Take a look at your family dog. (If you don’t have one, imagine you do…just go with us on this one.) There he lies, asleep. When he does get up, it’ll be to leisurely grab a few bites from his food bowl or ask to be let outside. He snores, scratches and sniffs his way through the day. Except for the unconditional love he brings to the table, he’s practically useless.
Now imagine your dog has a job. He’s a contributing member of society. Stop laughing now. It could happen. How do we know?
Because in this article, we profile Lake Highlands dogs that do, in fact, have just that: a job. Or, at the very least, they’ve accomplished something besides just making a giant drool spot on the couch.
These are the stories of Rusty and Paco.
In the realm of working dogs, Paco contributes more to society than most people. Not only does his job involve a 40-or-more-hour workweek, but what he does saves lives and fights crime.
Sr. Cpl. Rick Lusk has been a dog handler with the Dallas Police Department’s K-9 unit for eight of his 18 years on the force.
“As I was growing up,” he says, “my family always had dogs, and I always enjoyed them and liked the idea of working with a dog.”
Lusk, a Lake Highlands resident, is Paco’s partner and caretaker.
“It’s not all that much different from the bond anyone would form with their pet,” Lusk says of he and Paco, a German Shepherd. “But we definitely spend more time together than a person would normally.”
That’s because in addition to working the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. shift with Lusk, Paco lives with him (and Roy, Lusk’s former K-9 dog, now retired).
Lusk started working with Paco two years ago, after the Dallas Police Department purchased the shepherd from a police dog trainer in Ohio.
After two months of additional training, Paco knew the basics of his job, which involves searching buildings, tracking suspects, protecting his handler and controlling crowds. He also recently completed training in explosives detection.
“Paco has what we call a very high ball drive, meaning he loves to play with a ball,” Lusk says. “That’s very important in narcotics or explosive detection.”
He adds that he and Paco’s bond isn’t that much different from working with a human partner.
“We get to know each other real well, we take care of each other, and we trust each other to be there for the other.”
Which has come in handy a number of times, Lusk says.
“I feel confident that when we go through a building, if he hasn’t found anybody, either there’s nobody there, or I’ve messed up,” he says. “His sense of smell and hearing are so keen, if there’s somebody in there, he’s going to find them.”
Lusk proudly adds that Paco has nailed several burglars during routine building searches.
“It’s the most fun thing we can do. If we find a burglar, that makes the night for us. And I make sure he knows he’s done a good job.”
Sometimes, though, things can get scary, and Lusk worries for Paco’s safety.
“There was one time when we searched a meat processing facility south of downtown,” Lusk says. “There were all these meat hooks and long metal rods that they use in there, and it was the middle of the night, and the place was closed.
“I kept thinking how easily someone could grab one of those things [meat hooks] and hide with something like that. Of course, the dog goes ahead of me; he makes first contact. The entire time I was real worried somebody would be standing there, swinging that thing at him.”
Though Paco was safe in that instance, the fear is just “something you have to accept,” Lusk says. Luckily, statistics are on Paco’s side: Only one Dallas police dog has been killed in the line of duty since 1961.
But despite his occasional concern, Lusk adds that both he and Paco love their job – though perhaps one loves it a bit more than the other.
“I know it’s a great job. I love doing it, and I know he loves it,” Lusk says. “I tell people I wish I was as excited about going to work every night as he is.”
Rusty isn’t as experienced at his job as Paco is, but according to his owner, Laura Roberts, he’s just as enthusiastic about helping people.
Five-year-old Rusty is a therapy dog, helping people overcome stressful situations. New to the trade, he was certified by Therapy Dogs International a little more than a year ago.
“I’m a psychologist,” says Roberts, who adopted him through an Australian Shepherd rescue organization. “And when I heard about pet therapy, I just thought he’d be ideal. He was very well trained, and has a really gentle personality.”
Mostly, his job involves Rusty just being Rusty.
“Dogs are sort of like therapists,” Roberts says. “They just listen. They don’t offer a lot of feedback. And they give you unconditional regard. They do the things that good therapists do to begin with. And they’re a lot cheaper.”
So far, Rusty’s on-the-job experiences have been limited: He has helped Roberts at her practice and at SMU, where she’s a professor, during finals.
“They loved it,” she says of the students. And Rusty? “He couldn’t wait for people to walk through the door.”
And at her practice, where she works mostly with adolescent clients with eating disorders, he has been invaluable, she says.
“Sometimes they don’t want to be there,” she says of her clients. “So Rusty acts as kind of a catalyst for communication – to make a connect with the client about something that’s not so stressful, something not so threatening. And sometimes that can help it get going.”
Roberts says she hopes to give Rusty more on-the-job experience.
“There’s a lot of research on the benefits of animals on our lives,” she says. “With all the problems with the expense of medical care, we have to look for alternatives for people to maintain their wellness, and this is one way to do that.”
And besides, she adds: “He just gives you the sense that you’re the only person he’s ever loved this much.”