Trailing dogs hone their sniffing skills

John Richey from the Salt Lake City Sherriff's Office and Oliver, a bloodhound, follow a scent trail in Pine Valley during training and certification exercises at the U.S. Air Force Academy Sept. 23, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

John Richey from the Salt Lake City Sherriff's Office and Oliver, a bloodhound, follow a scent trail in Pine Valley during training and certification exercises at the U.S. Air Force Academy Sept. 23, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- It was all noses to the ground last week during a canine trailing seminar here recently. 

Chris Jakubin, Academy kennel master and trailing instructor, joined forces with instructors from Canine Training Academy in Cañon City to help train and certify 19 working dogs in seeking out criminal suspects and in search and rescue missions. 

Mr. Jakubin said some breeds have a natural bent for trailing. 

"Hounds are the most pre-disposed genetically," he said. "Time, patience and practice are also required to produce a good trailer." 

While the majority of the dogs in the events were bloodhounds, there was also a short-haired pointer, a husky and a German shepherd. Dogs and handlers came from as far away as New York, Minnesota, Washington, Utah and California, as well as Colorado. Instructors from CTA tested dogs around deserted quarters in Pine Valley, in Falcon Stadium and in areas around the Academy kennels. 

Academy military working dog handlers also took advantage of the opportunity to observe training and practice methods for trailing dogs. 

The dogs, at various stages of learning and experience, sharpened their skills and were put to the test in three certification levels. Canine officer Jason Schwab with the Los Angeles Police Department said as the dogs' progress through the various levels, they are incrementally challenged by changes in surfaces, turns and distance. Certification is especially important in criminal cases going to court. 

Unlike "tracking" dogs, which follow human scents and find articles, trailing dogs distinguish and follow one person's scent and identify that person. Human scents are left by the daily shedding of millions of skin cells and perspiration which drift with the wind and fall to the ground as the person moves. 

"This is the hardest canine work there is," Mr. Jakubin said. 

CTA instructor Coby Webb said the longest her dog has trailed is 8½ miles with a find at the end, but she knows of other dogs that have traveled much further. 

Canine officer Randy Hunnewell with the Salt Lake City Police Department said training for trailing dogs begins shortly after puppies are weaned with a process called "imprinting," which instills in the dog the force to hunt people and nothing else. Training, like certification levels, is incremental for distances, surfaces and patterns. He and his bloodhound Moe have 83 apprehensions of criminal suspects to their record, nearly all in urban settings. 

Officer Schwab has been paired with his dog Sage for a year. During that time they were able to find a disabled child, and four suspects in about 50 searches total. Officer John Kunkle with the Placerville, Calif., Police Department worked with his young bloodhound
Hank. 

"He's a typical hound," the handler said. "He's people-oriented, happy to be petted and lie around or be on the trail." 

So far, despite his youth, Hank has aided in finding a bank robbery suspect in the suspect's home and pharmacy robbery suspects in their car. 

Also among the handlers and canines for the Academy events was also a pair of celebrities, Officer Matt Broad with the San Mateo Sheriff 's Office and his bloodhound, Morgan. The pair appeared on the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters program for a segment on tricking bloodhounds. Morgan "busted" the myths that bloodhounds can be tricked by backtracking, zigzagging, going up a tree, crossing a river, covering a trail with ground pepper or bathing and changing clothes. 

Fame has hasn't changed dog or handler. 

"I'm just the fool behind the leash," Officer Broad said.