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Stella gets ready to work a 24-hour aged trail during a training session. Photo by Joe Blanton

Each year, the AKC Humane Fund pays tribute to five dedicated, hardworking dogs for making significant contributions to an individual or entire community. One award is given in each of the following categories: Uniformed Service K-9Service, TherapySearch and Rescue, and Exemplary Companion Dog.

No matter the environment, just about everyone who meets Stella thinks she’s “scentsational.”

From lifesaver to public-relations ambassador, this 70-pound Bloodhound is right at home in the deep woodlands or schools, nursing homes, and senior centers in Florida, where her look is known to melt the heart.

Stella’s incredible find record from felons to missing persons with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia earned her and handler Paul Coley, of Tallahassee, Florida, recognition as the AKC Humane Fund Award For Canine Excellence (ACE) Sponsored by Eukanuba Uniformed Services K-9 winner.

Raising a Bloodhound For Tracking

The 3-year-old tracking machine comes from a litter of 11 and began environmental conditioning at 7 weeks. “We use our own M77 Human Scent Discriminate Training Program to develop and hone a Bloodhound’s natural trailing abilities beginning at eight to 10 weeks old,” says Coley. “Stella has a steady and deliberate drive that is easy for backup personnel to follow and for the handler to read.”

And she has been on fast forward since those early days with Coley, a former FBI forensic canine operations specialist who founded his own firm, Scent Evidence K9, in 2012.

Stella and Coley have worked cases for the Tallahassee Police Department Special Victims Unit and several federal, state, and local agencies the past two years.

When not hot on the trail of a criminal suspect, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia individual, the pair is all about educating the public. Their latest endeavor is Coley’s The Trail For the Cure fundraiser campaign – to raise funds in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

She has plenty of ambassadorial work ahead, including participation in Bringing The Lost Home Project, a bill recently passed by Florida legislators. The BLTH project helps agencies enhance their missing-person response capabilities and recovery success by increased wandering awareness, specialized training techniques, and innovative scent-collection technology.

Handler Paul Coley loads Stella for a missing veteran search deployment. It turns out the man had been missing 15 days. Photo by Joe Blanton

Keeping it Fun

Coley, his wife, Donna, and Stella live on two acres in the Tallahassee suburbs, which offers a variety of environmental and terrain training conditions – extreme heat, humidity, wooded areas, downtown, and urban settings.

Like any well-honed athlete, conditioning is key for this spirited dog.  To keep her scent-discriminate skills sharp, Stella regularly runs nearby training trails when not deployed on a case. “The key here is keeping it fun,” Coley concludes.

At home, Stella is goofy and playful, prompting Donna to label Stella and her Bloodhound mates, “The Hippies of the Dog World.” When it comes to play, her favorite toy is a large ball with ropes on both sides. And then there’s tug-of-war with Bree, her female Bloodhound working partner.

Wow, finally a day off for the hard-working Stella. Here she enjoys a laid-back Sunday afternoon at home in Tallahassee, Florida, with Coley and wife, Donna. Photo by Scent Evidence K9

Finding a Missing Person

Coley’s Scent Evidence K9 firm has struck up a partnership with nearby Florida State University Emergency Management and Homeland Department Drone Program, the first to incorporate drone technology into K9 searches.

“We have conditioned Stella to the sound and activity produced by drones,” Coley explains. “They play an essential role in creating a safer environment for myself and Stella with their over-watch and reconnaissance of all settings. The bottom line, they enable us to cover more territory efficiently and keep us from running off a cliff or landing in a ditch.”

Coley and Stella are basically on call 24/7. In a missing-person case, it’s never a good time, he says. “Most people are unaware of what to do when a loved one goes missing. Too often they wait too long to report the incident. That is why we are working so hard to create awareness on the steps to establish a plan of action more quickly.”

When Coley receives the call that person could have been missing or on the run for several hours, sometimes in inclement conditions. No specifics are given and the search begins by collecting an uncontaminated scent article for Stella.

If the missing party’s scent has been pre-collected in a Scent Kit, then they can start the search immediately, knowing that no one else has touched or contaminated the article. “It’s the No. 1 challenge in K9 search success, he notes.

