The 2021 Met Gala was the fashion event of the year, but peeking behind the celebrities, a golden lady 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 know more about this mysterious dog visible in the background.
MSA Security, the company that trained and placed Vail at the Met, produces dogs that detect potential threats and explosives at large events and locations to help keep the public safe.
Michael Wynn, director of canine training at MSA Security, says the organization has nearly 700 teams of dogs and handlers working at sites 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 host a large event where multiple dogs are needed, or when Vail continues . holidays.
Vail, like many other dogs working for MSA Security, was born and bred to work, but not necessarily for that exact job. Vail is what is known as a “career-changed” dog. His 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 enjoy working with these dogs who have changed careers due to the extensive training these dogs receive from the age of 7 weeks. This early foundation training is invaluable for a dog that will be working at one of New York’s biggest cultural/tourist attractions.
“The service dog organization provides us with the eco-friendly dogs to work in places like the Met,” says Wynn. “Big metropolitan areas that have big venues with lots of people and lots of noise, so it’s perfectly suited to what vail would be going on as an addition to the security team there.”
Vail’s trainers at Canine Companions felt she was too distracted for the job of guiding and her innate curiosity was also a challenge for the job they needed her to be. However, it’s the exact same behaviors that make her ideal for a different type of job. “Anytime they’re very curious and use their noses, that’s why we’re looking to get them on 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 Wynn’s favorites when it comes to finding dogs to train at MSA. The breed’s temperament is particularly attractive. Specifically, their willingness to work coupled with their playful, relaxed and social nature makes them ideal for interacting with the public.
MSA typically works with sporting breeds including Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and German Shorthaired Pointers for different types of work. For a place like the Met and other entertainment and sporting venues, Wynn notes that Golden Retrievers like Vail are often suitable both because they excel at the job and their friendly nature puts audiences at ease.
Vail’s training began when she was 8 weeks old. Although she had not yet changed careers, the basics she learned in preparation for being a service dog were essential 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 with others are central to what goes into making a great working dog later on. After changing careers at Canine Companions in California, Vail traveled to MSA’s main training center in Windsor, Connecticut.
Dogs like Vail spend 60 to 90 days undergoing additional training before being paired with their handlers, and then receive 15 days of on-site training at their new work site. MSA working dogs are trained using positive reinforcement based training and the dog’s preferences dictate what their rewards will be. Wynn noted that Vail is very food-driven, so for her “it became the main reward, followed by praise and play” from the manager. Even after training, the rewards don’t stop! At work, dogs like Vail continue to be rewarded with treats, praise, and affection.
Interact with visitors
If you happen to be in New York and visiting the Met, you might see Vail! Unlike a service dog who should be completely ignored while on the job, Wynn explained that her working dogs can interact with the public. “The dog wants to stay social, and we want the dog to stay social.” He explained that it was acceptable for members of the public visiting the Met to approach a dog handler and ask if it was acceptable to greet the dog. The handler will then determine if their dog is actively working at that time to determine if it is a good time for them to interact with visitors.
Vail’s work-life balance
When Vail is not working at the Met, she lives at home with her handler Michael Lynch. “MSA is unique because it provides a single-manager, single-use system,” says Wynn.
MSA’s fundamental approach is that dogs establish a strong working relationship with a handler and spend their working hours at home with that handler. “We want the dog to move out of the work environment into a social and relaxing environment at home. It’s about playing, exercising and having quiet family time before resting at night… If you think about what people do, they work long days, then they want to have their time relaxation, then return to work.
This routine is ideal for Vail. “Vail is very work-oriented. She loves coming to work and really enjoys doing her job,” says Lynch. When Vail isn’t working, she enjoys playing with awesome chew toys, and she “enjoys being outdoors, hiking, and running around a river and lake near her home.”
Also, she likes to work out on her days off to keep up to date with her work. For Vail, going to work is a lot of fun, Lynch notes that “Vail’s favorite part about working at the Met is that it’s like one big family.”