Paws On The Ground

By Angie Daly Morfeld | December 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: December 2021
K9 unit dog sniffs the ground
Paws On The Ground

It’s a muggy mid-September morning in southwest Missouri. A gunshot is heard in an isolated wooded area. Soon after, a man is seen exiting through a tree-lined path, but without a firearm.

MDC Corporal Susan Swem, conservation agent for Polk County, reports to the area. She surveys the scene and is ready to investigate with the help of her partner. She readies her partner’s equipment — tracking harness, 15-foot lead, and yellow, rubber ball.

Swem’s partner, a Labrador retriever named Astro, is one of five dogs that officially joined MDC’s Protection Branch’s K-9 Unit in May 2021.

Swem outfits Astro with his harness, and with a distinct click, attaches his lead. With that, he now knows it’s time to track. His nose pressed firmly to the ground, he takes off “like an out-of-control garden tiller,” jokes Swem, running on an open path alongside a wooded area. He is tracking a human scent, and he stays on it despite Swem’s attempts at “checking him” by pulling on his lead.

As they head into the woods, she changes his assignment with just one word, “Search.” With that, he changes course. Nose still firmly planted, now he is concentrated on article detection. He’s looking for something, rather than someone. And he finds it within minutes — a firearm discarded in a pile of leaves. He stands still, indicating to Swem he was successful. She praises him with a couple of “good boy” affirmations, but then it’s back to work. She commands him to “search” again.

This time, she wonders if along with the firearm, the shooter may have disposed of spent shell casings and other ammunition. In no time, her hunch is confirmed. Astro is circling an area and finally zeroes in on a spent shell casing.

For his hard work, he is rewarded with his favorite toy — a yellow, rubber ball. And just like that, he is off duty, running and playing fetch with Swem — his handler, partner, and constant companion. To the naked eye, he looks like any other yellow Labrador retriever.

Building the Team

Astro joins fellow K-9 Unit staff Tex, a German shorthaired pointer (and handler Corporal Alan Lamb) in the southeast region; Korra, a Labrador retriever (and handler Corporal Justin Pyburn) in the Kansas City region; Penny, a Labrador retriever (and handler Corporal Don Clever) in the northeast region; and Waylon, a German shorthaired pointer (and handler Corporal Caleb Pryor) in the northwest region. The K-9 Unit is part of MDC’s Protection Branch, which is the law enforcement arm of the department, responsible for enforcing established rules and regulations.

MDC is the 37th conservation agency in the nation to welcome a K-9 unit to its protection ranks to greatly aid in their resource law enforcement work.

“Many states started units years ago — as early as the 1970s — and have been overwhelmingly successful, especially in evidence recovery,” said Captain Russell Duckworth, Southeast Region, who was instrumental in establishing the program. “So, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We relied on these states to show us the way. Gathering information from them helped us when it came time to assemble our policy and pick our handlers.”

And if you want an effective program, it all comes down to the handlers, according to Protection Branch Deputy Chief Dean Harre.

“We aren’t adding extra agents to our ranks, but four paws to the ground,” Harre said. “That is relatively cheaper, so that’s huge to us as a department. To bring about the best possible program for Missouri, it is important to have the best handlers. You want experts in their field and experts with the canines.”

The new K-9 handlers were chosen from existing agents, who all had multiple years as agents and some experience with dogs, whether it be through hunting, breeding, or raising the family pet.

For Corporal Clever, joining the K-9 Unit was a dream come true.

“It was always a dream of mine to be a K-9 officer,” said Clever. “I wanted to ensure this program succeeded, and I knew the only way I could do that was to become part of the handler team. With this program being the first of its kind for the department, I want to be able to look back in 50 years and say, ‘I was part of that!’”

After 32 years as an agent, Swem echoed Clever’s sentiments.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” she said. “I just wish it would have happened earlier. It’s like the cherry on top of the sundae of my career.”

Picking the right personalities that go with the dogs is equally important, according to Harre.

