By Stan Schwartz
The Northeast Correctional Center won their first ever first place at the Missouri Department of Corrections 16th Annual Dog Tracking Team Competition.
Warden Clay Stanton said it was a tremendous win for the team, who traveled to the Lake of the Ozarks to compete against three other teams from other correctional facilities.
“I am beyond proud of the team as well as Ella and Myles,” Stanton said. “This is a huge accomplishment.” Ella and Myles are the bloodhounds the team uses for tracking.
Jason Woodhurst said they had two tracking trails to complete during the competition—one during the day and one night trail.
Jacob Wiegand, as well as Josh Roberts and Evan Butler are on the team.
Woodhurst said the competing teams are given two hours to complete the course. The mile-long trail has four flags that they must find in that time limit.
They said the bloodhound is best suited for search and rescue operations. They work two team members per dog. Their long ears and loose jowls funnel all the smells to their noses.
Wiegand said one member has the dog on a 20-foot lead and watches where the dog goes. The other team member keeps an eye on their surroundings. It’s not like in the movies, with baying hounds racing after a fugitive. These teams are silent trackers.
Ella, the female bloodhound is nearing retirement at age 6. Miles is 3 years old and still has a lot of yeas ahead of him. They also have two puppies in training for when their current trackers retire. Wiegand said the warden believes in the team and has provided the resources necessary for them to operate at such a high level.
Stanton said the dog tracking team is not just for finding fugitives. He sees them as a resource for the community when looking for missing children or older adults.
When two young boys from the Buffalo Township area wandered off into the deep woods a few months ago, Stanton said his team was gearing up to join the search. But the boys were located before NECC bloodhounds could get to the search area.
“I’m sure we would have found them quickly,” he said, adding that they are always ready to help local law enforcement or fire departments when they need trackers. And now that they’re the best in the state, it puts them on the map.
The teams worked 8 – 10 hours a day during the competition. The dogs do their best when the trail is fresh, so getting to the scene quickly is important.
The dogs are also equipped with GPS collars, so a team member back at their mobile command trailer can ping where the teams are, and they can drop markers where any evidence is located.
Ella and Miles follow scent trails differently. One is a ground tracker and follows the trail wherever the person has walked. The other is an air tracker and will make a beeline to the person instead of following a circuitous route. Sometimes it’s more like they are eliminating where the missing person has not gone.
At the competition, they faced deep ravines. Team members said scents could pool at the bottom of a ravine, making it necessary for them to get to higher ground to re-establish a trail scent. They also encountered a particular animal in the Lake of the Ozarks not seen in these parts—armadillos. That was just one more obstacle the team was able to overcome to win the competition.
Their trailer is set up for long stays if become necessary to remain at a search site for longer than a day. The dogs travel in the trailer’s kennels and the team members have all the equipment needed for various searches.
This year, the Northeast Correctional Center, the Farmington Correctional Center, the Crossroads Correctional Center, and the Algoa Correctional Center – 2020 participated in the competition.
In order to remain state-qualified trackers, they must train at least 340 hours a year.
When tracking, they said, always trust the dog. The dog’s nose is always the best resource they have.