Nature Boost Podcast: MDC K-9 Ride-Along
[ Birds Chirping & Music ]
Jill Pritchard: Hey there! And welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Ever wondered what it's like to be a Conservation Agent for the State of Missouri? Well, these folks have their hands full with enforcing the Wildlife Code of Missouri, protecting the state's natural resources, and educating the public about local fish, forest, and wildlife. But five of MDC's agents across the state now have new four-legged partners.
I am here on a ride-along with one of those agents, Corporal Susan Swem in the Southwest Region, and her new partner, Astro. So Susan, first off, thank you so much for allowing me to tag along with you today. Before we get into the canine unit, I'd like to hear a little bit more about your background as an agent with MDC. Why did you want to pursue a career as a conservation agent?
Susan Swem: When I was growing up, my dad had a really good friend that was an agent. And he would always come to the coffee shop where my parents had a little ice cream/coffee shop and sit down and tell stories. And I always thought that was so much fun. And I also love to camp and fish and just the outdoors in general, so it looked like the perfect job to me. It seemed like a great job and a great opportunity to enjoy the hobbies I have plus enjoy it as a career.
Jill Pritchard: So how long have you been with the department?
Susan Swem: I am on my 32nd year right now.
Jill Pritchard: And you had told me, actually, you were about ready to retire and then MDC kind of put the word out that they were thinking about doing a canine program. And that was something that you were very interested in.
Susan Swem: Yes. Whenever we have like an association it allows us to go to conferences where other wildlife officers or game wardens from other states and even other countries -- Canada -- go. And every time, they'd have programs. A lot of states have canine programs. And it was always intriguing to me. I'd go to all their -- yeah, every time they had a demo of them, I'd go and watch the dogs. And it was just so much fun. And I am -- I say I'm Lab poor because I have my own Labs too. And it is just -- it's just been -- it's like a cherry on top of the sundae. You have the best of everything and then you get to add this. And with that opportunity I decided that, you know, I would stay on longer just to do this, just to be able to have that opportunity to experience that.
Jill Pritchard: And so, what was that experience like? Did they assign a dog to you? Or did you get to pick it yourself? How did that process work?
Susan Swem: They wanted to get a variety of the Labs or the German short hairs so we could see which worked best for us. And since this was a new program, it was a good time to experiment with that. I like Labs and so I asked to be able to pick a Lab. A couple of the other guys wanted German short hairs. So we have a mix -- three Labs and two German short hairs. So it worked out really good. And also the sex of the dog -- you know, we got to pick whether we wanted a male or female. And when it got right down to it, we all got to travel, where Missouri purchased the dogs and we got to look at the dog's work, meet the dogs, and get to pick which dog we wanted.
Jill Pritchard: Why did Astro stand out to you, then?
Susan Swem: He was the craziest one. I mean, he was just, like, so excited. He wanted to go every time and get the toy for you. He wanted to search and keep searching. He had such a high drive. I know when I got him, they thought he was the wildest, craziest dog. And I remember our deputy chief. He was like, "are you sure?" You know? Because he is a handful. He was a real handful when I first got him. So --.
Jill Pritchard: Something we were talking about earlier -- I think a lot of people when they hear canine unit, what comes to their minds are those very straightlaced German shepherd dogs that a lot of law enforcement organizations have. With MDC's canine unit, these are sporting breeds. There's a difference between these Labs and these pointers than what people normally expect with the German shepherds.
Susan Swem: Yeah, they are not bite dogs at all. He is working for that reward -- toy. He doesn't bite at all. He likes the attention. His reward -- sometimes, if I take him to a school program or to the nature center for a program, his reward a lot of times to him is just for the kids to get to pet him after the program. That's just as much as him getting a dog treat or his toy. He just really enjoys that human contact.
And there's -- you know, we're trying to make it where we can do a well rounded dog where they can work but they can also -- we can use them in programs to help educate the public with conservation but also assist us with wildlife enforcement when we have things that we have to enforce, especially like the water fowl season. They can find things -- shotgun shells, waterfowl that's been dumped, a shotgun. Somebody throws their shotgun into a marsh to hide it from us because they don't want to be caught hunting without a permit or illegally, these dogs can find it quicker for us. But they are also good for programs too. They get people that might be a little apprehensive seeing the uniform. Just, like, we're everyday people and they see the dog and they may not butter up to me but they will to him because he's -- everybody likes him. So --.
