David Sparks Ph.D.
David Sparks Ph.D.
The dog days of summer may be over, but for six-year-old black lab Dexter--- one of Idaho Fish and Game’s K-9s -- that suits him just fine. Fall brings on one of the busiest and most exciting times of year for this eager sleuth and his partner, District Conservation Officer Tim Klucken of Pocatello, as they hit the hills, seeking evidence to solve wildlife crimes or possibly searching for a lost hunter.

One particular morning, Dexter hops out of the back of the air-conditioned cab in Klucken’s enforcement truck, and with the click of his orange nylon collar, knows it’s time to get to work. The scenario? A witness reported seeing someone take a shot at a deer with a rifle during the archery-only season in southeast Idaho. Tail wagging and nose to the ground, Dexter responds to the command to search the area for clues. With “dogged” determination he methodically works the sagebrush and eventually signals he has found something Klucken will want to see—a brass casing from a rifle bullet. Perfect. This piece of evidence can be potentially traced back to the gun that fired it.

This was just a training exercise, but scenarios like it have played out before in real cases for Klucken.

“There have been cases that we couldn’t have made had it not been for our K-9s like Dexter,” Klucken proudly says about his partner. “One time he found a single drop of blood at a scene, and it was genetically matched to a deer illegally taken by a poacher.”

With all the training and tools at the disposal of Fish and Game’s conservation officers, there is one exceptional skill Dexter has that they don’t: the ability to sniff out seemingly imperceptible clues such as gun powder, gun oil, blood trails, and even human scent.

“Dexter has an amazing nose,” remarks Klucken. To emphasize this point, Klucken adds, “Imagine a pizza cooking in an oven. People can definitely smell the pizza, but Dexter can actually smell every ingredient that went into making that pizza.”

Having a great sense of smell isn’t the only desirable trait of a Fish and Game K-9. These dogs must be a sporting breed rather than a German Shepherd or Malinois which are typically used for other law enforcement agencies or the military. They must exhibit a high prey drive as well as a high play drive which makes these dogs teachable. And, they must be specifically trained to do the work they do.

When Dexter and Klucken were paired together in 2015, the two headed to Indiana where they underwent 400 hours of training offered by the state’s Department of Natural Resources over a 9-week period. During that time, Dexter was trained on waterfowl, turkeys, and white-tailed deer. When they returned to Idaho, the training continued with a focus on fish, mule deer, elk, sage grouse, and other Idaho species.

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