“Canine wardens” like Eider — Conservation Warden Heather Gottschalk’s black lab — help break the ice and make wardens more approachable.
A nose for justice.
Story by Kathy Kahler
The job description might look a bit daunting, and you might assume potential applicants would need a degree and a lot of experience, but those who are part of this team are veritable youngsters, with boundless energy and the job just comes naturally to them. They are part of the six–dog K–9 warden program coordinated by the DNR's Bureau of Law Enforcement.
Some states have more formal canine programs where natural resource agencies purchase already trained dogs that are then the property of those states. In Wisconsin, conservation wardens can voluntarily enroll their personal dogs in the program by certifying them with the American Kennel Club, Canine Good Citizen program. Basically, the certification verifies that the dogs are sociable around all kinds of people and other dogs, show no aggression, are friendly and are obedient.
Once handlers and dogs have attended a DNRsponsored training session, and with the approval of their supervisors, wardens are able to use their dogs to help them with designated tasks.
Conservation Warden Heather Gottschalk and her black lab partner, Eider, have been working together for eight years. Gottschalk says Eider is invaluable at public relations, detecting game — taken legally and illegally — and helping teach new hunters how to hunt.
"The dogs break the ice," says Gottschalk. "A lot of times people see wardens in uniform and they kind of stand back a little. The dogs make us more approachable."
For Gottschalk and Eider, that might be at the Youth Expo held each year in Beaver Dam, where school–aged children are introduced to a multitude of outdoor recreational experiences, or it might be at many of the talks she gives around her Dodge County base of operation. To kids who have attended her talks, she is usually known as "Eider's owner," rather than the game warden.
"It really opens doors up for them to feel comfortable to talk with me," says Gottschalk. "As they get older and as adults, if they see illegal activity, that earlier experience provides a connection and makes them willing to come forward and provide us with information we need to protect the resource."
Dogs are used in Learnto– Hunt events where they demonstrate their abilities to retrieve game that might otherwise not be found by hunters. That makes for a much higher success rate which is key to the hunter ethics such events try to instill in new hunters.
"We also use them for field detection of game taken both legally and illegally," Gottschalk explains. "For legal game, we might run across a duck hunter who has shot a bird and they can't get through the bogs or mud, or just can't find their bird. We'll ask them if they mind if we release our dog and nine times out of 10, they get their bird back. The dogs simply assist where we as humans can't."
Dogs can also help find injured wildlife. In the case of geese, which mate for life, if one of a migrating breeding pair is injured and can't fly, the other will stay by its side, which risks the lives of both.
"In the Horicon Marsh area, Eider and I work with federal wildlife officials to remove those injured birds to see if they can be rehabilitated," says Gottschalk. "That breaks up the pair bond and the healthy bird will migrate south like it should and find a new mate."
When it comes to finding illegally taken game, Gottschalk points to Eider's very first experience as a K–9 warden.
"I was in a neighboring county when I received a call from the hotline," Gottschalk recalls. "The caller had been on state property during the early goose season and had seen some hunters shoot some ducks during the closed season. I caught the suspects coming out of the marsh where they had shot a legal goose. They denied shooting any ducks, but as I continued to question them, they finally admitted they had shot some just to make their pictures look better. I had Eider with me and sent him on a blind retrieve. He ended up finding all the birds and as a result, we were able to get a good conviction."
Eider, motivated by nothing more than his senses, took it in stride and didn't much care about attention or compensation. It was all in a day's work for one of the DNR's unsung heroes.
Kathy Kahler is an editorial writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.