The dead goose stashed beneath a bed might have remained out of conservation officer Travis Muyres’ sight, had he not already gathered evidence suggesting a poaching had occurred.
The evidence wasn’t much: a photo on his phone of a shoe bottom imprinted in mud in an 80-acre field.
“I never would have found that shoe track if it weren’t for Hunter,’’ Muyres said.
A specially trained German shepherd — and, like Muyres, a Department of Natural Resources employee — Hunter earlier that day had been tasked to search the field where a tipster had reported a goose had been killed out of season.
A veteran at finding illegally taken wildlife stashed beyond his master’s sight and scenting capabilities, Hunter crisscrossed the field until he pinpointed the aroma of a fallen bird, along with traces of blood.
Then, as trained, he sat down.
Which in dogspeak means, “Case solved.’’
“I found the shoe print next to the feathers and photographed it,’’ Muyres said.
The officer subsequently questioned a nearby homeowner, who initially insisted he knew nothing about a goose.
“That’s when I asked to see the shoes of people who lived there,’’ Muyres said. “One was an identical match.’’
In moments, the suspect goose was in hand.
As Hunter had indicated, case solved.
The DNR in recent months has ramped up its canine corps, training more dogs with wider ranging skills — including the ability to scent zebra mussels on boats — and adding different breeds, among them Muyres’ new companion, a Belgian Malinois (pronounced Mal-in-whaa).
Aiding the effort has been Muyres’ certification as a police dog trainer through the U.S. Police Canine Association, bringing the DNR’s dog program in-house and reducing its need to outsource related costs.
Other DNR officer-canine teams include water resource enforcement officer Lt. Julie Siems and her Labrador K-9 partner, Brady; Lt. Larry Hanson and Digger, also a Lab; and conservation officer Scott Staples and his German shepherd, Schody.
The goal, over time, said Muyres, a conservation officer since 2001, is to equip as many as a dozen officers with dogs that possess the special skills DNR conservation officers seek in their companions.
These include tracking, wildlife detection and now zebra mussel scenting, as well as the ability to locate firearms and spent shell casings.
“We look for firearms all the time,’’ Muyres said. “Now we have the ability to run a dog through a house and find a gun that might be hidden there in a fraction of the time it took before, using multiple officers.’’
As a kid growing up in Fridley, Muyres had hunting dogs, first a springer spaniel, then two yellow Labradors. And, like most dog owners, he thought he knew something about training.
He knows now he didn’t.
“When we’re interviewing candidates to be canine handlers, we would prefer they know little or nothing about dog training,’’ Muyres said. “It’s just better to start with a clean slate.’’
In part this is because DNR and other enforcement agencies often aren’t looking for the same types of dog most people would want for pets.
Witness Laina, the 1-year-old female Belgian Malinois that replaced the now-retired Hunter.
The other day, at a DNR metro boat launch, Muyres freed her from the special cage where she resides while riding in his DNR-issued Chevy Tahoe.
The cage is part of a sophisticated aftermarket dog-care system installed in the vehicle to ensure the animal isn’t overheated.
“If I’m out of the vehicle in summer, I leave it running to keep the air conditioning on,’’ Muyres said. “But if for some reason the truck should shut off or the air conditioning fail, the windows will automatically roll down, a fan will come on to blow air onto the dog and an alarm will alert me to the problem.’’
Colored like German shepherds but with short hair, Belgian Malinois are muscled, extremely fast … and hyper.
Laina demonstrated as much when Muyres tossed a rubber ball on a rope, then watched as the dog rocketed to its “reward’’ and returned lickety-split, eager to repeat the procedure again and again, endlessly.
“The prey drive of these dogs is really high,’’ Muyres said. “And they’re very quick learning, which is both positive and negative. Positive because you can teach them quickly. Negative because if you mess up a training task, it’s hard to get them to recover.’’
German shepherds present many of the same traits, and make up the bulk of dogs used for police and similar work. But typically they need more praise and interaction for their accomplishments than Belgian Malinois do.
“Laina will work all day and do it with less encouragement,’’ Muyres said.
Even Labradors sought for DNR and some other enforcement work aren’t run-of-the-mill specimens.
Earlier this year, Muyres spent months looking for two retriever candidates between the ages of 1 and 3 to assign to officers Siems and Hanson for training. Did he contact breeders of purebred show dogs or field trailers?
No. Instead he searched pounds and other places where castoff canines face uncertain futures.
“The first thing you need is a dog that goes crazy for a ball,’’ Muyres said. “That’s the reward we use if the dog finds what we want it to find.’’
In the end, Muyres located a stray Lab that showed sufficient ball obsession, and a similarly wired Labrador whose owner had surrendered him to a rescue group.
‘Scent box’ lesson
So how do you train a dog to find zebra mussels?
“Everyone has their own method, but generally the same way you train a dog to find crack or meth or marijuana,’’ Muyres said.
Lessons might begin with the desired object in a “scent box.’’ When presented with the box, the dog is told to sit. Some trainers offer food as a reward. But more often a ball — and the chance to mouth it for a few moments — is the animal’s prize.
The only other state with zebra mussel dogs is California, with 17. Earlier this year, Muyres and Lt. Todd Kanieski, who manages the DNR canine program, traveled there to see how it’s done.
So it is this summer that two days each month, Siems, Hanson, Muyres and Staples meet at Camp Ripley to polish not only their dogs’ skills, but also their own.
The periodic lessons follow five weeks of intensive zebra mussel training earlier this year for Siems, Hanson, Muyres and their charges.
“Part of being a good handler is being able to read your dog,’’ Muyres said.
Then, seeing the eager “give it another toss’’ look in Laina’s eyes, Muyres whipped her ball-on-a-rope and watched the young dog charge after it.