Jill Pritchard: Let's get into a little bit more about how he can assist you in cases and investigations. Obviously, a big benefit of having a canine partner is their sense of smell. And you know, they can track things that you can't. So how else can he assist you in some of these cases?
Susan Swem: We've already been requested for a lost individual that was distressed, for Fellows Lake from Springfield PD. He does human tracking. He can track a lost child. If somebody comes out of the woods, they say they haven't been hunting, he can track back into where they were at and find a deer stand or bait or even a deer they may have shot or a turkey that they've taken illegally in closed season or a firearm they've left in the woods. There's a lot of benefits to that, to having them.
There's cases that we can make and things that we can help landowners with on trespassing. If somebody trespasses and a landowner chases, we can track that area back. A lot of times you're not necessarily tracking the person right then. You may be tracking the person after they've already left. If somebody is digging ginseng illegally, and they come out, you can always track back into where they came from and find whether they were digging ginseng or what they were doing.
Jill Pritchard: So in the case of a missing person, I think a lot of people have an image in their mind of what they see in the media or in movies. Like, oh sniff this shirt of theirs and then, OK, track it. How does he know he's supposed to be tracking something? Is there a certain sign or signal that you give him? Or a certain noise that he associates? Like, oh, I'm supposed to find this scent.
Susan Swem: They have different tools that we use for them, different equipment. Just like in a baseball game you have a bat and a ball, he has his tracking harness. And when he has that tracking harness on and I click it and I click the lead on and tell him to track, he knows that we're going to track human scent. And it's usually the first, freshest human scent that he finds or will start. Like, we may circle around a vehicle or an area where the person was last seen and then he will pick up the freshest scent and track through that.
Jill Pritchard: OK. So there's equipment that, OK, I know whenever I've got the harness on I'm supposed to find a scent?
Susan Swem: Yes. Yeah.
Jill Pritchard: OK. Alright. Interesting.
This was a huge responsibility you took on, applying to have a canine partner, because in a way it's almost like adopting a new pet. I mean, Astro comes home with you. So how did you adapt to basically almost kind of like a new family member?
Susan Swem: At first -- you know, I have another Lab. I have two or three other Labs that stay in the house with me and that are my pets, but I had to acclimate them with them. And it's like I'm the alpha dog. I guess it's the best way to any it. I have another male that, at first he didn't kind of get along with him. But just gradually, get them to know each other. Don't force it on them and stuff.
Astro has his own kennel that he stays in. If I'm working, he goes with me. If I'm home, I let him run a little bit with the other dogs every night for an hour or so. It's a fun time for him. It's his play time. It's his recreational time. And at night when he goes to bed, you know, I put him in the crate and he knows his kennel is that one and the other dog's kennel is that one. And so he goes right in, lays down, and goes to sleep. And then when I have a day off, if he's home, you know, and I'm not taking him with me, he has a kennel outside that he stays in and he knows that's his place. And it's just familiar, just doing it, repetition over and over again, just like you're training him with anything. You know? He gets a reward when he goes in his kennel and now he knows that's his kennel and he'd rather be in there than anywhere else. So --.
Jill Pritchard: And how many dogs did you say you already had?
Susan Swem: I have one male Lab and then I have three female Labs, three girls. So --.
Jill Pritchard: So he joined a pretty big family?
Susan Swem: He joined a big family [laughing].
Jill Pritchard: You went through some extensive training. You guys were in Indiana at this training facility. Tell us what that was like. You were there for nine weeks, you said?
Susan Swem: Yeah, we were there for three weeks there, three weeks home, and then three weeks there, three weeks home. And then we finished out the three weeks. We tracked a lot of tracks in a campground. When we first got there, we started out doing square, like, box tracks is what they call them in the snow. And we stayed in cabins there close to the area.
And it was a lot of fun now when I look back on it. But at the time I didn't know if I was going to make it through it because it was almost like a boot camp, some of it, as far as every day we'd get up. Eight o'clock we'd be out already running tracks. And then we'd have lunch. But we may do two or three tracks a day. On Fridays we'd do mile long tracks and everybody dreaded that, just like you would anything, you know? It was a lot for us and the dogs themselves, too. It was to get the dogs in condition and us to get conditioned to be able to do this, you know, further. So --.
Jill Pritchard: Well, not only training the dogs but you're training the handlers too.
