Rex started work at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in 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 is a highly trained yellow Labrador retriever. His primary job is to help protect other animals at Kenai Refuge.

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.

Richard Johnston of the Refuge System’s Division of Law Enforcement says this professional K–9 corps represents a transition from an era when game wardens took their personal dogs on patrol to help find poached game and illegal firearms. Johnston hopes the dogs’ relatively new official status will bring them the recognition they deserve.

“Because of their life span,” Johnston says, “they have a short window of effectiveness—like athletes. But what we think of as ‘work,’ they think of as ‘play,’ and they do it with such heart—no complaints, no parts breaking down.” 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. “To watch a dog work, find evidence that helps you prosecute a lawbreaker, is a thing of beauty,” he says.

Rex lives in a kennel at Barto’s home, spends most working days with him and gets some play time after hours, including with Barto’s seven–year–old daughter, Emily. But Barto is emphatic that Rex is not a pet. “He’s a tool for law enforcement, to be used when needed.” Given the vastness of the nearly two–million–acre Kenai Refuge, Rex (with his extraordinary senses of smell, hearing and sight) will be quite a 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.

Keen Sense of Smell

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!

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. Johnston says 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.

Labs have that keen a nose. But, Barto says, Labs also have what dog trainers call “ball drive.” They’ll work themselves to death to “get the ball,” the reward, which may be another way of saying the approval of “their” human.

Johnston is so adamant about gaining recognition for the canines that the training branch now issues each dog a Service law enforcement credential. He is also 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 several police dogs in other agencies have, and Johnston wants to prevent that from happening to any Service animal.

Rex might welcome a bulletproof vest. But Rob Barto has given him a more immediate gift. He has roofed Rex’s kennel and run electricity to it for heating. Plush digs for an Alaska dog.

Mary Tillotson is a frequent contributor to Refuge Update.