MDC launches canine unit to help with investigations

Francis Skalicky
Missouri Department of Conservation
MDC’s canine unit is not breaking new ground – 36 other states already have canine units as part of their fish and wildlife agencies.

In terms of discovering and tracking a scent, a dog’s nose knows best.

That’s one of the principles that’s at the heart of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) new canine unit. This branch of MDC’s Protection Division was launched earlier this year with five dogs and their conservation-agent handlers stationed across the state. These dogs – three Labrador retrievers and two German shorthaired pointers – will be used for a variety of enforcement investigations such as evidence recovery and wildlife trafficking. They will also be used to find people (not just hunters, hikers, but other citizens, as well) who have gone missing in the outdoors. MDC’s canine unit dogs will also be used in conservation-oriented public outreach programs.

People will get a chance to meet MDC’s canine unit team for the southwest part of the state at this year’s Ozark Empire Fair. Corporal Susan Swem, MDC’s Polk County Conservation Agent, and her dog “Astro” will be at the MDC building on the west side of the Fairgrounds on Thursday, July 29; Monday, Aug. 2; Wednesday, Aug. 4; and Friday, Aug. 6. The program on each of these nights will be at 6:30 p.m. At these events, Corporal Swem will explain how Astro (a Labrador) and other members of the canine unit will be used by MDC and she’ll also demonstrate a few of Astro’s seek-and-find skills.

At the core of these scent-detection skills is a nose that is far beyond any sniffer that can be found on a human. One thing that makes a dog’s nose better is what’s inside it: Olfactory receptors are parts of a nose that assists in the smelling process. A dog’s nose can contain up to 300 million olfactory receptors, a human nose has around six million.

Another trait that aids dogs in their smelling prowess is their ability to manipulate their nostrils independently of one another. Humans can twitch their noses, but even Elizabeth Montgomery on the old “Bewitched” TV series couldn’t wiggle one nostril independently of the other. (Sorry for the “Boomer” reference… if you didn’t understand it, ask your parents.) This nostril dexterity helps a dog discover a scent and follow it. The most obvious sign of this characteristic is the way a dog will sometimes weave its head back and forth across a trail, making sure each nostril fully connects with the scent being tracked.

Before beginning their duties with MDC, the dogs and their conservation agent owners had to complete a nine-week training program. One reason this training is important is the legal one: The criminal justice system requires all law enforcement canines to be trained and certified in their respective fields of expertise so any evidence they uncover can stand up in a court case. This training also refines the skills of the dog and strengthens the bond between, in MDC’s case, the conservation agent and their canine unit dog.

It's important to note that MDC’s canine unit is not breaking new ground – 36 other states already have canine units as part of their fish and wildlife agencies. Studies in other states have shown that one well-trained dog can save enforcement staff approximately 800 man-hours per year.

“Canine programs have been successfully used by conservation agencies since the late 1970s,” said MDC Protection Deputy Chief Dean Harre. “The implementation of this canine program will help continue MDC’s mission of protecting Missouri’s fish, forest, and wildlife resources.”

Moving back to this year’s Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield, the Fair runs from July 29 through Aug. 7. The MDC building will be open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. each day of the fair. Inside the building will be an assortment of items providing information about Missouri’s fish, forest, and wildlife resources.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.