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Orange County Focus

NEWPORT BEACH : Pair, Dogs Share Sense of Duty

January 07, 1991|JON NALICK

Everyone in the Harris family wears a uniform and carries a badge--even the dogs.

And when the phone rings in the middle of the night, as it does about once a week, Larry and Jean Harris know they are being called to work--along with their bloodhounds Duchess and Sable.

Larry, 62, is a member of the sheriff's reserves. Jean, 56, works as a reserve officer at the Newport Beach Police Department, specializing in juvenile offenses. But since 1983, Larry Harris also has trained bloodhounds for the Orange County Sheriff's Department's search-and-rescue unit.

About once a week, the Harrises get a call to track lost hikers, lost children, Alzheimer's patients or escaped criminals.

For example, Duchess, an 88-pound black-and-brown bloodhound with the characteristic drooping, wrinkled face and long, limp ears, recently helped police investigate a shooting in a Stanton bar. The suspect was caught a few minutes after the shooting, about eight blocks away, but without a gun. Duchess followed his scent those eight blocks and found a discarded gun.

"Their value is their noses, which are 3 million times more sensitive than a human's," Larry Harris said. Their noses are so sensitive that they are able to track people by the scent of their body scurf--microscopic skin cells that are sloughed off at a rate of around 50 million a day.

But when the midnight call comes, it isn't always for the dogs. Sometimes, it is from the Newport Beach Police Department when it needs Jean Harris as a jail matron to process a female prisoner when no female jailer is on duty.

Harris also helps train the dogs, a job which at times requires considerable patience. When the dogs practice tracking, using her as their object, she must remain motionless. Once, when she reached the designated end point of a trail, she was soaked by an automatic sprinkler as she waited to be found.

Larry Harris commands the dogs in English and in a mixture of American Indian languages, reserving the latter for trailing commands to ensure that the dog responds to no one else.

Clearly, they said, they enjoy the work. "When I get a call and get my uniform, Duchess won't let me out of the door unless I take them," he said. "She'll just lie down crossways in the hall and block it."

For the Harrises, the dogs help to fill a void created when their two sons grew up and moved away.

"The best way to solve the empty nest problem is to fill it with fur," Jean Harris said.

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