In Every Crisis, There Is A Hidden Story

By Kathryn Lilley

Search and Rescue Dogs“{Pain} is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” –Sartre

Whenever the word “pain” is mentioned, I immediately think of MacGregor, my Dog from Hell. Now don’t get me wrong. I love MacGregor. But he’s one of the world’s most demanding, high maintenance dogs. MacGregor is a ninety-pound, natural born herding type breed, long, lean, and somewhat feral looking. He’s a veritable wolf dog. MacGregor should have been born on a sheep farm, not confined within the gated walls of sedate suburbia. At the very least, he should have been adopted by a marathon runner, not by me, the Original Couch Potato. To keep my hyper-amped dog active enough to satisfy his restless herding breed instincts, I have cycled him through a series of dog walkers, hikers, boot camp drill sergeants, and even one former K9 cop turned dog trainer and psychologist. Their unanimous (and very expensive) verdict: MacGregor is indeed The Dog from Hell.

Dog and I hit our personal nadir last month, while I was recuperating from arm surgery. I wasn’t supposed to move my arms very much, so I had his leash fastened around my waist. (Dog people will guess what’s coming next.) As we passed a nearby house, a golden retriever rushed a fence to lodge her vociferous objections to our presence; then, MacGregor lunged left  to argue the point, upending me in the process. The result: several  bruised ribs, plus black-and-blue contusions from shoulder to knee. (Fortunately my arms were mostly spared.)

As I was sitting in the doctor’s lab waiting to get a chest x-ray to check for broken ribs, I did some agonized reflection on my relationship with my dog. It seemed that both of us had wound up with a lousy deal in our partnership. What could I do to turn the situation  around, short of starting my own sheep farm?

In a moment of desperation, I started thinking outside the box. At some point I stumbled across an interesting site: CARDA, a volunteer search dog organization.  If you’re ever lost in the mountains, CARDA volunteers and their dogs are the teams who’ll come looking for you. CARDA services are free of charge to the public and law enforcement. All expenses are paid by volunteers and donations. In each CARDA certified search team, both the human and dog undergo extensive training–it takes three years of training to become certified as a CARDA search and rescue team. Both the human and the dog have to be able to handle the rigorous requirements of search and rescue operations. In a moment of foolhardy optimism about my physical ability to handle hiking anything rougher than a golf course knoll, I submitted an application to CARDA. A friendly-sounding district representative quickly invited me to attend a training class this Wednesday night. (The first class is in Malibu, my kind of place.)

Disclosure: I predict that MacGregor will prove to be a natural as a search and rescue dog, but I’m fairly certain I won’t pass muster as the human half of our equation. The good folk at CARDA may take one look at me and bounce me back to Couch Potato School, to take Remedial Treadmill 101.

But in the end, it’s not important whether the dog and I ultimately graduate as a certified search and rescue team. It’s the journey that’s important. I’ve already latched onto the search and rescue notion as interesting story material. Instead of going to the gym to work out to get in shape for CARDA training, I’ve spent copious amounts of time browsing the web to learn about the culture of search and rescue volunteers (natch, because I like web surfing, not hiking). I’ve discovered all kinds of fascinating stories and camp fire lore about the volunteer search and rescue tradition. However long I survive the training itself, my CARDA experience will serve as research for a new project that’s started bubbling around in my head. For now, I’m calling that project A Working Dog Mystery.

If The Working Dog Mysteries bear fruit, I’ll really owe it all to MacGregor.  Or, to put it another way (and misquote the Rolling Stones song):

You can’t always get the dog you want

But if you try sometime you just might find

You get what you need

What about you? Has life ever handed you a lemon in terms of having a challenge or bad experience, and then you transformed that crisis into story material? Tell us about it in the Comments. Thanks!

The real MacGregor

The real MacGregor


11 thoughts on “In Every Crisis, There Is A Hidden Story

  1. What a great story, Kathryn. And kudos for you for not just dumping the Dog From Hell at the nearest shelter. I hope it works out for both of you. And hey, some times an amicable divorce is best for both parties. And it sounds like a great idea for a series…something you could, ah, sink your teeth into.

  2. Of course I’ve had bad moments. I’ve never used it as the subject of a story, but I have given those feelings/failures/recoveries to specific characters as part of what drives them.

    But the idea of writing a story like you did is intriguing.

    • I harvest a lot of life’s experiences into writing–both in terms of characters and overall settings and setups. In general I find that “pet mysteries” tend to be a bit cloying for my taste, but this idea, with the built in search and rescue element, has some potential I think. Thanks for stopping in to chat, Brian!

  3. What an awesome “premise” ~ Turner and Hootch hit the great outdoors (but on a more serious note), with human half a bit more fleshed out than Lassie’s Timmy~

    I can see it, almost in a similar vein to CJ Box’s Joe Pickett type of thriller/mysteries (no disrespect intended 🙂 ) but with w lot wider field of play than “just” Wyoming… Urban, wilderness, natural and manmade disasters revealing all manner of nefarious hi jinx ~ Can’t wait to see what you come up with (no pressure here)~!

    • Thanks, George! Ah, the “what you come up with” part–that’s the hard part!! Mine would have a paranormal twist, so no worries about being compared to anyone else. Plus, as they say, there are no new stories under the sun, only new ways of telling them. 🙂 Update: I spent all day skimming through S&R mysteries on the market. Most of them are really flat and dreadful. Interesting!

  4. Pingback: Search And Rescue Dog Training Kamloop | Dog Education Camp

  5. Kathryn,

    Some years ago, a good pal of mine, Susan Purvis, decided to train a dog to save lives. Easier said than done. Her Lab pup Tasha never met a command she couldn’t disobey. It took a LOT of training for both dog and human. Many missions later, they were recognized in the Congressional Record for their accomplishments. Sue has written a memoir about their adventures that is currently with an agent.

    Sue and Tasha worked crime scenes, located drowning victims, did avalanche work, and jumped out of a helicopter to find remains after a mountain-top plane crash. Rich territory to mine for story ideas, especially mysteries.

    Here’s a link:

    Best of luck, both with dog training and your new series.

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