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Belgian Malinos doing Scent Work
Courtesy of Susie Williamson
Pieces commits fully to odor source indication during a training session.

From the day she was born almost seven years ago, Pieces has served up a mix master of surprises.

First, it was blindness—which wasn’t ascertained immediately—then a propensity for Scent Work, and lastly, a perfect psychological pathway. The result? A sightless Belgian Malinois puppy with a keen sense of smell and uncanny ability to find her target objects.

But Pieces can’t do it alone. She has Susie and Kevin Williamson and trainer Bob Rodriguez by her side, helping guide her along the way.

A Blind Reveal

Pieces came from a litter of 10 in November 2015 in Irving, Texas, and it was not known she was blind until she and three littermates went to their new homes. “That was a first for any of my litters,” says Susie Williamson, who has bred Malinois since 1995. “They had mapped out our house and yard in the beginning but began bumping into things upon arrival at their new homes.”

When they found out the four puppies were blind, Susie Williamson immediately offered to return the purchase price to the owners and accept any of them back—but Pieces was the only one returned. She also paid for the first veterinary ophthalmologist visit of all four, along with ophthalmologist appointments for the other six to make certain they had no visual issues. It turned out the others had full vision.

And that led to Pieces’ eventual unusual call name. She was sold to a woman in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, area who named her Reese. “When she was returned,” Susie Williamson says, “I thought of Reese’s Pieces and Pieces stuck.”

Pieces didn’t miss a beat upon her return, where she was one of five Malinois, including Demi, her litter sister. “They all play and interact together,” says Susie, who is an AKC Breeder of Merit Gold. “She runs, hides, and plays with her dog family. She doesn’t bump into the pear tree in the middle of the yard or any other trees or flowerpots. And inside the house, she navigates flawlessly.”

Courtesy of Susie Williamson
Owners Susie and Kevin Williamson take a backyard break with Pieces, their blind Belgian Malinois.

Sniffing Out Scent Work

Despite not having her vision, Pieces still needed a way to be mentally stimulated, and could luckily still train in dog sports.

“She needed something to focus on other than simply being a house pet,” says Susie Williamson. “It is an intelligent, athletic breed that is devoted to its family yet needs a job. Scent Work seemed like the perfect fit and Bob was just the guy to take her in that direction.”

He came over for a visit to play with her and saw her potential from the first try. There was no pressure, no goals, no expectations: Just simply a game to see if it was something she might enjoy. “His playful approach to the sport was spot on,” Susie Williamson says. “She took to it and here we are today.”

Rodriguez, a longtime trainer and AKC Scent Work judge, recalls those early meetings with Pieces. “She was an adorable, beautiful puppy and has maintained an even-keel temperament since then,” he says. “She seemed totally normal, played with her littermates and pack members as if she were sighted.”

Two years after being diagnosed as blind, her eyes were replaced with orbital implants. In the interim, the Williamsons treated her multiple eye ailments that caused the blindness with drops several times a day.

But the visual impairments didn’t stop her and sometimes aren’t even noticeable to the onlooker. At her first AKC Scent Work trial in Texas, someone walked up to Pieces and waved her hands in front of her face to see if the dog would react to the motion. She didn’t.

“I have trained many dogs—from the smallest Papillons to the largest Great Danes and I was able to spot something special about Pieces as a puppy,” Rodriguez says. “The key to any dog sport is the quality of the relationship between human and handler. Pieces has that special bond with Susie and Kevin daily. I am fortunate to have a similar connection with Pieces.”

In Scent Work, some dogs will sit, lie down, or wag their tails upon finding the target odor. With Pieces, she offers Rodriguez a natural down when in front of the scent source. In the process, she lays her head down on the container.

Courtesy of Susie Williamson
Trainer/handler Bob Rodriguez and Pieces share a special bonding moment at a scent work trial.

“The key when training dogs for odor detection, he adds, is to communicate they have done something right when locating the mark,” he says. “In early training, I did clicker training and offered her a treat upon finding the scented mark.”

During searches, Rodriguez directs Pieces to objects by snapping his fingers gently as she closely approaches the object being searched. However, during searches in a straight line, she directs herself. “She searches with her nose for the next linear object, knowing my body position and moving alongside me through the area,” he explains.

In June 2022, Pieces was invited to perform Scent Work demonstrations at an AKC Meet the Breeds event in Dallas. After not competing frequently because of the pandemic, she needed a quick sharpening of skills.

“Susie brought Pieces over to my house, where we practiced about 10 to 15 minutes in my driveway,” Rodriguez recalls. “It’s already hot in Texas at that time, so short, light sessions are best. She didn’t miss a beat.” The following week the 43-pound, “youngster at heart” dazzled the crowd.

Finding Comfort in the Canine Bond

Rodriguez has cared for his ill wife, Laurie, for several years. She suffers from amyloidosis, a serious condition caused by a build-up of an abnormal protein called amyloid in organs and tissues throughout the body. This evolution of amyloid proteins can make it difficult for the organs and tissues to work properly.

Competing with the blind Pieces has served as the perfect outlet for him in the process. “Many of my problems and challenges go away when we focus on Scent Work,” he says. “With a blind dog, teamwork is key. It’s critical to let the dog be a dog while she’s knowing I am only a few feet away.

“Her natural instincts come to fruition when she searches. Most importantly, she has fun, I have fun, and we have fun together. Does life get any better than that?”

Related article: What Dog Sports Can Visually Impaired Dogs Compete In?
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