Four-legged woods cops Fish & Wildlife Department K9s prove valuable in the fieldPhoto by Len Emery
Misty is a trained search dog who works with Game Warden Steve Majeski of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.
Dogs on the beat for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department can find you if you’re lost, put you away by finding evidence if you’ve broken the law and lay on the kisses if you’re having a bad day.
Most people are familiar with the sight of a police dog — usually a German shepherd or similarly intimidating breed — that with its bark and the snapping of its teeth can help its handler gain compliance over an unwilling suspect.
But fours Fish & Wildlife wardens have canine partners with different duties.
Each of four supervisory districts in Vermont has one dog assigned to assist in tracking and evidence recovery, said Maj. Dennis Reinhardt of the department’s law enforcement division.
Warden Mark Schichtle of Wells River and Magooch patrol the Northeastern District. The Northwestern District has Warden Chad Barrett of Waterbury Center and Ranger. In the Central District, Warden Robert Sterling of Fair Haven and Rufus are one of the most decorated teams in the state. And in the Southern District, Warden Stephen Majeski of Woodstock and Misty handle calls.
Reinhardt said the wardens’ dogs are trained for specific duties related to tracking and evidence recovery.
“They’re not protective dogs,” Reinhardt said. “They’re primarily detection dogs.”
That means Schichtle won’t be ordering his 4-year-old Labrador, Magooch, to attack anything more than her food dish.
“Come out or she’ll lick you until you’re extremely uncomfortable,” Schichtle joked, pretending to issue a command to a suspect.
What the dogs are good at, however, is finding lost people and locating evidence.
The dogs can help a warden make a case by finding the empty brass ejected from a gun during a poaching incident — and sometimes finding even the bullet.
“They can do a better job than a metal detector,” Reinhardt said.
Majeski said the ability to detect gunpowder takes center stage during hunting season.
“It primarily works out in the fall,” Majeski said. “Warden Sterling’s dog is extremely proficient at it. There’s quite a few cases that have been made with a shell casing dropping down through 10 inches of snow. Without the help of a dog, those cases wouldn’t have been made.”
Finding the lost
Where the dogs really excel is in finding people.
It can be someone who doesn’t want to be found, but often it’s a person who has become lost in Vermont’s unforgiving mountains.
Magooch and Rufus have helped Schichtle and Sterling win lifesaving awards for finding people who may not have survived if they hadn’t been found when they were.
Magooch had just been certified the previous month when Schichtle got a call about a 79-year-old man visiting from Manhattan who had not returned from a walk in a driving thunderstorm a few Labor Day weekends ago.
The man had taken his dog for a walk but didn’t return and it had been dark for a while.
“His wife called,” Schichtle said. “He was overdue and now the weather was bad. Driving rain coming down in sheets.”
Water can be tough for a dog and this was Magooch’s first track.
Schichtle put the man’s pillow case on the ground and told Magooch to track and she immediately left the trail and headed into some trees.
“I gave her the command to track and she turned right and went into the tree line,” he said.
Schichtle was worried.
But suddenly the brush parted into a little game trail, and there in the mud was a boot print.
A little while later, Magooch found the man, near hypothermic, soaked and muddy in a T-shirt, sweatpants and tennis shoes missing the laces.
He had used the laces to tie his dog to a tree and was trying to make his way back in the dark.
Magooch then found the dog and they helped the pair out of the woods.
“The wife came tearing out of the house and came racing across the yard and went straight to the dog,” Schichtle said.
More success stories
Rufus made a similar find when he and Sterling went looking for a 12-year-old autistic boy who went missing one April day several years ago.
Sterling put the boy’s pillow case on the ground and Rufus headed off on a track that was 5½ hours old.
At one point, Rufus tracked to the edge of a pond and Sterling became concerned.
But Rufus kept working and continued tracking from a different part of the pond.
After 2½ hours and 4 miles, Rufus found the boy. He was dressed in his underwear, a light windbreaker and Crocs sandals. And that night, it got down to 25 degrees.
Majeski’s dog, Misty, has a few success to her credit too.
She’s found three different Alzheimer’s patients who walked away, some in bad weather.
She also found a man with mental health issues who had taken off all his clothes, and she helped the Springfield Police Department find a felon who had run away from them.
And Barrett, with Ranger, a chocolate Lab, has helped many times, including finding an Alzheimer’s patient with a track that was 26 hours old before Ranger was called.
Ranger also helped solve a case of shooting from the road when he found some shotgun wads — the plastic piece of a shotgun shell that separates the powder from the shot — and eventually led authorities to a man who admitted to shooting a crow.
Sometimes it’s finding a piece of evidence that helps make a case, and sometimes the dog takes wardens right to the offender.
Sterling’s dog, Rufus, has twice tracked a person from the scene of a poaching incident through the woods right to his house.
Bobby Ryan is the canine training coordinator for the Vermont Police Academy. He helps train the dogs so they can be certified.
Each warden’s dog has to attend a six-week training school to work on tracking and evidence recovery skills, and if the handler wants the dog to be trained to detect gunpowder, there’s another six-week course.
Once certified, the dogs are required to do 16 hours of training per month. Also, once a year the dog has to come in for two days of additional tracking training and another two days for gunpowder detection.
Having a dog in each division has been the standard and Reinhardt said there are no known plans to increase the number of dogs in the field or to eliminate them.
“They have proven to be valuable to the division,” Reinhardt said. “I think that’s our goal is to keep one dog in each supervisory district.”
Their other job
The dogs, for all their training and skill, are still pets that actually belong to the wardens.
Each warden buys the dog himself and pays for all costs related to the dog, including feed and veterinary care, Sterling said.
“They’re our pets and our service dogs,” Majeski said. “It doesn’t change how I deploy my dog. But, if they get injured, it’s on (our) dime.”
Majeski said the fact that warden dogs are available to help other agencies adds to their value.
“Our guys are dedicated to making sure the dogs are well trained, getting them out there, getting them used when they’re needed,” Majeski said. “They’re not just our dogs, they’re available for whatever agency needs our assistance.”
Schichtle said what the dogs add to the wardens’ abilities goes beyond making cases and finding people.
“Their true worth can’t be measured in cases,” Schichtle said. “It’s more in public relations.”
He said Magooch is the much more popular half of the duo, and when they go to a school or other group for a presentation, she steals the show.
“If I could teach her to drive the truck, I wouldn’t have to leave the house to do public speaking,” Schichtle said. “It helps make game wardens more human.”
She also helps ease tensions during investigations.
“It has helped me when I needed to create a bond with an offender or a member of an offender’s family. They are a de-escalating influence,” Schichtle said. “These guys see a warden and there’s a black Lab with her tail wagging. They help break the ice.”
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