, but it’s a few centuries later and a little different thing. But we’re still operating basically the same way we did back in the old days. Rat catchers have always been the unsung heroes.

Greg: That was Richard Reynolds, the founder of the Ryders Alley Trencherfed Society. RATS is a group of volunteer terrier-wielding vigilantes who hunt rats throughout the city of New York on most weekends.

Richard R.: Well, I’ve always lived in New York but I’ve always had a country heart and I’ve always been a dog person. I started out to be a veterinarian and realized real early that I didn’t have the heart for that. So I’ve had my dogs, I’ve been involved in dog shows, I’m a dog show judge and travel heavily for that. Terriers are a natural adjunct to fox hunting. When the fox is run to ground by the hounds, the terriers are put down to start the game all over again. So I got in into terriers from that, and then when I gave up the fox hunt, I needed something to do. I lived in New York and we’ve got plenty of rats, so…

Greg: Being dog people is about the only thing that this group has in common. This entire group comes from completely different career paths, highly educated people. These guys are unsuspecting and you would never be able to pick them off the street as these people go out in the middle of the night and chase rats around in the garbage and trash cans.

Richard R.: People ask, how many members do we have? Well, we don’t have any. There are about 65 people on our mailing list and we limit it to eight dogs, so we don’t really know. It comes and goes and some nights are oversubscribed and some nights are slim. Do the RATS people have day jobs? Well, yeah. We’ve got an ER physician, an editor/publisher, veterinarians, tax consultant, vet techs, wine importer, archaeologist, pharmacologist, building superintendent, police chief, security engineer, attorneys, biologist and animal behaviorists among others. So we’re all really a bunch of amateurs. They’re all hardcore dog people though.

Greg: Not everyone in this group gets into it because they know that they’re destined to hunt rats. Some of the members actually got into it by accident. This part of the story comes from Jason Rivera.

Jason Rivera: That’s why I do this. I got into this by accident. A guy sold me this dog and it was killing everything in sight and I was like, what’s wrong? I thought I had a bad dog. So I read up on it, I made some friends and then I saw these guys on TV. I said, well this is perfect. Then Pete threw me on and it turns out we all know the same people. I got this dog from a guy that he knows and he knows this guy and this guy and it’s like a little community of Patterdale terriers. He helps me out a lot because this guy’s a real dog guy right here. I’m not a dog guy. He’s a dog guy and he’s got a great dog right there. You know, she’s a natural.

Greg: Jason tells the story about how he’s struggling with Koko in a pet home environment because she doesn’t have a job or any form of real mental stimulation, and you hear him say that he thinks that he’s got a bad dog, when in reality he has an ideal candidate for it’s a prime terrier working dog. Patterdales are not the only terriers that we saw out on the hunt. We saw a variety of different types of dogs, including a couple of mixes. Here Richard explains the different types of dogs and why they excel at what they do.

Richard R.: Well, a little bit of brit speak for you. When we say working terriers, we’re talking about pursuing quarry underground, and that’s not what we’re doing tonight. We’re pursuing them above ground, so it’s not really working terriers, and the RATS team consists of basically a variety of breeds. We have a Norfolk terrier, American hunt terrier, Jack Russell terrier, Cairn terrier, Border terrier, West Highland white terrier, Bedlington terrier, Mountain Feist, Patterdale terrier, Manchester terrier, Jagdterrier, and dachshunds. So you have the whole crew.

A little bit about the breeds here. The border terriers, they hunt with a pack and the foot packs are the fells and they have their little thing. Bedlington terriers were originally bred for poaching. We don’t have one out with us tonight. Jagdterriers are a German creation and we won’t deal with them. You’ll see two of them later on tonight. They’re a device of the devil, and anything bad you can say about a dog, you can say it about the Jagdterrier. If you’re a person, you’re fine. If you’re another dog, you’re fine. Anything else is just naturally got to die. So they are a supreme hunting terrier, but the true working terrier is a combination of basic instinct, training and experience. The basic instinct is bred in training. We use some of the American Kennel Club performance tests, and experience can last from zero to a year before a dog catches on. Sometimes it’s depending on the breed, it’s slow. Dogs’ basic instinct ranges from an alligator, which is the Patterdale and the Jagdterrier, to an absolute couch potato, which is the French bulldog and the Norwich terrier.