Breed preference varies based on the work performed. Some states use single-purpose dogs, meaning the dog is trained specifically for detection work in a nonaggressive manner, which proves to be very important when locating missing or endangered persons. These dogs tend to come from sporting breeds, like retrievers. Other states use dual-purpose canines, which are typically viewed as more aggressive breeds like Belgian Malinois and German shepherds. These dogs are specifically trained to provide personal protection and work in more dangerous scenarios.

“We knew we wanted approachable, single-purpose dogs,” said Duckworth. “Our dogs are concentrating on human search and rescue, evidence search and recovery, wildlife detection, and public programs.”

After a nationwide search and lengthy bid process for suitable law enforcement-oriented dogs, the handler agents chose their canines.

Training in Indiana and Beyond

The dogs did not come to MDC ready to work, so they immediately started training. For the first two months in Missouri, the dogs and their assigned handlers worked on basic discipline — sit, stay, and other obedience commands.

By February 2021, they were ready to start training for field work. The handlers and their canines traveled to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to attend the 2021 Indiana Canine Resource Protection School, which has been around for more than 20 years.

“We went with Indiana because they have a long track record of turning out successful teams,” Duckworth explained.

The unit attended the academy for nine weeks total in three-week intervals— three weeks on, three weeks off. The timing allowed the handlers and canines to learn skills — like scent detection, tracking, article search, and more — through three months of seasons and weather patterns similar to what they might encounter in Missouri.

The training didn’t end after the teams’ May 14 graduation.

“They are like diamonds in the rough,” Swem said. “They need constant polishing.”

Pryor and Lamb both likened the dogs to professional athletes.

“One thing you can’t fake is a dog’s performance,” Lamb said. “If we want a successful program, we have to keep training the dogs to be prepared to hit the field.”

So, training simply becomes part of the daily routine. Pyburn mixes in daily training with his regular patrol. He may hide an article, go about his day, and then an hour or two later, allow the dog to train by finding the hidden item.

Even feeding the dog incorporates training, Pryor said. His dog must sit and stay until he releases him to eat.

Pryor and Swem say working with other conservation agents and other agencies within their assigned counties — sheriff’s offices, highway patrol, and police departments — makes their dogs that much better.

“My dog is already trained on my scent,” Pryor explained. “We want the dogs to train with as many different scents as possible, so it’s a lot easier working with another K-9 officer.”

Harre said in addition to the daily training, the Protection Branch’s K-9 Unit comes together monthly for about two days to train as a unit and hone their specialized skills.

“Penny is enthusiastic when it comes to her training because it is all a game to her,” said Clever. “When she finds what she’s supposed to, she is rewarded with a toy and gets to play.”

Corporal Pyburn agreed. “The dogs go to work to get paid just like we go to work to get paid. Except they get paid in treats and toys.”

Ready to Serve

The canines in MDC’s K-9 Unit are always ready and willing to go to work.

The dogs became commissioned conservation agents — complete with their own badges — at a Missouri Conservation Commission meeting on May 21.

The canines have four main functions: public programs, tracking, evidence search and recovery, and wildlife detection.

Public Programs

Most of their time will be spent in outreach and education, representing the department in public venues like fairs, school programs, and public forums.

“We want the program to help us reach a wider, more diverse audience and break down barriers,” Harre said. “The more we get out in front of people, the more we can build relationships with the public and build this program.”


Tracking will also take up a large portion of their time. Tracking involves following human scent on any number of calls from trespassing to a missing person to assisting another law enforcement agency when a suspect has fled on foot.

When the canine is called into a tracking situation, it’s imperative for the handler to know the dog.

“Learning to read your dog is probably more important than the dog learning to track,” Pryor said. “It’s minute things we have to pay attention to. If we didn’t know how to read the dog, we wouldn’t get anywhere.”

Swem agrees. “If you’re going to track, you have to trust your dog. He’s taking you in a direction for a reason.”

