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A standout partnership
Sahlberg Echo-1 corrected
RHPD Officer Doug Sahlberg and his K-9 Echo. The two are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to man tracking in southeast Georgia. - photo by Ross Blair

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Video of Officer Sahlberg and Echo.

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Officer Doug Sahlberg and his partner would most certainly qualify as the most stand-out duo on the force at the Richmond Hill Police Department. Although Sahlberg’s partner Echo is merely a Labrador, the two have proven to be a powerful crime-fighting unit.

Their assigned duty is man tracking, and their find rate is around 90 percent. "If we don’t find them, they most likely have gotten away in a car. They’re going to keep running until they can get to a location where someone can pick them up. That could be calling someone on a cell phone or stealing a car."

The duo are called upon to track suspects from a wide spectrum of crimes: armed robbery, rape, burglary and entering auto are just some of the most recent outings. They also are called upon to search for lost persons.

And they’re not just called upon by RHPD. With the nearest tracking dog being Reidsville, Sahlberg and Echo are constantly answering the call of duty from neighboring counties. They never know when their next call may come. One might think this would become quite a burden, but Sahlberg said that is not the case here.

"I love tracking," he said. "I became a cop just so I could track people. I’ll be 80-years-old and I’ll still be running people through the woods. It’s exciting, but it’s also dangerous because you’re dealing with desperate criminals. A lot of them are on parole or probation – they’ve got a lot to lose."

Just like Sahlberg, Echo has to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Sahlberg said Echo knows it’s time to go to work as soon as he puts his uniform on. "She senses it from my demeanor and gets perked up and senses it from my demeanor and gets perked up and ready for action," he said.

When they’re not tracking, the duo is on traffic patrol. Sahlberg drives a K-9 squad car that has an open area in lieu of a back seat, custom made for Echo.

Sahlberg said Echo has been going to work with him ever since she was eight-weeks-old. He trained Echo himself and said he is constantly training her in new tracking methods.

"Echo is like one of my children," said Sahlberg. "I spend 12-13 hours a day with her. She doesn’t just ride with me when I’m on duty, I exercise with her, play with her, and my family spends a lot of time with her also. With Echo, my safety, and potentially my life, depends on her. When tracking, her behavior indicates how close we are to a suspect."

Sahlberg explained that tracking is all scent-oriented and takes full advantage of a K-9’s sense of smell to track people.

"Right now you and I are dropping millions of particles of dead skin; she smells that," said Sahlberg. "Everyone has a different scent. If you have an adrenaline rush and you’re sweating, you’re dropping more as you’re running. Echo not only smells that, but she smells crushed vegetation. Every time you step on grass, it crushes that grass which puts off an odor."

Sahlberg said he has to constantly train Echo because "there are so many variables. It’s not like narcotics training. The scents to drugs such as marijuana and cocaine are not going to change. Weather, scents of the person and crushed vegetation is constantly going to be different. If you don’t consistently train, you’ll lose it quick."

Sahlberg also talked about how crucial it is for the K-9 to be accurate and for the handler to correctly interpret the actions of the K-9. The main reason for this is the fact that the borders of a search perimeter are established based on the findings of the K-9 unit.
“If the dog is wrong, you have just completely moved that perimeter,” he said. “It’s critical, especially in cases like rape and armed robbery, to know how to read your dog. Accuracy is crucial, and your reputation is on the line.”

Sahlberg said it usually takes him and Echo about 15 minutes to arrive on the scene which instantly creates a distance of about a mile and a half from the crime scene to an on-foot suspect who is “running scared and pumped on adrenaline.”

“If someone runs into the woods, we usually find them. When the perimeter is set around the scene, it’s just a matter of time before the suspect is flushed out. That’s why is so crucial for Echo and I to be accurate when setting the perimeter. If you go west and your perimeter goes west, and you go east, you just completely botched the capture of a potentially dangerous criminal.”

Sahlberg said Chief Billy Reynolds “leveled the playing field” between the K-9 unit and the suspect who “clearly has the jump on you and can hear you coming” by purchasing a $15,000 thermal imager which enables law enforcement to have heat-sensitive vision. “Between the dog and the thermal imager, they don’t usually get away,” he said.

Before there was Echo, Sahlberg’s partner was Molly the K-9. Molly, who was trained in man tracking and also as a cadaver dog, passed away before her time stemming from injuries suffered at Ground Zero. The two were called to duty to seek out survivors and bodies in the rubble of the Twin Towers after the 9/11 tragedy. The rough conditions took its toll on Molly, who passed shortly after their return home to Richmond Hill.
“Molly was very accomplished,” said Sahlberg. “She did a lot in her young career.”

This included an appearance by the duo on “America’s Most Wanted” which spotlighted a case they solved in Liberty County. After months of searching by the GBI and local law enforcement for the bodies of a murdered couple, Molly found the bodies in less than 30 minutes. The bodies were buried six feet under and Molly discovered them by detecting the decaying odor in some vegetation near the crime scene.

“This goes to show why a tracking dog is so important,” said Sahlberg. “Also, if you can catch the suspect immediately following a crime, it saves the detectives a lot of work in trying to figure out who it is. It also can give the victim instant closure and keep them from worrying about if this person is going to strike again.”

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