Game wardens train German shepherds to help sniff out poachers

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

FOREST LAKE, Minn. (AP) -- As conservation officer Brad Johnson prepares for his presentation, he offers an apology for his partner's sudden lack of attention.

Young Shep's nose hovers over a patch of grass recently visited by another dog, so Johnson gives a quick tug on the leash. The handsome, cream-colored German shepherd snaps to attention, and Johnson acknowledges his partner's wandering nose with a joke.

''There are a few distractions around here with all these other dogs,'' Johnson says with a big grin. ''Shep's thinking to himself, 'Now that was Ralph over there, there's Rover and there's Chipper. ...'''

An audience of dog lovers lets out a collective giggle. The people are gathered on the lawn of the Wildlife Research Center near Forest Lake to see a demonstration of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' newest weapon against wildlife crime.

Shep is the star of the show. With his attention focused, the business at hand is to find a poacher's loot hidden in a nearby Saab sedan.

Johnson leads Shep to the car and gives the command to search. Shep excitedly combs the outside of the sedan with his nose until he stops at the gas cap.

Shep puts his paw on the trap door covering the gas cap and whines.

Johnson opens the door and pulls out two walleye fillets stuffed inside a cavity next to the gas tank. ''Gas fumes, oil, you name it, these dogs can smell right through anything,'' he says.

The audience applauds loudly. In the next demonstration, Shep finds a package of venison hidden in the door of a Subaru, after which Johnson gives him a green tennis ball. ''His favorite reward,'' Johnson says.

When Shep joined the DNR's Division of Enforcement last summer, he represented a departure from tradition in the agency's small K9 program. Labrador retrievers were the preferred breed since the program began in 1990. Their keen noses had found illegal fish and game, but their personalities were not aggressive enough to protect officers in dangerous situations.

''I ran into a few situations where it would have been nice to have a dog that could protect me,'' said Rich Hansen, a conservation officer based in Duluth who heads the DNR's K9 program. ''Shepherds have a reputation that Labs don't.''

So the DNR acquired two German shepherds and, with the help of the St. Paul Police Department, trained them not only to find wildlife, but to serve as protective police dogs. One of the dogs serves with Johnson, based in New Brighton, and the other with John Velsvaag of Albany.

Training dogs to find fish and game is a relatively new field in police work. Hansen's Labrador retriever, Pancho, was the first dog to be certified by the U.S. Police Canine Association to find fish and game. Hansen was a groundbreaker in the field, developing the certification process based on the methods and criteria used to find narcotics and explosives.

The K9 training for the DNR is rigorous for handler and dog. Johnson and Shep attended a 14-week police-dog training school sponsored by the St. Paul Police Department, which has one of the top K9 training facilities in the world, followed by a 10-week course in game detection.

Johnson describes Shep as a ''friendly and social dog'' with whom he bonded quickly. Shep is hardly a snarling, menacing dog; kids can pull on his ears and scratch his head without an aggressive response.

But with the right command, Shep will leap to Johnson's aid with a full complement of bared teeth. It is a comforting backup for officers who often work alone and in remote areas.

''Labs have excellent noses, but a German shepherd can perform several tasks -- aggression and apprehension, and they can find game,'' Johnson said.

The shepherds are trained to find pheasants, geese, ducks, deer, all varieties of fish -- just about anything a poacher would want to hide. One of the dogs recently found a stash of bass hidden by anglers who were fishing before the season was open. Such dogs also can find empty rifle and shotgun shell casings, and track people in the woods.

Shepherds can act as a deterrent simply with their presence. Johnson said he has noticed some hunters and anglers are less mouthy and more respectful when Shep is present. Hansen said Pancho is an excellent game-finding dog, ''but most people want to give him a hug when they see him.''

The K9 program hasn't been welcomed with open arms within the DNR; Hansen acknowledges some officers and managers don't see the value of police dogs in an agency in which educating the public on conservation ethics is a high priority.

But conservation officers are increasingly finding themselves up against marijuana growers and operators of methamphetamine labs in rural areas.

''Crime,'' Hansen said, ''is moving into the countryside.''

The DNR K9 program is small -- there are just the two shepherds and Hansen's Pancho. Hansen would like to add more dogs, but the cost of the dogs and training ranges from $6,500 to $13,000. Part of the difficulty is finding quality shepherds, he said. The first two dogs were donations from the public, but now there's a shortage of well-bred dogs. The St. Paul Police Department recently undertook a publicity campaign to find qualified dogs.

A handful of other states have K9 programs in their conservation departments. Hansen said New York and Florida each have about 10 dogs, while Ohio, Indiana, California and Arkansas have one- to three dogs.

Hansen would like to have a dozen dogs in the Minnesota program someday, but he's not hopeful it will happen soon. The agency has been short on money, and many conservation officer positions need to be filled. ''We need to fill those positions first,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Shep are growing together as a team. After being rejected by one family because he shed too much, the 2-year-old Shep has found himself a new home ... and a new career.

''I know I can do my job better with him,'' Johnson said. ''If there's something there for him to find, he'll find it.''

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