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Tails of Love

The bond between people and animals is one of the strongest and most beneficial friendships in history.

Tails of Love

— Catherine Ledner

"The next day," she continues, "Kid trotted right into the feed area, spun himself around, and basically announced, 'I'm back in business, baby!' I think the horses know they're helping. I see them arc their necks and look back at the rider. I think they like their work." Jeremy doesn't speak, but his parents say he loves his time with Kid. "He's smiling all the time" as he rides, says his mother, Debbie Hardin.

Science can't yet fully explain such anecdotes, says James Serpell, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. Nor can it explain why certain animals and certain humans prefer each other. "The mechanisms [of the human-animal bond] aren't very well understood," Serpell says. "There's been so little serious research, which is surprising when you think how big a part of people's lives companion animals are. The bond is consistently underappreciated by the powers that be," that is, the funders of experiments.

What is clear is that animals have adapted to fill a changing—but still key—role in society. Dogs that once guarded us as we slept around the fire pit now watch intently as we spend hours creating PowerPoint presentations. "That bond is there all the time," says Cesar Millan, the National Geographic Channel's Dog Whisperer. "Even when you are sitting quietly in the family room at the end of a long day, watching TV with your dog lying at your feet, that connection exists; you're still feeding it."

One canine trait that has evolved into something potentially quite significant is dogs' acute sense of smell (10,000 to 100,000 times more keen than our own cut-rate olfactory capacity), which once helped humans track down prey. Today trained dogs can detect bladder cancer just by sniffing a urine sample; humans must perform complex analyses to find the disease. And Sadie, a brown Labrador retriever in Arizona with a nose for accelerants, makes the job of arson investigators much easier. "As soon as people see the dog, they confess," a fire-department officer told The Arizona Republic in 2008. "You can't lie to the dog when she sits down in front of you, because she smells gasoline on your hands."

Service pets warn chronic seizure sufferers of an oncoming attack with a paw thump or a bark; animals can sense chemical-odor changes that humans cannot. In 2006 a three-year-old Florida beagle named Belle saw her owner collapse in a severe diabetic seizure; Belle held down the 9 on the phone with her teeth, as she'd been trained to do. The phone automatically dialed 911, and paramedics arrived in time to save her owner.

But there's more to the connection than training. Four-year-old Charley, a West Highland white terrier in Atlanta, is not a search-and-rescue dog. In fact, when Charley made his lifesaving rescue last year, his owner wasn't even aware that anyone needed help. One August day the little dog began urgently pacing and barking to be let out of the house. Owner Frances Gippert clicked Charley's leash onto his collar and opened the front door. He dragged her away from their usual route and toward a yard three doors away, where Roy Monie lay semiconscious and badly bruised. Monie had fallen off a ladder and had suffered a brain hemorrhage. If Charley hadn't found him—no one knows how—so that Gippert could call 911, Monie likely would have died. Since then, Monie and his family have embraced Gippert, who had lost both parents and her sister to cancer. Last year they all celebrated Christmas together. "This whole process has been very emotionally moving for me," says Gippert, who was working from home after a difficult divorce. "It has changed my life. I just wanted to stay in my house, me and Charley," she says. "Roy didn't let that happen."

* * *

Despite being shaky from his injuries, Lex, the Marine dog, made it to Corporal Dustin Lee's funeral. He and Dustin's younger brother, Camryn, then 13, even played together for a while (the Lees also have a daughter, Madyson). Several top Marine Corps officers attended the March 2007 service in Quitman, Mississippi, and Rachel Lee had another question for them: "I would like to know how we can adopt Lex." Rachel didn't want Lex to return to service—and into harm's way.

Throughout 2007 Rachel pressed the Marines for an answer. Red tape and regulations thwarted her—as did grief. "I was in a fog," she says of that period. "I don't remember a whole lot. But my dad, my husband, my brothers, they were all pursuing it."

In December 2007 the Lees' phone rang. Rachel answered the call: Lex had been granted an early discharge. The Lees could come to Georgia and pick him up. "It took so many people trying to help," says Dustin's father, Jerome. "The amount of support we had was heartwarming."

The Lees drove seven hours to the Marine Corps base at Albany, Georgia; in a ceremony there on December 21, 2007, Lex was discharged from duty and presented to Rachel and Jerome. State police from Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi provided a rotating escort the entire way home, as did motorcycle groups such as the Christian Motorcyclists Association and the Patriot Guard Riders.

When Lex arrived in Quitman, he made himself right at home. "It was amazing how Lex became part of our family on day one," Jerome says. "Lex had that special bond with Dusty, and part of Dustin is in Lex. It's like he knows where he is and who we are. He wants to help us cope with our grief."

Today, Rachel says, "Lex walks with me everywhere. That's the bond I also feel with Dustin. I look at Lex and I learn so much about working dogs, and their importance. It encourages me to go on. That's what Dustin would have wanted. To take my hand and put it on Lex, it's a healing experience."

—Geoff Brown is the author of the guidebook Moon Baltimore.

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