VASSALBORO, Maine — Belfast’s newest officer in training can pinpoint a piece of discarded evidence hidden in thick grass, hurdle an obstacle three times his height and track down a person even in Maine’s densest wilderness.
And he’s only a year old.
His name is Dex, a German-Dutch shepherd mix set to become Belfast Police Department’s first police dog since 1989, when its last police dog handler left for a job with Maine State Police.
Dex is among the latest in a growing number of dogs working on behalf of town, county and state police agencies across the state.
Police dog units are growing in favor, often thanks to their ability to track missing people, whether they be suspects in a crime or children who wandered away from home. In a rural place like Maine, quick access to a dog team can and does save lives.
A family from New Jersey was enjoying an evening hike earlier this month on a trail in Acton, when they turned around to find that 5-year-old Christopher Grecco had disappeared. The family searched the trail and woods frantically for nearly two hours before calling police for help around 8 p.m.
A group of police dog search teams representing multiple police agencies, the warden service and local volunteers descended on the forest and combed through the dense, dark woods, relying on the dogs’ keen noses to zero in on the missing child.
Volunteer Dorothy Smail and her search-and-rescue dog Tala found Christopher in the woods about half a mile from where he wandered off. The volunteer team tracked the boy down around 2:20 a.m., ending the eight-hour ordeal.
He was cold, wet and scared but otherwise unhurt. He’d been keeping quiet, fearing the animal he heard approaching him in the woods might by a coyote or fox.
This sort of situation and the potential for a tragic outcome is exactly why Belfast is bringing a police dog back to its force, according to police Chief Michael McFadden.
In December 2015, Jonathan “Jonno” Grinstein-Camacho, a 27-year-old autistic man, drove away from his family’s home in Searsport and was briefly spotted in a Belfast store before walking away. He was found dead in a small stream the next day.
“Humans are at a distinct disadvantage in determining where to even start looking,” McFadden said. “In most situations where we’re looking for a person who’s wandered away, time is a huge factor. Every moment that passes before we can get on the trail of the person we’re looking for puts us further and further behind and increases the potential for a tragic outcome.”
The chief said he’s seeing more and more instances of people going missing — children wandering out of their backyard, elderly folks suffering from dementia heading out for a walk and not returning home.
“I’m confident this team is going to save lives,” McFadden said.
What it takes
Dex’s handler is Officer Travis Spencer, who joined the police force in 2013. As a first-time police dog handler, his learning curve is as steep as Dex’s. They have to be a team, to read each other, to build a level of trust that will ensure they each know how to act even under the most stressful circumstances.
“In the short time that I’ve had him, since late March, we’ve formed such a strong bond,” Spencer said of Dex.
Dex and Spencer are one of six teams working to be certified as police dogs at the training center at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. They expect to graduate in June after an intense 14-week training, which keeps them busy eight hours per day, five days per week.
Dogs come from across the state to train here. Patrol teams representing Yarmouth, Topsham, Hancock County, Belfast and state police are all preparing to hit the streets this summer. There are other certification programs Down East, in southern Maine and in Aroostook County. After graduation, the dogs will have to return each year for “maintenance training” with their handlers.
The dogs work on agility, running through a fenced in course where they contend with a series of obstacles — hurdling stacks of barrels, scrambling up steep inclines, running across planks with large gaps.
“Dex loves to jump,” Spencer said. “He’s got some springs.”
During a recent training session in Vassalboro, Maine State Police Trooper Taylor Dube walked out into an open field and tossed a few items into the grass — spent shell casings, a cellphone case, a flashlight holder and a metal clasp.
He went to his cruiser to fetch his Belgian malinois, Odin, brought him into the field on a long leash and set him to work by saying “seek.” Odin kept his head low, circling and zigzagging through the field. When he closed in on a strong odor, he laid down next to it, pinpointing the spot for Dube.
Every item has a trace human scent left by the last person to handle the object. The dogs sniff out the residual human odor, not the object itself, according to Dalton.
