Tracking beagle helps catch game law violators, lost hunters
By Ben Norman, Photos by Mark Stephenson
When this tracking dog gets on the trail of a poacher or lost person, the odds are they will be found in short order.
Crenshaw County Conservation Enforcement Officer Brad Gavins has a new partner to assist him in the enforcement of Alabama’s fish and game laws. Holeyfield is a 10-year-old tracking beagle trained to trail a human scent rather than a rabbit scent like most beagles.
Trained by the Alabama Department of Corrections to trail escaped prisoners and other criminals, he now assists Gavins in apprehending game law violators, searching for lost hunters, children, and dementia patients or for any emergency involving a lost or missing person. Gavins and Holeyfield have also assisted other law enforcement agencies in the tracking and apprehension of home invasion suspects and other criminals.
Gavins says Holeyfield was trained by the Alabama Department of Corrections and used for several years with that agency. “The Department of Corrections prefers a dog that barks on the trail of a fleeing criminal. The reason they prefer a barking dog is because in the pursuit there are often multiple law enforcement agencies involved, and they can tell by the barking where the subject is headed. A barking dog on the trail of a fleeing felon also causes stress on the one being pursued, causing them to be more likely to make a mistake that results in their apprehension,” says Gavins.
But Holeyfield does not bark on the trail and is referred to as a silent trailer.
“A silent trailer may be an excellent trailer, but they just don’t bark when trailing. While this is an undesirable trait for a dog trailing escaped prisoners, it is exactly what we want when investigating fish and game law violations. For example, I may note where a hunter parked their vehicle so I can return to the site after they leave and use Holeyfield to backtrack to the area hunted to determine if the area is baited, or other illegal activity is going on. I can often follow Holeyfield right up to the bait pile rather than having to search all over the woods looking for it. When doing this type investigation, we don’t need a dog that barks,” said Gavins.
Trespassing on private land is a common complaint received by conservation officers in Alabama. The officer often arrives after the trespasser has left the area, and about all an officer without a tracking dog can do is search the area or ride rural roads looking for the trespasser. “Rather than just trying to visually track a suspect or searching the woods hoping for a visual contact, I can often put Holeyfield on the trail and track and apprehend the trespasser. They usually don’t even know we are on their trail until we walk up on them. I have been called many times to assist wardens in other counties where they are having trespassing problems.”
Gavins says Holeyfield has a lot of stamina and is relentless when he gets on a trail. “I was called by a warden in an adjacent county to help him apprehend a trespassing suspect he had complaints on. We found the suspect’s tracks and started trailing him with Holeyfield. We trailed him … for several hours. The suspect hit a dirt road where his wife was supposed to pick him up. She wasn’t there because she was arrested earlier for trespassing. The suspect hid his gun in a brush pile and started walking down a dirt road. Holeyfield led us right up to where the gun was hidden. We confiscated it and then tracked the suspect down the road to his house. Holeyfield just doesn’t give up. After several hours and a long walk through the woods, he led us right up to the suspect’s door. We made an arrest and got a conviction in this case,” Gavins says.
According to Gavins, tracking dogs like Holeyfield are proving how useful they are in Alabama and other states. Because Holeyfield has proven such a valuable tool, another Alabama warden is scheduled to obtain a tracking dog soon. “Due to budget constraints and less wardens in the field, I think we will see more and more wardens with tracking dogs. They can save a lot of man hours while doing an investigation,” Gavins says.
The majority of Alabama sportsmen are law-abiding citizens, but for those tempted to throw out a little bait or take a buck or gobbler out of season, beware. Holeyfield may be on your trail.
Ben Norman writes from Highland Home.
These dogs are on call 24 / 7
The tracking dogs at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore know that when Lt. Adam McDaniel pulls the truck up to their kennel, the work is about to begin. And they love it.
They bark, howl and paw at the chain-link fences to get McDaniel’s attention, eager to show off for the boss (and perhaps earn a tasty reward).
And they don’t know what their day holds. McDaniel may be loading them up for a training run, a medical checkup, or for a real-world call to assist another law enforcement agency.
McDaniel is one of four on the team of K9 handlers at Staton. That team, like seven others that are headquartered at prisons around the state, assists law enforcement on the city, county, state and federal levels.
Each team, which is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, trains and handles passive tracking dogs, mostly beagles and bloodhounds. The dogs are bred at the prisons, and from the time they’re weaned, the puppies are trained to follow leads and track people, eventually learning to traverse all manner of woods, water and roadways. Inmates are used to lay down a track to train the dogs. Older, well-trained dogs can track a man for 6 to 8 hours, or even longer.
Bystanders who spot a tracking team often assume that the dogs are searching for an escaped inmate, but McDaniel says that’s not usually the case. The dogs also track missing children, or dementia patients who have left home. The teams also patrol the perimeter of the prisons, searching for “ninjas” who try to drop off drugs and throw phones over the prison fences for inmates.
The dogs are well conditioned, so the officers have to be able to keep up. The handlers, however, often wear a bulletproof vest, snake chaps and other equipment that weighs them down, and must traverse downed limbs and thickets of briars as well as drop offs and fences. But both man and dog are up to the task.
“Just like these inmates try to beat us, they’re going to try to beat the dogs,” McDaniel says. “I can’t let that happen. I can’t let my dog down like that, and I can’t let my team down like that.”
– Allison Griffin