Coley’s company has developed a Scent Evidence Collection vacuum called SEKR that is used to extract scent from a personal item (clothing, car seats, shoes, etc.). Then he offers Stella the odor and the search is on.

“I totally trust Stella,” he emphasizes. “Often, we don’t know we’ve confirmed the trail until much later. We do, however, have a 90 percent success rate with confirmed trails. Before we begin a trial, she gives me a kiss on the cheek, then gets to work (on a 15-foot lead).” Her statistics are impressive: More than a dozen successful search deployments for the Tallahassee Police Department and surrounding agencies.

The 3-year-old Bloodhound and Coley relax after confirming a trail in a homicide case involving the Tallahassee Police Department Violent Crimes Unit and Patrol Division. Photo by Scent Evidence K9

Stella’s Extraordinary Finds

One of her most extraordinary finds came when Coley received a call from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Missing Person’s Section November 21, 2019, asking for assistance in a search for a military veteran reported missing by his family. The man’s vehicle was found at a rest area on Interstate 10, approximately 10 miles from Chattahoochee, Florida, on the banks of the Apalachicola River.

“We were told the case was a few days old,” Coley recalls. “Stella was given the missing man’s odor and began to trail. She worked approximately three-quarters of a mile to the edge of the highway, circled two times, looked down a steep ravine, and then gave her location alert, which is a sit. I advised the search manager of the results. He brought in a Human Remains K9 and combed the area Stella trailed to. The victim was located soon after, which provided closure for the family. A short time later we were informed the veteran had missing 15 days.”

And just in case you’re wondering if Stella receives a treat following a find, Coley says, “We carry one for her but she prefers being loved. She goes crazy when her belly is being rubbed after a long trail.”

And then there are the searches for criminals, including a four-miler last July that led to the apprehension of two double homicide suspects. That involved a car trail that identified where the suspects were picked up following the homicides.

Coley recalls a couple of other particularly memorable cases:

  • She located a man who wandered away from a hospital after receiving a transplant. Coley and Stella had two hours to find him due to his need for life-saving medicine. Stella began her trail with the family watching, nuzzling the wife’s hand during the dismissal process, and began trailing, which went several miles. He was found alive and returned to the hospital for the needed medications where a smiling and thankful family awaited.
  • Stella assisted the Tallahassee Police Department to find a 10-year-old girl who went missing after getting off a school bus. The child was returned safely to her family about four hours later and Stella received hugs and loving for a job well done.
During a homeschool group field trip in Tallahassee, Florida, Stella and Coley demonstrate how scent kits are used to help bloodhounds find missing children. Photo by Scent Evidence K9

She Knows They Need Her Help

Coley and Stella were members of a Tallahassee Police Department team that was honored recently with 2020 IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police)/Thomson Reuters Excellence in Criminal Investigations Award that recognizes a law-enforcement agency for exceptional innovation in criminal investigations.

The department’s Violent Crimes Unit earned the award for its work in investigating more than 1,500 cases, including 24 homicides in 2019. Twenty-one of the 24 were cleared, an incredible 88 percent closure rate.

While the award recognized the totality of the unit’s success, it centered on the investigation of the murder of Shawnez Williams and the subsequent arrest within 24 hours of the suspect.  The nimble teamwork of Coley and Stella played a key role in the apprehension of the felon.

Asked if he had different emotions searching for an elderly Alzheimer’s patient or autistic child vs. the hot pursuit of a felon, Coley replied, “With the former, it’s hard not to feel what the family is feeling. We have seen the anguish too many times. Stella is laser-focused and her drive goes up when we are looking for a vulnerable person. It’s like she knows they need her help!

“She is much more intense and I think she is reading me. There is a saying in the K9 world ‘What happens at one end of the lead runs down the lead.’ “

“Often when we head out on a suspect search, we are not aware of all the details. We do have an increased safety risk because we are trailing and unable to fully protect ourselves. I watch Stella and they cover us.

“There have been cases where it gets pretty dangerous and she will be trailing and will look back at me, as if she is saying, ‘Are we OK, Dad?’ She is sensing me and the way I am interpreting what is going on. All I have to do is say, ‘it’s OK, girl,’ and she is back to work. She trusts me completely.”

Related article: Dalmatian Monson Awarded 2020 Therapy ACE Award
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