“Tracking is our bread and butter,” Dalton said as he watched Dube and Odin work in the field. It’s a major focus in a rural, wooded state like Maine, where it can be easy for someone to scramble into the woods to escape police or difficult for someone to spot a missing hiker from the ground or air.
Odin struggled to find the final item, a metal clasp, so Dube tossed out another item for him to find. Ending training on a note of frustration can set the training back
After each successful drill, whether it be a circuit on the obstacle course or a searching session, the dogs get to play. Each has a favorite toy that the handler will pull out, playing a game of tug with the dog as a reward for their work. Other dogs might prefer a treat.
The drive for that reward, built up through months of training that starts very early in life, is what keeps the dogs engaged in the task at hand.
“These dogs are not pets, they’re working dogs,” Dalton said. “The dog doesn’t really want to hang out and sit on the couch, the dog doesn’t want to chase butterflies or be lazy, the dog wants to work.”
Getting to the force
Training for these dogs starts out when they’re just a few weeks old, almost as soon as they’re mobile.
They play tug, build their strength, hurdle obstacles and are taught that work brings reward.
Breeders specializing in raising police and search-and-rescue dogs most often breed German or Dutch shepherds or Belgian malinois who have performed well in the past and have desirable traits to produce the next generation of police dogs.
“A police dog can’t be afraid to go anywhere,” Christian Stickney, president of North Edge K9, a Portland-based training and breeding company, said. Stickney is also a police officer in Portland who handles three dogs for the department.
They’re bred and trained to exude confidence and fear nothing, according to Taylor Walton, head trainer at Brewer-based breeding and training company Controlled K9. Early on, they’re exposed to loud noises, simulating gunshots or shouting, to dark or confined spaces and to sketchy surfaces, such as fire escapes or grated walkways, in case they encounter something similar in the field. Dogs in training are always encouraged and allowed to succeed at whatever task they are doing, he said, so they aren’t likely to give up during a pursuit or a search until told to stop.
“They need to be exposed to everything so they can be the most confident dog you can get,” Walton said. “We teach them that they’re always going to win.”
After about eight months to a year of work with the breeder, most dogs have the skills to advance to further training and certification programs that make them into official police dogs.
Stickney sets strict boundaries for his dogs and thinks of them as a tool on his utility belt.
“I love my partner, but he’s there for a reason,” he said. He doesn’t let people come up and pet his dogs, because they aren’t “show ponies.” It would be like letting someone play with your stun gun or pepper spray.
He keeps his dogs at a kennel. For him, keeping the dogs at home can lead to situations that might confuse or conflict the dog. For example, if he scolds the dog for jumping on the table at home, the dog might hesitate jumping on the table during a search or chase in the field.
Other handlers don’t draw that hard line and keep their dogs at home as a member of the family.
Dogs, like people, don’t always make the force first try. Before Dex, Belfast had Sig.
The Belfast Police Department worked with Controlled K9 in Brewer, which has been around for four years and has dogs placed with police departments in Indiana, Ohio and Texas.
Sig washed out of training at the academy after displaying a few bad habits, such as marking territory and an interest in passing cars. Much like people, dogs may not be ready for the job on the first go. They may need additional obedience work or a trainer with more prior experience who has a better understanding how to respond to the dog’s signals and control the impulses that distract it.
“Some people don’t work well with other people. It’s the same with these partners,” Walton said.
Sig has since worked through some of those issues, according to Walton. He’s been sold to Intelliscent K9, an Indiana-based company that trains police dogs for departments and is closing in on police dog status, she said.
Police dogs are a big investment for departments. Starting a police dog unit can cost $20,000 to $30,000 between the purchase of the dog and the extensive training that follows. But a police dog doesn’t get an hourly wage and can work for anywhere from five to nine years before they start to lose a step or start having health issues and enter retirement.
For many agencies, it’s deemed worth the investment.
“Find one child that was missing, and try putting a price on that,” Stickney said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.