Bloodhound has made believers of Ohio police

Copyright 2006 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved 
The Columbus Dispatch

GAHANNA, Ohio — Shoo her all you want, but there's no waving off a bloodhound when your scent is thick in her nostrils, your sloughed-off skin cells swirling around her like a spray of perfume.

Cornered in a stand of brush and brambles, the shirtless suspect from an I-270 traffic stop gave it a try anyway.

Penny got a whiff of him at the car he had abandoned on the freeway and she was off.

At the bramble patch, she strained at her harness, frantically trying to convince her partner, Gahanna Police Officer Marvin Hixon, that the trail had ended.

He's here, she was saying. Look closer. He's right under our noses.

On that night in 2004, Hixon was still learning what Penny could do. He knew she was good, but those briars looked impenetrable.

"No way he's in there," he thought.

He bent down, trained the beam of his flashlight into the tangle and looked into the face of his wide-eyed suspect.

"He was like this," Hixon recalled, waving his arm. " 'Get away, get away, get away!' "

Penny had their man.

There are dogs that track, and there are dogs that man-trail, experts say. When it comes to man-trailing, there ain't nothin' like a hound dog.

Even so, bloodhounds remain far less common than other police dogs, as many departments seek the most bang for their bucks from jack-of-all-trades dogs that sniff out drugs, bite the arms of armed men and follow fleeing felons.

"The bloodhound is not going to be as entrenched throughout our country as we'd like," said Dennis Guzlas, an instructor with the National Police Bloodhound Association. The association has about 350 members nationwide, including six or so in Ohio.

Cpl. Troy Swearingen, of the Hamilton County sheriff's office, handles a bloodhound for tracking and a standard patrol dog, saying each has its place in law enforcement. He expects interest in bloodhounds to grow.

"People don't have the knowledge of what they can do," he said. "Most people still believe in the patrol dog."

Lt. Jeffrey Spence said Gahanna received Penny as a puppy two years ago from the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction. The center, named for a boy who was raped and murdered in Florida in 1995, provides bloodhounds to police as part of its mission.

Hixon said he knows of only one other law-enforcement bloodhound handler in central Ohio, Special Deputy Scott Gaines with the Delaware County sheriff's office. Gaines has had his dog, Sarge, for about two years, Capt. Scott Vance said.

"The more our guys use him, the more they become impressed," Vance said.

Gahanna Police Chief Dennis Murphy said his department will send Hixon and Penny to any central Ohio agency at any time.

"That dog is a phenomenal talent, and we want to share it," he said.

Although any dog can track, most do it by following the trail of earth and vegetation disturbed by the person they're told to follow. Send them across a freshly used football field and they're stuck, Guzlas said.

A bloodhound imprints on one scent.

"Discretionary work is the bloodhound's forte," he said. "That's where he shines. If the bloodhound is not following a human trail, I question whether he's the happiest."

To a bloodhound, Hixon said, people look like Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip.

"You have billions of dead cells falling from you all the time," he said. "We can't see it, but she can smell it."

The dogs can tip the scales at more than 100 pounds, rippling with muscle and energy. Ears flopping, snouts casting about, drool flying — trailing bloodhounds don't mosey, they run.

"I would equate them certainly to a sled dog in their pulling power," Guzlas said.

When Penny is on a trail, Hixon is "running nonstop to keep up with her," said Gahanna Officer Sherman Buck, who has sprinted ahead of the pair to put down a scent trail for training.

Bloodhounds must be restrained with a special harness when trailing because they get so focused on the scent that they develop tunnel vision.

"They'll run right across the street in front of cars," Hixon said. "They'll run off a cliff."

In the two years she has been in Gahanna, Penny has been involved in a number of manhunts, including those for the killers of Columbus Police Officer Bryan Hurst and Marion County Deputy Brandy Lyn Winfield.

In the latter case, Penny and the Delaware County hound, Sarge, were on a suspect's trail for hours, followed by a police tactical team.

"All of us were worn out," Hixon said. "She's got a high drive."

The suspect eluded them but was arrested later.

Penny is unfazed by high-profile hunts, Hixon said. "To her, it's a game we're playing."

After two years, his bond with Penny has gone beyond work, he said. He thought back to the day he picked out the pup, then an 8-week-old bundle of curiosity.

"She was that little," he said, cupping his hands. "Beautiful. She still is, to me."

He has long accepted who's in charge.

"You've got to trust your dog because you don't have a clue," he said. "I know that now."

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