MIDDLE TOWNSHIP -- G-man took a big whiff of Joe Kleinow’s shoe insole, looked to his right, then started trotting down a wooded trail to his left, dragging officer Angela Alexander behind him.
The 115-pound bloodhound sniffed his way through the rear of the Cape May County 4-H fairgrounds, over train tracks and underneath power lines, before finding Kleinow hiding behind a tree.
This was one of many practice runs for the K-9 and his handler, Alexander, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who are both students in the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office bloodhound academy. It is currently the only such school in the state specifically tailored to this breed of police dog.
Known for their incredible scent detection, bloodhounds are primarily used to find missing persons or trail suspects for long distances, as opposed to also serving as attack dogs like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois.
“A bloodhound will lick you to death,” said Sheriff Gary Schaffer.
Sheriff’s Officer Russ Norcross first proposed the idea when he started trying to find a place to train new bloodhounds for the county and realized that practically all training in the state is done in-house by veteran K-9 officers.
Seeing a need for a more uniform system, he created a 12-week, full-time program that began in February and will end in mid-May. It conforms to state Attorney General and National Police Bloodhound Association guidelines but also includes much of Norcross’ own instruction.
“We’re actually taking the training to a whole new level,” he said.
There are six officers and six K-9s in the class, including Kleinow of the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office, Jose Gomez and Erick Teasenfitz of the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office, Andrew Hecksher of the Salem County Sheriff’s Office and Mike Tesei of the Essex County Sheriff’s Office.
Alexander, who is actually the secretary for the bloodhound association, said she came up to southern New Jersey because it was the best, fastest way to get fully trained along with her dog.
Norcorss and Schaffer said they envision offering the school regularly and eventually creating a way to earn national certification here. The closest place to currently get certification from the bloodhound association is in upstate New York, which is where the academy’s students will have to go when they’re finished here.
Roger Titus, vice president of the association, and Dr. David Hirsch, a veterinarian at Parkway Veterinary Hospital in Cape May Court House, gave some of the introductory classes at the school, with Titus discussing the science of human scent and Hirsch talking about bloodhound health.
Hirsch said in a separate interview that it’s debated whether bloodhounds are truly the best scent dogs, like car owners debating the virtues of one maker over another, but there is no denying that bloodhounds have an incredible sense of smell.
“The part of the brain that does smell is huge in a bloodhound compared to the part of the brain that does smell on a human,” Hirsch said.
As Norcross explained, bloodhounds can pick up a person’s trail hours or even more than a day after the person left it, whereas other breeds might lose it in an hour. They can also pick apart different scents all mixed together, which he compared to smelling a stew and determining every ingredient.
“Just like your fingerprints, your scent is specific to you,” Norcross aid.
The Cape May County Sheriff’s Office has had as many as six active bloodhounds. It currently has only one, but will have three at the end of the academy.
Gomez’s dog, West, was donated earlier this year by the ALIE Foundation, based in Denver, which provides bloodhounds to police and sheriff departments at no cost. The organization is named after a 5-year-old girl who was abducted in 1993 and whose body was found after a 14-mile search by a bloodhound, eventually leading police to a murder suspect.
There are more than a dozen dog breeds that are commonly used for police dogs, with hounds among the most popular for search and rescue because of their historical breeding for use in hunting and tracking.
They start out by being goaded with treats to follow someone, and they learn to start tracking a person with their nose instead of their eyes. Even as professionals, they are still rewarded with hot dogs, liverwurst or other snacks at the end of a search..
Modern technology allows the officers to also map these routes using GPS units attached to the dogs, which can be submitted as evidence.
Schaffer said there were about 380 calls for K-9s in Cape May County last year. In the past, hounds have been used to find a missing autistic child, to track a birder who got stuck in a swamp, to search for a suspect in the crowded Washington Street Mall in Cape May and to follow a drunken driver who fled the scene of a car accident by walking three miles to his home.
In that last case, Norcross said that when officers knocked on the suspect’s door, he answered and immediately asked if the hound had actually tracked him all that way. The officers confirmed he did.
“‘He’s good,’” Norcross said the man stated.