The month-long search for Brian Laundrie captured the attention of the entire nation, and required the effort of many people — and dogs. K-9s with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office were called in to assist. The Florida K-9 unit is one of the most efficient and diverse in the area, with 36 dogs who have a variety of different skills encompassing everything from human remains detection to narcotics detection to therapy dog work.
Three individuals from the department — Jimmy Hall, K-9 trainer; Susan Miller, forensics supervisor and human remains detection dog K-9 handler; and Chris Stone, a K-9 deputy — talk us through the work they are doing.
How Are Dogs Trained?
Training dogs for police work at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office begins with choosing “green dogs” or dogs that don’t have any prior training but have the right drive to facilitate the training.
The department’s favorite breed is the Labrador Retriever. “I find them to be an excellent dog for this job in particular,” says Jimmy Hall. “It’s genetics, they’re born with a drive to hunt. And so, the hunt is probably the drive we would need the most, where the dog is searching for something unprompted and he searches diligently for long periods of time. And probably the most important factor would be, he or she searches without distraction.”
Depending on what discipline the dogs are in, basic training could take anywhere from four to 16 weeks. After basic training, the dogs participate in certification with a national organization. After being certified, the dogs become fully operational with monthly maintenance.
When it comes to figuring out which dogs to assign to which cases, typically at least two dogs will deploy as a team in each situation. Chris is the operation team leader and devises the search patterns while Susan and another handler go out to actually deploy the dogs. In instances such as the Brian Laundrie case, where the dogs are searching for a body, all human remains detection dogs in the unit are typically deployed.
Impact of the Brian Laundrie Case
In the past two years, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit has seen a big increase in call volume and has seen a particular spike in the past few months, due to the Brian Laundrie case.
“With the coverage that we’ve been getting recently, agencies are starting to realize that we have those capabilities, and we can come into an area and essentially reduce the man-hours that it takes to search that area,” says Chris Stone. “And the human remains side of things, if we have something that’s been out there for a little while and there’s a scatter to it, we can assess that and determine distance and direction of scatter and kind of exclude everything else. That’s off to the side, which doesn’t need to put so many man-hours into searching. So, it’s a huge help.”
The increase in calls is welcomed by the department. “The more the information gets out that we have these animals with these capabilities, the more calls that come in, which we welcome the calls,” says Jimmy Hall. “Our sheriff is extremely progressive, and he wants us to go out and help whatever agency needs help. And for us, the benefit, the more calls we take, the better we become, the more research we can conduct, and the better information. So each time we do it, each time we go to a call, we get better for the next call. And we honestly will get better with each dog that we train to go forward and do this.”
During and After Deployment
It’s important to know that search and rescue dogs encompass live find dogs (people who are still living) while human remains detection dogs — or cadaver dogs as they’re sometimes referred to — search for just the odor of human remains.
Susan and her dog Diesel are completely integrated with the forensics unit full time, making the Labrador Retriever one of the only forensics-integrated K-9s in the country. Because of this, anything Diesel finds can be preserved immediately, instead of waiting for a forensics team to arrive after the find.
“What forensics is, is coming into the scene, after the fact,” says Susan Miller. “We are responsible for documentation via photographs, video, note-taking, we are to make meticulous notes and notate items of evidence. Those pieces of evidence, obviously are going to be used later in a court of law. And adding the dog component into forensics is, I don’t know of any other department that has done that thus far, but it makes it a unique tool, invaluable actually to have a Human Remains Detection dog in the forensics unit.”
The group is also at the forefront of doing research to help make K-9 work more efficient, and in turn, save time and money.
“There’s a lot of science that goes into it,” says Chris Stone. “And the better we are with that, the better we’re able to deploy the dogs in areas that are actually workable, use those usable areas to put the dogs and to just make things click along a lot faster, a lot easier.”
When dogs are deployed, they have a packet of information that they gather at each deployment. So after each operation, the information gathered is analyzed.
“If we’re able to take a 10-acre plot of land and through our research, find the highest probability areas, deploy the dog in those, we cut down on time,” says Jimmy Hall. “So, if we can speed the process up and make things easier for everyone involved, and if we make it faster and easier, we in-turn make it safer. So with the research on something as simple as locating high probability areas, because we’ve done so many, we’re able to extrapolate that data and create that search pattern.”
The Emotional Toll
Is there an emotional toll on the dogs that search for missing people and dead bodies? Luckily, for the dogs, it’s a high-reward activity. So ultimately, the dogs get something of extremely high value after the process. But for humans, it can definitely be tolling.
Susan, who has worked in forensics for years, has experience with the mental exhaustion that comes with the job. “I am used to the toll that searching for remains does seem to take, however, you really have to think about the end. And that is, you’re bringing somebody’s loved one home and that’s the most important thing,” says Susan. “Having a dog for the past two years, I have found that my emotional wellbeing has greatly increased and he has offered support. He doesn’t know it, but he has offered support to me when we are out there working as a team together and doing these searches.”
The detection dogs also serve a dual purpose to others at the scene. “It helps out those law enforcement groups or officers, deputies, whatever they may be,” says Chris. “I think it helps them out when we’re out there with the dog, because the dog gets to interact with them also. So it’s a little bit of a relief for them after the dog is done working, they can pet the dog, and play with the dog and interact with the dog. So it gives a little bit of relief in the middle of what they’re dealing with and helps them emotionally.”
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit is one of the first to add therapy dogs to its deployable dogs. The K-9 unit has paired with the behavioral health unit to make this possible.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that dogs and animals have a physiological effect on people and their emotions,” says Jimmy. “So, you can imagine victims of crimes or anyone that is interfaced with any kind of traumatic situation, including members of our own department can all benefit from the physiological effects of interacting with the animal. So the animal just merely interacts, no specific job other than friendly interaction with someone. And just that interaction in of itself really has a dramatic effect on people.”
The department thinks that more and more agencies will see the benefits of the work K-9s can do. But being able to train K-9s begins with community support.
“We’re very fortunate. And our community loves us, and we have a lot of donors and they donate funds to our K-9 unit. We have the availability to buy the dogs, the equipment and things that we need, due to those contributions from our community,” says Chris. “I attribute this to the fact that we are very transparent with everything that we do, everything from our bodycam footage to press releases, and our community loves us for that. We do a lot of community events. We bring the K-9 team, we bring the mounted unit out. So all of the interaction with the community, I think just in increases that likelihood, and that ability for law enforcement and the community that the law enforcement serves to really come together and work as one.”
Chris, Jimmy, and Susan all say they love the work they do.
“I’m extremely proud and fortunate, I’m a canine trainer and this is an extremely progressive forward-thinking agency, more so than any agency I’ve ever interfaced with,” says Chris. “And so for my particular job, this is Disney World. So, we were able to do things and push the envelope and not just with the dogs, but also with the research that makes us better and that’s a big component of all this. So, I’m extremely proud and extremely fortunate to work here.”
Susan agrees. “It is absolutely the best job in the world. And the fact that this package that we have to deliver to the community, to help them find their loved ones is, you go home every night with just your heart filled with joy, knowing that you’ve done the best that you can at the end of the day. And, I’ve been doing it 20 years, so I love it.”