The 2021 Met Gala was the fashion event of the year, but peeking out from behind from the celebrities, a lady in gold stole the show. Vail, a five-year-old Golden Retriever, is a working dog at The Met and was spotted in the background of many photos from the night. Vail captivated dog lovers around the world who wanted to learn more about this mysterious dog visible in the background.
MSA Security, the company that trained and placed Vail at the Met, produces dogs that sniff out potential threats and explosives at large events and venues in order to keep the public safe.
Michael Wynn, Director of Canine Training at MSA Security, explains the organization has nearly 700 dogs and handler teams working at venues across the country.
Vail has been with MSA Security for three years and is the primary dog assigned to work at The Met, but there are half a dozen additional dogs who join Vail when they are having a large event where multiple dogs are needed, or when Vail goes on vacation.
Vail, like many other dogs working for MSA Security, was born and raised to work, but not necessarily for this exact job. Vail is what is called a “career changed” dog. Her initial training was done by the service dog organization Canine Companions, which provides service dogs to people with disabilities across the country.
Wynn explains that they like working with these careers changed dogs because of the extensive training these dogs get from the time they are 7 weeks old. That early foundation training is invaluable for a dog who will work at one of the biggest cultural/tourist attractions in NYC.
“Service dog organization provides us with the environmentally sound dogs to work at places like The Met,” Wynn says. “The major metropolitan areas that have large venues with lots of people and lots of noises so it’s a perfect fit for what would occur for vail as a supplement for the security team there.”
Vail’s trainers at Canine Companions felt she was too distracted for guide work and her innate inquisitiveness was also a challenge for the job they needed her to do. However, these are the exact same behaviors that make her great for a different type of work. “Anytime they are very inquisitive and using their nose is why we look to bring them on board for the MSA working dog team” Wynn explained.
Why Golden Retrievers?
Golden Retrievers are one of the most popular dogs in the United States, and they are a favorite for Wynn when it comes to looking for dogs to train at MSA. The temperament of the breed is particularly appealing. Specifically, their drive to work coupled with their playful, relaxed, and social nature makes them ideal for interacting with the public.
MSA generally works with sporting breeds including Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shorthaired Pointers for different types of work. For a location like the Met and other entertainment and sporting venues, Wynn notes that Golden Retrievers like Vail are often a good fit both because they excel at the work and their friendly nature puts the public at ease.
Vail’s training began at 8 weeks old. Even though she wasn’t yet career changed, the foundations she learned in prep to be a service dog were critical in preparing her for the job she would later have as a working dog at The Met.
Wynn noted that things like early socialization, intentional exposure to different environments, and having good social skills around others are core to what helps make for a great working dog later. After being career-changed from Canine Companions in California, Vail went to MSA’s main training facility in Windsor, Connecticut.
Dogs like Vail spend 60-90 days going through more training before being paired with their handlers, and then get 15 days of on-site training at their newly assigned worksite. MSA working dogs are trained using positive reinforcement-based training and the dog’s preferences dictate what their rewards are going to be. Wynn noted that Vail is very food motivated so for her “that became the primary reward then followed by praise and play” from the handler. Even after training, the rewards don’t stop! When on the job, dogs like Vail continue to be rewarded with treats, praise, and affection.
Interacting With Visitors
If you find yourself in NYC and visit The Met, you might see Vail! Unlike a service dog who should be ignored completely while working, Wynn explained that their working dogs can engage with the public. “The dog wants to remain social, and we want the dog to remain social.” He explained that it’s ok for members of the public visiting The Met to approach a handler and ask if it’s ok to greet the dog. The handler will then determine if their dog is actively working at that moment to determine if it’s a good time for their dog to interact with visitors.
Vail’s Work-Life Balance
When Vail isn’t working at The Met, she lives at home with her handler Michael Lynch. “MSA is unique as it provides a single handler, single-purpose system” Wynn says.
Core to MSA’s approach is for dogs to form a strong working relationship with one handler and spend their hours off work at home with that handler. “We want the dog to come out of the working environment into a social and relaxing environment at home. It’s about play and exercise and quiet time in the family leading into rest overnight…If you think about what people do, they work long days and then they want to have their relaxing time and then right back to work again.”
This routine is great for Vail. “Vail is very work-driven. She loves coming to work and very much enjoys doing her job” explains Lynch. When Vail isn’t working, she enjoys playing with super chewer toys, and she “loves being outside, hiking, and running around a river and lake near her home.”
In addition, she enjoys training on her days off to stay up-to-date on her work. For Vail, going to work is a lot of fun, Lynch notes that “Vail’s favorite part of working at the Met is that it’s like a huge family.”