Sitting here in the middle of about seven of the best rat terriers on the face of this earth, and if you’ll notice, a certain few dogs caught most of the rats, but every last one of them was put to him by this one or one of the other short legged guys. So it’s a team effort and one can’t do it without the other.

Greg: Very shortly into the night, it became very apparent that there were two main roles on the hunters that were going on here. And I really wanted to find out what went into the training of these dogs that teach them these roles. In this next part, Richard describes how these roles are established.

Richard R.: The dog will over a period of time pick out a job and you can’t really force them into it. They are what they are and if they’re going to be a ”catch dog, then they identify with using their eyes and they are fast. If they’re going to be a ‘push’ dog, all they want to do is use their nose. I’ve got a Bedlington terrier and the rat can run right in front of him and if he doesn’t smell it, he’s not going to do anything.

[RATS Members hunting] 

Greg: A little bit of background information here on the rat issue in New York City. New York City has been deemed the third most rat infested city in all of America, and you may ask the question of ‘how did it get so bad’? As more and more young people move into the city and gentrify the neighborhoods, the need for expansion is ever increasing.

[On location in New York City]

Greg: Jimmy was just saying that now it is Brooklyn that has the most rat complaints at any of the boroughs, but as younger and younger crowds move in, the neighborhoods start to get gentrified and they start to expand on the housing that is there. Let’s go taller up, put in underground parking garages. It’s bringing up all these subterranean rats. So now all of a sudden, people are now complaining about rats being there when they never used to complain, and now it’s all of these underground rats are getting pushed to the surface and wreaking havoc, so watch out Brooklyn. Well if you’re in Brooklyn, I’m sure you already know at this point, but we see you. RATS are coming.

Greg: More people means more trash. Rat complaints soared through the roof, increasing by over 25%. The city had to take official action. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a $32 million campaign to reduce the rat population by over 70%. His two main targets were the rats’ food sources and available living habitats. His plan included the purchase of 336 trash cans priced at over $7,000 a piece, $16.3 million to replace the dirt basements of New York City’s public housing buildings with a concrete rat pad. $8.8 million invested into trash compactors to properly store and dispose of waste. Plans were also implemented to improve trash management and pickups, as well as harshen the penalties for those who did not follow the rules. De Blasio attempted to fumigate the rat burrows by filling rat holes with dry ice, which only drove the rats elsewhere. His plan was set to finish in the end of 2017. This was sadly not enough. Trash continued to pile up, eventually burying the $7,000 trash cans. We visited the RATS group in December of 2019. The rat population is still visibly abundant.

Richard R: People ask why is it that rats have survived for so many years in every environment known to man. I mean, from China to Sweden to everywhere. Say a pair of rats today, a female rat comes into season every three days and she’s going to get bred. The gestation period is 21 to 23 days. The average litter is 10 to 12 and they reach sexual maturity in five to six weeks. Now, if you’re a little slow on the mathematics, 365 days, 24,000 rats. So the two rats that you take tonight, if they weren’t taken tonight, we get 24,000 a year from them. If you set rat traps, your rate of return on trapping is 4% no matter what kind of trap you set, where you set it, whatever. If you set 100 trips tonight, you’re going to get 4 rats.

[RATS Members hunting]

Jason: When the mission of your organization involves killing other animals, what kind of backlash do you get and what does the community you work in seem to think about what you do? Find out the answers to this and more when we hit the streets of New York City with RATS as our show continues.

