All units, we have a report of a missing 3–year–old boy. Last seen around his home. The boy has a history of seizures and is overdue for his medication.
Minnesota DNR Conservation Officer Mike Fairbanks doesn't recall the exact words emergency dispatchers relayed, but he remembers parallel feelings of empathy—he's a father—and an urgency to get to the scene in rural Itasca County as quickly as possible. By the time Fairbanks and his K9 partner, Si, arrived, the search for the child already had begun.
With most other searchers looking right around the home, Fairbanks and Si headed across the road. Si is trained to follow the freshest human scent he can find, and it wasn't long before the 75–pound dog—a German shepherd reminiscent of a dark–colored wolf—was pulling hard on the leash. About half a mile up the road, Fairbanks saw a puddle with a little human footprint on the edge. His adrenaline surged. Si kept pulling. Shortly thereafter, they rounded a corner. The youngster, apparently none the worse for wear, was walking happily on the side of the dirt road.
My initial reaction was as a dad, knowing he would get his medication and be all right, says Fairbanks.
That was the biggest relief.
Relief, yes, but surprise at Si's success? Not really. Fairbanks spends more time with Si than anyone else. The two work and live together, which forges a unique handler–dog bond. Fairbanks says that Si can sense what his owner is thinking, and vice versa, so when Si gets on a scent and pulls with all his might, Fairbanks knows not to second–guess the dog.
The pair is one of five handler–dog teams that work throughout the state as part of the DNR Enforcement Division's K9 Unit, which started in 1991. In addition to tracking people, the dogs help detect fish and game violations. They're able to sniff out a single shotgun shell that could prove a deer poaching case. Two of the dogs are trained to detect invasive zebra mussels, while the other three, including Si, are able to apprehend criminals and protect their human partners.
Lt. Phil Mohs, who coordinates the K9 Unit and served as a handler when he was in the Army, says the dogs serve three primary purposes: They deter crime; they're a force multiplier, meaning they can do some work far more quickly than humans; and they're essentially furry tracking devices that can locate a variety of items.
It's pretty amazing what all of our dogs can do, and there's no doubt our division is better for having them as part of our team, says Mohs.
But at the end of the day, the real question is whether the state of Minnesota—the resources and the people—is better for having them. And there just isn't any question that's the case.
The K9 Unit includes three German shepherds—Si, Earl, and Schody. Si and Earl are from Slovakia, while Schody was imported from the Czech Republic, which has a reputation for breeding strong working dogs. Rounding out the team are Storm, a German shorthaired pointer from Slovakia, and Brady, a golden retriever mix that came to the team from a dog rescue in Minnesota.
The dogs had little to no training before they were paired with their officers. Both handler and dog learn together, undergoing eight to 16 weeks of training before heading into the field, followed by an additional 16 hours of training each month. The training forms the initial bonds between officer and dog, beginning with foundational commands and other concepts that help the team get on the same page, and progressing all the way to real–life scenarios they may encounter in the field.
CO Luke Gutzwiller and Earl the German shepherd are the newest team to join the K9 Unit, having completed their initial training earlier this year. Gutzwiller describes those first few months of training as
mentally and physically exhausting, especially for a first–time handler.
Occasionally, the entire K9 Unit gets together to create camaraderie and ensure no one is falling behind on their training. But for the most part, training is an individual thing, with handlers and dogs working on everything from basic obedience to locating items hidden in the yard.
It's way beyond the normal stuff like teaching your dog to sit and stay and all that, says CO Scott Staples, who works with K9 Schody.
It's really about using the dog's natural drive so it finds things for you. They're really high–drive dogs that, frankly, make horrible house pets. They're always wanting to work and work and work.
What we're looking for is a dog that won't quit, he says.
Even if we bluff the throw, we want a dog that's going to constantly search until we command it to do otherwise. And we want a dog that's possessive—once it has that ball, it doesn't want to give it back. They're spastic dogs that we mold into controllable searching machines.
But even controllable searching machines need down time. When not training or working in the field, the dogs live at home with the handlers and their families. When Si is off the clock, the shepherd plays with Fairbanks' kids, letting them pull on his ears, yank on his tail, and stick their hands in his mouth. CO Hannah Mishler's K9 partner, Storm, gets chew toys and plenty of cuddles at home.
