Which dog will be the first to retrieve the ball that Kelly Brach is about to throw? Enzo, in front, Sonja, Maggie, or Dino, with the folded ear?
In February, when a 5-month-old puppy went missing at Edward V. Ecker Sr. County Park in Montauk, it seemed like every animal lover in the hamlet was on the case. Ultimately, however, it was Kelly Brach and two of her trained track dogs who reunited missing dog Lucy with her family.
Lucy, a Lagotto Romagnolo puppy who looks a bit like a Wheaten terrier, broke away from her dog walker to follow a jogger, and repeatedly criss-crossed the Long Island Rail Road train tracks. Her desperate owners, Leigh-Ann and Matthew Hess, immediately called Mrs. Brach, and by the next morning she and her team were on the case. She took with her Enzo, her Czech shepherd, and Sonja, her Dutch shepherd, letting them get the smell of the runaway away from her blankets or her toys.
Lucy disappeared for six days before being found, and the search was sometimes difficult.
Train tracks pass near the park (pet owners call it the Montauk Dog Park), and at one point Mrs. Brach and Enzo were nearly hit by a train. Mr. Hess, who was with them, felt the rails vibrate as the train made a blind turn and shouted, “Train! Ms. Brach grabbed Enzo and jumped back, covering his ears.
Lost dogs often venture onto train tracks because no one is chasing them there, Ms Brach explained, but they are unfamiliar with train noise and get hit quite often. Unfortunately, another dog
who was with his owner, looking for Lucy, was hit by a train and died.
The weather for the six days Lucy was lost was wet and freezing. Ms. Brach worked about nine hours on the first day’s search, but determined the dog was running and retreated. A later attempt to lure Lucy with food and her owners’ scents on well-worn T-shirts failed.
On the sixth day, she worked another eight hours. Lucy was eventually found and contained on a pier near where she had first fled from her walker. One of the owners was able to grab his leash, which had remained attached throughout the puppy’s ordeal.
It might seem like winter would be the worst time to lose an animal, but Ms Brach said if it was her own pet she would prefer it to be winter. “Dehydration and heatstroke are not risks like they are in the summer,” she noted. Plus, she says, excessive heat kills the scent faster than cold. “Snow compresses the scent, and any trace of moisture exaggerates it and heightens the dogs sense of smell.”
A damp cold, without too much wind, is the ideal tracking condition, she said. The wind “hits the scent around.” When it starts to warm up, however, the frantic calls start coming in. February is slow, Ms. Brach said, as people and dogs stay home.
Ms. Brach’s life before she started working with tracker dogs had nothing to do with what it is now. Ten years ago, she ran technicians for high-end race cars on Long Island and Manhattan. She drove a Porsche and got to try new models, even driving a few herself.
Then Tony, one of her two indoor and outdoor cats, didn’t come home when called. She scoured the neighborhood, called vets and the police, left messages on social media and wrote a letter to her local newspaper. During the three weeks the cat disappeared, there were three Northeasts.
Finally, a woman on a neighborhood app suggested she find a lost animal tracking dog that had been imprinted on an animal scent (unlike police dogs, which are trained to detect bombs and drugs.) A woman who had such a dog was unavailable but told Mrs. Brach to use the dirty kitty litter from her other cat, Frankie, Tony’s littermate, to create a wide circle around her house, with the house in the center.
Cats are smarter and more resourceful than dogs and less dependent, Ms Brach said. “You’ve never heard of cats running around on the boardwalk like dogs do.” (They’re also good at hiding; she often finds them stuck in sheds.) Tony had locked himself in a basement about eight houses away from his. When she made the kitty litter trail, the cat smelled it and ransacked the basement trying to get out. When the owner went to check the noise, Tony
fled and returned directly to his place.
For Ms. Brach, this was a turning point. “There was no reason for people to wander aimlessly looking for their pets.” She decided to move and bought a house in Kings Park in Smithtown, “because it is centrally located on Long Island”, with two dogs that had been trained to follow. Each was 2 years old, mature, fully trained and ready to work.
She has four dogs now, but only three are working animals. Along with Enzo and Sonja, who weigh 75 and 65 pounds respectively, there’s 70-pound Maggie, Sonja’s offspring, and a bomb-scent trained Belgian Malinois. Dino, one year old and weighing 110 pounds, son of Maggie and Enzo, is “more of a play dog”, at least for now. “Dino spends my money while others earn my money.”
Ms. Brach is one of the few people in the country doing this kind of work, which is both physically demanding and not particularly well paid. Her training as a young dancer helped her prepare for training. She runs with her dogs every day; then they each get a pound of cooked steak.
“Dogs are like people,” she said. “We all have our ways of doing things. We’ll sit down, we’ll lie down, we’ll make quick eye contact. . . some pick up a paw, others bark. This is why it is so important to carry out maintenance work. The handler and the dog must learn each other’s language.