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[RATS Members hunting]

Richard R.: Well we went for about 20 years, shunning all publicity and we got nowhere very quickly. And when we finally came out of our shell and said, we’re not afraid of backlash anymore, it just kinda took up and we got internationally recognized and it’s been very, very successful. Well, the New York Times did an article on us, a lovely two-page spread, and in the course of doing that, they went to PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment Animals, and asked PETA what they thought of it and PETA said, this is nothing more than a twisted blood sport masquerading as rodent control. And they came back and asked me for rebuttal and I said, yeah, sounds about right. So that was the end of that discussion.

[RATS Members hunting]

Woman: You have to go to Baruch, houses on Baruch Drive. They are not here. They’re over there.

Greg: We’re making our way around.

Woman: Okay, make a right and then a right down Baruch Drive.

Greg: Literally, every single person I come in contact with on the street, this is not just like a coincidence or one to two people know about these people. Literally every single pedestrian, passer-by, civilian that we see, every single one of them, are you the rat people? You guys are the ones with the rat dogs? Every single person out here knows who these guys are and they’re like legends. Infamous rat people of New York City. It’s unbelievable.

Richard R.: How does the public feel about our murderous forays? They’re our biggest champion. And people say, why can’t I just take my dog and go kill rats in New York City? Try it. We have a tremendous support base, and if somebody comes along and we’re hunting busily, we stop hunting and let the dogs go play with the people. They’re more important to us than killing a couple rats. We have a good reputation. We want to preserve it.

[On location in New York City]

Male Public: Absolutely applaud what you guys are doing, because this area has this huge rare problem. I had to come in here, I don’t know how many months ago and deal with a mouse climbing on my girlfriend’s wall, scaring the entire family. I had to deal with that.

Greg: Meaning in the actual apartment?

Male Public: Yeah. And in this construction like a thousand times or so.

[RATS Members talking to members of the public] 

Richard R.: We don’t get a lot of backlash and there’s a number of reasons for that. The things that people do to rats are barbaric by my standards. A sticky trap that allows the rat to die over a 72 hour period is in my book, cruel. Poison. Oh, great. You feed the rat the poison. It takes two weeks to build up in the body, then the rat very slowly bleeds to death internally. Well, before you pick on me and my terriers, let’s get the guys that are killing them the other way, so that mitigates some of the backlash. Would I want to be terrier bait? No, but if you gave me a choice of three ways to go, I’ll take the dogs.

Greg: Richard brings up an interesting point here about the lesser of three evils. When we think of ratting terriers, we don’t oftentimes think about them working in the context of city streets, but in reality these are the same dogs that have been bred for hundreds of years for a specific working purpose, and they are extremely good at that job. Getting out and watching these dogs do the job on the streets was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever gotten to experience as a dog trainer. It’s really interesting to see literal hundreds of years of domestication come into play in a back alley somewhere in the projects of Manhattan. It was an incredible opportunity, and as far as working dogs go, it was one of the most impressive demonstrations I’ve seen in my entire career.

[RATS Members hunting] 

Greg: As our night began, it became readily apparent that we were not going to be hunting for rats in abandoned industrial complexes and back alleys. Where we found ourselves were in city parks where children were supposed to be playing, and in apartment complexes where people lived. We were very close to the public. If you stood still long enough and looked down the sidewalk, sooner or later you’d catch a glimpse of a rat crossing the street. They were not afraid of humans. They were not afraid to show themselves. They were there.

Richard R.: So yeah, I have a fairly warped outlook on life at this point and I look for rat holes. I look for rat infestations and I see rats where the average person won’t. I was talking to one lady with one of the community gardens and she said, well, I’m sorry, there’s no rats here tonight, and I’m looking around. The trees are full of them. The bushes are full of them. This lady can’t see them.

Greg: Spotting the rats became something that you could not unsee. Once you had that lens pulled over your eye, there was no going back. You can tell that these guys had experience as we were walking around with them because they knew exactly where the rats would be and the paths that they would take. The group travels all over. They’re not restricted to just the Island of Manhattan. They go to other parts of New York, as well as different cities.