When he's inside the house, he thinks he's a lap dog, she says.
Getting to work
Because the dogs train continuously, they're able to go from lying around at home one moment to switching into work mode the next. And work they do. A couple of years ago, a conservation officer in northeastern Minnesota needed help with a deer–baiting case. He had located the gut pile from a field–dressed deer, a pile of bait, and a deer stand but couldn't find a spent shell casing that would allow him to make the case. When Mishler and Storm arrived at the area of the stand, Storm began jumping up and down, showing interest in something above his head. The CO who had called Mishler ascended the deer stand again, this time locating a spent shell casing he'd overlooked during the initial search.
K9 Schody, for his part, has helped CO Staples find walleyes taken illegally from Minnesota waters, guns used to commit crimes, and illegal traps in the woods. The dog has found items buried under several feet of snow, and has even tracked down humans. Several years ago, Staples got a call from a county sheriff about a suicidal man who had left his deer shack and wandered into a state wildlife management area that spanned hundreds of acres.
Schody found him in less than five minutes, hiding under a pine tree, recalls Staples.
He didn't want to be found, but I knew we were close when Schody ran off the trail and busted through a bunch of brush. And then all of the sudden we saw the man. He started crying and said, "Wow, that's a good dog.
Earl, Schody, and Si also provide protection for their handlers, which is important when the K9 Unit teams are on their own around those with firearms.
I can check a group of 10 or 12 hunters in the fall, and there will be a lot of 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir,' when Si is around, says Fairbanks.
Dogs have a sixth sense and can tell when somebody is getting nervous. So when we're checking people, Si will sit by my side and I can easily see when he is locked on somebody. Then I know who I need to pay a little more attention to.
Sometimes, the mere presence of a K9 Unit dog can help solve a crime. Last year, Mohs and a K9 team responded to a call about an illegally shot deer. A caller reported seeing a man shoot the deer from the window of his home. The man denied it and stuck to his story during a two–hour interview with a conservation officer. Then Mohs and the K9 team arrived on the scene. Mohs explained that the dog was trained to locate venison, and everything changed.
I said, "If you made a mistake tonight, you need to let us know you made a mistake, recalls Mohs.
Just by having the dog there—it didn't even need to search for anything—the guy admitted to shooting the deer. And it took five minutes for him to decide to confess to it, after having just spent two hours denying it up and down to another officer.
Over time, the K9 Unit has expanded its capabilities. In the early days, aquatic invasive species were not a focus. Now, dogs Brady and Storm play an integral role in the state's effort to stop the spread of zebra mussels.
The mussel–sniffing dogs and their handlers work alongside watercraft inspectors, often at public boat launches on high–use bodies of water. Before boaters launch or leave the access, CO Mishler might ask them if Storm can sniff their boat and trailer. Once the boaters agree, Storm will make a lap around the boat, his head quickly bobbing up and down as he uses his sensitive nose to smell for zebra mussels. Each dog has its own detection technique, and Storm likes to duck under the trailer and stand on his hind legs to sniff the motor. Assuming there are no zebra mussels, the search takes about 30 seconds and gets boaters on their way quickly and cleanly.
Water Resources Enforcement Officer Julie Siems works with K9 Brady to check for zebra mussels. Brady uses smell rather than sight to locate whatever Siems directs him to find.
His nose is down and he moves really fast, says Siems.
It's all nose. He isn't actually looking for anything—he's trying to find something based on a certain smell.
Such stories come as no surprise to Fairbanks, who knows firsthand the drive, and the devotion to their handlers, that all the dogs in the K9 Unit possess.
If I tell Si to search for something, he will not stop searching until I go grab him or call him off, says Fairbanks.
Most people are used to their dog running out, sniffing around, and then coming back pretty quickly if they don't find anything. With our dogs, if you give them a command they will do it.
But just as the dogs will do anything for their handlers, the opposite is true as well. Dog and handler are a team, after all, and their unique attributes—nose and drive for the dog, intuition and devotion for the handler—go a long way in serving Minnesota's residents and helping protect its natural resources.