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By the Nose

Loudoun's two-member bloodhound team depends on dogs' extraordinary scent skill.

Ever see those movies where a posse-fleeing fugitive runs through some icy creek to throw bloodhounds off his trail?

In the movies, the dogs always run back and forth at the water's edge, their sharp noses fooled.

Too bad for real-life fugitives: it's not true.

"We've learned over the years that any amount of water enhances the human scent," said Buck Garner, an instructor with Virginia Bloodhounds Search and Rescue Association.

Think of it this way: a wet sock is easier to smell than a dry one.

Garner was on hand with dozens of bloodhound teams two weeks ago for the 14th annual bloodhound training week co-hosted by his association and the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.

A 21-year veteran of bloodhound searches, and a member of the Louisa County Sheriff's Office in central Virginia, Garner and his bloodhound Chess were responsible for new Virginia case law that allows a bloodhound to be an expert in a trial.

During the training week, bloodhounds tracked a scent down and into a pond, demonstrating just how untrue those movie sequences are. And to the dogs' surprise, a Loudoun County Sheriff's Office diver emerges from the deep.

Several of the dogs shy away at the unexpected sight — and there's the crucial difference between patrol dogs and bloodhounds.

"My dog doesn't bite," said Investigator T.F. Butler, of his bloodhound Atlas.

Generally, in the heat of the chase, suspects don't know that — and not knowing the worst a bloodhound might do is drool on a cornered suspect works to the officers' advantage.

BLOODHOUNDS make good pets: friendly, fairly low-energy, slobbery in a well-intentioned way.

But they were born to track. Once on a trail, the dog will pull his handler in the right direction, over hill and dale and through ditches, bushes, whatever comes in the way.

In fact, the most difficult part of training a bloodhound is training its handler, said Deputy First Class Terry Davis.

Unlike patrol dogs, which never act without a command from their handlers, bloodhounds are on their own, with handlers just along for the ride. Learning to trust the dog's instinct, Davis said, is the hardest part.

"Ninety-five percent of the time when we don't have a successful track, it's the handler," Davis said. "It's tough for a human to trust the dog."

Davis' current dog is Belle, but Hope, an 11-year veteran of tracking, was his best dog to date.

During their years together, Davis learned to read Hope like a book.

"When you got behind and she was working, I could tell you if she was going to make that right-hand turn," Davis said.

Hope worked a case the week before she died in 2001.

Davis, a 24-year bloodhound handler, makes up the Loudoun bloodhound team with Butler.

Unlike the K-9 unit, Butler and Davis own their dogs, which are called out on an as-needed basis. When they are called out, it's often emergency situations with lost children or elderly people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"When you've got a child that's out there missing, and you're running a trail ... you can't do enough to find them," Butler said.

Davis recalled searching for a child who'd been missing two and a half days in West Virginia. He and his bloodhound found the child in 26 minutes.

The dogs' extraordinary noses can pick up scents weeks old and track them through heavily-traveled areas like downtown Leesburg — "No problem," Davis said.

WHAT ARE the dogs actually tracking?

Dead skin cells that fall off the body.

The bloodhound is such a natural tracker that training is just "fine-tuning" them, Butler said.

And even after more than two decades and seven dogs, Davis is still in awe of the animals.

"I still sit back and look at the dogs and say, 'How do they do it?'" he said.