For the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, man’s best friend is also a deputy.
Since 1985, the agency has used animals to help officers do their jobs more efficiently. To the deputies who work with them daily, they become family.
“They are really like our kids,” said Lt. Chad Hyler, a supervisor on the bloodhound tracking team. “We work daily with them from birth to retirement, so we get very close.”
The bloodhounds are a unique breed called SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) stock, which is a mixture of bloodhound, redbone and bluetick hound. The redbone and bluetick are added for speed, because bloodhounds are traditionally slower dogs.
Hyler said the dogs are not trained to bite or be aggressive, so they can end up on the wrong end of a violent criminal. When they track people, they will sometimes jump on them, but that is the end of the aggression. If the team is not right behind the animal, it can lead to confrontation with an armed criminal.
That can be dangerous in some cases.
In November, a suspect was running after stealing a big rig in Augusta and taking it over the state line. Duke, a bloodhound, tracked him through the woods. When Duke caught up with him, the man cut the bloodhound in the neck while trying to remove his GPS collar.
Patrick Spires, 30, of Aiken, was charged with assault on a police K-9 and assault on an officer. Elwell said Duke is back on duty and recovered except for some fur that has to grow back where he was cut.
South Carolina law treats a police animal the same as an officer, which can lead to long sentences for criminals who attempt to harm one.
In 1991, Darryl Snow was sent to jail for 10 years for beating an Aiken bloodhound named Tex, Aiken County sheriff’s Capt. Troy Elwell said.
“Tex was beaten pretty badly, and he still pushed on and finished the job,” he said.
Hyler said the dogs are rewarded with love and affection instead of treats so they won’t be overly aggressive during a hunt. He offers an example to show the reason for this strategy.
A few years ago, Brooke was sent after a missing 7-year-old girl in the woods. When they found her, the dog was cuddled up to the little girl, keeping her warm.
“We didn’t want to train them to be mean,” he said, “which is part of the reason why we are so protective of them.”
The 12 bloodhounds live in a pen behind the sheriff’s office. They have fields to run in and shady doghouses to sleep in. The 15 tracking team officers are the only people who handle them, Hyler said.
The drug dogs, however, belong to one person.
Deputy Jason Fox has been with his partner, Atlas – a hyper German shepherd trained to find marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin – since 2008.
Atlas lives at Fox’s house with his wife and children.
On Atlas’ first week on the job, he was called to a FedEx office, where he found 22 pounds of marijuana under 3 inches of plastic wrap and covered with chili peppers.
“He constantly wants to work,” Fox said. “He hasn’t disappointed me on a call.”
For the deputies, the dogs are more than just fluffy, four-legged friends. They are highly trained officers – who just happen to be adorable.
“We have a good time with them,” Hyler said. “They give us their whole lives. The least we can do is love them back.”