Hank is SCDNR’s newest dog with a job
The S.C Dept. of Natural Resources introduced its newest – and youngest – recruit, over the summer.
At 2 months of age, Hank, a chocolate Labrador Retriever puppy, zipped through the tall grass to find the rubber ball thrown by Lt. Brady Branham, grabbed it and eagerly raced back to proudly deliver it to Branham. If his exuberance is an indicator, in about a year Hank will be a full-fledged member of the DNR’s K-9 team.
“The DNR’s K-9 team is trained to help law enforcement officers track violators, detect hidden wildlife and concealed guns, recover evidence and support search-and-rescue missions,” Branham said.
“This team is also employed by other law enforcement agencies when requested. With their superior sense of smell and hearing, the trained canines help reduce search time and recover more evidence, leading to stronger cases. The team is also used as a public outreach tool to educate the public and deter crime through demonstrations and presentations.”
Once Hank had enjoyed retrieving and playing tug with Branham a number of times under the hot morning sun in late July, Branham put him back in his kennel and made sure he had plenty of water to drink. Then he took out his fully-trained yellow lab, Rock, for a demonstration of how the dogs on the team help with locating items such as guns, clothing, even a spent wad from a shotgun shell. They are trained to find anything with gunpowder on it, Branham said.
Agency’s K-9 program began in 2017
Another officer had placed an item in the tall grass before Branham sent Rock to find it. Rock worked the area at Branham’s direction, then suddenly laid down and stared intently at a spot in the grass. Branham walked over and retrieved the pistol that had been placed there. He then tossed a plastic ball or cone for Rock to retrieve. Retrieving is play for the dogs. And that is their reward for a job well done, Branham explained.
The SCDNR’s K-9 program was launched in 2017. That’s when the agency acquired five Labs from Pacific Coast Canine, a kennel in Washington State that trains dogs for various aspects of police work. The owner, Ken Pavlick came to South Carolina for six weeks to teach the newly-formed officer-dog teams.
“We trained them in tracking, article searches and wildlife detection,” said Branham, who has personally trained hunting retrievers for himself and others for the past 20 years. The unit has grown to seven fully-trained officer-canine teams plus two more being trained. That gives the agency at least two teams in each of DNR’s four Law Enforcement Division regions. This provides a response time of no more than an hour and a half to any location in the state. That capability can be critical, especially in search-and-rescue situations, he said.
“In just under five years we have logged over 1000 deployments, dogs on the ground,” Branham said. “Our dogs have been instrumental in locating people. In 2018 a 2-year-old wandered away from his granddaddy. Our dog located him a half mile back in the woods between two ponds, in just about eight minutes.”
Dogs are trained in many skills
Besides search-and-rescue, the dogs are trained in tracking, article search, wildlife detection and assisting in law enforcement investigations such as hunting accidents. They are imprinted on five species for wildlife detection. These include whitetail deer, Eastern wild turkey, black bear, waterfowl and doves, Branham said. In a hunting accident investigation, the dog teams are looking for all the components of the accident.
“If a shotgun is used we need to find the shot pattern, the direction of the shot, where people were standing when they were shot. If we can find the wadding, we can determine where the shooter was standing,” Branham said.
Hank was donated to the DNR’s K-9 Team by Backwoods Pond Labradors LLC in Edgefield. A puppy goes through a lot of socialization and environmental training during his first year in the program, Branham said. He has taken Hank out in public to different places to see how he handles people and new places.
“We expose them to everything – loud environments, dark places, staircases, slick floors, gunshots, driving vehicles – to make sure they are comfortable in every environment because that is where they are going to end up working.”
As long as the dog continues to show a high intensity drive, he said, they move on into canine school where they learn tracking, article searches and wildlife detection.
Hank’s potential is really high, Branham said.
“He is very young, but he is really social. He has not been in any environment yet that scares him. His retrieve drive is high. He loves to go pick up his toy and bring it back and then play tug of war. He also loves to chase tennis balls. As long as he will hunt and chase those things right now, that’s all we really want.”