Susan Swem: Yeah, that's a lot of it. The dogs, it's natural for them to track or to scent that. But for us to be able to read the dog and tell is the dog really tracking or is the dog hunting? And so you have to find that fine line. And you have to learn to be able to read your dog and figure out. And the more you do it, the more you learn, like, well . . . if Astro is on something, say we're doing an article search or a building search, when his tail starts wagging really, really fast, I know that he is getting close to the item, that he's finding it. That just took me watching him a lot, you know, videotaping him working and then going back and watching those videos over and over again. You figure out what he's doing when he does it. Is he really working or is he not working?
Jill Pritchard: So whenever he wags his tail, that's kind of his tell that he's onto something?
Susan Swem: And when he's tracking, if I -- they call it checking the dog, to check your dog. It's kind of just a little tug back on the leash or on the lead. If he comes back to me, then he's not tracking. But if he, when I pull back a little bit and he just puts his nose down to the ground and works harder, he's on a scent, he's on a track. So you kind of learn that stuff.
And you learn, like, sometimes they'll do what they call negatives when they turn their head real quick and look down an area. They may have a scent going down to an area. And they may even follow a scent drift somewhere. And then when you get to the end of it, the dog just stops and you realize you have to circle him and go back out because that scent has drafted away. So they are not necessarily following the scent on the ground. That scent will move, just like when we did water tracks.
They might not follow the exact trail. It's a lot of -- a lot of people watch it on TV and think, like, the old bloodhound that follows him step-by-step. It's not really that way. [Cell phone ringing] They are following the scent. And when the scent drifts, the dog will follow that scent. It might not be the easiest path, but they're going to go down that path.
Jill Pritchard: That's interesting because I think what their view of it is, oh the scent, you know, it's like a straight line. It's clear for the dog. But I think weather can play a factor in that too, correct?
Susan Swem: When it's above 88 degrees, it's really hard for the dog to scent. And you want to be really careful because dogs don't sweat like we do. They pant. So they can get overheated really quick. And it can be very dangerous for your dog. So you try not to track. Or if you do track -- we've done tracks in higher temperature but you want to take maybe just 5-10 minutes and then you put your dog back in the truck and let him cool down. But when it's really, really hot and it's humid like that, it's very hard for them to get that. The bacteria starts to die. Maybe it's dropped off the skin plates that people lose and that's what the dog will track a lot.
And they also track just vegetation. When somebody walks across the grass. Like if you go and you smell a mowed lawn, that's what the dog is smelling just by one footprint stepping on the grass and breaking the vegetation. They're smelling that vegetation and that change of odor. So when it gets really warm out, all that stuff kind of dies and the bacteria won't live and survive. So it makes it harder for them to track.
Jill Pritchard: Earlier you were saying because he is a canine officer, he's always in training. But does he ever get to a point where he's like, I don't want to learn anymore. You know? I'm done for the day. Does he ever kind of show you signs like that?
Susan Swem: It's just like some days he has good days and bad days. And I think as a handler we kind of get -- sometimes we get our feelings hurt or our ego hurt, I guess would be a better way of saying it. The dog is going to have bad days and good days. They are going to smoke it some days. They're going to just be absolutely crazy. And then some days they're going to be like us -- eh, I don't feel like going to work. You know? I want to be lazy and not really do what you want them to do. They may not be feeling very good. They may, you know, just have a bad day just like we do.
Jill Pritchard: So are you expected to have him with you on every work day now that you are a canine handler? Or can you -- is it OK if you don't take him on some days?
Susan Swem: Yes, I take him every day. But in Indiana I know a lot of times, like if I'm working the lake from a boat and it's really hot, I may leave him at home. [Cell phone ringing]
Jill Pritchard: OK.
Susan Swem: Just because -- and that's just the reference that we got from Indiana because that's what they do because it is hot out on the lake. And it would be not very enjoyable for him. But the rest of the time, yeah, I have him. If I got a call, I want to be prepared to go on that call if somebody calls and says -- the Sheriff's Department calls and says they have a lost child and something and they need help with it, you know, you want to be able to be ready for it. Or an agent calls and has somebody that's hunting they want you to check on or something. So you want to be prepared. But he can, you know, be left home, especially if it's in the summer and we're working the lake.
Jill Pritchard: So how has your job as an agent changed now that you have this canine partner? Is there anything that surprised you that you didn't think about that now that you have Astro as your partner that you weren't expecting?
