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Newest Boulder County search and rescue K9 on track to receive national certification

In World
January 29, 2024

Jan. 28—After deciding to become a K9 handler, Boulder County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Joshua Scrudder was shown a video of a litter of bloodhounds and told to pick whichever one he wanted.

He watched as baby bloodhounds crowded where the food was always placed, while a little pup in the background trailed behind the caretaker carrying the food. From that moment, Scrudder knew that little pup was the best pick for the newest search and rescue K9.

Watson, now 1, and Scrudder received their first certification in December, making them qualified for search and rescue operations, man trailing and human remains recovery in Colorado. The pair have three more certifications still to come to qualify for national recognition.

Watson was donated by the family of Larry Steingraber, a former Boulder police sergeant, in his honor.

Unlike other K9s, Watson has been trained entirely by Scrudder, who adopted him at 9 weeks old in March 2023 and began basic training with him at 11 weeks after learning through the Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States organization.

“We went to a puppy socialization training class to get him used to other dogs, not being reactive and being handled by other people,” Scrudder said. “He passed that with no issue and then it was the basic training of don’t pee in the house, don’t chew up stuff in the house — I’m still missing some siding, some banister in the living room and some carpet upstairs.”

Scrudder said then he began work to activate Watson’s prey drive by training him to track someone who had treats and toys in their hands. The distance stretched longer as training went on and included obstacles like someone hiding behind a tree or building.

Today, training can look a little more gory. Due to the fact that Watson is specialized in human remains recovery, Scrudder uses actual human remains that he gets from local body farms — which is where bodies go when they are donated to science — to train Watson.

“For all the dogs we have training aides,” Scrudder said. “So for our drug dogs we have actual narcotics that we use that are seized or come from the DEA, and that’s how we confirm they are tracking or finding.”

Scrudder continued, “So I’ll have a mason jar with some liver in it. There’s some with bones, there’s some with remains, so ashes with teeth in it. It’s a bunch of different pieces of body and then they’re all in different stages of decay but you can train the dog on everything from day-old fresh stuff to a blank jar where something had decayed in there and it’s no longer even in the jar but the scent is still there.”

On Tuesday, Watson trained with the use of mummified people, which Scrudder said teaches him to track those certain types of remains.

Scrudder said the most recent certification they received was their “biggest milestone yet” and involved a subject being gone missing within 30 minutes of the search. Two search scenarios occur during the certification test, one in a woodland environment and one in a suburban environment.

“The idea is you have a certain time limit where the dog has to start the track and find the subject,” Scrudder said. “We use an app for man trailing that shows where the subject walked and then where the dog is currently tracking and we overlay the two tracks.”

Scrudder explained that the tests are double blind, meaning neither he or Watson know where the subject is and Scrudder cannot see how on track Watson is during the test.

“In the real world, we might be in a crowd of people and I don’t know who it is, he knows the scent,” Scrudder said.

During search operations, Scrudder said he acts as the voice for Watson. Having a strong relationship with the K9, Scrudder is able to detect if Watson is on a scent track, has found the subject or is near the subject just based on his body language.

“Sometimes I definitely just feel like a counter-weight on the leash but there’s a lot more to it,” Scrudder said. “He doesn’t speak English so he can only tell so much about what’s going on so that’s where having the team come in is really important. He lives at home with me so I know how he behaves, he knows how I’m going to react to certain things and we rely on each other to communicate.”

As the search and recovery K9 who also specializes in man trailing, Watson is called in to work in cases where people are missing or law enforcement are looking for a suspect. Scrudder said he uses “intimate scent articles” to expose Watson to the scent before he begins tracking.

“Our biggest thing is we can utilize him for suspects or for the more criminal side of what’s going on,” Scrudder said. “Previous hounds here have helped with murder cases where we can utilize the dog saying remains have been here at some point so like the trunk of a car, in a house, they’re no longer here but the dog was able to say, ‘a human being was deceased in this spot.’ And that’s what we’re kind of using him for.”

Scrudder also said Watson can be used to find clandestine grave sites as well as people who have died by suicide in wooded areas.

Scrudder said moving forward the national certification tests will involve longer tracks and older trails, eventually ending with a 24-hour-old trail. Scrudder expects certification to take two years and then the pair will need recertification every year following.

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