Unwanted Dogs Get New Lease on Life

Steve Weigley and his wife, Barbara Davenport, the owners of Packleader Farm at the north end of the Key Peninsula, train unwanted dogs to locate and save endangered species worldwide.

“I take dogs the public has ruined,” Davenport said.

“Most of the dogs are selected on traits of being obsessive-compulsive over a ball,” Weigley said. At Packleader, they are trained to associate an odor with getting to play with a ball.

“Dogs are a very noninvasive methodology to find scat,” Davenport said. “The dogs are looking to find the source of the smell so they can be rewarded. They are not trying to catch the animal.”

Davenport takes jobs in South and Central America; Weigley covers Asia and much of North America. They have found Javan rhinos in Vietnam; jaguars, pumas and ocelots in South America; and Right whales off the coast of Maine with their dogs pointing the way from the bow of an open boat.

“Some projects are pure scientific research, others are commercial environmental projects,” Davenport said. “The Right whale project started in 2006 and went for four years. They were measuring toxicity and hormone levels in scat and determining sex.”

Weigley recently flew to Clay County, Florida, at the request of the state forest service. The highway department could not undertake an expansion project before ensuring there were no rare Indigo snakes in the area.

“They wanted 100 percent coverage,” Weigley said. “Dogs have 80 percent accuracy and only have to search the area once. People would have to search the area five times. Transecting lines covered 210 miles.

“The chocolate labs were trained to avoid poisonous snakes,” Weigley said. “Charlie’s been doing Indigo snakes for years. Kona is the backup dog. Typically, we work one to one-and-a-half hours, then switch. We use a snake skin training aid so dogs can find something to alert and get a reward: a tennis ball and a short period to play.”

“Temperatures were in the 90s. We started work at sunrise and worked until 2 p.m.,” Weigley said. “We had to beat down waist high saw palmetto and couldn’t use a machete or stick because the dog thinks it’s a toy. Each dog wore out six sets of boots. Palmetto sliced them up.”

They didn’t find any Indigo snakes. Work on the highway could begin.

Davenport was 10 years old when she got her first job working for professional handlers at dog shows. “I ran dogs from ringside to the bench area and helped with grooming,” she said. “I saved for a dog: an Alaskan Malamute. I continued to do dog shows and did training in 4-H.”

When she graduated from Peninsula High School in 1975, Davenport knew she wanted to work professionally with dogs. “Women weren’t in dogs back then,” she said. “The only way to work with dogs was in the military as an MP.”

Davenport enlisted in the Army and went to Germany. She was reassigned to Fort Lewis, but requested patrol and narcotics dog training school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She left the military when she was offered a position with the Washington State Department of Corrections.

“I was working my own cross-trained patrol and narcotics dogs,” Davenport said. “I’ve been with the DOC for 34 years.”

Weigley worked with dogs at the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. In 1992, he went to training classes taught by Davenport and never left. They started Packleader Farm in 2003 and became renown for herd dog training. Weigley also followed his police work by training dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are coming up on 20 years of doing this,” Davenport said. “I have no desire to move to any other position or job. I’m where I want to be.”

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