Susan Swem: You know how when you go visit your grandma and you get the kids ready? That takes me -- every morning it takes me twice as long to get ready to go do anything because of him. And it's a good hour in the morning and in the afternoon coming home. I mean, you're responsible for, you know, feeding him and taking care of his area, you know, his messes and stuff. But getting everything gathered around -- his food, his water, and everything that you need to take when you go to work -- it's like getting the kids ready to go to grandma's house. It takes a little bit more time instead of just putting the uniform on and walking out the door. It's a little bit more involved now.
Jill Pritchard: It's like packing a diaper bag [laughing].
Susan Swem: Yes. And then you have to take in and make sure that, you know, you have to stop for breaks for him. I can't just drive around all day and just do breaks for myself. I have to make sure that he gets a break every now and then too.
Jill Pritchard: OK. So Susan, we're here and you're going to do a demonstration of an article search. And you've got Christian County agent Jeff Paris. We see him walking off in the distance here. He's going to discharge a firearm.
Susan Swem: Yes, exactly. What we're doing is every day I try to do a little bit of training with Astro. And you try to just -- it just gets him better and better all the time. They say it takes three years of training before the dog and the handler click. And this is good training for me too.
But Jeff is walking off. He's making a track. He's going to simulate maybe a hunter going in the woods shooting a firearm and then coming back out with no firearm. He's going to leave shell casings for us, maybe even a wad from the shots, and then the shotgun. And we'll be able to use Astro to track in and find the firearm. This typically -- we come across this every year, especially like during archery season. Maybe somebody is hunting with a firearm instead of a bow or a crossbow.
And so this is a way where we can -- we might not be tracking when the hunter is actually there. We may track into one of our wildlife areas just after somebody has left the area just to see, make sure there's no bait and exactly what's going on. We might track into a feeder. We might track into where they say their tree stand is. If they say they're not hunting, there may be a tree stand there or they hide a firearm. Over the last 32 years I've had numerous times where people have come out and hid firearms on me and typically can find it but I know there's a lot of them I've missed. You know, usually you can talk to people and figure out what's going on.
Jill Pritchard: And I'm sure Astro's sense of smell will be a huge benefit to you, a huge help.
Susan Swem: Yeah. A dog, they sense like 44 times better than us. So like, whenever I come home and they're making pizza, he smells the oregano. He smells the tomatoes. He smells the salt, the pepper, the flour, everything to make that pizza. They don't smell just one item. They smell all the ingredients for that item. So their nose is so much better than ours as far as that. Even, like, walking across grass. Where his nose, you're going to smell -- you know, when you come home you smell a mowed lawn. He smells that just from somebody's footsteps walking across the grass.
Jill Pritchard: So with this search, are you -- is he going to be on the leash or are you going to let him off the leash?
Susan Swem: We will put him on his tracking leash, on his equipment for tracking. We will track. We are never going to sneak up on anybody. And after this demonstration you'll realize that his nose is just -- but we'll track it in there. And then depending on him, he may track me right to where Jeff has hidden the gun. Or he may track me right to where shell casings are. I'll reward him and then I may take him off and then we'll go into an article search where I take him off leash, I click his collar, and then he knows that is a search where he's going to be searching for the article.
Jill Pritchard: OK. Alright. I look forward to seeing it.
Alright. So we're going to get Astro out of the truck here.
Susan Swem: Yes. I'm going to get him. And I'm, like, organized. But I have all his equipment here ready to go. I have his tracking harness. And then we track with a 15-foot lead.
Jill Pritchard: Give him some good slack.
Susan Swem: Right. Well, you want it tight when he's tracking, but yeah, it keeps him focused and it keeps him on it. Since we have time, I'm going to -- this is his favorite. This is his reward.
Jill Pritchard: He has a toy as his reward rather than treats?
Susan Swem: The only time this toy comes out -- he has other toys but the only time this toy comes out is when he's done working and it's me and him. We're the only ones that play with this toy together. So this is like the ultimate, like --
Jill Pritchard: That's the great reward.
Susan Swem: Yes.
Jill Pritchard: OK. Alright. So that's how he associates the --
Susan Swem: Right.
Jill Pritchard: OK. That makes sense.
Susan Swem: Come here! [Dog panting] You can call us [inaudible]. [Dog panting]
Jill Pritchard: He excited?
Susan Swem: Oh yes.
Jill Pritchard: You can tell he's ready to go.
Susan Swem: Oh yeah.
