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Nan Stuart scanned the classroom in Columbus, Ohio, looking for her 12-year-old golden retriever, Kinsey. Moments earlier Kinsey had been at Stuart's side as she taught a class on rescuing animals to about 30 animal-cruelty investigators and veterinary professionals. It's something that the pair does about 30 times a year. Suddenly the dog -- ordinarily a model of obedience -- was AWOL.
Then Stuart spotted Kinsey just outside the classroom, walking alongside one of the students. When Stuart called to her, Kinsey looked at her owner but stuck close to the man until he was safely seated inside. In a flash Stuart realized that neither she nor the rest of the students had noticed that their classmate was blind.
Detecting situations in which humans need physical assistance is the least of Kinsey's gifts; she can also pick up emotional cues, Stuart reports. "During one training session Kinsey walked into the audience, sat down and pressed her body against a woman's leg." Moments later the woman, who worked at an animal shelter, burst into tears. She then revealed that she'd just received a phone call telling her that an abused dog she'd been caring for had died.
Stuart, 53, grew up on a cattle ranch near Bellevue, Idaho, where her family looked after horses, dogs, cats, and the occasional critter rescued from the wild. After graduating from Sweet Briar College in 1975 with a degree in anthropology and sociology, Stuart became a state humane officer in California and served there for 13 years.
While at college she met Eric Bagdikian, who subsequently became a California law enforcement officer and, in 1980, her husband. Fifteen years after Nan and Eric married they left police work and moved to Colorado to focus on what they loved best: animal rescue training sessions. The name of their enterprise is Code 3 Associates. ("Code 3" means full emergency in law enforcement terminology.)
The business has two functions: It teaches animal rescue and responds to disasters across the country, from California forest fires to Hurricane Katrina. When a tornado demolished much of the tiny agricultural town of Holly, Colorado, this past April, residents called in Code 3 Associates, which built temporary housing for the town's dogs and other household pets and worked to reunite owners with their lost companions.
Kinsey's superior intelligence and unflappable calm were exactly what Stuart was looking for when she purchased the 6-week-old bundle of rust-colored fur in 1995 from a Lovell, Wyoming, breeder and brought her home to join two other training dogs, a cat, and two horses. First Kinsey learned basic skills, such as how to respond to Stuart's hand, voice, and whistle signals. Then Kinsey began years of more-specialized preparation. When Kinsey and Stuart teach Code 3's students to save injured dogs, for example, Kinsey plays the part of the injured animal. She lets trainees assess her "wounds," practice treating them, then load her onto an animal litter. During this process Kinsey obeys Stuart's changing commands to cry, struggle, cooperate, or play dead. "She's the smartest dog I've ever seen," says Stuart -- and the most intuitive.
Janice Siegford, PhD, a research assistant professor of animal science at Michigan State University, explains Kinsey's seeming ability to read minds. What dogs pick up, she says, are behavioral cues such as body posture, facial tension, even a widening of the eyes. They can detect "very subtle things, like the fact that the corners of your mouth are tight, things we don't realize are happening," she says. Stress gives dogs important clues as well. When we are anxious or afraid, our voices rise in pitch and our adrenal glands excrete cortisol, according to Dr. Siegford. The result? We look, sound, and may even smell different to dogs.
Not all dogs are as observant as Kinsey, though. Rolan Tripp, DVM, founder of AnimalBehavior.net and affiliate professor of applied animal behavior at Colorado State University, says every dog has some of Kinsey' s people-whispering aptitude, "just as every human has some ability in sports." But, he adds, "only a very few become superstars." It's Kinsey's unique combination of genetics, temperament, and intelligence -- all enhanced by training -- that produces such exceptional results.
Eventually Kinsey went beyond impressing Stuart; the retriever taught her owner a very personal lesson. In 2001 Stuart's father, a widower, broke his hip in a fall. Stuart, who is close to her dad, decided to take Kinsey with her while she stayed at his home in Idaho during his convalescence: "He needed her," she says. Kinsey stayed by Stuart's father's side, assisting the human caregivers by fetching things for him and picking up his cane when he dropped it.
After his recovery Stuart's dad moved into a house near where she and her husband live in Colorado. Two years later, however, her father was hospitalized following a massive stroke that partially paralyzed his right side, impaired his speech, and caused him to feel depressed.
When Stuart took Kinsey to the hospital to visit her dad, he immediately brightened. "Most of the time she stayed on my father's bed, with her nose in his hand," Stuart says. Slowly, he began to respond. "Kinsey actually started Dad's physical therapy by placing one of her squeeze toys in his right hand," Stuart marvels.
"I've seen the beauty of love," she says of caring for her father, who has continued to recover. "And Kinsey has taught me the secret ingredient: selfless devotion."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2007.