When it came to Labrador retrievers in training, Bonnie was the “class clown.”
Her sense of play and friendliness continue to stand out – including giving her boss, St. Charles County Police Chief David Todd, a wet facial as she licked him last week when she was being introduced at a press conference.
But what really stands out is her nose for her new job as an electronic storage detection dog for the County Police Department.
Bonnie is the department’s, and perhaps Missouri’s, first canine trained to sniff out, locate and recover hidden electronics, such as computers, DVDs, mobile devices, in criminal investigations, especially those involving child pornography.
She is one of five Labradors in the second graduating class of the Electronic Storage Detection canine training program conducted by the Connecticut State Police, which trained the first specialized electronic sniffing dogs back in 2012. The other recent graduates went to police departments in Virginia, Alaska and Massachusetts and to the FBI.
The 2-year-old, 53-pound, yellow Labrador made her first public appearance on May 5 at a news conference at the department’s headquarters office in O’Fallon. The appearance was a joint affair, also featuring Det. Brigid Oldani, 48, who serves as Bonnie’s handler. Oldani, who spent 25 years as a St. Louis city police officer, describes the team as “two blonds.” She’s been a county police officer for the last three months and is a member of the county’s Cyber Crime Task force. She said being paired up with Bonnie fulfills her dream of working with a canine officer.
“I’m a huge dog lover,” Oldani said.
Oldani and Todd say Bonnie provides a new tool that police can use to dealing with the growing emergence of technology in child pornography cases. Child pornography is more widespread with the rise of the Internet and can be readily stored on electronic devices.
According to Connecticut State Police, Dr. Jack Hubbal, a chemist at their forensic lab, was able to isolate a chemical compound, triphenylphosphine oxide, which surrounds the memory boards of all cellphones and computers. Another compound, hydroxycyclohexyl phenyl ketone was discovered in DVDs, CDs and floppy disks.
Bonnie can detect these chemicals. She also has the ability and training to focus on searching specific areas in a room full of electronic devices.
A $2,500 donation from the Marc Bulger Foundation, set up by the former St. Louis Rams quarterback, allowed the county to purchase Bonnie from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based breeder of service dogs. A $2,000 federal grant provided funding to send Oldani to the training program in Connecticut for six weeks.
On May 5, Oldani put Bonnie through her paces during three flawless demonstrations where staff members hid electronic devices hidden in the grass and in a vehicle.
“Let’s get to work,” Oldani said, with a food treat container on her waist. The phrase alerts Bonnie to get ready to search.
Bonnie likes to play but she knows when it’s time to go to work, Oldani said. She responds to food rewards in searching for items. Throughout the process, Oldani must be watchful of Bonnie’s breathing and body language and redirect her.
“It’s kind of a dance with her, because she also keys off my body language,” Oldani said. “If I’m stressed, if I’m uncertain, she picks up on that. We both have to have a lot trust in each other to be honest with you.”
With the command, “you’re free,” Bonnie relaxes.
Bonnie is not only Oldani’s team member but also a member of her family. Their training, Oldani said, has helped them bond. Like other canine unit members, Bonnie goes home with her handler when off duty.
At home the clown often comes out again. Oldani said there are squeeze toys and neighborhood kids to play with and two older household dogs to annoy with her energy. But Bonnie is also a ongoing commitment – training sessions are done two and sometimes three times daily including weekends.
At work, Bonnie’s stress level is kept low. She’s not in a patrol car every day and isn’t chasing suspects or clearing buildings daily. Her career expectancy is about nine or 10 years, a longer professional life than most patrol dogs. Oldani credits Guiding Eyes with developing top-notch animals with low rates of hip dysplasia, a malady that oten affects breeds such as Labradors.
In the office, Bonnie’s friendliness also helps to lower the stress levels of her fellow officers.
“So when you go home at night, it’s hard to get that [the mental stresses of the job] out of your mind, but now when I go home with her she’s such a clown and definitely distracts me and gives me a lot more to think about,” Oldani said.
Bonnie is expected to be available to help other law enforcement agencies, and she may not be the last new member of the county’s canine unit. Tank may be on the way, possibly paid for by money seized in drug deals and made available by federal officials.
Tank is a Bavarian bloodhound, who may be available in June from a facility in southern Missouri, Todd said.
Bloodhounds are renowned for their noses and dynamic sense of smell. Typically, they are used to search for people. Todd said the police are called out five or six times a year to find people who wander into the woods, say, along the Katy Trail, and get lost. Helicopters often can’t see those people through the wooded cover and thermal imaging can fail when people don’t stay in one place.
Previously, the county had a bloodhound named Scully. But Scully is now retired.
Todd said a few years ago, county police and searchers were looking for 5-year-old child lost in the woods near Wentzville. Scully was retired. A last sweep was being conducted through an area. “Somebody heard coyotes howling,” Todd said. “The coyotes had treed the child … the dog would have been so much quicker.
“I’m a big proponent of taking care of the public. The dog is just another tool.”