Dog Charmer by Tom Shelby: Stories from a Working Dog’s Life

My two working dogs were Michelle and Mike, both Dobermans. Michelle found two people alive and some dead. Mike followed a woman for 11 miles. They were search and rescue dogs.

Readers, as you read this, you are shedding approximately 40,000 dead skin cells per minute. You and I have about five million olfactory cells in our noses, Michelle had over 200 million.

The part of a dog’s brain that discerns smells is about 40 times larger than a human’s, relatively speaking. When a person walks into a room and smells a chocolate cake being made, your dog is aware of all the ingredients of the cake. When your dog smells where another dog peed, he knows the age, sex and health of the other dog. When you get home and your dog smells your pants, he knows where you were, who you touched, and what you ate.

It was Mark Twain who said, “If dogs could talk, no one would own them!”

I should also mention what you can hear at 25 yards, your dog can hear at 100 yards.

All of my searches were memorable, but I will only mention the highlights of several. A father of two young children went for a walk in the afternoon and did not return. By the time I was called, it was around 10 p.m. The house was full of neighbors trying to help. I needed a clean scent item, something only the dad touches. He was a religious Jew, and the only reliably scented item was his prayer shawl atop a cupboard.

Standing right next to the mother and two children, so that Michelle could weed them out as needed to be found in case they touched the shawl, I sniffed it out. She picked up her trail on the doorstep (dropping all those skin cells with every step) and headed to the right.

I had her on a 40 foot leash attached to a harness. If she pulls hard it tells me she’s on her trail. After over an hour following him through the suburban neighborhood, she took me to the middle of a street and lost track. It made me think he got hit by a car. I went back to the house and started her again, leaving the house, but this time going to the left, to leave her scent of air, without leash, because the breeze was coming from that direction.

Half an hour later I was in a park when Michelle’s neon glowing ring that was on her neck, so I could see her movements in the dark, started moving instead of walking.

She had caught the smell!

A few minutes later, she came back and led me to him. He was lying on his back with a plastic bag over his face. It was now around 4am in November, and between the cold and my exhaustion, I panicked at first, thinking I was looking at some kind of alien, until I realized it was a bag plastic on his face.
The cop who was with me said, “How come you’re so happy and you’re giving treats to the dog when we have a corpse?”

“We found it because of the dog, she needs to be heavily rewarded!” was my answer.

Then comes the terrible task of informing a woman and her two children of the discovery. Despite my objections, it was ruled a suicide. Who kills themselves with a plastic bag?

Once, during a bad snowstorm in New Jersey, Michelle and a bloodhound were interested in a particular tree, but the conditions were so bad at the time that the search was called off until let the blizzard calm down. When we came back to continue the search, we went to this tree to start, and the missing lady was a suicidal one hanging high in the tree.

After that, I made sure to include hiding high in the trees as part of the training.

We received a call around 8 p.m. for a missing lady. She and her husband were arguing about directions, at which point the husband said to the wife, “OK, you’re driving!”

When she got out of the car, he left (to punish her?) and returned five minutes later to pick her up. But she was nowhere to be found, and the husband swore she must have been kidnapped. I smelled Mike out of the car seat and he immediately picked up her trail, which dragged me 11 miles to her house. The wife was so angry that she hid when the husband came back for her, then
began walking the 11 miles to his home.

At least this one had a happy ending…well, a reasonably happy ending!
To M

Cooperstown author Tom Shelby, also known as Dog Charmer, will answer pet owners’ questions about train their dogs. Email your questions to

Bette C. Alvarado