[RATS Members hunting] 

Richard R.: What you’re looking for is the success story and we claim it as failure, because once we clean out an area, we can’t hunt there anymore. So what you’re asking me to do is to itemize the places we don’t hunt anymore, and I wish I could lay claim to removing or managing all the rats. We can’t. The variety of reasons, we’re only an infinitesimal part of it. We began hunting in Liberty State Park, which is on the Jersey side of New York Harbor, and we hunted there at the request of their superintendent for years, and we just happily did about a four mile walk and cleaned out the trash cans and had a fine old time. And on 9/11/2001 things changed here, and that park became a morgue for the victims of the World Trade Center so we didn’t hunt there anymore.

We went to Ellis Island and hunted there for a while, but well eventually you manage the rats and you talk yourself out of business. So at that point we came to New York in quest of places and there was an author by the name of Robert Sullivan that said, well, why don’t you try a couple of these places? And he directed us to some absolutely lovely hunting grounds. But as time goes on, these places become gentrified and cleaned up and that’s what happened down there. So we moved up town and now we go a little bit all over the place. We ranged from Boston to Washington, and we have a splinter group in Washington DC and we have a splinter group in Boston, but we go and help them out every now and then.

Greg: To put things in perspective here, this is not your average kitchen mouse that we are talking about. The largest rat they had caught in the past was over 850 grams. That’s close to two pounds. These two-pound monster rats can be up to 11 inches long, excluding the tail and they’re not going down without a fight. This is where the human element comes in because even the most experienced dogs need some help sometimes.

[RATS Members hunting]

Greg: Help from humans came in a variety of different forms. For example, one of the members, Bill would go out up ahead and scope out the areas that the dogs would be hunting, and place strategic cardboard blockers to keep the rats from traveling down the predicted escape routes. These cardboard blockers would give the dogs an extra half second to grab the rat before it escaped. Other help came in the form of shaking trash bins or kicking trash bags. Some of the kicks were a little bit more unconventional than others.

[RATS Members hunting] 

Greg: Each new location that they went to, they would come up with a new customized plan of attack. Its exit routes were covered. Entryways were covered. There was a dog for every inch of ground that the rats would travel. Both humans and dogs made every effort to catch every single rat they could before they got away, oftentimes dogs catching more than one rat.

[RATS Members hunting]

Greg: Public disgust and fear of rats dates back to the dark ages when they were a major carrier of the bubonic plague. Modern day rats are no cleaner. There are just as much a carrier of disease and viruses as they were back then. Which raises the question, are they still worried about rat-borne illnesses being transferred to the dogs in this day and age?

Richard R.: Are we afraid of disease? Well, yeah. We have rampant leptospirosis in New York City, and lepto by its nature morphs itself about every 20 minutes. So there’s a vaccine out that theoretically protects against 4 sero-vars of lepto where there are more than 260 known. So there’s no real way you can prevent exposure, and the dogs fortunately pick up a natural immunity very quickly. So when our dogs go into the vet, we get ‘oh, your dog showing lepto antibodies.’ We know. They carry a natural immunity so we’ve never had a sick dog in 30 years. On the other hand, if we see signs of lepto … lepto moves in waves, just like the rats do and if we see signs, then we go hunt somewhere else.

Greg: The other interesting thing that talking to Richard made me think about was how being out here, and it’s kind of exposing the dogs to small, small amounts of leptospirosis is having these dogs build up a natural immunity. Is there a way that taking blood samples from these dogs that have this natural immunity? They can create more accurate vaccines and not just guesswork because again, leptospirosis is kind of like the flu, where the vaccines for that season, they kind of guess on these four or five are going to be the most popular. So… food for thought.

Greg: It’s impressive that in over 30 years of doing this, Richard hasn’t had one dog on his team gets sick, but that’s not to say this line of work doesn’t come with its own set of hazards.

[RATS Members talking about dog hazards]. 

