Working with Wildlife’s Best Friend
Furry Federal Wildlife Canines Protect Public Lands for Wildlife and People
It’s May 2018. At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver, Colorado, a specialized group of officers are in training. Federal Wildlife Canine Officers from around the country have come together with their most loyal partners, their Federal Wildlife Canines, or K9s for short, to spend time as a team, share experiences, train, and receive annual certification.
These Olympic-caliber K9s are lean, fit, obedient, alert, calm, and professional. The quality of the Service’s K9 unit is well-known throughout the country, and teams are often called upon to help their local police departments, state patrol, border patrol, and others.
The first K9 up for a training is Lex, a high-energy male Belgian Malinois whose home station is the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. One of Lex’s claims to fame is when state game wardens reached out to request help from Lex and his handler, Officer Deb Goeb, to locate a rifle that was used to illegally kill a bighorn sheep. The wardens suspected the rifle had been stashed in the brush for days, but with Lex on the case, it was only a couple of hours before he lowered his body into the sagebrush, signaling, “come look what I found.” There between his paws was the rifle they had been searching for.
On this day, Officer Goeb is testing Lex on his ability to detect drugs.
Lex runs his nose along the brick-red tile floor of the old refuge building. With his nose leading the way, Lex is searching for the scent of four common substances: heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. When he picks up on a scent, Lex lays on his belly, head facing the smell, and waits patiently for his reward: a 12-inch piece of black rubber radiator hose with teeth marks on its center. Officer Goeb offers him the toy and Lex jumps up and bites down. They play a quick game of tug of war while Officer Goeb congratulates Lex for his success. “Good boy, good boy,” she says.
“In dog brain, narcotics are associated with play,” explains Officer Chris Hoag. “For the dogs, drug detection isn’t work, it’s a game; their drive is the reward at the end of the task.”
Suddenly, Lex’s training exercise is interrupted by an urgent phone call.
“There’s been an incident,” Federal Wildlife Officer Josh Frazier says loud and clear over the phone.
Somewhere on the refuge, a stolen car is speeding away while a second vehicle is suspected to be loaded with drugs. Officer Frazier calls in the assistance of the visiting National K9 Unit to detect narcotics in the one vehicle, and two other K9 teams to help apprehend the driver of the felony in progress from the stolen vehicle. Unfortunately for the perpetrators, they picked the wrong day and wrong place to engage in criminal activity.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A VETERAN FEDERAL WILDLIFE CANINE
This action-packed experience is just another day in the life for the Federal Wildlife Canine Officers and their furry partners. Officer Rob Barto, one of the officers who responded to the incident, notes that the presence of his K9, Rex, often imparts a positive influence to his interactions.
“When a K9 is present, people change their attitude. It goes from confrontational to cool,” he says.
Rex is a veteran K9 with seven years of service under his collar, and it shows. He trots with swagger and confidence. Rex and Barto traveled to Colorado from Alaska, where they patrol nearly two million acres at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Of the seven dogs in the K9 program, Rex is the only golden Labrador Retriever.
To pass his wildlife detection certification, Rex must detect frozen chunks of black bear, sheep, and moose hidden across the refuge. Tail swaying, Rex ambles down a gravel path framed by grass and a dense grove of skinny trees. A faint breeze threatens to throw him off the scent.
A few minutes tick by and Rex sniffs around a pile of chopped tree trunks. He sits down to indicate his discovery: a chunk of black bear. His reward is a black rubber ball at the end of a loop of thin rope. Unlike Lex’s youthful play, Rex is happy to simply hold his reward in his jaw, no jumping needed.
Rex finds all five hidden wildlife parts and passes his certification with flying colors. After he completes his tests, Rex immediately heads towards the car in search of air conditioning. His thick coat is better suited for cold Alaskan weather than this early-summer Colorado sun.
THE NATIONAL K9 UNIT
The current K9 roster includes Lex, Rex, Nate, Cajun, Gino, Falko and Ukkie. Each has his or her own glossy business card, complete with a photo and biography. These elite animals possess an incredible diversity of skills: tracking, drug detection, wildlife detection, evidence search and protection.
The Service’s K9 program was pioneered by two former Federal Wildlife Officers who saw the value that trained canines provide in finding evidence and detecting contraband. Since starting in California in 2000, today the program boasts seven K9s stationed across the country, from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Louisiana.
Officer Chris Hoag and K9 Cajun are stationed at Lacassine. Their duty is to keep the four national wildlife refuges in the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex safe for visitors and wildlife. They are also quick to offer assistance to their state partners, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, whenever needed. Once, Office Hoag and Cajun were called to help on a case where two endangered whooping cranes were killed in Louisiana. Although several sites had already been searched by field agents, K9 Cajun was able to locate additional undiscovered evidence, which later was linked to the suspects.
It takes a long time to find a high caliber dog fit to handle the diversity of work that is required of a Federal Wildlife K9.
“We want high energy dogs that have high drive are incredibly social and also incredibly obedient. We want to be able to take these dogs anywhere…anywhere we go,” says Officer Barto.
Like other law enforcement K9s, the Federal Wildlife K9s undergo an intensive physical where they are screened for genetic issues and must complete a variety of medical examinations. Aspiring K9s are also tested for drive and focus, two essential characteristics for success.
Raised for this work from puppyhood, Federal Wildlife K9s start training early, with 10 weeks of basic handler training before their second birthday. Once chosen, K9s spend a year and a half in training. K9s and their handlers then spend four to six weeks together before the dogs are ready to be sent into the field for their new career. They continue their training with their handler throughout their careers, including advanced, annual courses, like this one taking place at the Refuge, in obedience, control, tracking, trailing, and detection.
“It’s not like picking a high school football player, it’s like picking an Olympic athlete,” says Officer Hoag. “Hundreds of dogs are screened before one is chosen.”
MORE THAN A SIDEKICK
At the end of the day, one of the most important roles K9s play is being a partner and best friend to their handlers.
“Oftentimes it’s just me and Rex out in the Alaskan wilderness,” says Officer Barto. “He’s a partner I can count on everyday no matter the time, place or circumstance.”
“Nate is constantly by my side, everywhere I go,” adds Officer Adam Rawlinson. He and K9 Nate are stationed at the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Illinois. That’s one of the primary ways that the work of our Service’s Resource Protection K9s differ from a traditional police K9. Police K9s are typically deployed out of their patrol vehicle to perform a specific task, and then put back into their patrol vehicle. But Nate and I work together all day. Even if I need to get into a helicopter, patrol boat, airboat, canoe, or ATV to access a remote part of the refuge, Nate comes with me.”
The Service’s K9s are also trained ambassadors to the public. They find people lost on vast public lands, participate in community and environmental education events, and help to de-escalate situations to protect both the officer and the public. In addition to keeping their refuge safe, Rawlinson and Nate are active participants in community outreach and can often be found visiting with local school groups.
Everyone who meets the K9s, except for the criminals they help bring to justice, loves them and the K9s are treated like celebrities in their communities. “If you forget our names, just call us by our dog’s name,” says Officer Josh Hindman, Ukkie’s handler. “We will respond just the same.”