- Photo gallery: Canine conservation officer
Somewhere in the knee-high grasses, Scott Staples had tossed a disarmed handgun. It was a jungle in there.
Now it was Schody’s turn to find the weapon and return it to Staples, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer from Cloquet. The dog hadn’t seen Staples throw the gun.
“Get it!” Staples said.
Schody, a 1-year-old German shepherd, is the newest addition to the DNR’s K-9 staff. He and Staples, 38, have just completed 10 weeks of police-dog training in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Schody, 60 pounds of focused canine, darted into the cover at Chambers Grove Park on the St. Louis River in Duluth. He weaved left and right, seeking scent.
“Their noses are just phenomenal,” Staples said.
Schody had all but disappeared in the grasses, but you could see him now, working in a tighter pattern, homing in on the scent. He is trained to find human scent — in this case Staples’ — on any article he’s searching for.
Nose lower and lower now, Schody paused, then pounced. Up he came, the black handgun held gently in his powerful jaws. He trotted out of the heavy grass and straight to Staples’ side.
“Out,” Staples commanded.
Schody dropped the firearm into the officer’s waiting hand.
Staples, who patrols about 600 square miles in Carlton County, is one of just two Minnesota conservation officers assigned a K-9 companion. The other is Travis Muyres of Ham Lake, Minn.
Staples and several other officers had put in for a dog, and Staples was fortunate enough to be chosen. He is well-respected among DNR officers and has been nominated multiple times for Conservation Officer of the Year. He had never trained a dog of any kind before.
At his police-dog training this past spring, Schody learned tracking skills, article search and apprehension and protection. This fall, Schody and Staples will go to detector school, where Schody will learn to find evidence such as fish and game.
K-9 working dogs don’t come cheaply. Schody was acquired from Slovakia for $7,000. But the DNR doesn’t pay for the dogs. The K-9 program is funded through donations, said conservation officer Todd Kanieski of Dayton, Minn., who supervises the K-9 unit. Schody’s costs were paid for through a donation from Safari Club International, Staples said.
German shepherds from Europe are chosen for their drive and their compatibility with humans, Staples said.
While Schody is trained to protect Staples and to apprehend suspects, that won’t be his main line of work.
“We’ll use him mostly for tracking,” Staples said. “Let’s say I get a trespassing complaint. How do you find that person in 300 acres of woods? Or how do I find an archery hunter who may be hunting over bait?”
He’ll put Schody on the track of the hunter at the hunter’s car, then, with Schody on a leash, follow him to the hunter. It works amazingly well, says John Velsvaag, a DNR conservation officer at Ely, who kept Grizz, a K-9 companion, for several years.
“I’d hook up the dog. We’d leave from the vehicle,” Velsvaag said. “One time I was almost standing under a tree when I found the guy.”
On other occasions, Veslvaag had watched waterfowl hunters while they were hunting. After they left, he and Grizz checked their blind, and Grizz found ducks they had stashed.
“We grabbed the ducks and tracked the guys,” Velsvaag said. “Dogs are absolutely a fantastic tool.”
While Schody will live with Staples and his family, they’ll be called at times to assist other conservation officers on cases. The DNR would like to get more K-9s on the ground, Kanieski said.
“If I could add two more dogs next spring, that would be ideal to me,” said Kanieski, who worked with Saber, a member of the DNR’s K-9 unit, for several years until he retired. K-9s are retired when their physical skills begin to decline, Kanieski said. They must pass a rigorous certification each year while they’re active.
While Staples was demonstrating Schody’s talents at Chambers Grove near the St. Louis River, he tossed an expended 12-gauge shotgun shell into the woods, unknown to Schody. Often a conservation officer might want to find expended shotgun or rifle ammunition to determine where a hunter was standing when he shot.
Again, Schody was seeking molecules of human scent carried by the empty shell. And again, it took him almost no time to locate the shell, snatch it up and return it to Staples.
Clearly, if you were trying to flee from Staples after committing a hunting offense, you wouldn’t want Schody on your trail. Then again, if you were merely lost in the woods, you would be quite relieved if Schody came panting up to you, pulling Staples along on a leash. Schody may at times be involved in just such search-and-rescue assignments, Staples said.
Conservation officers often must confront armed individuals who may not be happy they’ve encountered an officer. When tempers rose, he said, it was nice to have Grizz at his side.
“I had multiple occasions where people were aggressive,” Velsvaag said. “When the tone of voice changed, the dog would key on that. Whether he was in the vehicle or on the lead, he was paying attention to that. The dog fired up and started barking at someone through the vehicle, and the people would have an about-face.”
Velsvaag recalled another reason why it was so nice to work with Grizz.
“One of the other really fantastic things was, you always had a partner who was available and ready to go to work with you,” Velsvaag said.
Staples, a DNR conservation officer since 1997, thinks that working with Schody will make him a better officer.
“I just like the job and want to do it well,” Staples said. “I like catching the bad guy.”
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