Recently, I received bittersweet news about the first guide dog puppy I raised. Darge hadn’t made it to be a guide dog because he was very active and excited after our training. I had felt like I had failed Darge and Southeastern Guide Dogs, the organization for which I and my family were volunteering. Later, I learned that Darge was just meant to be something different, but just as important. Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGDI) has a great process that not only graduates great guide dog teams, but also recognizes great dogs that just aren’t meant to be guide dogs and career-changes them to fields that suit them better. Darge was career-changed to bomb and arson K-9 officer, and he worked in the field for over 10 years . Recently, he was retired with full honors as if he were a human member of the service. It seemed the entire state of Louisiana was celebrating. I thought you might like to hear Darge’s story.
Darge was born January 15, 2001. His tattoo in his ear sort of verifies that. His tattoo is 2B1 meaning he was the second puppy born of his litter, B, which was the second litter group born at Southeastern Guide Dogs in 2001. After loving attention from staff and puppy hugging by visitors to begin proper socialization, Darge was ready to come to his puppy raiser, me, for initial obedience training, further socialization, and early introductions to home and social life in the big world. He was 8 weeks old when I first laid eyes on him. During my time with him, whenever Darge was introduced, I always got one question no matter what. That question ALWAYS made me laugh out loud because that was the first question I had when I first held him in my arms. The SEDGI worker, Julie Aichroft, gave him to me and said his name “DARJE’ (spelling it that way for pronunciation purposes and is important for later in his story), and my face fell. I fell in love with Darge from the first moment, but I was quiet in my disappointment, and it grew as the other puppy names in his litter were called out: Stryker, Carlos, Don, etc. Julie asked me what was wrong. “Didn’t I like the puppy?” I said, “I LOVE him, but where the Heck did he get that name? Why couldn’t he have a name like Stryker?” She just laughed and said, “Someone who donated a lot of money to SEGDI for that naming right is the one who chose the name.” I sighed, but I quickly let it go because, even though the first time I laid eyes on him he was huddled in the corner with his face covered and shaking like a leaf as the others pounced on him and pushed him around and even after lifting him to see that he had peed all over himself, I could see that Darge was something special. I felt a whisper in my heart that said, “Darge will do just fine.”
Though I wondered about those words many times over the next 17 months, Darge was special. He was housebroken easily but you couldn’t always tell it because he peed a river anytime he was nervous, which was often. I was nervous because he was my first guide dog puppy, and I didn’t want to fail Darge or SEGDI. I was a homeschool teacher in my own school, after retiring from public school teaching after 25 years to homeschool my own two children, which soon grew to include several other students who weren’t fitting in regular school like mine who were autistic, LD, and ADHD weren’t fitting. Darge was a homeschool project for us to learn about giving. Turns out, my children were Darge’s project, too, because he helped bring both of them out of their shells.
Yes, after a time, Darge learned that he was ok. In fact, he was better than ok. I worked on building his confidence with activities like tug of war, where I let him win. Normally, in dog training as I was taught by Julie, an expert trainer, that you maintain that Alpha status by not really letting them win. With Darge, he needed to win some. Anyway, I soon discovered he had lots of good skills and wanted to please. Once he got over his nervousness, confidence swelled in its place. Darge also grew in strength, so I soon found myself doing some “mama dogging” to lovingly but firmly make sure he didn’t go the other extreme. He was fine, though. Yes, he seemed wild. Neither me nor Julie, who was an expert dog trainer for a couple of decades, could calm him. He would literally pull me off my feet when I said, “forward.” I would lose the leash, and he would be tearing off in seconds to the other end of our 4 acres of land. I would yell, “Sit!” and he would stop on a dime in a sit. It was then I realized that Darge didn’t realize he was pulling me like that. Corrections (pulls on the collar designed to correct misbehavior) didn’t faze him. He honestly couldn’t feel them. His neck was massive. Wildness wasn’t really wildness; it was exuberant displays of wanting to please. Once I got that, things got better. Darge learned all of the commands including the suggested ones that most raisers never get to and learned them so well that he worked off leash as well or better as on leash. Before long, that scared, little runt became not only a big, strong boy, but Darge had stood up to his former bullies in the litter and became the beloved leader of the group. He was always a hand full, but worked calmly most of the time. Darge always seemed more mischievous than the other dogs in our group; he actually was doing what he was supposed to do, just in an excited way. He would sit, but it was like a spring tightly wound ready for the next command. My younger son could actually get him to calm down very easily. Brendan was very calm, quiet, understanding, but firm with Darge, so often in public I would turn the leash over to him at puppy meetings, especially since I had been chosen to be our group’s leader. Darge went everywhere with us including on a ferry to Cumberland Island, GA with the Boy Scout troop for a 15 mile backpacking trip and an entire summer at Boy Scout camp as I was First Aid Director. He was very well-behaved though very active in those months. He won lots of contests in the guide dog training activities and always was number one in obedience. He loved the outdoors and the hikes with the boys. The Scouts were encouraged by Darge who always knew how to nudge a nervous Scout on to success. I was always proud of him.
