Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources' latest recruit is bright-eyed, bushy tailed and ready to serve — oh, and four-legged.
Fennec, a 20-month-old German shepherd Belgian Malinois mix, graduated from K-9 school in St. Paul on May 27 after completing a rigorous 17-week training regimen alongside his handler, DNR Conservation Officer Scott Staples.
Now, Fennec and Staples have returned to their home base in Carlton County, where the team will cover the same 650-square-mile territory that Staples has been serving as a conservation officer since 1997.
“He’s a ball of energy,” Staples said of Fennec, watching as the dog gleefully ran in circles with his hard-earned toy after obeying several commands. “It hasn’t been a normal day yet.”
Since their return from training, Staples said he and Fennec have worked to get caught up and settle into a routine together.
Fennec lives at home with Staples, his family and retired K-9 unit Schody. His name was given to him by one of Staples’ daughters, who made the remark that the dog looked similar to a Fennec Fox when he perked up his large ears while taking a bath.
Staples is an experienced K-9 handler, and worked with his previous dog, Schody, for 10 years prior to Schody’s retirement in December 2020. Learning to work with Schody was a huge learning curve, but Staples said the payoff far outweighed the effort. One dog can often do the work of 10 officers, he said.
“There’s nothing like watching them,” Staples said. “I just want (Fennec) to be as good as Schody … He was phenomenal.”
Since his retirement, Schody has been living with Staples, who shared that Schody would still be working if it weren’t for degenerative myelopathy — a progressive disease that affects the spinal cord. Degenerative myelopathy usually occurs in older dogs and can be fatal. Staples believes that the disease will eventually take Schody's life, but for now, he said Schody is trying his best to stay active at home while also tolerating Fennec.
Staples got Fennec when the dog was about 1 year old. Staples said that's the typical training age for K-9 units, as Fennec is old enough to focus and retain information, but he is still young enough to be flexible in his training.
That also means Fennec still has some puppy tendencies.
“He’s his own dog, that’s for sure,” Staples said. “He’ll do just about anything to get a toy.”
Positive reinforcement is the name of the game with K-9 training, according to Staples, who uses toys and treats as incentives for Fennec.
Dogs and their officers are required to train at least 16 hours a month, in addition to annual certifications in patrol, evidence and detection tests, according to a news release from the DNR. Staples said he works to train Fennec almost constantly, both in the field and at home.
It's a handler's commitment to their dog that makes a team successful, said Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the DNR Enforcement Division, in a news release.
“The dogs have innate abilities — an extremely powerful sense of smell, for example — but it’s really the dedication of their handlers and the intense, ongoing training that make them critical tools for conservation law enforcement,” Smith said. “Our K-9 teams have been instrumental in solving poaching cases, have helped to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species, and have saved the lives of people who’ve been lost in the wilderness.”
There are currently six DNR K-9 units operating throughout Minnesota. Staples said each team is unique in their training and abilities. For example, Fennec will specialize in game, fish, firearms and human detection. Staples said he and Fennec could be called out in the middle of the night or to the other side of the state if another unit needs Fennec’s abilities.
Ultimately, Staples said Fennec is a social dog who has a lot of potential, and Staples is excited for them to start working in the field, as well as in the community.