Canines aid in murder investigation

Monday, August 13, 2007
Randy O'Dell and Lazlo, an ATF explosions dection canine, completed a training exercise on car searching last spring. (Submitted photo)

For nearly 48 hours, the Cape Girardeau County-Bollinger County Major Case Squad combed the Scopus, Mo., residence where Michael Strong, 49, was found shot to death on July 27.

They found nothing.

When the search failed to yield any ballistics evidence, such as spent shell casings, the squad brought in the big guns.

On July 29, it sent for an ATF explosives detection canine.

These highly trained dogs can discern explosives, gunshot residue and post-blast evidence, as well as firearms and ammunition hidden in containers and vehicles, even when they're buried underground.

In the Scopus investigation, however, the canine did not uncover any evidence.

The ATF currently supplies about 800 explosives detection canine "teams" to state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as foreign countries, said Mike Schmitz, spokesman for the ATF Kansas City division.

To illustrate what these dogs can do, Schmitz described the difference between coming in on a cold day and smelling the spiciness of a hot bowl of chili, a feat humans can accomplish, compared to being able to list every single ingredient used to season the dish.

During a rigorous 10-week training program for dogs and their handlers, the canines learn to differentiate between the five basic categories of explosives, used in 19,000 varieties, a process called "imprinting."

Every time a canine properly detects an explosive, they earn a bite of food, until the idea that sniffing out chemicals equals kibble becomes ingrained, explained Randy O'Dell, ATF agent and dog handler.

The process is an offshoot of the Pavlovian response, and it's the only time the dogs eat.

Unlike other service canines, scent detection dogs receive food only during work or training, never during downtime, Schmitz said.

O'Dell said other programs, such as the one the U.S. Customs Service uses to train its service dogs, employ other methods of imprinting, such as the play or prey response, using chew toys as rewards rather than food.

O'Dell's new explosives detection canine, a 16-month-old black lab named Roxi, was rejected as a Customs canine because she didn't respond to toys as incentives.

"Their loss was our gain," O'Dell said.

Dogs meet their handlers at the state-of-the-art training facility in Front Royal, Va.

Once the canines learn the ABCs of scent detection, they spend three or four days fusing a tight bond with their human handlers, said O'Dell.

Then the real work begins.

Dogs and handlers are given grueling obstacle courses laden with scents the dogs have to "signal," usually by sitting down.

The courses get increasingly complicated, working up toward "real life" challenges such as buses, open fields, plane crash sites, schools and trucks.

After completing the training program, the dogs are put to the test, and given their certification exam, where they must successfully pick out 20 different "hot" scents amid a field of odors meant to serve as distractions.

If the dog misses even one scent it could fail to attain certification.

"The standard we look for is 100 percent," O' Dell said.

When choosing candidates for the explosives detection canine program, the ATF usually looks first to those that didn't quite make the cut to be guide dogs.

"Dogs that flunk out of the seeing eye program, [that are] a little too skittish or active -- when they flunk out we pick them up," Schmitz said.

The ATF selects dogs with a good drive, strong work ethic and a natural inquisitiveness and that are eager to please their human handlers.

ATF detection canines work 365 days a year, sometimes up to six hours a day, depending on the weather.

The industry standard for a detection dog is solid work up to about 9 years of age.

While there is an adoption program in place for retired canines, O'Dell said he's never heard of an agent that didn't keep their dog as a pampered pet once its working days ended.

"You get very attached; you aren't too willing to give them up," said O'Dell, whose own retired canine lives with his family after surviving a bout of cancer.

The demand for explosives detection canines has skyrocketed in the past several years, because the "unique and important" service they provide can be a major weapon in the war on terror, Schmitz said.

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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