Dogs make appearances throughout my works – often a side note as in SEEKING SASHA, or occasionally they fill a main character role as in my short story, AUGUST FIFTH. Typically, these dogs are based on Gus, a phenomenal hound who was part of my life for seven years.
Gus was a police narcotics dog, trained to sniff out a wide range of drugs. His skills were used to search prisons, airports, and hotels, but most often, Gus sniffed suspicious vehicles traveling down the nation’s highways.
As a young pup of just over a year, Gus had destroyed his initial owner’s yard by ripping apart the fence and digging a series of holes, as though an elusive bone must be hidden somewhere beneath the once-manicured grass. Gus’s owner quickly realized that Gus was not an average dog built for life as a family pet, but one that needed to aim his energy in a positive direction. Thus, Gus entered the Police Dog Services program at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dog training facility in Innisfail, Alberta, where he was paired up with my husband, Ryan, in the fall of 2009.
Gus and Ryan were a perfect randomized match for each other, flipping from peas in a pod to fighting for rank as the alpha of the team. Both stubborn with a deep drive to perform, Gus and Ryan excelled in their training together while always trying to one-up one another.
After graduation from training (where Gus was likely ready for the streets after a few weeks but it took Ryan another four or five to catch up), Gus came to live with our family in the beautiful mountains of Alberta. The timing of Gus’s arrival into our lives coincided with the chapter in my life where my required energy output was at its peak. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant, chasing two toddlers around, and zapped from ten weeks of my husband being away. (He did come home on weekends; I’ll give him that.)
Enter Gus. Another energy-suck in our lives. With Gus’s unyielding energy levels, we could not trust his hungry mouth and ever-wagging tail inside our home, so he lived in a large kennel in our yard. Cement pad, frost fencing, plywood roofing – the dog who loved to plan a jailbreak needed a special home. He had a lovely double-insulated doghouse in his kennel, plenty of food and water, multiple walks (or a mountain hike) a day, and so many sticks to chew and destroy.
Yet, he wanted more.
The barking. And barking. Not acceptable in a townhouse community in a small mountain town. Ryan got a bark collar that sprayed citrus oil at Gus’s nose every time he barked. It settled him for about an hour.
Then Gus tested.
Just how loud could Gus bark to make the sounds he wanted to make, but not release the annoying spray into his face? He figured it out and we became used to the low rumble of Gus’s perfect tone, just below squirt-threshold.
Gus spent his workdays traveling the highways of Alberta in a police SUV, ready to brace himself when Ryan yelled, “Hang on, buddy!” as he learned to lean into a sharp turn, sirens blaring overhead. Gus’s days off were often spent hiking to tops of mountains or playing catch in our yard. No matter what Gus was doing, his energy levels ruled him.
Despite being a police dog, Gus was also part of our family, and so he went on family vacations with us, training with Ryan between hotdog roasts and days in the lake. On one sunny winter day at our cabin, we had shoveled off a nice spot on the lake for some northern Alberta skating. Gus had miles to run on the frozen water, all the while being psychologically corralled by Ryan so he would not go too far. Unfortunately, no one thought about the luscious winter boots that had been left on the bench by the ice. Gus, however, did. He snagged our son’s boot and turned it into a wonderful game of “watch Ryan chase me and swear at me.” That was a very fun day for Gus.
Summer at the cabin was full of other adventures. One July, after what was surely an exhausting swim in the lake for Gus, Ryan tied Gus to a tree and gave him a bone to chew. Gus thought the leash was a more interesting thing to chew and before long, he was running free, happy as a clam. Shaking his head, Ryan drove into town and bought a metal chain. Surely that would do the trick. Now chained to the tree, with a fresh bone to love, Gus turned his attention to the source of the problem: the tree itself. However, just as Gus closed his canines around the scrumptious trunk, Ryan relocated him to the deck, with no tree close enough for Gus to get his mouth on. So Gus chewed apart the deck.
Years later, on another vacation at the cabin, our family had taken the boat out on the water; Gus was left in his kennel to chill. (Haha… “chill.” We should have known better.) As we gathered our things and started walking back to the cabin, Gus appeared. He galloped towards us, pink tongue hanging out and lolling in the breeze – again, happy as a clam and so, so proud of himself. “How did you get out?” Ryan asked. We inspected the kennel and realized that Gus had disappeared into his velociraptor persona again – testing the kennel for weak spots. He used his four-thousand dollar tooth (a previous repair that was required for such a chewer) to pry up the bottom of the frost fencing wall of his kennel, just enough for him to wiggle under and break free. And fixing the escape hole? Ha. It took a number of tools and all of Ryan’s strength to bend that fence back into a semblance of its former form.
At their prime, Gus and Ryan were one of the top performing narcotics detection teams working the highways. Although Gus’s energy was destructive at times, he was able to harness that energy and put it to work when the time came. Gus’s primary goal in life was to play with his Kong – something he only got to do when he worked hard. When Ryan directed Gus to search a vehicle, Gus took all of his crazy energy and put it into his nose, searching and searching until he narrowed in on the scent and found a stash of drugs. The RCMP were able to take another traveling criminal off our highways and Gus got to play with his Kong.
By the end of his RCMP career, Gus had helped take over sixteen million dollars’ worth of product off our highways, either in the form of hard drugs, plants, or drug money. Gus had also eaten one patrol jacket, a first aid kit, the stuffing from too many “indestructible” dog beds, the headrest of a police SUV (which created a diarrhea time bomb), the weather stripping from the inside of three police cars, and too many sticks, shrubs, and trees to count.
Gus eventually retired from police life and, for six weeks, became our own. I had the thrill of taking Gus for his morning walks when Ryan had to rush out the door on a police call. My morning walking friends always teased me that I was growing “pipes” because of the craziness that I had to control for the five kilometers that we walked each day. It was that same energy that took four grown humans to hold Gus down at the vet clinic to administer his annual shots. To paraphrase the vet: “Labs have an energy level of 9. Chocolate labs are at a 10. Gus is a 15.”
Although Gus was an important part of our family, we quickly realized that he was never meant to be a pet in the classic way, and was getting bored sitting around while the rest of us rushed off to jobs or school. So, with heavy hearts, we said goodbye to Gus and sent him to his new life as a sniffer dog at work camps in northern Manitoba.
After a couple of years cleaning up the camps, Gus’s senior years began to take hold and he was finally able to live inside a house without completely destroying it. With the assistance of Ned’s Wish, a foundation that supports police dogs in their retirement, Gus found companionship with his new family, including their autistic boy who bonded with Gus. Yet, as much as he would spend his time cuddling up to his new favorite person, Gus’s energy still crept out, and the family would have to buy a new indoor kennel every few months, after Gus destroyed the last.
Gus passed away on October 28, 2019. For a dog who was impossible to manage at times, who ate everything in sight, taunted my husband with his stubbornness, and outsmarted devices designed to control him, Gus was a champion at keeping our nation safe, and then at being a companion for a child who needed a dog just like him.
From being sling-rescued off a mountain by helicopter, to standing proudly beside a hundred pounds of confiscated marijuana, Gus packed a hundred years of stories into his eleven years of life. Thank you, Gus, for all you’ve done for our family, other families, and our country.
May the walks be long and the sticks to chew be plentiful in doggy heaven, old buddy.