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Police Smell a Winner in Bloodhound Use

Animals: Orange County sheriff's agency is among urban departments turning to the canine sleuths.

June 28, 2000|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Famous dog heroes usually have the sleek good looks of Lassie or the plucky fluffiness of Benji.

Max, though, looks like Walter Matthau.

But then, he's the real thing.

"Sometimes when he's sleeping, I just stare at him like you would your own child," said Orange County Sheriff's Reserve Lt. Don Hanson. "I think, 'That dog, my dog, goes out and saves lives.' "

Max is top dog on Orange County's bloodhound team, garnering the toughest assignments. He has won at least a dozen awards, including the Sheriff's Department Medal of Lifesaving for finding a missing Alzheimer's patient.

In the last four years, bloodhound use has increased on the West Coast, particularly in Southern California, said Dennis Slavin, a Los Angeles County urban planner and bloodhound handler for the South Pasadena Police Department.

Until about 10 years ago, the jowly hounds were used mostly in rural areas.

But in Orange County, which employs four bloodhounds, the dogs' assignments include an increased diet of crime-related jobs, such as bomb investigations and arson. Mostly they search for Alzheimer's patients, lost children, escaped inmates, missing hikers and suspects.

Four years ago, when rookie California Highway Patrol Deputy Don Burt Jr. was shot to death, Max was brought in to track the killer, who was sentenced last week to life in prison.

Bloodhounds are ideal dogs for following a scent. The percentage of their brain devoted to smell is greater than in nearly any other breed. Once they sniff a "scent article"--clothes or anything that contains the dead skin cells that dogs can detect--bloodhounds are eager to find the source. Their facial wrinkles help trap scents, and their plentiful drool moisturizes whatever gives off aromas, which makes them easier to pick up. Their large ears also help stir up smells.

They don't get their name from their ability to sniff blood. In the 9th and 10th centuries, only royalty, the "bluebloods," were allowed to own them.

The dogs have long necks, which they can hold near the ground, even when moving rapidly. Their large lungs make them tireless runners, and their innate stubbornness makes them single-minded on a trail.

"With bloodhounds, you don't go much into the obedience stuff, because you don't want them to lose their drive," Hanson said. An obedient dog will have the bad habit of looking back at his handler for cues about what to do next, he said.

Once the job is done, though, a bloodhound's reward is baby talk, hugs and kibble.

Bloodhounds are not infallible, handlers point out. In fact, failure is such a part of tracking that handlers try to get these very competitive dogs used to failing. One way they do so is by establishing a "negative trail"-- having the dogs sniff a scent that goes nowhere.

The animals' frustration is obvious, Hanson said, but the important part is what comes next: Handlers hug their dogs, feed them a treat and let them know they did well nonetheless.

This practice teaches the dogs that not every scent leads somewhere, hopefully cutting the chances that a bloodhound will meander down a false trail.

The Sheriff's Department bloodhounds are also police dogs--certified and sworn in. Dogs like Max even have badges. "If you kick one of these dogs, technically you can get in trouble for assaulting a police officer and for cruelty to animals," said Deputy Kevin Grant.

Bloodhounds also are growing in popularity among civilians, said Ellen Ponall, president of the North American Search Dog Network and a longtime bloodhound breeder.

Although a lot of people dump their bloodhounds after trying, unsuccessfully, to control 130 pounds of muscle, Ponall said, police officers almost never do.

"Once they're attached . . . it's a done deal," she said. Orange County sheriff's handlers typically buy their bloodhounds for $1 after they're "retired," said Sgt. Doug Williams. In two weeks, Williams will get an 11-week-old bloodhound puppy, his first.

It's very likely that the dog will one day replace Duke, a 12-year-old who has slowed with age.

A deep funk plagues Duke--now nearing retirement--when other dogs like Max go out on a hunt and his cage door stays closed. Duke will howl mournfully, said Capt. Dean Berto, his handler. Bloodhounds are immensely competitive, and Duke was once really fast.

"He was known for doing a full-on run down a trail," Berto said. "Most guys who had to follow would almost groan and say, 'Oh no! Not Duke!' "

Lately, as the dog's abilities have declined, Duke has become more dependent on Berto. "He has real separation anxiety. If I go from one room to another, he'll follow me," the captain said. "Our bond has become tighter as he becomes older. I think he realizes he's not invincible."

And it's a shame the dogs aren't, Deputy Grant said.

"It's really not fair, when you look around at all the animals that live so long," Grant said, "and man's best friend lives so short a time."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Better Nose

The bloodhound's popularity with law enforcement is a result of its superior ability to follow scents.

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Sources: Dennis Slavin; Southern California Bloodhound Handlers Coalition

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