Jill Pritchard: He's ready to work.
Susan Swem: What I try to do is start him out on the track where we know -- like around Jeff's vehicle -- and then we'll go over here where we know that he came out or walked.
Jill Pritchard: Man, you gotta be in shape to follow this guy!
Susan Swem: Track!
Jill Pritchard: So he's tracking right now. I mean, we are at a pretty good jog. And like you were saying, it's kind of a windy day.
Susan Swem: Yes.
Jill Pritchard: So he's following the -- man, I thought I was in better shape than this [laughing]. He's following the --
Susan Swem: He's quartering a lot which is probably because of the wind.
Jill Pritchard: Quartering?
Susan Swem: Back and forth.
Jill Pritchard: OK. That's what you call it?
Susan Swem: He kind of J-hooked there because that's where Jeff came out at.
Jill Pritchard: Uh-huh.
Susan Swem: Now this will be interesting whether he'll see.
Jill Pritchard: So how can you tell he's on the scent? Just because --
Susan Swem: His nose is down like that.
Jill Pritchard: OK.
Susan Swem: When we pull back and check --
Jill Pritchard: Uh-huh.
Susan Swem: -- he's kind of slowed up now.
Jill Pritchard: Uh-huh.
Susan Swem: He's not sure. There's some scent pool down there. He's searching now. We may have lost the track. So he's --
Jill Pritchard: He's trying to find it?
[Dog panting & leaves rustling]
Susan Swem: So he's kind of lost the scent here.
Jill Pritchard: OK. How can we tell? Just because he's --
Susan Swem: He's stopped. So we're going to go back up a little bit.
Jill Pritchard: OK.
Susan Swem: The wind will scent pool. He's really interested in here.
Jill Pritchard: Back in this brush area here?
Susan Swem: Astro! Show me. Good! Where's it at? Show me. Show me. Yes! Good boy! Yes!! [Jill laughing] Good boy, Astro! Good boy!
Jill Pritchard: So there is the firearm. We found it. And I mean, yeah, you could tell he was interested back here. He kept circling back.
Susan Swem: You saw how we went there and he started circling. He lost it.
Jill Pritchard: Yeah.
Susan Swem: So then you come back toward the last time you saw it.
Jill Pritchard: How will he let you know if he's found something?
Susan Swem: In a perfect world, he's supposed to sit on it and stay and look at it. Sometimes he'll do that. If it's real brushy, he may stand and look at me. Sometimes he'll look at me and walk towards me. It's all that fine-toothed thing that we're trying to get better and better at it.
Jill Pritchard: I see.
Susan Swem: Astro, search! Check!
Jill Pritchard: So, so far I know this is a pretty -- you guys just graduated from your training program in the spring. So he really hasn't been on the job all that long.
Susan Swem: No, he's like a diamond in the rough. There's a lot of training, a lot of stuff we still have to go through.
Jill Pritchard: How long do they work before they retire?
Susan Swem: It just depends on the dog's health. And you know, some dogs will last, you know, it could be ten years. Some dogs could do six years or four years. It just depends on if they don't have any major injury or, you know, they could get something. You know, they could get cancer or something like that. But it could be six to eight years. Some dogs I've heard of that were ten years. You know, it just depends on how much the dog works and -- [dog panting & leaves rustling].
I've been trying to work a lot with him on the shotgun holes because I would like to see us be able to assist in hunting accidents. A lot of times, you know, if somebody is in a hunting accident you're usually with a family member. And sometimes you're so distraught over it that you might not know where you were standing or you might not know what direction. You might not know a lot of things. And if you can keep from having the victim or the family member go through that experience and just be able to have the dog come in and assist in finding the area exactly where it happened and stuff.
Jill Pritchard: That would be a tremendous help to have the dogs in those types of situations.
Susan Swem: Right. The biggest thing on the tracking is you could tell we're not sneaking up on anybody. I mean, the way he was breathing and --
Jill Pritchard: Oh, absolutely! Yeah. Yeah. So you're not trying to be sneaky about it.
Susan Swem: No.
Jill Pritchard: Yeah.
Susan Swem: I mean, he's going to find somebody, his breathing changes. And when he got that track when I was saying check, you know, you know he's tracking when you pull back and he's not -- he just, like, barrels down more like an out of control garden tiller. You know, he just wants it more. So -- good boy! Good boy.
Jill Pritchard: Susan, what's your favorite thing about having Astro as your partner now? Do you have a -- is that a hard question to answer?
