- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

KERNSTOWN, Va. (AP) - The Kernstown Battlefield site has served as more than a tourist attraction this summer.

Since early June, the U.S. Border Patrol has been using much of the protected 315 acres on weekdays to train dogs to track and trail unauthorized immigrants.

The Border Patrol is finishing training this week and a private graduation ceremony will be held for nine canine handlers and four instructors in Front Royal on Friday.

All 14 dogs that are being coached at the battlefield already have been trained in finding narcotics, according to Gary Spoonamore, a canine instructor and supervisory Border Patrol agent. To add to their skillset, they are being trained to track and trail people.

The method of tracking and trailing being taught at the battlefield includes having an instructor scuffle his feet - none of the instructors or handlers were women - for the first few yards of the trail and then take larger steps. At the end of the trail, the instructor covers himself in a camouflage blanket.

A handler then leashes the dog. If the animal is successful in finding the man under the blanket, the dog is given a toy, such as a rope or a piece of wood.

“The dogs will go through anything to get the toy,” Spoonamore said in a recent interview at the battlefield site. “They’re not designed to be social - they’re trained to work.”

Sue Golden, volunteer chairwoman for the Kernstown Battlefield Association, said she saw a Facebook post earlier this year that indicated the U.S. Border Patrol was looking for large tracts of land to use for training purposes.

Since the Battlefield Association - a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Kernstown Battlefield on the Pritchard-Grim Farm and is dedicated to interpreting the Civil War site - only operates on weekends from May through October, Golden said the Border Patrol wouldn’t interfere with any of the association’s operations.

So, the group allowed the Border Patrol to use its property at no cost.

Spoonamore said it’s difficult to find training terrain with a variety of landscapes, including grass, hills, plains and woods - which made the Kernstown Battlefield’s varying landscape ideal.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Canine Enforcement Program has a 300-acre Canine Center in Front Royal and one in El Paso, Texas.

The Front Royal training facility is mostly wooded, while the El Paso facility is flat desert.

There are roughly 1,500 canine handlers in the nation working in Border Patrol and customs, and less than 5 percent of them do tracking and trailing, according to Spoonamore.

“Less than 1 percent of the total canine population can do what these dogs do,” Spoonamore said, while watching an instructor train a canine handler at the Kernstown Battlefield. “They have the natural tracking drive to put their nose to the ground.”

Most of the dogs in the Border Patrol are German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Since most are purchased through German or Belgian vendors, the dogs take commands in those countries’ respective languages and dialects.

Humans have 40,000 skins cells that expel from their bodies every minute, he said. Tracking and trailing dogs not only sense the skin cells, but can detect other odors the person may have, such as from shampoo or deodorant.

German shepherds tend to be slower and more methodical, Spoonamore said, and Belgian Malinois are generally faster.

“There’s really no science behind pairing the canine and handler,” Spoonamore said. “Although, a dog with a dominant personality might be paired with a person that has a dominant personality and athletic dogs will be paired with more athletic individuals.”

Handlers and trainers were graded throughout the course on the field and in the classroom. Spoonamore said not everyone passes the tracking and trailing training, but all of the students at Kernstown Battlefield did.

The students, who are from all over the U.S., have been staying at local hotels and motels with their dogs.

The U.S. Border Patrol holds tracking and trailing classes twice a year, on average. Narcotics courses are held once every two weeks.

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Information from: The Winchester Star, https://www.winchesterstar.com


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