This sense is particularly strong in Cartuche, a new Washoe County District Court K-9, who has a heightened sense of smell that can pick up a person’s perspiration and their tiny skin cells. Upon his handler’s command, he’ll either be friendly with you or hunt you down.
Sgt. John Hamilton of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department is partnering with the 8-year-old German Shepherd in a new assignment to protect county court facilities.
“It’s been my experience that having a dog around people or large crowds is kind of a force multiplier,” Hamilton said. “You can have five deputies walk in and it won’t have the same impact as having just the one guy and the dog. The dog has a calming effect on people. … It’s intimidating, it’s big.”
Cartuche is fresh out of retirement and seems to be enjoying his first week back on the job. On Monday, Cartuche’s first day, he was alert as Hamilton listened on his radio about a stolen car in the area. If the car was to be located and Cartuche could use his nose to pick up a scent — strong or faint — he’d be ready to locate the suspect.
“Say somebody bails out of this car and starts hoofing this way, he would start at the car, you would give the dog the command something to sniff whatever, the seat, and tell him to search and he would pick up the scent of the person and hopefully take you to wherever (the suspect) was,” Hamilton said.
A Jan. 4 incident at the Las Vegas federal building in which a man shot and killed a court security guard and wounded a U.S. marshal has raised the question of increasing safety measures in courthouses. In response, Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley assigned Hamilton and Cartuche to be available for all courts served by the department. With a tight budget and fewer resources to work with, Hamilton said using Cartuche, who was free to the department, made sense as the WCSO seeks to do more with less.
Certain dogs have aptitudes to work as police or protection dogs because of their social nature. Cartuche has such a temperament. Hamilton said having the dog work in a court setting provides a calming environment for his own temperament, as well.
“Especially with my dog, he’s very social, so I don’t worry about interacting and socializing with people,” he said. “Some service dogs have a little bit tougher personality. Some dogs might not like the attention so much, so sometimes the handler has to tell the person, ‘I’m sorry, he’s working so it’s probably best not to touch him because he won’t reciprocate affection.’ ”
In the courthouse, staff are generally very friendly and comfortable and feel safer that he’s there, Hamilton said. The public generally feels the same way, though some might feel somewhat anxious.
“The dog will bridge the gap between (us and) the people who won’t talk to us,” he said. “They might want to know about the dog or tell us about their dog or have a good dog story.”
Cartuche will help Hamilton escort inmates between holding rooms, respond to situations outside and inside the courthouse and take any necessary action. His main job, though, is to track suspects.
“Every one of us standing here right now, we’re sloughing off skin cells and when somebody goes in a direction anywhere, you’re sloughing,” Hamilton said. “When you perspire, your body puts off a fear scent or adrenaline. There’s more odor to you. … Think of each footstep as a fire, so when they track, they’re following that fire of footsteps of scent toward whatever you tell them to.”
But Hamilton said there are various factors in a dog's ability to track. Depending on the time of day, temperature or a lack of precipitation, a person’s scent may not stick around long enough and the dog could lose the trail. If it snows, he said, it’s more likely there will be a trail to follow.
It also depends on how keen and engaged the K-9 is. Its work has to be fun, Hamilton said.
“Part of our training is trying to make everything fun,” he said, after a short game of tug of war with Cartuche with a chew toy. “By he and I playing with that, we’re establishing that this is fun. So now, when I ask him to do something else, he’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll do that because we do fun things. He’s not always on me to do this or that or do it the right way. He plays with me, he feeds me, he takes me home and takes care of me and loves me.’ ”
Cartuche also helps make visits to the courthouse just a little friendlier. On Monday, visitors asked permission from Hamilton for a quick pet or rub.
“It’s a great social tool for us,” he said. “People who might not want to otherwise talk to us come up to us and make interaction.”
By the same token, dogs have a natural protective quality that can be useful, Hamilton said.
“(With suspects) they know the rules and can push us, but they don’t know about the dog,” he said. “All they know is I hold the leash. So for us, just being outside is a good visual deterrent. They might think twice about what they do when we have that dog down there.”
The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office received Cartuche as a donation from a local family, Hamilton said. The dog previously was trained in six weeks, as per the standard for any K-9, but he spent nine months with Hamilton before being recertified on Thursday after just three days. Cartuche is considered family in the Hamilton house.
“When the doorbell rings at our house, he’s flying up to the door in full protection mode, barking and letting whoever’s outside know, ‘Hey, I’m in here,’ ” Hamilton said, adding that Cartuche is more relaxed once he invites the visitors inside.
Hamilton that when Cartuche is around children or people who are uncomfortable around dogs, he suggests getting down on a knee and remaining close to the animal.
“I make sure I read him and get close and, if he’s uncomfortable with small children, redirect him and just get him away as I can,” he said. “With Cartuche, he’s never been aggressive, so I don’t worry about him around small kids.”
For the public approaching the handler and dog, he added that it’s always wise to ask before touching.
“You don’t know how any animal is going to react if someone approaches you blindly,” he said.