When the officers needed help finding the suspect of the First Union National Bank robbery a few weeks ago, they called Charger. When they needed help finding a missing child, they called Molly.
They aren't officers, they're two bloodhounds and they are the latest tools in the Fairfax County Police Department's arsenal of weapons. Handled by Lt. Pat Ronan, head of the canine department, and PFC Marshall Thielen, the dogs are being used to help investigate everything from burglaries to robberies.
Ronan said that they picked up the dogs last May and started working with them as early as last summer. The officers were approved to work with the dogs in May.
As head of the canine department, Ronan had already been responsible for handling the German Shepherd patrol dogs, and so was the logical choice to handle the bloodhounds. He sent a memo around the department, asking if anybody would be interested in working with the bloodhounds when they came. Thielen answered the call and got the assignment.
The two of them now share the responsibility of being on-call with the dogs, 24/7. Since this is a new thing for Fairfax County, the calls have been sporadic. Ronan and Thielen are in the process of going around to roll call training at the various stations and realize that they will start getting called more and more.
"The more they get used, the more people will know about them," said Ronan. The dog's credibility in the legal system will also be tested as officers start presenting evidence of the tracking in Fairfax County. Some states don't accept evidence of bloodhound tracking at all. Virginia is not one of those states, but whereas Spotsylvania courts are used to seeing the tracking as evidence, the first few cases in Fairfax will be challenging.
The dogs will also get more focused as they mature. They are still puppies, about a year and a half old. They go home with Ronan and Thielen, and Ronan said that his children love them.
Mary Ann Jennings, director of the Public Information Office said that all dogs live in the officer's homes and form a partnership.
"They're very curious animals," said Ronan. Yet, when it's time to go to work, they're ready to go."
RONAN SAID that the department had seen a need for bloodhounds for quite awhile.
"We had been asking for them in the budget for three or four years; they finally appropriated the money," said Ronan. "I wanted a bloodhound. I just didn't know how we were going to use it."
Ronan is finding plenty of uses for them. Used solely for tracking, he said that they have been using dogs successfully in Spotsylvania County for years.
"They have one of those best trainers down there. He's been a big help," said Ronan.
In the case of the bank robbery at Belle View Shopping Center, the dogs were given a note handled by the suspect to pick up the scent. They were then given rein to follow the scent to determine the direction in which the suspect had fled. Unlike German Shepherds who are unable to scent discriminate, the bloodhounds can distinguish one human's scent from another.
"Their noses are absolutely incredible, one of the best I've seen," said Ronan. After attending a law enforcement seminar on bloodhounds, he said, "It was unbelievable some of the things we saw."
Ronan had a chance to show off some of Molly and Charger's abilities this week at an introductory demonstration held at the K-9 Training Facility. Ronan and Thielen brought the dogs out one at a time and gave them a chance to get used to the crowd. Then they laid a track for the dogs to follow.
Thielen said that he was skeptical about their abilities at first, but said, "The first time I did a two-day track, I was a believer. They bring a whole new capability."
Thielen said that Ronan's wife and his wife helped with the initial training.
"First they ran away from the dogs, and then they ran out of sight. It was a big game to them [the bloodhounds]," said Thielen. "We then rewarded them with liver."
As their training progressed, they brought them out to shopping centers to make the search more challenging.