Be it poaching or murder, natural resources police K-9 dogs are on the case

March 26, 2011

Patriot delights in the scent of live people.

Justice prefers them dead.

And Blu goes bonkers at the smell of trout.

In a world filled with a cornucopia of odors, each of the seven dogs of the Natural Resources Police K-9 force finds something that sets its nose twitching. These dogs track bad guys and lost kids, drowning victims and wandering Alzheimer patients, illegally taken wildlife and illicit guns. They tell humans to look here instead of there, saving precious time in situations where often every moment counts.

They do it for a pat, words of praise, a nugget of food or a favorite toy.

And, yes, they carry badges.

Dogs and handlers go through 400 hours of training before they are cleared to work as a law enforcement team. NRP's unit holds refresher courses and additional training several times a year to stay sharp.

As part of their certification, the canines and their five handlers are tested each year in fields and woods, buildings and vehicles. The state needs to know that it can count on them in search and rescue missions while judges want assurance that evidence presented in court passed the sniff test.

The dogs have their specialties based on the region they work and type of situations they are likely to encounter. For example, in addition to having a nose for trout, Blu, based in Western Maryland with handler Officer Curt Dieterle, can sniff out bear. In the Central Region, Bear and Cpl. April Sharpeta have waterfowl on their resume.

Recertification involves testing general tracking and detection skills along with specialties.

But first, a little warm up: the bottle pit at the Calvert County Sheriff's Department K-9 training center.

The premise is simple. When on duty, search dogs are focused, taking verbal commands from their handlers while ignoring distractions such as other people, traffic and dogs.

A large wooden crate in the basement of the training center contains not only a slab of venison in a plastic bag in the corner, but also empty plastic water bottles that snap and crackle under paws. Can the dogs ignore the unfamiliar to ferret out the prize?

The answer, in a word, is yes.

Field work

For the real test, everyone drives to a vacant middle school. Most of the dogs will search for hunks of turkey, deer, bear and trout in classrooms, offices and storage areas.

But for Sgt. Lisa Nyland and her three labs, the focus is the dead.

Liberty, 9 ½, and Patriot, 6 ½, are trained to find human remains. At 2 ½ years old, Justice is a work in progress but, Nyland says, "I've never had a dog so obsessed with cadavers."

Right then, Justice sniffs me, which I take as a bad omen.

From a plastic bin, Nyland pulls out a reeking, tattered piece of bloodied clothing from a hunting accident last season. She shoves it into a metal cylinder and tightens the lid. The tube contains holes to let the smell of death out. She repeats the steps twice more.

Another search-and-rescue person hides the tubes in a bathroom, a classroom and a narrow locker at the end of a darkened corridor. One by one, the dogs are brought to the second floor of the school.

"Search," Nyland commands.

Liberty works the problems alone until she solves them, alerting Nyland where to look with a high-pitched bark. Patriot glances at Nyland for support and approval before finding each tube and barking. In a move that pleases her handler, Patriot makes a beeline for the correct locker, pivots and calls to Nyland.

"Beautiful," Nyland says.

Then, it's time for Justice. The smaller dog barrels into the classroom, toenails clicking on the linoleum floor, opening and closing her mouth to inhale more scent and then races back to Nyland and stares up.

The sergeant laughs. "She can find it, but the piece we're missing is telling me where it is."

Liberty and Patriot are rewarded with a few moments of play with their favorite ball. Justice gets food treats to distract her from the cadaver stench.

"You want to figure out what their motivation is and play to that," says Nyland, fussing over her dogs. Patriot works because I want her to. She wants to please me. Liberty works for the ball."

And Justice?

The sergeant laughs again. "Justice never rests."

K-9 beginnings

Nyland started the K-9 unit in 1994 with contributions from local businesses and Jesse, a yellow lab from the local animal shelter. The pair paid big dividends, finding a newborn baby in a Delaware trash bin and a Boy Scout missing for several days in Dorchester County and working a six-day shift in the charred rubble of the Pentagon after 9/11.

When Jesse was euthanized in 2005 just shy of her 11th birthday, NRP planted a dogwood tree outside its eastern regional office in Queen Anne's County.

By that time Nyland had Liberty, born two days before the terrorist attacks, as a partner. She later added Patriot, born right around the Fourth of July.

"The Pentagon was why I got Liberty," says Nyland. "I wanted to be ready in case something else happened."

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