South Dakota man takes on task of finding detection dogs

STURGIS, S.D. (AP) — Every month, Tim Matthews visits animal shelters in various states in a search for dogs that can do law enforcement or emergency work. He is looking for dogs that can be trained to detect prohibited items such as explosives and drugs, or help in search and rescue operations.

The key, apparently, is to spot the dogs that are obsessed with “toys,” whether it’s a ball, a pine cone or a rock. Toys become the animals’ reward for a job accomplished.

A fixation with chasing down toys also reflects the high drive and energy needed to become a successful detection dog, said Matthews, who entered the “recruitment” business with his wife, Kellee Matthews, in 2013. That same year, the couple opened the South Dakota Canine Center in Sturgis, which also offered pet training and boarding.

The country’s need for detection dogs is growing, Tim Matthews told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/2o5Ofbb ), citing as an example the increasing number of bomb sniffers at airports. It’s important to identify shelter dogs that are suitable for the job to prevent backyard breeders from filling the demand, he said.

“Backyard breeders aren’t quality breeders most of the time. They’ll breed with bad hips, they’re not aware of a lot of issues,” said Tim, 59, a licensed guide dog instructor. “The dogs that don’t make it, they’ll only end up in the pound.”

Shelters are already home to some very talented dogs, the couple said, including those that can go into the detection business. These animals end up in the pound because the very nature that makes them excellent detectors — such as great athleticism and compulsive behavior — also makes them unsuitable as family pets, said Kellee, 49.

But finding detection dogs in shelters is not easy.

The Matthews said that for every 2,000 dogs Tim sees, only one will end up with a career in detection. In the past three years, Tim said he has found 200 candidates after scouring 200 animal shelters in 10 states, including the Humane Society of the Black Hills in Rapid City.

About 10 percent of the recruits did not make it through the couple’s screening process, and the dogs were matched with families after undergoing pet training.

Some candidates lose their drive during the Matthews’ two-month evaluation period at their training center, a 19-acre property in southern Sturgis. Others do not get the necessary medical clearances that ensure a dog has the build and stamina for years on the job.

Those that pass this point are then matched with various law enforcement and emergency agencies nationwide, which train the dogs for specific assignments. Most of them, Kellee said, are Labrador retrievers and mixes of Labrador, Border collies, golden retrievers, German shepherds and English pointers.

The Matthews say their recruits have gone on to work around the country and around the world, including as explosives detectors at the U.S. Embassy in Iraqi and with a New York law enforcement agency, as well as one that helped with search and rescue after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

“The Matthews have been one of the best couples to provide those dogs,” said Wilma Melville, founder of the National Disaster Search Dogs Foundation in California. “They’re just very good at screening dogs and Tim is very good at locating them in shelters.”

Another business associate commended the couple’s dedication to their recruitment work.

“They’re saving a dog, but they’re also saving many lives,” said Julie Case of the Ultimate Canine training center in Indiana. She described their work as selfless, especially since the Matthews don’t get paid much.

When the dogs have found their work assignments, only then are Tim and Kellee paid for their work. They receive an average of $1,500 per dog, an amount that covers two months of boarding and training, veterinary expenses, as well as Tim’s travel expenses for hotels, gas and food.

Next, Tim is heading to four towns in Wyoming to do his monthly round of animal shelters. The trip might not produce any detection dogs, but such is the work required to find what Kellee describes as “diamonds in the rough.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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