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Sniffing, Scanning and Searching, Oh My!

Bloodhounds and their handlers gather in Aldie for annual summer training.

It’s 10 a.m. and 4-year-old bloodhound Jerry Lee is already hard at work. He sniffs, scans the horizon and makes a beeline for a small rise. Nose to the ground, he sniffs in short bursts along the grass stopping at every tree and bush.

Just over the rise and out of sight, Jerry Lee begins to bark. He has found his quarry. His handler, Daniel Johnson, calls out his praise for Jerry Lee in a loud, high-pitched voice.

"With the younger dogs we have to have a treat waiting," Buck Garner, a lieutenant with Louisa County, Va., and bloodhound instructor for more than 15 years, said as Johnson continued to praise Jerry Lee. "As they get older, love and praise is enough. And the find, of course."

Johnson and Garner are two of the 39 bloodhound handlers who came to Aldie July 8 through July 13 to participate in the annual bloodhound and handler training camp run by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia Bloodhound Search and Rescue Association.

"It is about teaching the handler to read and understand the dog," Master Deputy Terry Davis, and one of the county’s two bloodhound handlers, said. "The human tends to be the weaker link in the partnership. It can take a couple of years to really understand the dogs."

HELD EVERY YEAR in Loudoun, handlers from around the country and the world come to be taught by eight different instructors. Over the week-long seminar, handlers are trained both in the classroom and out in the field. They learn everything from health classes and first aid for the hounds and proper courtroom testimony to how to properly document calls and what scent is and how it works.

"They are all so handlers can understand why their dog does certain things in the field," Davis said.

For fieldwork the handlers are broken up into groups and sent to various locations throughout the county, including Middleburg, Morven Park in Leesburg and Ashburn, for training exercises. The handlers even get experience in finding people in bodies of water in the lake at the National Beagle Club’s farm in Aldie.

"We try to recreate scenarios that they will see in real life," Garner said. "And we work on problems that they are going to see in the field. That way they can learn about how they can misread dogs and understand the energy of the younger dogs."

In addition, Davis and the instructors teach the handlers how to set up their own scent trails when they return home.

"It gives me a lot of good ideas, since we don’t have a lot of this stuff," Von Ellett, who works with a K-9 search and rescue unit out of Richmond, said.

Davis said it is important for the handlers to continue to work on different training exercises with their dogs outside of structured seminars.

"We don’t just work in our own jurisdiction," he said. "We get called out to all different places. So they need to be trained for all terrain, from open areas to urban environments."

OF THE HANDLERS that attend the summer seminar about half are new to handling, while the other half are more experienced, Davis said.

"We tend to train the human handlers from scratch," he said. "With the dogs we start them almost right off their mother. Bloodhounds are bred to follow things. It’s an instinct."

Ellett is in his first year of tracking with 2-year-old Roman Roy, and he said he was surprised by how much information he learned in the seminar.

"Just today I finally saw the difference from when [Roman Roy] was a scenting to when he was actually on the trail of someone," Ellett said. "It’s neat to pick up all of those little tricks."

Garner said it can take several years, even as many as six, to truly understand a bloodhound and how it works when following a person’s scent.

"This is not something you can master in a few weeks," he said.

Even handlers who have been working for years have to start from scratch when they get a new hound.

"A lot of the dogs' language is similar," Davis said, "but you have to learn how to read your particular dog."

Garner said many handlers can get frustrated with the training and the slow process of learning to communicate nonverbally with their hound.

"We preach to them, stick with it, stick with it," he said. "It’s not a fast food."

MOST OF THE people who begin tracking with bloodhounds do it out of a love of dogs. Some are members of a police force or Sheriff’s Office, but others are civilians who wanted to help their local law enforcement.

"I’d always wanted to be a K-9 handler," Johnson, who works in the Pulaski County, Va., Sheriff’s Office, said. "We had no access to bloodhounds that were close by, so that’s what the sheriff wanted me to do."

Now in his second year working with Jerry Lee, Johnson has attended three sessions of the summer training seminar, beginning when his hound was too young to train.

"Everything I’ve learned and gotten help on has been through this training."

Jim Heck and his wife, Terri, got into bloodhounds and tracking quite by accident. Terri Heck got a bloodhound for a pet, but it was not until a local woman in their hometown of Newcumberland, Pa., wandered away from a nursing home that they decided to train their dog to be a tracker.

"They had shepherds and everything, but they couldn’t find her," Jim Heck said. "Then when the snow melted, they found her body only 100 yards away from the home. We said, we have a dog that can do this. We have to do it."

Now the Hecks own three bloodhounds, two of which were attending the Loudoun seminar, and own a nonprofit that provides the man-trailing bloodhounds at no cost to local law enforcement.

"It’s about having the dog and you working together," Jim Heck said. "When you find someone, that’s the rewarding part."