DULUTH — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has about 150 conservation officers across the state, only five of whom have K-9 partners.
In northeastern Minnesota, Scott Staples in Carlton and Mike Fairbanks in Deer River have German shepherd K-9 partners that are considered multi-purpose — certified to be both detector dogs and patrol dogs. That means they can sniff out fish, game, guns, ammunition and other items but also help track missing persons and apprehend criminals and protect their handler, like a traditional police K-9 partner.
The other three DNR K-9 partners are sporting breeds — a golden retriever and two German shorthairs — trained to sniff-out zebra mussels but also missing persons as well as fish and game.
“We also place a priority on detecting firearms and ammunition, like spent shell casings along a road,” said Jason Beckman, K-9 Unit coordinator for the DNR. “That’s a little different than most police dogs, which generally focus on human scent.”
It costs the DNR about $14,000 to acquire a starter dog and initial training for the officer/handler. This year, the agency received a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to acquire a sixth dog early in 2019, Beckman said. But that’s just the start of an intensive process of ongoing training for the dog and officer.
Not all officers want to spend the extra time and effort to train a partner.
“It takes a special officer to commit to the time and energy it takes’’ to be a K-9 handler, Beckman said. “These handlers have to bring the dog into their family… And there’s at least 20 hours per month of ongoing training. The training really never ends.”
The K-9 officer handlers “also work a lot more than other officers over the year. It’s a big commitment,” Beckman said. “We get a lot of requests to assist other agencies (to find missing or hiding people) and they do a lot of public relations and education work. Public education is a big part of what they do.”
While game-sniffing dogs often are shelter rescues, patrol or dual purpose dogs are generally German shepherds imported from Europe where the dogs are bred to be working dogs, not just pets. Each DNR K-9 is assigned their own officer/handler. The dog lives with the officer.
The officers and their dogs attend a 12 week police dog school. They are trained to the certification standards of the United States Police Canine Association. All DNR K-9 dogs and their officer handlers attend three weeks of fish and wildlife detection training.
The decision to retire a dog is based on the dogs abilities and health. As the dog ages, they start to slow down and begin having difficulties in certifying every year, as required. Usually the handler starts to notice this when training for jumps and hurdles in the agility portion of the certification process, often around age 10. Once the decision is made to retire the dog the officer is given the opportunity to keep the dog as a pet.