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Richmond Hill police training tracking dogs
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Richmond Hill police Lt. Jason Sakelarios, front, works with chocolate Lab Guinness, while Officer Mike Ward, works with German shepherd Honor. - photo by Photo by Paul Floecker

Four dogs are learning a “game” that could help Richmond Hill police find a missing person or catch a criminal suspect.

The canines are being trained to become tracking dogs for the Richmond Hill Police Department. All of the dogs belong to RHPD officers, who are volunteering their time and money to conduct the training.

“My wife and family, we see it as, if our dog has the potential to help somebody, then it’s worth it,” said Lt. Jason Sakelarios, whose 2-year-old Labrador retriever, Guinness, has been in training for about eight months.

Once their sniffing schooling is complete, the dogs, who will be considered K-9 officers, will be able to use their keen sense of smell to track down a suspect on the run, lost or runaway children or missing adults, especially those with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, autism or Down syndrome that put them more at risk.

“Even though there’s not a daily need to have a dog track people down, it’s kind of like insurance — you don’t need it until you need it,” Sakelarios said.

Guinness is the oldest of the four dogs, and the only male. Bear, Sgt. Luke Harris’ 10-month-old Lab/bloodhound mix, also has been training for approximately eight months.

Honor, Officer Mike Ward’s 1-year-old German shepherd, has wrapped up her first month of learning to track. Sgt. Doug Sahlberg’s bloodhound, Scout, is just
4 months old and already has two months of training under her collar.

“She’s tracking really well already,” Sakelarios said of Scout. “It’s in their blood.”

The canine quartet will succeed the RHPD’s current tracking dog, Echo, a Labrador retriever nearing retirement after about 10 years on the job.

Because the department will have four trained trackers, the burden won’t be on just one dog to handle the entire length of a search. When one dog begins to tire, another can pick up the track.

“Especially in this heat right now, the dogs can only work for so long,” Harris said. “So if you have a really large track or large area, rather than taxing one dog the entire time, this way we’ll have multiple options.”

Also, each dog has its own particular strength in tracking a scent. For example, one might be strong at tracking in the woods, while another is best on concrete and asphalt.

“So if we’re looking for somebody and, say, it starts in a grocery-store parking lot,” Sakelarios said, “one dog may be better suited to do that track versus when we’re back in the city park and a child walked off by the railroad tracks or somebody got lost on a walking trail out in the woods.”

For the training, the officers typically take the dogs to an area such as school grounds or a park. Sahlberg said J.F. Gregory Park is a good spot because it is contaminated by the scents of many people and animals, requiring the dog to focus intently on the assigned odor to follow.

The dog will be presented an item such as a T-shirt or hat carrying the scent of a person who has walked through the area and hidden from the dog’s view. The reward is a ball the dog receives only for tracking and finding the person correctly.

“He wants to find that man so he can get that ball,” Sakelarios said. “It’s all a big game.”

A tracking dog’s job is different from that of a drug-sniffing dog. Whereas a narcotics dog can memorize the scents of drugs such as cocaine or marijuana, a tracking dog must discern a different scent for every assignment.

“No two scents are the same,” Sahlberg said. “It’s almost like a fingerprint.”

Another difference is that the Richmond Hill Police Department’s two narcotics dogs accompany their handlers to work every day, and the city pays for the dogs’ food and veterinary bills. The tracking dogs will report for duty only as needed, and the officers who own them are volunteering their time to train them after regular work hours.

The officers have put in “hundreds and hundreds of hours” training the dogs three or four times a week, according to Harris. The dogs are learning at their own pace — “just like children,” Sakelarios said.

“If we were a kennel and could train every single day and that’s all we did, it would be a lot faster,” Sakelarios said. “It’s times that we can fit it in, so it’ll probably take about a year.”

That puts Bear, Guinness, Honor and Scout on track to start serving the community when Echo retires sometime next year.

“It takes a special dog to do it,” Sahlberg said.

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