Letter Re: Tracking Dogs

Dear Editor:
I have some experience with dogs that were specially-trained to track living humans, and with cadaver dogs. I agree with the previous Tracking Dog posts regarding restrictive points of terrain and/or infrastructure. In any escape route, there are always certain areas of heightened vulnerability, which an experienced team of searchers will not disregard.

The Texas Rangers at one time (reportedly) enjoyed an annual manhunt in the Texas Panhandle. They would seek volunteers from vetted and trusty inmates whose reward at the end of the day, would be the day’s freedom and a good meal. The inmate would be given a head start before Rangers, handlers, and dogs from a local state penitentiary would sally forth in pursuit. The Rangers and dog handlers were usually on horses and I don’t think they ever ‘lost’ a trustee. Before this practice fell in disrepute, the trustee manhunts provided great training with the captured inmate returned to the general population unable to remain at large, certainly sending a message to the inmate population.

I will always remember one real-world dog-assisted manhunt: A deputy sheriff had been murdered during a vehicle stop. Good police practice led to the department knowing whom the deputy was stopping. The assailant departed the crime scene in his personal vehicle. The sheriff of a nearby county almost ran me over on that awful day. I noticed his tight grip on the steering wheel and purposeful intent as he sped toward the county where I also owned a ranch. I called the sheriff of that county and reached a tearful dispatcher. When she could talk, I advised I was en route and asked if the sheriff had deployed airborne assets. “No” she responded, but she said that the dog team has been called from the state penitentiary. “Tell him I’ll get a helicopter in the air”, I advised.

I called a local owner/operator of a helicopter service and quickly arranged for him to meet me at the airport. Upon arrival, the pilot (who also hunted cattle predators from helicopter), was brandishing a shotgun. “What’s that for?”, I asked. “We might find him”, was the response. I urged him to put the shotgun back into his pickup truck. “But what if we find him?”, the pilot insisted, far too eagerly. By then I was removing 7.62×51 main battle rifle with telescopic sight from my vehicle. “We’ll not get close enough for him to shoot at us in the ride”,  I responded.

Once airborne, we followed the search via hand-held police radio. The assailant’s vehicle was discovered abandoned in a dry riverbed and the dogs were searching the adjacent river area. Not wanting the down blast from the blades to interfere with any possible scent, I kept the helicopter well away and above the immediate search area. It was summer and very hot. Before long, I noticed one of the dogs leaving the pack and heading toward a small pond. Too hot I thought, the dogs are played out. A moment after that dog hit the water, it looked like an alligator with a gar. Such splashing and carrying on I had never before seen. The murderer had concealed himself in the water in a bed of reeds and rushes. He and that dog were enjoying a close encounter of the personal kind.

The pilot asked if we should land and pull the dog off. “Why?”,  I asked, since I knew the handlers would arrive momentarily. I could see the Rangers on horses headed that way. “Let’s just watch. He’s not getting away,” I told the excited pilot. The rest of the dogs arrived not long thereafter and these dogs were trackers and biters. How he lived I’ll never know but the man eventually traded a confession to the murder of the deputy sheriff in exchange for his life. (Texas has capital punishment.)

The prison dog team prompted immediate capture of a dangerous individual, and in just hours rather than in days or weeks. I’m convinced that someone has to be extremely fortunate to escape dozens of well trained and motivated scent dogs, especially on foot. The murderer’s vehicle was abandoned because he correctly intuited that its description and license plate number had been forwarded to every lawman in the sparsely settled region. And, with few major highways leaving the area, those would be obvious checkpoints. Having a partner with a vehicle or successfully stealing a vehicle would have offered better chance at escape but less than a half-day had elapsed from the time of the murder to the capture. The assailant was hard pressed from the beginning and had increasingly dwindling options.

Regards, – Panhandle Rancher