Dog camp teaches fine art of sniffing

April 29, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

BITTINGER -- Poor Howard. His first time out the other day, the rusty-coated bloodhound from Georgia nosed his way through the leaf-carpeted woods but lost the trail of a man on the run.

The canine's slip caused his handler to fret.

Not to worry, though. Howard, like some 80 other bloodhounds from the United States and Canada, would get other chances to sharpen his scent-trailing skills.

Howard has been at training camp here in the Garrett County mountains this week -- the eighth year the National Police Blood

hound Association has conducted the annual training school in Garrett County.

The school, which is the only one of its kind, ends today at the University of Maryland 4-H camp.

The annual event attracts an international following, and this year, 135 law-enforcement and rescue officers have come from 18 states and as far away as Sweden, Denmark and from two Canadian provinces, Quebec and Alberta.

"You're never too old to learn a darn thing," said Sgt. Roger W. Stembridge, a veteran bloodhound handler who works for the Macon, Ga., police department. "The minute you think you know it all, it's time to put the dog back in the box and walk away."

From about 7 a.m. to midnight each day, instructors took teams of dogs and handlers on hundreds of trails in Savage River State Forest, around Deep Creek Lake, and on the streets of Frostburg and Oakland.

Sometimes the dogs followed "hot" trails, where a runner had passed a few hours earlier. Other times, bloodhounds sniffed their way through brush and rocks following day-old trails.

When the dogs succeeded -- by jumping up on the runners -- they were rewarded with treats or affection, which is part of the training.

Known for their red-rimmed eyes, droopy ears and wrinkled faces, bloodhounds, which are bred in many states, can follow a scent for miles. Sometimes their tracking is so intent they run into trees and off cliffs.

Bloodhounds can distinguish one person's scent from another's. A person's scent trail is created by dying cells shed by the body.

"They can pick up the scent of a person even in Manhattan, if you can imagine that," said Sgt. Ron Brown, who works for the Allegany County Sheriff's Department and is an organizer of the event.

Police agencies in Maryland and in the United States use bloodhounds to find missing people, including kidnapping victims, lost hunters, fishermen, children and people with mental impairments.

Mr. Brown said bloodhounds are used in criminal cases to help solve car thefts, burglaries, sexual assaults, homicides and prison escapes.

"A bloodhound is a single-facet dog," he said. "It's the best man-trailing dog in the world."

Bloodhounds have been used to track people for centuries. But they can become confused by contaminants, such as other people's scents, gas emissions and other pollutants. Wind and extreme weather conditions can obscure the trail.

The school helps trainers learn when dogs are confused and how to help them get back on the trail.

"Training is a continual process," Mr. Brown said. "The more training you do, the more you begin to understand your dog."

Law enforcement officers from Denmark and Sweden, where the dogs are not used, came to the training school to learn more about the bloodhound. Both countries use German shepherds and other dogs for tracking.

"We've heard a lot about bloodhounds in the United States," said Per Juul Hansen, a vice police commissioner from Copenhagen, Denmark.

"Europe is not really aware of what bloodhounds here are doing," said Lasse Eriksson, of Solleftea, Sweden. "We want to see if bloodhounds are much better at tracking than other breeds.'

Mr. Brown said bloodhounds will become more important to law enforcement officers in Western Maryland in the next few years with the opening of new federal, state and local prisons, expected to house some 5,000 inmates. The dogs will be available to help track down any prisoners who might escape. In that sense, bloodhounds enhance public safety, he said.

Howard, Mr. Stembridge's 4-year-old dog, fared better during his second outing that day. He picked up the day-old trail of a runner and "went up to him and licked on him," his handler said.

The dog's reward? "I loved on him," Mr. Stembridge said. "I hugged on him and let him lick me in the face. He likes that."

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