Following Holly’s nose

I was out at Tarboo Creek by myself for a weekend this month while Susan was up in Canada grandmothering, and adopted a new strategy for a nature walk. When we arrive from town, nine times out of 10 the first thing we do is walk the trail along the streambank at our place, to see what has been going on the past week. My new strategy? Follow Holly’s nose, and see where it leads us.

Holly—officially Hollis—is a 14-month-old puppy that we are raising for Canine Companions for Independence. She’s the fifth dog that we’ve raised for the agency, which is the largest supplier of service dogs to the disabled community. We get the puppies—labs or lab-golden mixes—when they are little 8-week-old fur balls, then go to puppy class every week, teach 30 commands, and socialize them to every conceivable stimulus and situation, from statues and hockey games to city buses and downtown crowds. At 18 months we turn the puppies in to the CCI training center in Santa Rosa, California, where they start six months of advanced training by professionals. That’s where they learn the advanced skills they need to help wheelchair-bound or mobility-impaired people, traumatized children, individuals with hearing loss, folks on the autism spectrum, or veterans with severe PTSD. If they graduate—and only 50 percent of the dogs do—they begin working at age 2 and usually have a 10-year career.

We often get asked how we could possibly give a puppy up, after caring for it and training it and bonding with it for 16 months. Our answer is simple: when you meet the people who get the dogs, and hear them tell about their life before and after they were matched with their canine companion, you’d give up your puppy in a heartbeat. The family who has our third puppy, Nala, says that she is the greatest gift that anyone has ever given them.

We like to take the puppies out to Tarboo Creek with us, as the new environment makes them solve problems on their own, building their confidence and resilience. But on this particular walk, what I really wanted was to learn from Holly by parasitizing her nose. Like other humans, I have about 900 different types of odor receptors. That sounds impressive until you learn that over 60 percent are pseudogenes, meaning that they have fatal flaws in their DNA sequence and can’t be used to manufacture a normal product. Dogs, in contrast, have over 1,300 odor receptors, at least 80 percent of which produce a functional product. Their genomes can produce many more odor receptors than ours can, of many more types. Because different combinations of olfactory receptors are used to detect different odors, a dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be at least 10,000 times better than ours—perhaps 100,000 times.

So as we walked our creek trail, I followed Holly’s lead. When she stopped to smell, I didn’t urge her to keep going. Instead, I stopped to look. And wow, did she find some great stuff:

  • The heart and liver of a recently killed animal—something in the 4-6 pound range. The organs were sitting by themselves in some matted grass, about a yard from the creek. Best guess? A coho salmon.
  • Extensive remains of two other large coho, both of which had been pulled away from the creek by a predator or scavenger. There were jaws and pieces of vertebral column visible, but otherwise both carcasses had been picked clean. One site looked ottery, by the scraping in the dirt nearby. The other may have been raccoon, based on the piles of scat in the general vicinity.
  • River otter scent marking, in two different locations. Otter families come up the creek from Tarboo Bay when the salmon run, use anal gland secretions and urine and feces to mark the boundaries of their hunting grounds, and feast.

Holly’s big find, though, was another item that I, with my dead nose, would’ve walked right by. It was a dead beaver, draped over a stick that was projecting above the creek. It had died upstream, been swept down in a pulse of high water, and gotten snagged.

I returned with my nephew Demetri and a shovel later that day, wearing waterproof boots so I could wade in and retrieve the carcass. We examined it as carefully as we could, given the conditions, but didn’t find any sign of foul play—no obvious bullet holes or wounds or breaks from a snap trap or cougar bite—so it may have died of illness or old age. We may never know. But we buried the carcass near the creek, anyway, with Holly sitting at attention