K-9 officers add unique skills to wildlife work

River and Officer Chelsea Allen work out of New Castle County while Rosco and Officer Josh Hudson are based in Sussex County. Both teams, however, are used statewide. (Division of Fish & Wildlife)

River and Officer Chelsea Allen work out of New Castle County while Rosco and Officer Josh Hudson are based in Sussex County. Both teams, however, are used statewide. (Division of Fish & Wildlife)

By Lt. Casey Zolper and
Officers Chelsea Allen
and Josh Hudson

Division of Fish & Wildlife

DOVER — Two new Natural Resource Police officers with unique skills and specialized training recently joined the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police.

K-9 Officer Rosco and K-9 Officer River are on the job, working with their human partners, Officers Josh Hudson and Chelsea Allen.

River, a female black Lab, is partnered with Officer Chelsea Allen.

River, a female black Lab, is partnered with Officer Chelsea Allen.

These canine officers use their sensitive Labrador retriever noses to locate everything from poached wildlife remains and discarded weapons to lost children. The K-9 teams also help other agencies in tracking down fleeing suspects as well as locating critical evidence that may have been discarded by suspects.

Delaware’s Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police K-9 program began in 2006, when K-9 Warden joined the force, serving eight years with partner Casey Zolper, who now oversees the program. During K-9 Warden’s career, the black Lab located critical evidence in wildlife and criminal conservation cases, tracked missing people and evasive suspects and sniffed out marijuana growing sites.

Warden also represented the Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police in public demonstrations of his specialized skills at schools and community events throughout the state.

Rosco, a male chocolate Lab, is partnered with Officer Josh Hudson.

Rosco, a male chocolate Lab, is partnered with Officer Josh Hudson.

“Following K-9 Warden’s distinguished service, we knew we wanted to continue our K-9 program,” said Lt. Zolper. “We feel confident these two new K-9 teams will provide outstanding service to the wildlife and people of Delaware.”

Beginnings

As part of their new roles as K-9 handlers, Officers Hudson and Allen volunteered for an intensive 400-hour, 10-week training course held by the Maryland Natural Resources Police on the Eastern Shore. The two K-9s and their handlers are now on patrol duty after graduating from the Maryland Natural Resources Police K-9 Training Academy in June 2016.

Officer Hudson brought Rosco home at 8 weeks old from a Felton kennel and was well into training him as a hunting dog when the opportunity to join law enforcement came calling for the 2½-year-old chocolate Lab.

“Our unit was looking for new K-9 officers,” Officer Hudson said. “Rosco tested, met their tough criteria and was accepted into the program.”

K-9 Officer Rosco locates waterfowl.

K-9 Officer Rosco locates waterfowl.

Officer Allen’s partner, a 1-year-old black Lab named River, was donated to Fish & Wildlife’s Natural Resources Police K-9 program by Bill Adams of Milford.

“I was very excited when I heard our unit was looking for new K-9 officers — It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Officer Allen said. “As soon as I met River, I knew she would be a great K-9 partner.”

Unlike traditional police K-9s, Rosco and River are trained to meet the specific needs of natural resources police work, including wildlife detection, article/evidence recovery and human tracking. As part of helping officers with search-and-rescue operations, Rosco and River are able to track people through a variety of terrains. The dogs will “alert” on anything that may have been hidden or lost that contains human scent, which also helps with evidence recovery.

Both K-9s are also certified in detection of deer and wild turkeys. As part of their ongoing training, they will learn to detect other wildlife, such as waterfowl.

The first half of the 10-week training course focused on teaching the dogs how to track people by developing scent-specific skills, similar to the type of training used for bloodhounds.

One of the K-9 officers displays his skills at DNREC’s Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police Youth Academy this summer.

One of the K-9 officers displays his skills at DNREC’s Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police Youth Academy this summer.

“If you give the dogs the scent of an article of clothing from, say, a lost or missing child, that’s what they will track and what they will find,” said Lt. Zolper. “They can dig up game that someone’s hidden when over-the-limit or taken out of season, or find illegal guns and ammunition that have been discarded by somebody breaking the law. Just knowing the skills of these dogs and that they are on duty is a great deterrent to potential violators.”

The key to success with the dogs is making their jobs both rewarding and “fun” through voice-command, praise-focused training and direction from their handlers.

“When K-9s are tracking, the reward for the dogs is not only about finding the person or object. For them, it’s played like a big game of hide-and-seek, with the added reward of finding a favorite toy that they only get to play with after completing a task,” Lt. Zolper added.

On the scent   

Not even a week after graduation, K-9s Rosco and River were already assisting in the field with different cases. Just one day after receiving his certifications, K-9 Rosco and Officer Hudson responded to help officers on a hunting-out-of-season case in a farm field near Laurel.

Fish & Wildlife officers were on the scene with a suspect who, witnesses said, had been shooting from his vehicle. After checking the vehicle and not alerting to deer scent, K-9 Rosco searched the field and its edges for any deer that had been recently shot. No evidence of deer was recovered that evening, but K-9 Rosco’s investigation helped the other officers determine the appropriate charge, with the suspect arrested for hunting from a vehicle.

On a second case, K-9 Rosco and Officer Hudson assisted officers who had located a deer carcass reportedly shot by a poacher. Officers had removed a rifle bullet from the deer, which helped direct K-9 Rosco’s evidence search for a rifle casing while also searching for the suspect.

With no evidence alert from K-9 Rosco, officers concluded that the deer was likely shot from a vehicle in which evidence remained, allowing the other officers to redirect their investigation. The case is still open and the suspect remains at large.

In a more recent case, K-9 Rosco assisted in a criminal investigation involving a shooting that paralyzed the victim. Although the incident was initially reported to have occurred at a Division of Fish & Wildlife boat ramp near Laurel, K-9 Rosco proved otherwise.

He located key evidence used to determine that the shooting did not occur at the boat ramp parking lot, but rather on a nearby public roadway. That key evidence also assisted in the identification of the shooter involved in this pending case.

In the northern part of the state, K-9 River and Officer Allen responded to the C&D Canal Conservation Area to search for drug paraphernalia reportedly hidden or thrown in tall grass by four subjects. Officer Allen placed K-9 River in her specialized article search collar on a 30-foot lead and instructed River to search. After several minutes, K-9 River found no evidence of drug paraphernalia and the officers were able to quickly clear and reopen the entire area.

More recently, K-9 River located an illegal bait pile and illegally harvested deer parts in the C&D conservation area on opening day of the 2016 Deer Archery Season. This resulted in two citations for illegally baiting deer on a state wildlife area and littering.

Additionally, one of the individuals was cited for possession of an illegally killed antlerless deer.

K-9 River was rewarded by playing tug with her new squeaky Kong.

Officer Hudson and K-9 Rosco are based in Sussex County and Officer Allen and K-9 River are based in New Castle County. However, both teams will respond as needed throughout the state. In addition to handling Division of Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police cases, the two K-9 teams also are available to assist state, county and municipal police agencies throughout Delaware.

Delaware’s wildlife and the public are safer and in good paws, thanks to the special skills of K-9 Officers Rosco and River.

Note: Special thanks to Bill Adams for donating River. Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police also thank the Dewey Beach Lions Club, which has supported the Fish & Wildlife K-9 program since 2006 with a generous annual donation for equipment.

Lieutenant Casey Zolper and Officers Chelsea Allen and Josh Hudson are Division of Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police Officers.

Reach the Delaware State News newsroom at newsroom@newszap.com

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