Communication is key.

“She will talk to you if you know how to listen,” Clever said about Penny. “The longer we’ve trained and worked together, the easier it has become to understand what she is telling me. I’ve had to learn her language and her ‘tells,’ and it’s made us stronger.”

Search and Recovery

Suspects often discard evidence along the way — a firearm is left in brush, a flashlight is thrown from a truck window, a cell phone falls out of a pants pocket, spent shell casings and bullets are flung in desperation. Agents may spend hours searching and never recover evidence needed in a case. But a dog, whose sense of smell is 44 times better than that of a human, can cover ground quicker and recover evidence faster.

“There are things they can find that we just can’t as humans,” Duckworth said. “The dogs’ noses give us a better capability. There are things I could spend days trying to find, but the dog is able to find it in short order.”

Wildlife Detection

While not technically hunting dogs, these canines can detect deer, turkey, waterfowl, and more, which comes in handy during poaching investigations and cases.

Tex and Corporal Lamb were called out during opening weekend of teal season. A neighboring agent witnessed two hunters harvest wood ducks, a protected species, during teal season. The hunters admitted to the illegal harvest, but without the ducks, the agent didn’t have much of a case.

“Tex was called out to try to locate the waterfowl,” Lamb explained. “Within minutes, he found the first wood duck stomped in the marsh. Then he found the second one. We wouldn’t have been able to find those ducks without the dog.”

On average, canines employed in K-9 units work about seven to eight years. Their time of service depends on many factors, including breed and health. At the end of their service, canines in the MDC K-9 Unit will be offered full retirement in the home of their agent handler.

Canines Off Duty

The canines enjoy their rewards, which usually signal down time, but for an agent in the K-9 Unit, there really isn’t an off duty.

“As an agent, you’re already not off when you’re off,” Pryor explained. “You’re on call 24-7, but even more so now. When I’m not working, I’m training my dog. Becoming an agent is a lifestyle change but becoming a K-9 officer is an even bigger adjustment.”

Unlike human partners who go home at night, these four-legged partners stay with their agents, Harre said.

“She’s 100 percent reliant on me,” Clever said. “I have to constantly be aware of her needs and ensure that they are always met and that all of her equipment is in good working order and is with us.”

That includes food and water in case they are called out and gone longer than expected. It also includes being mindful of their well-being every day, just like you would a child or family pet.

“I do a head-to-toe check of my dog after a deployment because they can’t tell you if they are hurt,” Lamb said. “These dogs are more than our partners. They are our friends, and we have to take care of them the best we can.”

They are resource law enforcement working dogs, but they are also part of the handler’s family, Harre said.

“We want the dogs to be social; we want them to be introduced to the handler’s family and taken care of and treated like any other animal the family might own,” Duckworth said. “They are kenneled at the handler’s home, watched closely to make sure they are healthy and have proper veterinary care, and fed with the most nutritious food.”

Into the Future

Though the program is still in its infancy, the Protection Branch is already looking toward the future, hoping to see the K-9 Unit expand to additional dogs across the state.

“I know we will find new ways for the dogs to work that we haven’t even thought of yet,” said Duckworth. “That will be so rewarding — to see this unit expand into areas and be useful in ways we haven’t even imagined.”

Canine use in the conservation field is rapidly evolving. For example, research is underway to determine if canines can detect prions associated with chronic wasting disease in cervid populations.

“The sky is the limit as far as the dogs go,” Harre said. “The only limit is the handlers. The capability of the dogs is endless.”


Also In This Issue

A hunter next to a tree

Bringing your harvest from the field to your fork

Fly fishing

Fly tying elevates your game

This Issue's Staff

Stephanie Thurber

Angie Daly Morfeld

Larry Archer

Cliff White

Dianne Van Dien
Kristie Hilgedick
Joe Jerek

Shawn Carey
Marci Porter

Noppadol Paothong
David Stonner

Laura Scheuler