Susan Swem: I think it's so exciting. Like, whenever we had training this last weekend and the dogs were finding firearms in, you know, a foot and a half of water. When he tracks, you know, I mean, if I'm out working and I -- even if there's a car parked at a riverbank and you don't know, do I go this way down the river or this way? It used to be we'd, like, flip a coin and like, well, we'll try. Or we might find a footprint. But if there's something there, you just guess and start walking. It's just so -- it amazes me how much they know and how much they can pick that scent up and go with it. It's just --.
Jill Pritchard: So he's really in essence making your job a little easier. A lot easier.
Susan Swem: Yes. And I'm excited about us being able to help other agents make some of those cases that might not get made, you know, without the assistance of the dog, you know, finding stuff, making the case a little bit stronger for them and stuff. So --.
Jill Pritchard: Do you think that he has a favorite part of his job that he --
Susan Swem: Tracking.
Jill Pritchard: Is tracking his favorite? [Laughing]
Susan Swem: He didn't want to stop long enough to detect that firearm there. He wanted to keep going. And so -- but then he circled a bunch here. And so it was something. And sometimes they call it a scent pool. Like if Jeff stayed and stepped and stayed in an area -- say somebody is walking and they stop in an area for a long time. Their scent gathers in that area. And the dog will take a little bit of time in that area because they'll think they're getting close to the person but they're really not. But that scent is overload of senses to them.
So when he stopped and shot the firearm and left it there, there was an overload of senses. And we knew that he had done that. We heard him shoot and we knew because it's a training scenario. And we knew that he tracked on out. Astro took some time there but then he wanted to go and track him the rest of the way out. In the real life, we probably would have tracked you back out to the car and seen but then we may have come back in and started. And that's where it's tuning him up. It takes three years, like I said, for the dog and the handler to get really gelling together and to really get efficient. And the more we do little scenarios like this, the better he's going to get. And the better I'll get too. I might be able to keep up a little better running with him.
Jill Pritchard: That definitely was [laughing] -- I wasn't expecting that! I was huffing and puffing almost as hard as he was [laughing].
Susan Swem: He's like, I'm ready to go back to the truck to get a drink of water.
Jill Pritchard: He seems like he's pretty thirsty. Now Susan, let me ask you this. You know, we had talked earlier about it depends on the health of the dog, but you know, they'll retire after. It seems like they will spend quite a few years, you know, in their law enforcement role. Do you plan to stay with Astro as long as he's healthy in the department?
Susan Swem: As long as I can and I'm healthy --
Jill Pritchard: Yeah.
Susan Swem: -- you know, and I can do that. I know that we've been told, you know, once we retire and the dog retires that we can retire with the dog and we'll get to keep them as our family member which, if I couldn't have done that, I don't know if I would have volunteered or applied for the position because I get attached to them and stuff. And I'm already attached to him and only had him six months or so. So it's one of those things.
Jill Pritchard: So he seems to have adapted pretty well into your family, then?
Susan Swem: Yes. I was actually really surprised he went out on that track and left out of my sight because usually he doesn't go out of my sight.
Jill Pritchard: Oh, really?
Susan Swem: So I was really shocked. He really wanted to track Jeff the rest of the way to the vehicle. But --.
Jill Pritchard: Well that just shows how bonded you guys are.
Susan Swem: Say what?
[Inaudible comments from man far from mic followed by more laughter.]
Jill Pritchard: Susan, let me ask you this. You know, what's your typical day to day look like with Astro now that he's joined you? I know you've done a lot of --
Susan Swem: With this hot weather, we get out earlier in the morning and work. We may go to the lake. Well, I'll get him out and we'll run around the yard a little bit. And I usually have him do a little training thing in the morning, what I've hidden the night before. And then we'll go out -- we'll go around the lake and check fishermen. We may go by the marina. With the weather and school starting, it's a lot slower right now but there's still people out around the lake fishing.
We always try to add some training along the way. You know, I may leave something on one of the wildlife areas or have one of the guys say, hey, go hide here and lay a track and then just, like, document it on your X Hunt. I'll go in and track it and see and leave something there. Or just stay there till I get there. And then we'll come home and a lot of times, you know, we may come home in the afternoon when it's hot like this and then go back out in the evening. Maybe go sit at the boat ramp, check boats coming in. Right now it's kind of that time where it's not real busy.