Going back to Southeastern Guide Dogs for puppy college, though, didn’t turn out as well. Darge was great with obedience, but too energetic to comfortably lead a blind partner. They kept him longer in training because he was so good with commands, finally sending him home with a trainer to see if he would calm down after a few more months of maturity. Well, even after that time, Darge was still too energetic for being a guide dog for a blind partner, but Darge was too good at commands to just retire him out of the program. That is when Southeastern officials reached out to work with other programs like State Farm’s Bomb and Arson program. Darge was the first dog SEGDI career-changed and gifted to another program. They have since career-changed others and worked with other types of organizations, too.
Darge went on in his new life learning new commands and found a new purpose for his life that allowed him to be excited in his task with an understanding partner. Darge began a career as a K-9 Accelerant Detection dog used by fire departments and insurance companies to catch arsonists covering crimes and insurance fraud. The task isn’t easy because, to avoid legal entanglements, the dogs have to be perfect and prove this skill every year during evaluation with a perfect score. Anything less and the dog is retired. Many good dogs do well for a while and then tire of the game, or their sense of smell decreases with age. Darge continued to pass his evaluations for over ten years working until just before his 14th birthday. We followed his career as well as we could through numerous newspaper articles found on the internet.
At his retirement, I posted a note to let his handler know how proud of Darge his first family, ours, was of him. His handler, Officer Lance Lamarca responded with remarks that showed he was unable to hide his love and pride for Darge.
“Darge was my first and only Arson Dog. When I first got him, he was off the charts WILD! All I did was hang on to the leash. Lucky for me, Darge was well trained by Maine Specialty Dogs and really didn’t need me to perform exceptionally. Over a period of weeks, I was able to calm him down a bit and really bond with him. He grew into one of the best accelerant detection K9’s that the State Farm Arson Dog Program ever witnessed. You know your animal is performing well when he becomes highly demanded throughout your agency and outside law enforcement agencies as well. I can identify several arson cases that would have never been made had it not been for that wonderful nose. We have traveled to nearly every area of this nation for our annual re-certifications and few folks remember me after only 3 days, but very few forget Darge. We have been together inside the cabin of planes where he was acknowledged for his duties. There is a plaque bearing his name at the National Fire Dog Monument in Washington D.C and a memorial brick at our Fallen Firefighter’s memorial here in Baton Rouge. It has truly been and honor and a privilege to work with Darge for the past ten years and now to have him retire and come live with us as a pet.”
With that love shining through, it is easy to see why Darge flourished with this partner becoming one of the best and longest serving dogs that Louisiana has had. That is a long way from being that scared, little runt of the litter. Darge was a strong, confident dog who knew his business and did it well. He just needed to be given the right purpose for which he was created.
Now, more of the story, that tells you the full answer to the question of how the heck Darge got his name. When I went to SEGDI for my own guide dog training in June 2006 where I got Little Joe, I experienced all of SEGDI’s great training from both sides as a puppy raiser and a blind graduate. It was during my training with Little Joe that I met the lady who sponsored Darge. To her shock and slight irritation, the trainers and I found out we had been pronouncing Darge’s name wrong. The lady insisted that it was pronounced DarG with a hard “g”, not a soft “g” which is like a “j”. If I had known that, I would have been even more upset when I first met him because I wanted a dog not a Klingon. The lady said she found the name in a book of names. She felt for dog training purposes the dog should have a one syllable name, but she wanted one with a good meaning. Darge, from Scotland, means strong, determined, bold, inquisitive, independent, and even a little stubborn. Well, Darge with the soft “g” was stuck, so the lady couldn’t change it. Darge’s personality fits the name, though, I think. I have since looked it up and found that meaning and place of origin, but also found from another site the name, Darge or Dorge, with the soft “g” pronunciation or “door jay” pronunciation originating from Africa meaning “One who rises”. You have to take these name meaning sites with a grain of salt, of course, but that fits my Darge. He rose from the fearful runt to the conqueror of many things. And, yes, Darge did do just fine. In fact, he did better than fine. Darge did great and was a faithful servant.
What may seem like weakness is often just strength waiting for love to help it rise. What may seem like wildness is often just passion waiting for love to guide it. Thank you Southeastern Guide Dogs, Maine Specialty Dogs, State Farm Arson Dog program, and especially, Officer Lance Lamarca for being the love that helped this little one rise to do so much and to teach us all so well. Darge, you are forever loved. We recognize and appreciate your wonderful service. Rest easy now with your family and love them well.