DEER RIVER, Minn. — It was Fourth of July week and Minnesota Conservation Officer Mike Fairbanks had just come on shift when he heard his radio crackle with reports of a missing boy.
Fairbanks radioed back that he and his partner were available to help in the search being quickly organized by Itasca County sheriff’s deputies.
By the time Fairbanks arrived on the scene, deputies were combing the boy’s rural Bovey home, yard and outbuildings. But Fairbanks and Si, his 6-year-old partner, went in a different direction.
“He got a scent from something and started to go and I just let him go. He’s trained to follow the freshest human scent so he doesn’t need any article of clothing or anything like that,’’ Fairbanks said of Si, a German shepherd police dog and Fairbanks’ partner in the field for the past five years.
Si followed the trail across the road and down another where, a half-mile from the child’s house, where they found some small footprints in the mud.
“The kid was barefoot… He was 3 years old and had a history of seizures. He was nearly overdue for his seizure medications,’’ Fairbanks said.
The officer and Si continued on the scent until they got about a mile from the child’s home.
“When we first saw him and called his name he started to run. He was scared,’’ Fairbanks said. “But we caught up and got him back home. … It was a pretty good find for Si.”
A few hours later Fairbanks got a call to help another conservation officer near Bigfork. The officer had pursued a suspect on an ATV when the guy crashed and fled on foot.
“We got up there and Si got the scent and he tracked him right into his campsite. … Then we went back and Si found the drug paraphernalia the guy had thrown while he was running,’’ Fairbanks said.
All in a day’s work for Fairbanks and Si, one of five K-9 conservation officer teams that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has in the field across the state.
Fairbanks, 40, joined the DNR in 2005 after a stint as a Leech Lake tribal conservation officer. He was born, raised and still lives in Deer River, the center of his big patrol area that includes Lake Winnibigoshish, the Mississippi River and parts of the Chippewa National Forest. He picked up Si in 2013 and did most of the dog’s training.
Si came from Slovakia, where many U.S. police dogs originate because they breed German shepherds to be working dogs, not pets. Fairbanks has qualified Si to not just track people but also guns and ammunition, fish and game.
“He’ll walk around when I’m talking to ice fishermen and, if they have any extra fish stashed in the snow, he’ll dig them out. I don’t even have to tell him to sniff around,’’ Fairbanks said. “He’s made a couple cases finding spent shell casings on the road, for a road hunting case. He found them right through the snow. And shell casings around deer bait piles.”
Extra ducks in the canoe? A pre-season deer hanging behind the shed? Si will find it, helping Fairbanks enforce the state’s conservation laws. “I take him in the boat or canoe, out in the four-wheeler, wherever I go,’’ Fairbanks said. “He’s not aggressive at all with other dogs.”
But Si is also trained to protect his handler, and he was pre-selected for police work even as a puppy to be an eager and aggressive dog.
“They are very high energy. They really don’t make great house pets,’’ Fairbanks said. “They’re great with my kids … they can pull on his ears and pull his tail and stick their hands into his mouth and he doesn’t care a bit. But you can’t leave him at home alone or he’d tear the house up. He needs to burn that energy off every day.”
Only now, after five years together and now that Si has mellowed a bit, can Fairbanks open up the compartment between the front seat of his patrol truck and the back where Si sits.
“If I opened it a crack before he’d have his head up there and grab a cellphone cord or radio charger and it would be history,’’ Fairbanks said with a grin.
Fairbanks spends hours each week touching up basic commands — like sit, break, heel — then offering a reward, usually Si’s Kong, a rubber chew toy. Si has a playful streak and he’ll do anything Fairbanks asks for a chance at his Kong.
“The dog training is a lot of extra work. But it’s really rewarding watching them do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it,” Fairbanks said. “He has so much drive. If I send him out to look for something he will look and look and look. He just doesn’t give up until he finds it.”
Si also makes for an extra set of eyes and ears, as well as a keen nose, when Fairbanks has to confront groups of people in the field, oftentimes groups of armed men where the nearest human officer for backup is 30-45 minutes away.
Si instinctively knows when Fairbanks is a bit nervous: “It goes right down the leash,’’ the handler noted.
“If I’m into a deer camp group or whatever and someone starts to get a little too loud, or starts pacing, or whatever, you can just watch Si key-in on that guy. He goes on point if they start to approach me at all,’’ Fairbanks said. “People tend to listen a lot better when he’s with me.”
So far, Si hasn’t had to use his take-down skills on any suspects, a so-called “apprehension” in K-9 terms.
“He’s not big for a police dog, 75 pounds, but people think he looks like a wolf,’’ Fairbanks said. “I have buddies (sheriff’s deputies) with county that have 115-and 118-pound dogs and they’ve had several bite situations between them.”
Around Si, the bad guys “usually give up before it gets to that point,’’ Fairbanks said. “In fact, so far, they always have.”