Jill Pritchard: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You're in that weird part of the year, yeah.
Susan Swem: We may check -- you'll probably see, like this evening I'll probably see some guys out scouting for putting the tree stands up for archery season that's opening tomorrow, you know? And so you'll have some of that going on where you'll get to visit and a lot of them will ask you, like, where have you seen a big buck? You know? So you have a little bit of that. Dove season has been kind of slow because it's been too hot and we haven't had a cool front come down yet, but typically that's what it is. A lot of driving around looking for people. And then you do get calls. I mean, if I get a call on something, you know, I'd have to run out on it, whether it be deer damage or, you know, a nuisance animal or something like that.
Jill Pritchard: So what has the public response been now that Astro has joined you?
Susan Swem: When they see my truck, they want to see him. They don't care about -- there's nothing to do with me now. It's like, oh they see him. I go into the bait shop and they're like, can you bring Astro in? Or I go to the marina and they all want to know if he's with me and stuff. So it's more everybody is interested in him and how he's doing and if he's done anything fun. Or so, you know.
Jill Pritchard: Do you think this has resulted in more positive interactions with the public now that he's with you?
Susan Swem: Oh, absolutely. Little kids that kind of look at you that you see in uniform, they're kind of hesitant to come over. And now it's like, can I pet your dog? You know, they'll come up right away and ask if they can pet the dog and stuff. So --.
Jill Pritchard: And then I think that it kind of opens the door for you to teach them how he helps you --
Susan Swem: Right.
Jill Pritchard: -- and what his role is.
Susan Swem: Yes. Exactly. So --.
Jill Pritchard: So you know, you mentioned that this was such a big opportunity for you, something that you've always wanted to do, being a canine handler. Now that you are, how do you feel about it so far? I know, like we said, it's only been a few months, but has it lived up to your expectations?
Susan Swem: I think I've told our deputy chief 100 times, like, I can't believe you're paying me to do this. I can't believe I'm going to work with a dog and getting to work with him and getting to experience that and train him. It's just -- it's unbelievable. You know? And enjoyment. It's, like, fulfilling to see him improve and then me improve and they are actually paying me to do this. So it's great.
Jill Pritchard: Pretty surreal.
Susan Swem: Yeah. It just seems like something that would never happen. I didn't think we'd ever have a dog or a canine unit like this and be able to do this. And it's been great to be able to be one of the first to share this and do this. And hopefully it will be successful and we'll get more dogs with the department and hunting season he'll be ready to go.
Jill Pritchard: I think he's going to have a great time with you. And it seems like you both have a really great bond together. Whenever you see him, you just smile. He just has a goofy demeanor, doesn't he? Or is that just me? [Laughing]
Susan Swem: Whenever I got him, his name was Astro and I figured he had so much to learn. They named him and I just kept the name because I thought he wouldn't -- I hated to have to change his name and have one more thing for him to learn because some of the dogs you do change their names. Some of them do. But he kind of -- if you're old enough to remember the Jetsons, he is that Astro on the Jetsons.
Jill Pritchard: OK, so showing my age here, I remember the Jetsons. I remember the dog was named Astro. But I never really watched the Jetsons. I think I remember it being on Cartoon Network a few times [laughing]. But did Astro from the Jetsons have, like, a lot of energy? Or was he goofy? Or what was his --?
Susan Swem: Just goofy and always into something.
Jill Pritchard: So then that's fitting for Astro [laughing]. Susan, this has been such a wonderful day learning about not only the canine unit but how Astro helps you specifically with your job down here in Polk County. Thank you so much for allowing me to tag along today. It's been an incredible day.
Susan Swem: You're welcome. We both enjoyed having somebody different running around with us and show off his tricks.
Jill Pritchard: Man, he's got the best job ever, doesn't he?
Susan Swem: He's probably sleeping. He ran quite a bit.
Jill Pritchard: He's chilling out back there in his nice temperature controlled cab [laughing]. He's got it made. Astro, it was such a great day. It was so good to meet you, buddy.
[Music fading in.]
[Laughing] He sniffs the microphone. Alright. Well, if you'd like to learn more about MDC's Protection Branch's Canine Unit or learn more about the other four members of the canine unit across the state of Missouri, you can log onto our website. That's missouriconservation.org. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.
What do you think, Astro? Do you like your new job? [Laughing] I think that's a yes. Good boy, Astro! Who's a good boy? Good boy! [Dog panting]