Bloodhounds aren't exactly known for their intellectual prowess. This fact was confirmed for Capt. Maggie Deboard when she saw one of Fairfax County's new police bloodhounds walk into a wall.
Second Lt. Pat Ronan of the K-9 division has also witnessed the two bloodhounds' missteps.
"I've seen them run into walls, bleachers, telephone poles," he said. "It's pretty funny."
Fortunately, bloodhound siblings Charger and Molly weren't hired for their smarts. Their job relies instead on the dogs' supersensitive sense of smell.
"The one thing they can do is scent," said Deboard, who is the commander of the Fairfax County Police's Special Operations Division. "Their other intelligence is somewhat questionable."
In fact, the bloodhounds' intense concentration on tracking is what causes them to occasionally run into things. "They don't comprehend what's around them. They're so focused on the scent. He puts that nose on the ground, and he won't pick it up," said Deboard, of Charger.
Everything about the breed is tailored specifically to tracking, said Ronan, owner and trainer of Charger. The bloodhounds' long ears are designed to help drag up scent on the ground. Their wrinkled faces help the dogs deflect thorns and burrs in the woods. Even Charger and Molly's odor serves a purpose. The smell is produced by oils in their coats that serve as waterproofing.
"Everything they are bred for, the good Lord made them to do," Ronan said.
These attributes are why the Police Department chose to add two bloodhounds to its team of 13 patrol dogs and two bomb-sniffing dogs. Ronan and Officer Marshall Thielen, who owns Molly, have been training the bloodhounds for about a year to track down criminals and missing persons.
After working with police units in Spotsylvania and Maryland that had bloodhounds, Ronan thought they would be a welcome addition to the force.
"We started hooking up with guys who have bloodhounds," Ronan said. "Marshall took a liking to them, as did I." He acknowledged that he and Marshall Thielen were the only officers to volunteer to work with the dogs.
BECAUSE CHARGER and Molly are the first bloodhounds to join the police K-9 ranks in Fairfax County, officers relied on help from an existing bloodhound unit in Spotsylvania and on the Law Enforcement Bloodhound Association.
Thielen and Ronan began training the dogs when they were puppies, using short tracking exercises. They then worked up slowly to 2-mile trails. The dogs can now hunt down a trail that is 24-hours old and will eventually be able to trace scents over 48-hours old.
Thielen and Ronan train the dogs using a scent item, such as clothing that a missing person has recently worn.
"They are scent discriminating, so we have to tell them which people we're tracking," said Thielen.
In a routine tracking exercise, Thielen lets his dog Molly check out the area to help her get rid of her puppy curiosity. When Thielen puts Molly in her harness, that's the signal that it's time to work. Thielen has to hold onto the leash for dear life once Molly catches the scent. When Molly does find the person she is looking for, Thielen rewards her with praise and liver treats.
"It doesn't matter how many people walked across this area, they're going to pinpoint the one person," Thielen said. He added that the dogs are not 100-percent accurate, but they are another resource for the Police Department. The dogs’ trails are admissible in court, however.
Ronan and Thielen practice tracking in parks, malls, townhouse complexes, grassy fields, woods and even the Kingstowne Walmart.
"Anything that will make their little pea brains work harder," said Ronan, with a smile.
Ronan has a nickname for his dog: “B.U.S.” or Big, Ugly Stinker. Despite Ronan's teasing, he has developed a bond with Charger.
All of the training has already paid off for the bloodhounds. Thielen recently worked on a missing-child case in Spotsylvania. Molly tracked the runaway to a bus depot, where the trail stopped. Law enforcement concluded that the child had taken a bus. The child was later found in Springfield.
In order for the bloodhounds to find someone, they have to begin their search in the place where the missing person was last seen, Ronan said. "You can't just say hey, this guy's missing."
Another advantage of using bloodhounds is that they can be used to trace lost children and people who aren't criminals.
"If you're looking for people who aren't dangerous, you should use an unaggressive dog," said Deboard. If the officers are going after a criminal, then a German Shepherd trails along behind for protection, added Ronan.
WHAT THE BLOODHOUNDS lack in smarts, they make up for in friendliness.
"He is extremely friendly, not a mean bone in his body, unless you go for his food," said Ronan, of his dog Charger. "They're the most lovable dogs. They'll do anything for you. ... If they're not working, they're sleeping or chewing on something."
Like most people, bloodhounds experience times when they don't feel like going to work. "A bloodhound, if they don't want to work, you might as well put them in the car and leave," Ronan said. "It's just a big game to them. Most of the time they're anxious to come out and play."
Since the dogs are only 1 1/2 years old, the officers often have to remind them that they are here to do a job. "The biggest hurdle is that because they're young and very curious, you constantly have to tell them to get back to work," said Ronan. "They've got a lot of puppy in them."
"There's a saying, 'Everything you do goes straight down the lead to your dog'," said Ronan. "He knows when there's something wrong. We're with these dogs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We see them more than we see the wife and kids."
Charger and Ronan are inseparable, since Charger lives at home with the officer. Because the 125-pound hound is very destructive and is not meant to be a house pet, Charger stays outside in a kennel. Ronan's children love Charger. "The kids will take him out and play with him," he said. "They're happy-go-lucky, do-whatever-you-want-to-me dogs."
In addition to Charger, Ronan also has a working German Shepherd and a retired German Shepherd. The other dogs can get a little jealous of Charger, especially when Charger and Duke, the working German Shepherd, both ride in the back seat of Ronan's police car and Ronan takes one out and not the other.
Ronan has always wanted to be a K-9 officer. "It's the best job in the county."
As for the addition of more bloodhounds, Ronan said, "If the program continues the way it's been going, I'd love to see us get a couple more dogs. They are not easy dogs to work with."