AIKEN - It's the scent of the hunt that drives them.
Dogs trained to sniff out illegal drugs and explosive devices have been training in Aiken and Augusta this week in preparation for their annual certification tests.
Those tests - which move the dogs and their handlers through buildings, around cars and into open fields - are held every year in Aiken as a requirement for certification by the U.S. Police Canine Association.
"Any place you can think to hide narcotics, then we'll find some way to search it with the dogs," said Cpl. Clark Smith of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, who is overseeing the training.
The training sessions are held by the city police, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, Wackenhut Security Services and the Richmond County Sheriff's Office.
Dogs and their handlers went through their training paces Wednesday and Thursday. The teams will take part in certification trials today and Saturday.
Cpl. Smith said 13 teams of explosive sniffing dogs and handlers and 43 teams of officers and their drug-sniffing canines, all from South Carolina and North Carolina, are participating in the certification.
On Thursday, several teams trained at the Aiken County Public Works depot, located just off Wire Road a few miles east of Aiken.
In one drill, an officer and his German shepherd searched a black county-owned Ford Crown Victoria for a hidden cache of drugs.
Cpl. Smith said his dog, a black Labrador retriever named Shooter, can sniff out seven types of drugs - from marijuana to cocaine and heroin. Many police dogs have similar skill, he said.
The tests are designed to challenge both dog and handler, said New Hanover County, N.C., sheriff's Deputy Clay Benton, who took the training course. The drills are hard, but the dogs always come through.
Even a simple search for drugs in a car can be tricky because handlers might think they know better than their dogs where the contraband is stashed. Deputy Benton said a handler has to let the dog take charge.
"You got to trust your dog and follow your dog," he said.
Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.