Open Spaces: A Dog Can Be a Refuge Officer’s Best Friend

A Dog Can Be a Refuge Officer’s Best Friend

Guest blogger Mary Tillotson, who writes for the National Wildlife Refuge System on assignment, is here to introduce one of the K-9 law enforcement teams.

Rex started work at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge last April – the newest member of the refuge’s law enforcement team and also, at 18 months, undoubtedly the youngest employee of the entire U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rex, if you haven’t guessed yet, is a highly trained yellow Labrador retriever. His primary job is to help protect other animals at Kenai Refuge.  

Rob and Rex at Kenai

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge law enforcement officer Rob Barto and his partner, Rex, are one of six U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservation K-9 teams across the country. Photo Credit: USFWS

Since the mid-1990s, law enforcement dogs have been used in an increasingly official capacity on refuges. There are now six such dogs. In addition to Rex in Alaska, there are K-9 teams at Wheeler Refuge in Alabama, Chincoteague Refuge in Virginia, Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge’s Savannah District, San Luis Refuge Complex in California and at multiple refuges in north/central Florida. Each team patrols throughout its region as need arises.

This professional K-9 corps is a long way from the era when game wardens took their personal dogs on patrol to help find poached game and illegal firearms.

The Kenai law enforcement officer working with Rex is Rob Barto, who has been interested in dog handling since he trained his first hunting dog.  He says that watching a dog work, helping to evidence so a lawbreaker can be prosecuted, is “a thing of beauty.”

Rex lives in a kennel at Barto’s home, spending most working days with him and getting some playtime after hours.  But Rex is not a pet. He’s a tool for law enforcement.  Given the vastness of the nearly two-million-acre Kenai Refuge, Rex (with his extraordinary senses of smell, hearing and sight) is quite the tool.

Barto spent two weeks working intensively with Rex at a North Carolina training facility before taking him home to Alaska, both of them learning to work as a team: Rex learning his commands from Barto, Barto learning the dog’s subtle body language when on a tracking mission.

That tracking can bear investigatory fruit, as Barto has often seen with the two dogs that preceded Rex in Alaska. In one such case, a hunter killed a cow moose – an illegal harvest in the state. Barto’s co-worker Sampson the Lab went along to help execute a search warrant at the suspect’s property. Barto says Sampson sniffed out a saw, which bore minute amounts of tissue and a dime-size spot of blood, hidden under a mattress. The tissue and blood samples were genetically matched to the moose that had been shot illegally. Evidence!

Darryn and his Dog Rudi

Darryn Witt and his dog Rudi take on the Upper Mississippi together. Photo Credit: USFWS

A dog’s acute sense of smell is incomprehensible to humans. Dogs can smell cancer, illegal drugs, blood, guns. They can track those smells to the source: a missing person, a missing felon, a missing car, a crime scene. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have even started using dogs to find cash being smuggled out of the United States. They can smell the ink.

K9 San Luis

Anthony Merrill, Regional Law Enforcement Zone Officer for Region 8 with his dog.Photo Credit: USFWS

Each dog receives a Service law enforcement credential. The Service is working with such groups as the National Wildlife Refuge Officers Association to obtain protective vests for the animals. Happily, no refuge dog has yet been killed in the line of duty. But, sadly, several police dogs in other agencies have.

Eddie & Duke

Eddie Brannon, National Coordinator for the Canine Program Photo and his dog Duke.Photo Credit: USFWS

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Richard Johnston's Gravatar Great article! These Officers and their K9 partners do amazing things from search & rescue to wildlife cases! Very proud of them!
# Posted By Richard Johnston | 9/1/11 2:53 PM

Last updated: June 21, 2012