Greg: One of the questions we had early on was after a night of going around and hunting rats, what do you do with all of the dead that you collect? Do you leave them where you found them? Do you bring them with you? Do you taxidermy them and add them to some sort of weird collection? In this next clip, Richard tells exactly what he does.

Richard R.: What do we do with the dead rats? Well, sometimes we freeze them and feed them to our falconer friends. They feed the birds in the winter with them. Some go to Fordham for further study. We think it’s kind of neat, the 18th century terrier work supports 21st century science research. And we participated with Fordham University in a study to try and determine the rat reservoirs in the city and the migration patterns of rats when they left the reservoirs. We provided their DNA samples so they were trying to trap them getting nothing. We would give them 60, 70 rat samples a night, and so we had a long and wonderful friendship. Still do. We also have provided DNA samples to Columbia University in disease studies and everything else, and one of you will have the joy of carrying the rat bag tonight.

[RATS Members hunting] 

Greg: When we were first introduced to the rat bag, we had many questions as to what it actually was and it needs very little explanation. It’s literally a reusable grocery bag that the group collects and places their dead rats in, and that’s the rat bag and it’s throughout the night we became very familiar with the rat bag.

[On location hunting in New York City]

RATS Member: The rat bag is getting heavy.

Greg: At this point in our story, you may be asking yourself, what on earth would motivate these people to do something like this? The answer is more simple than you would expect. The group has made it its goal to preserve the working characteristics of many terrier breeds. And as you will hear, they are 100% dedicated to this cause.

RATS Member: The reason I got my female was to breed him to her, because I waited a long time to find the blood I want, so he’s frozen so I’m not breeding her till she’s four. I want to make sure she got a lot more work to put in before she has a litter, and you always want to wait on a bitch if you can for a couple of years. You want to make sure everything’s sound, health wise. So I have him collected at least seven times. I’ve got enough for about 15 litters so he’ll be long dead and I can still breed her.

Richard R.: People ask why we do it. Well the secret is that we do it to identify and preserve the unique working qualities of the terrier breeds. We’re all dog people. It’s not what sells. Dead rats sell. So we’re shamelessly using the fact that we’re hunting rats in an urban environment to promote the working abilities of the dogs themselves. It’s where we’re coming from. Some of us are dog show people and we get a bad rap of doing evil things in our breeding of dogs and so forth, but the fact of the matter is that we’re right out there in the trenches trying to preserve the working qualities of these breeds.

[RATS Members hunting] 

Greg: From the crew here at A Life of Dogs, we would just like to take a moment to talk about the members of the group and the amount of credit that they deserve for what they do. This is a group of unpaid volunteers that dedicates their nights and weekends to not only lowering the rat population of the streets of New York City, but also furthering and preserving terrier breeds as a whole. They welcomed us with open arms and showed us one hell of a good time. We would like to thank you for all of your service to both the canine and the human community. A warning to all rats in New York City – you may be able to stomach the poison, outsmart the traps, but eventually these guys will find you.

Richard R.: Let’s face it. What we do is fun. It’s fun for us. It’s fun for the dogs.

RATS Members: That’s a crazy hobby, man, but it is fun. It’s exciting. Hunting is good, no matter what level,

Jason: This episode was produced by Jason Purgason, Erin Purgason, Greg Vaughn and Abby Trogdon. Our website is Support for this episode of A Life of Dogs comes from Royal Canin. Learn more at We want to send out a special thanks to Richard Reynolds, Bill Reyna, Jimmy Hoffman, Jason Rivera, Eli, Will and the rest of the RATS crew for inviting us behind the scenes and sharing their stories with us. We hope you enjoyed episode one of our second season. Our crew here has really put in a ton of work to make this second season even better than the first. When we talked about first doing this story and I told the crew that we were headed to New York, their response was…. hey, buddy. Yo, that mother fucker’s big!

Jason: I’m Jason Purgason. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcast, and stay tuned for episode two of our second season where we share more stories of A Life of Dogs.