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Clobbering crime one sniff at a time

By LOUISE ANN NOETH

Pointy-ear dogs once ruled the St. Charles County Police Department K-9 Unit. No longer. Today, floppy-eared pups dominate and have since law enforcement canines Bonnie, Tank and Fleck brought their fine noses to working narcotics, tracking, apprehension and even the detection of electronic crimes.

The paltry 6 million olfactory receptors in human noses borders on embarrassing compared to the canine super power of near 300 million. Imagine being able to detect a mere half-teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And be able to do so while breathing in and out air at the same time. Dogs can smell separately with each nostril and do so in three dimensions.

After spending a morning with Officer Bonnie, a 5-year-old Labrador Retriever who is a highly trained electronic storage detection [ESD] dog, and Officer Tank, a 4-year-old Hanoverian Hound who has saved five lives, it is obvious they both “nose” how to catch a crook.

St. Charles County Police Det. Brigid Oldani with her K-9 partner, Bonnie. [Louise Ann Noeth photo]

Bonnie is teamed with Det. Brigid Oldani, and together they locate and recover critical ESD evidence for the Cyber Crimes Unit.

One of only three ESD dogs in the state, Bonnie was the first to be trained to sniff out triphenylphosphine oxide [TPPO], or hydroxycyclohexyl phenyl ketone [HPK], the chemical common denominator found in all electronic storage no matter how tiny or thin.

Bonnie finds mobile phones, tablets, Blu-ray disc players and computers as well as easily concealed jump drives, micro SD cards, DVDs and compact disks.

ESDs are commonly used by the criminally depraved to secret away their pictures, conversations, videos and contact data related to selling, using or producing child pornography, child sexual exploration and human trafficking.

Because ESDs are often disguised as toys, pens, etc., the more sophisticated the crook, the more ingenious the hiding place can be. ESD dogs like Bonnie uncover evidence that can otherwise easily remain hidden.

Bonnie also has calmed down several highly agitated domestic situations when search warrants are performed, especially when SWAT teams are involved.

“It can be frightening for kids in the house, who see their parents or guardians upset,” Oldani observed. “Once Bonnie has completed her search, she is a comforting distraction that helps refocus the kids.”

Tank’s two-tone espresso/milk chocolate coloring rivets attention when he arrives to work narcotic detection and evidence retrieval but its his credentials that are truly noteworthy. He earned his tracking and trailing certifications at 9 months old.

St. Charles County Police Officer Courtney Spiess with her K-9 partner, Tank. [Louise Ann Noeth photo]

On his very first on-the-job call with Officer Courtney Spiess in October 2016, the pair found, in 15 minutes, a missing autistic teen’s whereabouts that had baffled all the law enforcement officers already on the scene.

“As we began our search I wondered if the youngster liked dogs,” recalled Spiess, who banked on Tank’s non-aggressive nature to draw the kid out because it was obvious he was ignoring searchers.

“Would you like to come meet my puppy?” Spiess called out over and over. That was all it took, and the kid popped up out of the brush. Job done.

“Saving a life is an emotional high,” admitted Spiess, who now answers calls for help from departments hundreds of miles away. “Driving to the scene, I was shaking. This wasn’t training; this was a life in danger. After that call, I knew this was exactly what I was meant to do.”

Tank is on the payroll mostly for treats and a chance to play tug. 

Bonnie and Tank, the physical embodiment of the county motto “an honor to serve,” also attend funerals and make hospital and hospice visits.

“Emotions run down the leash,” observed Oldani. “We are connected at a personal level all the time. Where humans turn off, the dogs never do. They are always connected and sense [their] responsibilities. You can feel it as well as see it.”

Dogs, duos and duty

Just like their human partners, the K-9s are at risk daily. First, remember they chase criminals who use deadly force to evade capture. 

“Just one wrong decision by me could be a life-ending decision for both of us,” explained Spiess. “Tank has saved me many times.”

Worse, narcotics crime fighting has a perpetual risk of exposure overdosing. Officers must carry Narcan, a medication used to counteract deadly drug effects; K-9 officers carry extra doses for their dogs.

Fatigue also plays a role. 

“We can search a three–story home in an hour,” Oldani explained, “but it is exhausting for Bonnie when she is in full detection mode; for her it’s like being on treadmill.”

Bonnie is very intuitive and when pushed too hard begins to act very lazy and bored. Oldani and Spiess must remind themselves to “trust their dog.”

“Sometimes, when Tank sits down, growls and whines, it’s as if he telling me: ‘There is nothing here!’ He is also very emotional, often perceiving sad situations, and tries to comfort those who are suffering,” Spiess said.

Spiess got her education about dog trust one branch in the face at a time. Today, she can feel subtle changes in Tank’s behavior through his leash. Any good K-9 officer has learned to discern the dozens of indicators relayed by the dog and how to react appropriately. Trust is critical. 

“Tank finds lots of things and people at night,” explained Spiess. “Once he led me straight to a bad guy who had dropped to the ground in shoulder high grass. I only knew we had him when I stepped on his head.”

Has either dog ever failed?

“It would be my fault for not directing Bonnie properly,” Oldani quickly volunteered. “Not watching her body language, breathing and other key points means I can miss where she picks up an odor that may not be strong.”

Interestingly, women K-9 teams have less problems than male teams. Oldani and Speiss think it has something to do with their willingness to speak to the animal in a high, sweet voice.

“They respond to it,” Spiess said.

Both teams constantly train to stay fit and focused. Oldani points out that an overweight dog will suffer a loss of smelling skills. Ditto on lack of activity. Lazy makes ’em crazy. 

Police work can be mentally and emotionally brutal, so how do the duos keep their heads and heart clear of demons?

“The dogs help us heal faster,” Oldani said without hesitation. “But K-9 teams are seven times more likely to be killed on duty, and we must also protect the animal.”

Early in their K-9 careers, Oldani and Spiess both recognized that their floppy-eared partners were more than crime fighters and quickly began using them to engage the community in a policing dialogue.

“When we let the general public come in, they get to see our world, how we work each day,” Oldani said about Open Houses. “School visits also get great results, but even with accidental meet-ups, people tend to forget about us, our uniform, and focus on [the] dog.”

K-9 officers bring their dogs home with them, which strengthens the unit’s bond, but the cannines also shape the officers’ private lives.

“I didn’t think I could possibly love anything as much as I love that dog,” confessed Spiess.

“Every day, he motivates me to be a better person and officer. His loyalty, devotion, work ethic and unconditional love are just a few of his amazing qualities. On days where I don’t feel good enough, I just look into his big brown eyes and he reassures me and pushes me forward.”

For Oldani, Bonnie constantly helps her see kindness in others and recognize the commonalities we share that often get obscured by the work.

“Bonnie has helped restore my faith in humanity,” she said. “Dogs allow us to have an immediate connection with others. We’re no longer inhibited by the weight of our problems or barriers society places on us. And when I bring her to assist us in an investigation and a child in that home gives her a hug and a kiss on her head, suddenly the very dark world we investigate becomes brighter.”

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