Bloodhounds play more prominent role in K-9 units

NEW MANCHESTER – In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” one of the bloodhounds tracking the petty criminal Luke, played by Paul Newman, pursues him with such drive and singleness of purpose that the dog ends up dying of exhaustion.

While just a Hollywood representation, the scene highlights the tracking ability that has made bloodhounds legendary in the annals of law enforcement.

Despite that reputation for accuracy, bloodhounds are not a prominent feature of West Virginia K-9 units – although their numbers are growing, said Donald Kelley, a K-9 investigator with the West Virginia Division of Forestry in Beckley.

“We never get questioned that the dogs can do what they do,” Kelley said, “because of the folklore of the bloodhound, especially in southern West Virginia.”

This week, Kelley and fellow Division of Forestry investigator John Bird are in Hancock County to get their bloodhounds – a 16-month-old named Raisy and a 6-year-old named Jesup – recertified as expert trackers.

In order to do so, they must successfully track two trails of human scent – one wilderness and one urban – that are at least 24 hours old. The trails usually are a mile long and contain four 90-degree turns.

Kelley and Bird also are instructors at this week’s 20th annual state seminar of the West Virginia Police Canine Association, which is being held in Hancock County. The wilderness trail was laid Monday at Tomlinson Run State Park, and the urban trail was laid Tuesday at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort.

The two K-9 officers, with nearly 40 years’ experience between them, also will oversee the certification of bloodhounds from K-9 units in Fayette County, Raleigh County, Barboursville, Beckley and Huntington, Kelley said.

“Twenty years ago, when the Division of Forestry started its K-9 unit, there were only two bloodhounds. Now there are 11 in the state,” he said.

Bloodhounds are known for one thing and one thing only – their acute sense of smell. Although their nose is their biggest asset, bloodhounds don’t always get the respect they deserve because their specialty is so narrow, officers said.

“Their only job is to find people. That’s pretty much all they do,” said Cpl. J.W. Legursky of the Beckley Police Department. “My dog doesn’t even know how to sit (on command).”

Other K-9s have tracking skills but not to the degree of bloodhounds, Kelley said. Officers often make the distinction between dogs with floppy ears – bloodhounds that track – and dogs with pointy ears – dogs that do everything else.

“The biggest difference is time and the fact that bloodhounds are predominantly trailing a scent. Most of our trails are 24 hours old or older,” Kelley said. “It’s just a matter of what you’re relying on. They rely predominantly on their sense of smell.”

Bloodhounds’ expert ability at tracking has been recognized not only by law enforcement but also by U.S. courts. In the 1921 case West Virginia v. McKinney, a court accepted the “testimony” of a bloodhound that had successfully tracked a murder suspect, Legursky said.

Judges also will issue search warrants based on the expert ability of a bloodhound, but not necessarily other K-9s, Legursky said.

“We’ve had hundreds of successful cases that have gone through the courts,” Kelley said. “We’ve had successful missing persons cases. … It’s just a different tool in law enforcement.”

The key to working with bloodhounds is to let them do their job, which is a difficult lesson to teach new K-9 handlers, Kelley said.

“They’re basically along for the ride,” he said. “You can’t second-guess the dog. You have to have the ability to let the dog work.”

On Tuesday, Kelley took his dog, Raisy, on her wilderness certification test at Tomlinson Run State Park. He opened a plastic bag containing a sterile gauze pad and let Raisy get the scent. The pad had been handled the day before by the same person who set the trail.

The test is known as a blind test because Kelley, as the handler, did not know where the trail led. Raisy soon picked up the scent and followed it doggedly along Tomlinson Run Park Road.

It was not until later that Kelley learned that three people walking side-by-side had set the trail the day before, meaning Raisy had successfully discriminated among the three scents. In the 24 hours since the trail was set, the temperature had dropped by 40 degrees, and wind, rain and snow had further obscured the trail.

“They don’t just lose the scent. They’re going to stay on it,” Kelley said.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)