Getting the Nose to Tell What It Knows
Acclaimed Loudoun Program Trains Bloodhounds and Their Handlers

By Sydney Wilmer Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

More than 35 bloodhound handlers -- some from as far away as Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Brazil -- came to Loudoun this week to participate in an annual week-long training camp.

Organizers had to turn away nearly 30 applicants in preparation for the 17th annual Search and Rescue Training Seminar, sponsored by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and the Virginia Bloodhound Search and Rescue Association.

"I'm just happy I made it into the program," said Sam Shipley, a participant from the York County, Pa., sheriff's office. Shipley and his 6-month-old hound, Lou, are freshmen in the program.

Handler and trainer William Neff of the Virginia Department of Forestry in Lee County, in the far southwestern corner of the state, drove several hours to participate. He said he suspects the event's narrow focus makes it popular.

"I'm out here because the training came highly recommended," Neff said. "It also makes the hound-human team stronger."

The camp, which began Sunday, is one of a handful of training programs in the country geared toward bloodhounds and their owners, said trainer Jerome Swain of Loudoun's Department of Fire, Rescue & Emergency Management. Although a number of dog breeds are able to distinguish the scents of individual humans, bloodhounds are especially adept at the task, he said.

"The dogs are born with it, but the humans have to learn to train them," Swain said, and it's not an easy task. Swain said the difficulty and time commitment are worthwhile.

In top condition, bloodhounds often gather evidence that can stand up in Virginia courts, Swain said. "These dogs were bred by monks to search for humans hundreds of years ago," he said. "It is just a matter of teaching the handlers how to train the dogs."

"It is more of an art than anything else," Swain told one of the students. "As humans, we can't see or smell this scent -- we just have to train the dogs."

On Monday morning at Ida Lee Park in Leesburg, Swain and a team of trainers, five students and eight dogs worked on sharpening the "differentiation" skill, a notoriously difficult exercise for the animals.

First, the dogs were harnessed and exposed to a human scent. Handlers then guided the dogs to a human lineup where the hounds were expected to place the scent. It is a quiet exercise until the dogs find their target; the lineup erupts in claps and cheers for the dogs when they complete the task successfully.

"These dogs work for praise and treats -- that's their pay," said John Lavinder, a trainer with the Loudoun Sheriff's Office. "These dogs are a lot like athletes: They have it in them, we just have to help bring it out."

The week-long camp is only the beginning for some students. On average, a novice trainer should expect to spend 12 to 18 months training a bloodhound. After the camp, participants will work independently with their animals to get them ready for professional duty.

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