Columbus, Minn. — The Minnesota DNR hosted a K9 training event on Monday, Sept. 18, at Carlos Avery State WMA. The agency exhibited different training techniques for the canines.
The DNR has five K9 dogs across the state, and they’re trained in various categories including: zebra mussel detection, wildlife detection, evidence recovery, people tracking, criminal apprehension, fish detection, and officer protection.
With fishing season still open and hunting underway, autumn is busy for conservation officers and the K9 units.
“These dogs are locating tools, so we use their sense of smell to help us locate things whether that be evidence, game, fish, zebra mussels, firearms, shell casings,” said Lt. Phil Mohs, DNR’s west metro supervisor for the enforcement division and K9 unit coordinator.
On Monday, Sept. 18, the DNR performed five training exercises to test the K9s and their handlers. The first training focused on finding a hunter trespassing, and K9 Bolt, a black Labrador mix, worked to locate the person in a forested deer stand with Conservation Officer Mike Krauel (Mora area).
The second training centered around finding game birds and firearms. Bolt, a new K9 to Minnesota DNR, continued the training and followed the walking trail in search of two items. He found the firearm almost immediately, but took some time finding the grouse on the opposite side of a trail.
Once the K9 completes the training correctly, they’re rewarded with a toy or treat.
“These dogs have to be exposed to the environment that they work in, and we have to create value that to a dog going to a cattail slough like, ‘Is there something in there? Why do you want me to go in there?’” Mohs said. “Once they get in there and they realize that ‘Hey, there’s an odor that I recognize that when I respond to that odor, I get rewarded for it.’ Then, they’re more apt to go into that environment in the future.”
The third training took place on a gravel road in the WMA. It focused on finding used ammunition after someone killed a turkey from the road.
Mohs, stationed in the Twin Cities, and K9 Mack, a German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix, performed the exercise. It took a couple minutes before Mack laid down with the 20-gauge shell between his paws. After finding the shell, he found the turkey in the woods.
The fourth training centered on finding a lost hunter in the woods. K9 Fennec, a German Shepherd, and Conservation Officer Mike Fairbanks (Deer River area), went through the woods trying to pick up human scent. Once Fennec caught human scent, his head and ears shot up, and it took less than a minute for him to find the hunter.
“(The dogs) are $5,000 to $10,000 and it’s a huge investment,” Mohs said. “We understand that, but as Mike Fairbanks has done, he’s found lost hunters before and finding that one hunter who’s lost and bringing that human back to their family is worth any price.”
Finally, the last training exercise was detecting zebra mussels on a boat. The DNR uses a magnetic box that has zebra mussels in it as a training tool.
K9 Jet, a black Labrador, and Conservation Officer Adam Seifermann (Staples-Motley area), took a few seconds before finding the box on the boat. The officer moved the box around and Jet, a new K9 this fall, found it repeatedly. The only K9 and handler combo not at the training was K9 Earl, a German Shepherd, and Conservation Officer Luke Gutzwiller (Windom/Cottonwood area).
Mohs said the DNR K9 program started in the mid- to late-1990s and historically had one to two dogs. In the past 15 years, DNR has had five or six K9s. The dogs and handlers attend a 12- to 16-week police dog school via the St. Paul Police K9 program, which trains them to certification standards of the U.S. Police Canine Association.
They also take a three-week fish and wildlife detection training for DNR-related calls. Mohs said after the formal trainings, the handlers and K9s meet once a month for group training for two days.
The handlers are required to do a minimum of 16 hours per month of maintenance training, but Mohs said the handlers and K9s train daily.
The five K9s range from 2 to 4 years old, and two of them are preparing for their first fall season as DNR K9s. Mohs said most K9s will stay active in DNR service until age 8 or 10.
The K9s are re-certified annually, and handlers may notice difficulties in their training. Once a K9 retires, the DNR allows the handler to own the dog for the rest of its life.
The DNR has seen the success of having K9s in their department, and managers intend to maintain the program. Mohs understands their capabilities firsthand and knows that without K9s, some people wouldn’t be charged, and some incidents wouldn’t be solved.
“Our major goal here is to be a force multiplier for the enforcement division,” Mohs said.