In early October, in the small Massachusetts town of Phillipston about 10 miles south of the New Hampshire border, the Northeast Houndsmen held their annual four-day training and certification seminar. The Houndsmen seminar is tailored to help individual bloodhound teams become better at problem solving and man trailing.
The Houndsmen originated the mid-1990s, but only recently have become a nonprofit organization dedicated to training of handlers and K-9s in man trailing. When asked about the Northeast Houndsmen’s goals, Bill Chapman, an instructor and bloodhound breeder with hounds all over the country in numerous departments, stated, “I would say that our goal as an organization is to promote the skill of man trailing and getting to the bottom of all police K-9s in this arena. Specific to bloodhounds, we aim to push the limits of the breed in the art of scent discrimination and aged trails to provide the ultimate service to the public and law enforcement. We want to be there when they need us, with the best product we can possibly provide. Whether it is bringing home the missing or bringing evil to justice, when you really need to locate or find where this subject went, you can hear departments say, ‘We better call the Houndsmen.’”
Ray Jackson, president of the Houndsmen and one of the organization’s founding members, has 30 years of experience as a bloodhound handler and believes scent discrimination is important to trails success.
The police bloodhound has become a lost tool in the toolbox for law enforcement. The bloodhound is a large hound dating back to the Middle Ages, originally used for hunting game. Researchers estimate that a bloodhound’s nose consists of approximately 230 million olfactory cells, which are the hound’s scent receptors. I have heard the bloodhound referred to a nose with a dog attached. Bloodhounds are not as prevalent today as in the past. Bloodhound teams are different from what most people think of when a K-9 is discussed. The teams are single-disciplined in man trailing. Bloodhounds follow human scent; that is to say, researchers believe they follow the dead skin cells left behind as people move about. We cannot know this for sure, since our partners do not speak to us — and believe me, I would really like to know what my partner, Ellie, is thinking sometimes. When working trails, the bloodhounds discriminate between the scent they are following and other scents contaminating the trails left by other people. These teams are not like the ones portrayed in movies such as Cool Hand Luke and Rambo — loud, boisterous hounds tethered together, with one handler working all the dogs. In reality, a single handler handles one hound and the hounds are quiet, except for the noise made by their sniffing noses.
The seminar began October 2 at the Phillipston Fire Department. Approximately 34 K-9 teams arrived for the opening briefing. The teams consisted of bloodhound teams, as well as patrol dog teams that were taking part in the training to improve their tracking and trailing abilities. One of the difficult parts of training a bloodhound team, I have found, is finding someone who is willing to run trails and wait for the bloodhounds to come and find them. The Houndsmen solved this problem by requesting help from the local Marine JROTC detachment out of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School.
This being my second seminar, I was looking forward to finding out who my instructors would be for this year. I was assigned to Mitch Serlin and Matt Nattaro, both retired from Westchester County Department of Public Safety in New York. Surprisingly to me, both Mitch and Matt recently returned from Switzerland, where they had been training K-9s. The Houndsmen try to keep a ratio of one instructor for every four students. Our group assembled after a quick seminar photo and was off for learning and training. Mitch and Matt wanted to know how they could help the assembled K-9 teams, what we felt we needed to work on to become a better bloodhound team. They also wanted to observe the teams working and see how they could help us from their experience. With all the pleasantries completed, the training started: Trails were laid out by the cadet “runners,” and the teams began to trail. Other trails had been laid out to be run Wednesday and Thursday to give the bloodhound teams the experience of running aged trails. Soon we were all drenched; the morning was hot and humid, and the afternoon gave way to rain showers. Matt told our group we train as we work — in any condition.
The temperature went from 80 degrees to 40 degrees in less than 24 hours, and the second day started cold. Trails were laid out to be worked, and the aged trails that had been laid out Tuesday were worked under the direction of either Matt or Mitch. An example of a trail that Ellie and I had to work, which I had never thought possible to accomplish, was laid out using two runners and a third person to contaminate and hold the scent article. Both runners ran the same path and then at a point each made a 90-degree turn. This left two scents going in different directions. When Ellie and I were up, I eliminated the third person who had contaminated the scent article, introduced Ellie to the scent article and off she went following the scent. At the split, Ellie made a right turn, following the scent until she identified the runner. Ellie and I then went back to the beginning of the trail, where I again eliminated the third person and introduced the same scent article to Ellie. Again, Ellie eagerly began following the scent trail, but this time she made a left turn, following the scent to where she was able to identify the second runner.
On Friday, the bloodhound teams were giving the opportunity to train with boats and work different scenarios. In one scenario, the bloodhound team is loaded onto a boat, taken to an island and given a scent article, and off to trail they go, following the scent trail to the end of the island, where the team learns the “suspect” has somehow left this island and has been spotted on another. The team is loaded back into a boat and arrives at the second island. The bloodhound gets back to work, finding scent, only to learn the “suspect” has again left the island and again has been spotted on another. Again, the team is loaded onto a boat and taken to a third island, where the “suspect” is found hiding. Friday night was a night of relaxation, as the Houndsmen had planned a benefit Italian dinner and raffles with proceeds benefiting the organization.
Saturday, the groups met for fine-tuning of the skills learned earlier, and the seminar concluded with the awarding of certificates in man trailing for those dogs that were able to meet the standards, and certificates of attendance for all others.
Ray Jackson left me with the following quote: “Failure to train is training to fail.” The Northeast Houndsmen are a dedicated group of officers who leave their egos at the door and work to improve a hound’s abilities with practical knowledge and training. The goal is that we will be able to take this information back to our home jurisdictions and succeed on real-world deployments.
Photos provided by Northeast Houndsmen.
Mike Wesolek is a sergeant with the South Fayette Township Police Department in Pennsylvania.