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Bloodhound Handlers Get Nose-y With Training

July 18, 2002

Seventy-five pound Trailing Man Southern Belle knows when she can be boss. The bloodhound is "employed" by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office to help locate lost, missing and wanted individuals.

When Belle's partner Dep. 1st Class Terrell "Terry" Davis is ready for work, the two-year-old bloodhound thinks the time is for fun. She wears a harness attached to a 25-foot lead or leash, a uniform that gives her power.

"They know when they’re in the harness, they’re the boss, and they can pull as hard as they want to," said Davis, president of the Virginia Bloodhound Search and Rescue Association.

Yet, Belle learned a few things last week about her role as boss at the 10th annual training seminar for man trailing bloodhounds, a type of dog used to locate individuals at crime and search and rescue scenes. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia Bloodhound Search and Rescue Association (VBSAR) hosted the seminar July 8-12 in Leesburg, Aldie and Middleburg, basing it at the Institute Farm in Aldie.

THE SEMINAR this year provided 40 hours of classroom training and fieldwork on urban hard surfaces. Those surfaces are more difficult for bloodhounds to work with since asphalt, concrete and car exhaust can weaken the scents and the environment can be more distracting, said Terri Heck, co-founder of Summit Search & Rescue in New Cumberland, Penn. She and with her husband Jim Heck are both volunteers.

Terri Heck was one of more than 40 K-9 bloodhound handlers from Virginia, West Virginia, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Canada attending the seminar. Two of the handlers are from Loudoun, including Davis and Jerry Swain of the Fire Marshall’s Office. The sheriff’s office has another five K-9 units. Four are used for patrol and one for narcotics investigations.

The man-trailing bloodhounds are trained to follow the trail of an individual’s scent to the end, both in urban areas and the wilderness. The trails this year were set in subdivisions, shopping centers, schoolyards and parking lots, along with a lake bottom where the bloodhounds had to find a sheriff’s office diver.

THE HANDLERS familiarize the bloodhounds with the individual’s scent, using an article of clothing or another object that the subject has come in contact with, such as a hat or handkerchief. The scent on the object is transferred to a sterile gauze pad that is placed into a sealed bag. The pad can be sent to a laboratory and is used for the trailing work.

"You want the dog to focus on a particular person you’ve scented them on," said Bob Chew, one of 12 volunteers for Wake Canine Search & Rescue in Raleigh, N.C. The dogs are trained to not do any crittering, or chasing of other animals, and to ignore any other scents, he said. Chew is a handler with more than six years experience. He works with Dixie Darlin, a two-year-old female.

For training, a "problem" can be introduced by laying out the scents of someone who was not at the scene for suspect elimination.

"Whenever they come upon a scene, because of the smell they know who’s here and who’s not here. They look for who’s not here," Chew said.

"The dog is so good at scent discriminating," said Davis.

LAST WEEK, Davis and the other seven instructors set the trails by walking them, then the bloodhounds tracked the scents as late as 24 hours later, depending on skill level. The instructors walked behind the handlers and their dogs to provide an informal evaluation.

"The instructors talk with the handlers to identify their level. We put them through problems at that level of training," Davis said. "There’re very few structured courses for bloodhounds and their handlers," especially volunteers who do not have an opportunity to undergo law enforcement K-9 training, he said.

"You can pick up a lot of little things that you can do better. Success is in the details," Chew said.

The handlers can use what they learned at the seminar to structure their own training later on, Davis said.

Davis helped organize VBSAR in 1992 as a volunteer training group for bloodhound handlers. Members are required to be a member of a search and rescue group or of a law enforcement agency.

"Other handlers learn from each other. We help each other," Terri Heck said.