Conservation Officer Luke Gutzwiller will debut with his friendly, energetic partner in the Redwood Falls area when the two of them finish 12 weeks of training in Wright County. They completed Week 3 on Friday with more than a dozen other pairs, including teams from Kansas and North Dakota.

Lt. Phil Mohs, DNR’s newly appointed K-9 unit coordinator, said in an interview last week that his goal is to build a sustainable force of eight K-9 pairs. The dogs have earned their keep, he said, as masters of tracking, detection, apprehension and public relations.

“It’s tough to find the right dogs because we ask a lot from them,” said Mohs, who also heads DNR’s West Metro enforcement team. “It’s important that we have a good spread of them across the state.”

K-9 Si, a German shepherd who works out of Deer River, is a good example. Using his tracking skills, he recently helped locate suspected cabin burglars in Itasca County. A short time later, he was at the side of northern Minnesota sheriff’s deputies who were serving a potentially problematic arrest warrant.

Mohs is doing his own research into the DNR’s use of K-9s, but the modern era started in the mid-2000s with a trip to California to study how dogs were detecting zebra mussels. Two Minnesota dogs — a Labrador retriever and a German shorthaired pointer — now provide the same service for the DNR at watercraft inspections. They’re also trained to detect human scent, firearms, fish and game.

Mohs said Minnesota’s K-9 unit has been built with the help of grant money and donations. Eventually he’d like four dogs on staff singularly trained for detection and four others trained in the dual disciplines of detection and criminal apprehension. Earl will be dual.

Their jobs include finding evidence like shell casings, firearms, spent arrows and illegally taken game. They assist in searches for people lost in the outdoors and for suspected poachers or other violators.

Mohs also said a K-9 at the side of a conservation officer can influence suspects to cooperate more readily. The dogs also provide lots of positive contacts with the public. One example is how the dogs put anglers, hunters and trappers at ease when officers are inspecting, interviewing or educating.

The K-9 Unit’s five teams are Gutzwiller and Earl in Redwood Falls; Hannah Mishler and Storm in Bemidji; Scott Staples and Schody in Carlton; Mike Fairbanks and Si in Deer River; and Julie Siems and Brady in southeastern Minnesota.

Gutzwiller said he already is impressed with Earl’s tracking ability. In training exercises, the dog has tracked human footprints across different surfaces outdoors and indoors. He’s also followed various scents to the inside of compartments on boats and ATVs.

“It’s pretty amazing the abilities that these dogs have,” he said.