DULUTH — A suicidal man held a deer rifle up to his head during hunting season and when his family got the rifle away from him, he took off running into the woods.
He told his family he was going to take pills and they would never find him in the woods. Then Conservation Officer Scott Staples and his K-9 partner Schody were called in.
"We found the guy within 10 minutes, hiding under a tree. At first, he was amazed because he saw the dog right on his trail that he walked all the way to where he was. 'Wow, that's a great dog,' and then he started crying," Staples recalled.
Schody has spent more than seven years finding fish, wildlife and people for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. His nose can sniff out game hidden in a vehicle, animals caught in a snare, a gun pitched into the woods or a person hiding in brush. He doesn't know the differences between them, but he's trained to know when he picks up an odor on them that's different than the odors around it, Staples explains. The abilities of Schody's nose are "just amazing," Staples said. "I'm not saying that it's my training. I think I just got a good dog. I got lucky with the dog I got."
While some people in Staples' patrol area have gotten to know Schody, Staples said he still frequently meets people around the state who are surprised that the DNR has K-9s, thinking they're used like police K-9s.
"Most people don't get it until you tell them they sniff for game and fish and they're used differently for that because it's not illegal to possess game and fish," Staples said.
In addition to using his nose, Schody also provides some unexpected moments. A filmy white dust covers the passenger side of Staples' DNR truck — the leftover residual from when Schody set off a fire extinguisher in the truck by stepping on it.
"When you have a K-9 partner..." Staples said.
Schody was a 1-year-old German shepherd from Slovakia when he became Staples' partner more than seven years ago. Staples has been with the DNR for 20 years and Schody is his first K-9. He said he enjoys working with Schody because he has a good partner all the time.
"The best thing I like about it is getting out in real-life situations and watching him actually go out and do the job. It's amazing what their noses can do. Their noses are crazy sensitive. A lot of people don't really know how well they can sniff. They're constantly using it, but they can sniff out just about anything," Staples said.
Items Schody has found includes a phone buried in snow. About four years ago, a conservation officer in Ely lost the state's satellite phone during a search for a man with dementia who was lost when a blizzard was coming in. After the man was found, the conservation officer asked Staples if Schody could search for the phone. After the blizzard blew through, Staples and Schody headed out there. Staples hid a plastic box similar to a phone's shape in the snow to do a training run first. Schody blew right by the plastic box, but Staples showed him the box in the snow "and it just clicked in his head that, hey, there's stuff under the snow." They took off into the woods to search, Schody bouncing through knee-deep snow ahead of Staples.
"His tail starts (wagging) and he starts digging in the snow. He looks up at me and there's the satellite phone in the snow. He's figured it out. It's a game to him," Staples said, adding that Schody also found a hat and pair of mittens lost during the search for the man with dementia. "He found it all underneath a foot of snow. Their noses are that sensitive. They can dig up all kinds of stuff."
A dog either has the drive to work or doesn't — it can't be trained into the dog, Staples explained. Schody knows the difference between being at home and being at work, and recognizes that he's going to work when Staples puts his conservation officer uniform on.
"He wants to go into the truck because that's what he wants. He wants to go to work. They live to work and have a huge drive. That's what we want — dogs that have a high drive so they go out and won't stop searching," Staples said.
Staples' district covers 650 square miles on the east side of Carlton County, but he frequently travels with Schody for searches because the DNR only has five K-9 units in the state. Schody is also called on by law enforcement agencies in the region to help with searches and found the guns thrown into the woods that were used in robberies in Cloquet. It takes a lot of work to balance the K-9 work with running a patrol area, he said.
"You have to have an understanding family and understanding partners and supervisors because you're going to be gone at times doing training or on details and they're going to take your calls. It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun. I enjoy it," he said.
Staples noted he was leaving soon for the U.S.-Canadian border, where Schody's nose would be put to use inspecting vehicles entering the United States during Ontario's bear hunting opener. Then he'll be busy with Minnesota's duck hunting opener. A "typical day" doesn't exist for Schody because the job changes with the season, Staples said.
Schody usually stays home during the worst heat of summer because he's a handful in a boat.
"He's a peach of a dog, but he'll want to get into the other boat. Somebody hands me their fishing license and he'll want to sniff it," Staples said. "He gets mad because he doesn't want to stay home."
Schody went through months of training before he began the job and he's tested annually by the U.S. Police Canine Association. The training is constant to keep up Schody's skills, Staples said. To show the precise attention to detail that Schody needs to do his job, Staples has Schody sit and wait for the word "break," which is the command to grab his toy. Schody only moves toward his toy when he hears the command in a string of unrelated words that Staples says to him. Although Schody listens to Staples give commands, he won't if someone else says the command.
"They really are pack animals. I'm his boss and he knows that. But my wife and kids are on the same playing field, so sometimes he'll listen to them, sometimes he'll be like, 'Nope, I'm doing my own thing,'" Staples said.
As focused on work as Schody is, he still needs to be a social dog that enjoys being around people. Most people are initially scared of him because he looks intimidating, but then they ask to pet him after the initial reaction, he said.
"The difference is somebody coming up to pet him and somebody coming up to assault me. Two different things and he knows it," Staples said.
Schody has never bitten anyone during a pursuit — the closest he has come to biting is about 15 feet before the man gave up — because people usually give up as soon as they see Schody, Staples said. Apprehending a person is a rare activity for Schody because the job really is about his nose.
"Anything out of the ordinary from the odor that they're sniffing: 'Come look at this,'" Staples said.