Featured, Local News

K-9s play tracking games

By Julia Purdy

No yellow crime tape cordoned off the Diamond Run Mall parking lot, but an array of law enforcement vehicles full of barking dogs made it appear that a fugitive from justice might be on the loose Wednesday, June 5.

Pickups and SUVs of the Vermont State Police and Vermont Fish & Wildlife, New Hampshire Fish & Wildlife, and Vermont police departments from Burlington, Winhall and Newport gathered for exercises in tracking, part of a weeklong K-9 urban tracking school put on by the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford and the Vermont K-9 Association.

Jim Duncan from Virginia, a trainer, police officer and K-9 handler with the Chesapeake P.D., provided instruction.

Jenna Reed, a game warden with VF&W, brought Moose, a 5-yr-old German Shepherd weighing in at just under 100 pounds. Reed works out of Newport and has been a warden for nine years, landing the job right out of college.

“Urban tracking is unique, we’re fortunate to be able to attend,” Reed told the Mountain Times. “It’s challenging for K-9s to track on pavement.”

What makes it harder for them to track on hard surfaces?

“If the sun is out, scent will dissipate on the pavement, the wind blows it everywhere. In the woods the scent can catch on things, you have a lot of vegetation. This year, for me and Moose it will make him really good on the pavement and even better in the woods. The big thing is that dogs are amazing creatures, they have a lot more senses than ours,” said Reed.

Even though many of the handlers work in rural areas, they all said hard-surface training helps to sharpen their dogs’ skills.

Jeremiah Rogers from rural Winhall said that “once we get really good at this urban tracking it will translate to my K-9 being even better in the woods.”

Lieut. Bill Boudreau from northern New Hampshire said, “We’re also responsible for all search and rescue in New Hampshire. A lot of time the person starts out on a hard surface and ends up in the woods, so the dog needs to be able to do both.”

James Benvenuti came from the New Hampshire seacoast and brought Cora, a black Lab. He commented that the Vermont Police Academy is the only place they can take part in urban and wilderness tracking schools. “It’s a good opportunity for us to hone our skills and learn from the other handlers and work collaboratively.”

Rob Sterling, Vermont state game warden in charge of the VF&W K-9 program, introduced Crockett, a 5-year-old black Lab trained in gunpowder detection, shell casings, firearms and some explosives. Crockett’s “favorite job is tracking people, good guys, bad guys, anyone,” said Sterling.

“All our dogs are certified in tracking,” Sterling explained. “Fish & Wildlife dogs have to do a 2-mile, blind track that’s over an hour old from when they start. Scent ‘pools’ well on grass and vegetation so the dogs do very well. However, it does not pool well on pavement where it can blow around. So the dogs are trained to focus their noses tightly to the ground so they can pick up that smaller amount of scent coming off a person when they’re walking.

“Basically all of us are like Pigpen in the Charlie Brown comic strip. Our dead skin cells are blowing around us, coming off our clothing and exposed skin and they settle in the water droplets in vegetation and the ground. But on concrete, there’s not as much to adhere to.”

Dogs get a “scent picture” of a person from mouthing an article of clothing, for example. The scent goes straight to their brain from their nose, Sterling explained.

“It’s like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all in one for a dog.”

They will remember that person for the entire track, even picking the individual out of a crowd. Then the dog will sit and bark, waiting for a toy or reward.

Vermont doesn’t train K-9s to bite because the “friendly find” might be a missing child or dementia patient.

“Some dogs are trained to protect, others are trained to apprehend. They may track to get that toy or they may track to ‘get that guy,’” said Sterling.

German shepherds, Labrador retrievers are typically used for this work, as well as the Belgian Malinois and the Dutch shepherd. Some officers work with Doberman pinschers.

“All the breeds are exactly the same; any dog is scary in the wrong hands,” Sterling explained. “The breeds we use tend to be the working breeds, they’re tougher, they can handle different climates and the elements.”

Training takes the dog’s natural tracking ability and gives it an odor to track.

The dog is offered a shirt or a hat in a provocative manner to “agitate” the dog. The dog does not have a dislike for that person, but it will want to chase the person that got it excited, Sterling said. At the same time, the dog has gotten the scent from the clothing.

The exercise was like a canine-based game of hide and seek. Two officers worked with one dog. The officer who agitated the dog ran off to hide, while the second officer held the dog back on a leash. Then the dog took off in hot pursuit, dragging the second officer over a guardrail and into a mass of shrubbery. Mission accomplished, both officers walked back with the dog, who was now swaggering proudly with its favorite toy in its mouth.

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