Living Up to A Dog’s Genius

Search and rescue professional, Piglet. Photo by Lori Wells

Owner-handler Lori Wells of Lancaster is living up to her dog’s genius in award-winning ways. “Piglet,” named after how pink she was as a puppy, is a seven-year-old Catahoula Leopard Dog and this year’s recipient of the American Kennel Club’s Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE) for her outstanding achievement in Search and Rescue.  

On December 16 and 17, during the annual AKC National Championships to be held in Orlando, Florida, an ACE Award will be presented to five heroic, hard-working dogs that have significantly improved the lives of their owners and communities in the categories of Uniformed Service K-9, Service, Therapy, Exemplary Companion Dog, and Search and Rescue.  

When I spoke with Wells about her dedication to the field of Search and Rescue and her owner-handler relationship with Piglet, it was clear she wanted to work with the best breed of dog that could fulfill her desire to benefit the community in finding missing people and the Catahoula was it.

A Catahoula Leopard’s genetic origin and ancestral roots is somewhat of a mystery. Found mostly from central Louisiana and developed by Native American Indians and early settlers, they are the only known domesticated native North American breed of dog, writes Linda McKay on her website McKay describes the Leopard’s characteristics as hard working, protective and the most assertive of the cattle dogs that can handle wild cattle and hogs and also hunt coon and bear. They are intelligent and athletic, as well as loyal and loving.  

Piglet’s celebrated versatility is one of her outstanding traits that McKay also details about the breed: Catahoula’s are bred to go and find livestock in swamps, hilly canyons, thickets, forests or mountains. They will trail nose to ground, but prefer to throw their heads up and “wind” (or “air-scent”) their prey, taking the shortest route to find, gather up or bunch, circle and bay the quarry until their master can reach them to take control.  

Wells stresses the Catahoula is not for everyone and wants us to know she lives in Piglet’s world and not the other way around. Its sense of independence and disobedience requires constant reinforcement but that’s also what makes them good at what they do because they can think for themselves. Wells is reminded of this often in the field when she heads in one direction and Piglet in another.

Some scientists who study dog cognition disagree about concentrating so much on a dog’s breed over their individual intelligence because, as a species, it’s difficult to separate their cognitive differences. World-wide, there are more than 400 recognized breeds registered with kennel clubs. The AKC recognizes 190, the Australian National Kennel Council 201 and the UKC now recognizes more than 300 (and none recognize the Catahoula).

The subject of researching the intelligence in dogs is a fairly recent undertaking considering they have been domesticated, at the very least, for 10,000 years. Not until 1995 did the study of dog cognition start getting some attention after researcher Brian Hare tested his dog to see if it could make a social inference about the meaning behind a gesture. Research on the ability of dogs to understand human communication followed but took another decade before it exploded into the field it is today.

Referencing more than 600 of the most important scientific papers on dog cognition for their book, “The Genius of Dogs,” research scientists Vanessa Woods and Hare, founder of the Duke Canine Research Center, looked into how complex, flexible and intelligent dogs really are.

From as early as six weeks of age, when puppies are just learning to walk and see, they can spontaneously use different types of human gestures and understand human communicative intentions. Dogs can adjust their visual and vocal signals based on what will increase the likelihood that their audience will receive their signal. They can show they sense what fairness is and can detect who will be a good partner and remember who isn’t.  

“All this research indicates that dogs have many of the basic cognitive skills to recognize and remember cheaters, to recruit help when necessary and to know how many partners are needed,” writes Woods.

Wells was fortunate to begin her relationship with Piglet early on to start forming their communicative bond.  Also, at six weeks of age, she detected something special in Piglet: “While other puppies goofed around, Piglet was all business,” she said. “She didn’t act silly, she assessed her surroundings looking for a way out and tried to get my attention.”  

From the beginning, an unspoken connection and non-verbal communication through eye contact began and she sensed Piglet had the focus and mindset required to handle the work.  

As a team, Wells and Piglet, who work strictly on a volunteer basis for the K-9 search and rescue organization, Search Dogs 24/7 (, spend hundreds of hours training and testing to maintain Piglet’s unique versatility to find human remains both on land and in water and to be ready at any time when called from law enforcement agencies in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. It’s also to keep annual recertification current and maintain her exceptional reputation as a hard-working dog with an outstanding, sense/scent?detecting nose.   

During the first week in November they searched for a drowning victim in Blythe, California, where two dog teams were deployed from different locations on the Colorado River.

We cleared a significant part of the river. We felt confident that our subject was not where we had searched,” wrote Wells in an e-mail. “He was found later the next day extremely far down the river. But, it was just as important to know where they are not.”

Piglet at nine-weeks old. Photo by Lori Wells

Studies show that, while dogs are better at communicating with humans than chimpanzees, they are also unremarkable in their ability to solve navigational problems involving detours, landmarks or working memory, which may be why lost dogs make up 30 percent of the shelter population, Woods suggests.

