BEVERLY HILLS — Lori Wells made the roughly two-hour drive from her Lancaster home to the glitzy Beverly Hilton hotel on Wednesday morning. Right by her side was Piglet, an eight-and-half-year-old Catahoula Leopard dog. On this day, Wells is actually accompanying Piglet, and not the other way around.
Piglet is kind of a big deal because she has been voted as the nation’s top search and rescue hero dog of the year and will partake in the 2019 American Humane Hero Dog Awards. The award gala, sponsored by the Lois Pope LIFE Foundation and Zoetis, will be a two-hour broadcast Oct. 21 8 p.m. ET/7 CT on Hallmark Channel. The awards are being presented by American Humane, the Washington-based animal nonprofit. A panel of celebrity judges will decide which one of the canines will win the top award out of seven finalists.
The Catahoulas have been the state dog of Louisiana since 1979. They were “originally bred to hunt, and its natural for them to go play this game and ‘go find,” Wells said. These qualities make them ideal for detecting human remains as part of search-and-rescue teams. Piglet and her handler belong to several, including Los Angeles Police Department-affiliated California Emergency Mobile Patrol and Search Dogs 24/7.
Reached by phone this week, Wells calmly riffed that “it’s a good thing” Piglet made it through the voting rounds, out of a pool of some 360 dogs across seven categories.
The fancy accolades and recognition for Wells and her husband, who have been residents of Lancaster for nearly three decades, has been a long time coming. She grew up in Chatsworth, not far from her veterinarian father’s clinic. Bob still works for a small airplane manufacturing company there.
“I decided to move out to the Antelope Valley because I wanted to buy a house where I could have horses, and have a bigger property where I can have dogs as my kids — since I don’t have kids,” Wells said. “I bought my house out there in 1991, and got heavy into search-and-rescue.”
On a moment’s notice, Wells and Piglet are ready to jump into a Ford Transit Connect van equipped with specialized supplies and head out in the field. The two have traveled thousands of miles across the Western states, including to the town of Paradise, which was obliterated by the Camp fire last year.
“We are just a small piece of this puzzle,” Wells said. “There was so many volunteers, whether they be dog handlers, or groundpounders, or help running incident command or running to get food or supplying us with protective outerwear. It was truly a village, because they used the fairgrounds up there as a base, and all the buildings had something going on to help support the search effort.”
When not volunteering for search-and-rescue missions, Wells works in the pet grooming industry — with cats, no less.
“I manage to juggle pretty well, as does my husband,” she said. “It’s truly a team effort, whether it’s me, my husband and our dogs, and our team.”
Piglet has been with Wells since she was a pup, and for the two, the connection was instant.
“When I first saw her, I knew that she was special,” Well said. “I knew that there was something quite smart about her and I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. And I thought she might be the one to have me going into the world of human remains detection. It’s a world that, in my opinion, is just as important to families because they need that answer. Of course we always hope to find their loved one alive and well, but finding their loved one is the answer they needed. It’s awful when you don’t have that answer so you can start the closure process.”
Diana Shepherd, a member of the LAPD’s search-and-rescue team who co-founded the team about eight years ago, credits Lori and Bob for raising her interest in Catahoulas and counts herself a fan of Piglet in particular.
“I think the thing about Piglet is that she is incredibly sweet and lovable,” Shepherd said. “It’s like this game to her — it’s work but it’s a game. What I love about (Catahoulas) is their whimsical, independent streak, but they’ve got great noses and they’re incredible team companions.”