Pennsylvania Game Commission’s just graduated K-9s should be welcomed by hunters
There have been plenty of graduations around the state this spring, but this one was different. The skills these “students” learned were unique.
The nine-week training involved instruction on tracking, finding evidence and wildlife detection. And the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s three dogs are now official, certified K-9s.
But they started working cases long before now, according to Randy Shoup, assistant director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Protection, who is the supervisor of K-9-handling officers.
Currently about a year old, the Laborador retrievers were placed with wildlife conservation officers when they were just eight weeks old.
“The course that we just finished was nine weeks in length but we had started training the dogs not long after we got them from the kennel,” he said.
“They received some basic training in the spring and the summer last year and they actually deployed in the fall for some limited use. All told, they had about 12 weeks of training and were involved in 35 to 40 cases before they finished training.”
The dogs are deployed with officers strategically placed around the state, Shoup pointed out. One lives in Grove City, serving the west; another lives near Stare College, serving the central; and the third lives in Wilkes Barre, serving the east.
“We tried to get the officers located near thoroughfares so that they could be deployed as quickly as possible in the event they were need in an investigation,” he said.
The commission’s K-9s are trained to perform three primary functions: tracking humans, locating articles of evidence and locating big-game animals. Those roles are critical in commission investigations and wildlife conservation law enforcement.
In hunting-related shooting incidents when someone is shot in mistake for game and the shooter leaves the scene, a K-9 “can get on that human trail and follow it,” Shoup said, possibly finding evidence along the route or actually leading officers to the offender.
The dogs are trained to be adept at locating things such as shotgun shells, spent rifle casings, knives, knife sheaths, a wallet or a concealed gun.”
“They are readily identifiable in a hunting-type environment by the dogs because they don’t belong there and they’re readily identified as being out of place,” he said. “In many cases they are able to recover evidence that officers just can’t find or wouldn’t be able to find in a reasonable amount of time.”
The third function the dogs are trained to handle is wildlife detection – the K-9s are taught to exhibit certain behaviors recognizable by their handlers when they detect the odor of a specific species of wildlife.
The dogs have been trained to detect the four species of Pennsylvania big game – deer, bear, turkey and elk. Whether an animal’s remains are in a vehicle or a building, the dogs can detect it, Shoup noted. The principle is similar to a drug or bomb dog except these dogs are looking for wildlife. They are able to quickly detect a concealed animal’s meat, hide or remains.
So if commission officers receive information that a person has killed a deer in a closed season and are able to get probable cause to obtain a search warrant for a residence, dogs could go through that residence and find the game.
The dog’s graduation – even though there was not really a formal ceremony – was gratifying for Shoup.
“The handlers and dogs worked hard and it was very much a pleasure to see this program come to fruition, watching these dogs from the time they were so small.”
Shoup believes hunters should strongly support the commission’s K-9 program because it helps protect the state’s wildlife resources, allowing conservation officers to utilize an effective law enforcement tool.
“A lot of times we deal with people who don’t have the level of respect for the wildlife resource that we would hope that all hunters have,” he said.
“The majority of hunters we believe will want us to be out there with every tool we can muster to protect a resource that they value so much, and the dogs will add greatly to this.”