Contrary to these results, Wells says Piglet has the ability to work independently and uses her working memory and other cognitive and sensory resources to solve navigational problems involving detours and landmarks. As a search and rescue dog who works off-leash in often treacherous locations, solving navigational problems on her own is necessary because Wells is sometimes out of Piglet’s sight.

To understand the communicative connection Wells has with her dogs and the trust she builds with them, one of her trailing dogs (a dog that takes the scent from clothing to track a missing person) went blind at age five from glaucoma that developed after an injury. That didn’t stop the team from working. Wells taught Emma, a Catahoula mix, to work 15 to 20 feet in front guided by new commands, words Emma needed to learn to navigate over or around dangerous obstacles. Once, Emma turned to look at Wells to warn her of danger ahead, a reversal that happened because the foundation of trust was already there. They understood they had each other’s back.

What equally stands out from the team is how well Lori Wells knows herself first before choosing the specific breed she needed to complete what drives her interest to help others. Before Piglet, her third Catahoula, Wells did therapy work visiting hospitals with disabled kids and talked to school children about working canines.  

In describing the emotional aspect of the job for herself, she said: “It’s always emotionally hard, but the thing that gets me through is bringing a conclusion and an answer to a family that is grieving.” I asked Wells how Piglet felt after finding her first, intact body. She said she sensed Piglet had a sadness about her, yet happy at the same time when she was told she did good and understood she had pleased her teammate.  

Preliminary studies suggest dogs do display consolatory behavior preferring to console the loser of a fight or the one who submits. They appear to be reacting to the whimpering similarly when they recognize when a human is upset; however, it is not conclusive that dogs are sensitive to what others are feeling and further research is needed.  

Though the job can be taxing emotionally, physically and psychologically for both, Piglet is having fun and is happy fulfilling her job because her reward is getting lots of love from her owner-handler.

 “She may not win ribbons, but she’ll win a family’s heart,” Wells said, which sums up why they are an outstanding, award-winning team.


For more information and to donate:

See photos and videos of the amazing Piglet on her Facebook Hero Page:

The AKC National Championships on December 16-17 will be streamed live: At press time, the date and channel of the televised event had not been announced.  For updates:;



I used to think my dog, Molly, wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. I worked with her for weeks to “shake” my hand and most of the time she just gave me a blank stare as if to ask, “Why?” in a sardonic, Socratic one-word question in response.

At night, however, she has an impressive monologue full of vim and vigor for backyard intruders, sitting for hours on sentry duty watching the fig vine to see what will crawl out of it. I know she enjoys working swing-shift, but maybe her genius isn’t parlor tricks.  

It wasn’t until after I rescued Molly that I discovered she isn’t the “Terrier mix” noted on her adoption card after all. She’s a Patterdale Terrier with genetic origins from the Lake District of northern England and a Fell Terrier lineage. The breed type is imprinted with a strong prey drive and the ruggedness of a working dog eager to extricate vermin from deep crevices in the mountainsides (or fells) where conditions are too rocky for horses and their owners to tread.  

Recognized by The United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1995, Molly’s breed is so tough the UKC considers scars resulting in wounds received while working an honorable mark and should not be penalized when shown.  

Knowing that, now, if I ask Molly to shake my hand and get a blank stare, I understand what she’s been trying to tell me—she’s bored, and it’s all my fault. Now, when I think about my relationship with Molly I wonder what’s in store for her beyond her nightly vine watch and how I can start living up to her genius. After completing “The Genius of Dogs,” I decided not to waste any time connecting with Molly’s individual genius and her unique way of understanding the world. Together we completed the science-based assessment games at where we identified her cognitive profile and I got a better understanding of her state-of-mind.  

Molly’s Dognition profile reveals she’s a “Stargazer,” i.e., she uses self-directed mixed strategies to approach her daily life. She has a rugged, individuality and a wolf-like side making her social encounters more challenging for her and me. Although she is mysterious, she is not a dullard and perhaps sees the world differently than the rest of us. The most surprising aspect was how I felt more connected with Molly in the course of just one afternoon following the first two tests on Empathy and Communication and, ultimately, more like part of a team.

I suspected working with Molly would be a challenge and she proved me right. What I’ve been calling “stubborn” is just her individual way of strategizing her approach to life, but I’m also quick to add she is a Terrier after all. Cognition and domestication aside, some breed-specific traits just cannot be denied and that’s just my unscientific opinion.  

Is your dog a Charmer, an Einstein, a Stargazer?  If you’re interested in assessing your dog, know that the games require your patience and time with scheduled breaks and you must have a human partner. You’ll gaze into your dog’s eyes longer than you ever have before and through simple gesturing you might learn a new way of communicating with it. To assess one dog costs $19 and to sign up for a year’s worth of games is $60 or $9 a month—the cost of a bag of treats.


Kelley Frances Smith— Kelley Frances Smith owns a dog care business with clients from Long Beach to Woodland Hills including Topanga and Malibu. She volunteers for a rescue and foster organization, is an advocate for shelter animals’ rights and fights for funding to support responsible adoption practices.


By Kelley Frances Smith


No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.