Shots ring out in the night. A man tumbles out of a bar, frenzied. He knows the police will come looking for him soon. They tend to frown on shootings. He runs to a nearby lumberyard to hide.The police arrive, and they’ve brought a K9. This dog has been honed by an eon of evolution, 9,000 years of domestication, and a lifetime of training for the singular pursuit of finding the shooter tonight. He tracks the suspect to the lumberyard, an invisible trail in the dark. His companions can’t risk going in. The dog doesn’t mind.
Our hero divines his way through the maze. The suspect lies there in wait, a 2×4 in hand. He cracks the dog over the head. The dog is momentarily stunned, but reflexively shifts from his tracking instinct to another: tooth and claw.
The police hear snarling and screams. They dash in, caution discarded for the good of their friend. They find him fastened to the suspect at the leg, a fury of gnashing and chomps. They retract the dog and arrest the suspect. The good boy is rewarded, the bad boy taken away.
Officer Jason Brodt trained the dog who saved the day. Although his father was on the force for 30 years, Jason had gone to school to become a marine biologist. (“There aren’t many marine biology jobs in Minnesota,” Jason noted.) It wasn’t until Jason went on a ride along with an acquaintance that he decided to become a cop too. He admired the police dogs for their loyalty and effectiveness as he worked his way up the ranks. Jason had found his calling, so he learned the art of police dog training and now serves as head trainer and handler of the Saint Paul Police Canine Unit and national president of the United States Police Canine Association.
“I train German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois,” said Jason. “They’re very similar. Although they’re historically herding dogs, they have the intelligence, nose, and sociability for police work. They’re additionally qualified for it because of their size and courage. A beagle isn’t suited to go after a suspect, and a golden would sooner kiss a gunman than take him down, no matter his training.”
“That’s not to say that our dogs are primarily attack animals,” Jason explained. “It’s important that they know how to handle themselves during dangerous situations, but in fact 90 percent of their job is nose work. Whereas it might take a team of officers hours to find a suspicious shell casing, one of our dogs can zero in on it in a matter seconds. We once had to track down a suspect who had an hour’s head start on our pursuit. The dog bee lined us right to him. It’s like magic, what they can do, but they owe it all to their amazing sense of smell.”
Amazing indeed. Dogs have 50 times more olfactory receptors than we do, and their brains are 40 times more devoted to analyzing smells than ours. Their sense of smell is estimated to be up to 100,000 times more powerful than ours. If their sense of sight was analogous to this, then dogs would be able to tell if someone lit a candle on the moon.
Of course, nature isn’t enough to produce great canine detectives. Given their druthers, dogs will generally remain ambivalent about smells that don’t indicate food or other dogs. That’s where Jason comes in. “All of our dogs are brought over here from Europe,” said Jason. “We take dogs as young as eight weeks old, but also accept them up to a year and a half old. A puppy is less expensive because he hasn’t been cared for as long, but riskier than a mature dog because you can’t tell if he has the disposition for police work yet.”
Each of Jason’s new dogs is paired with a handler and undergoes an intensive 12 week training course. In it they learn basic obedience, attack and defense skills, and what to smell for. Jason’s operation keeps a complete collection of illegal drugs and explosive materials to aid in this training. “It’s classical conditioning,” Jason explained. “We teach the dog to associate the smell of substances like cocaine and thermite with food, and by extension reward. This wires them to seek out the dangerous substance we’re looking for in a given situation.”
“Of course,” Jason continued, “We’re a little apprehensive, to say the least, about giving our private sector trainers things like methamphetamine and TNT to take home with them. In those cases we give them legal, chemically manufactured substances that mimic the odors their illegal counterparts give off.” Those trainers are advised not to take these legal, inert training aids across the border all the same.
Not all dogs are created equal, and despite any amount of training many remain too sweet, too gentle, or too otherwise indisposed for police work. These dogs are retired before they ever hit the street, and go to live with families. Whether they forget their training altogether or remain perpetually in wonderment about what the heck they were supposed to do about the smell of fertilizer shall always stay a mystery.
The Saint Paul Police Department currently keeps 20 K9 units, all alumni of Jason’s program. “We have yet to discover a better way of doing what the dogs do so naturally,” said Jason. “Despite any technological advancement we have made, and probably ever will, nothing can surpass the dog’s mastery of smelling. I have yet to see one stumped.”
My conversation with Jason presented an opportunity to propose my idea for the ultimate crime fighting tool: massive, highly trained grizzly bears that cops could ride around while on patrol. They would protect the city from criminals and salmon alike.
“I have no thoughts on that,” said Jason.
By David Scheller