Idaho wildlife agency trains dogs to track wildlife, people

SANDPOINT, Idaho — The state is beginning to embrace the concept of pairing Idaho Department of Fish & Game conservation officers with service dogs.

Matt Haag, a Bonner County-based conservation officer, just completed a year in the field with Hudson, a happy-go-lucky 2-1/2-year-old golden Labrador retriever with a penchant for pursuit.

“It’s amazing what they can do,” said Haag.

Hudson’s service role is evenly split between tracking humans to aid law enforcement operations and detecting, according to Haag. Hudson is trained to alert upon six species including deer, elk, moose, turkey and fish.

“When people are hiding stuff on us, when they tell us they don’t have any fish or game, he’ll let me know if there’s fish in a cooler or a deer under a tarp in the back of a truck,” said Haag.

Hudson’s sense of smell is so keen that he can pick up the scent of game days after it has been removed from the bed of truck.

Haag said the use of K-9 officers in a conservation role is a relatively new concept in Idaho, although it’s fairly well-established in the East and Midwest and West Coast.

“There’s a lot of agencies that are starting to use them. California has used them for a long time. Washington started using dogs and Montana is starting a program,” Haag said.

Haag said Idaho’s conservation K-9 program began in 2011 with a pilot project shepherded by Conservation Officer Jim Stirling, a native Kansan who saw the benefits of a K-9 program in his home state. Idaho’s program remains funded through grants and donations, although Haag said more stable forms of funding could become a possibility as the program gains traction.

Hudson was found in a Boise-area shelter and was deemed a good candidate for K-9 handling school because of his high play drive. Haag and Hudson attended a five-month training program with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ law enforcement division.

“It was six days a week of training the dog and training me to be a handler,” said Haag.

Haag said Hudson’s strong suit is tracking.

“That’s his thing,” said Haag, noting that tracking fits with Hudson’s high-energy temperament. “He really likes to track because he likes to run.”

Hudson has participated in manhunts, although he’s not trained to attack when it reaches its quarry. He’s also trained to find objects with a human scent on them and participated in the hunt for the weapon that killed Shirley Ramey in her Trestle Creek home this spring.

When Hudson’s not on duty, he spends his time with Haag’s family and pines for jumping into the water to fetch the inanimate stand-in for downed waterfowl.

“If he can jump off a dock and get his dummy, he’s happier than anything,” said Haag.

So far, Idaho has two conservation K-9 officers — Hudson and another dog down in Idaho Falls.

Haag said conservation K-9s can have service careers that can last up to 10 years and Hudson’s tracking skills continue to improve.

“The more training I do, the better he gets,” Haag said.

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