Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources has a new officer and he’s excited to get to work tracking poachers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conservation officer Josh Carver talks about his chocolate Lab named Carlo following a tracking training demonstration in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 10, 2019. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources K9 program has been revitalized with the introduction of two newly trained dogs. While the dogs will primarily help solve wildlife-related crimes, like trespassing and poaching cases, they will also assist other law enforcement agencies.

Conservation K-9 Carlo, an energetic chocolate Labrador retriever, is excited to get to work.

His partner, Officer Josh Carver of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, straps on a collar that signals to Carlo that they are looking for a human-owned object. Carlo puts his nose to the ground, catches a scent and begins to follow it, snaking through a field that appears empty to the human eye. Within minutes, he stops, hovers and looks up at Carver. At his paws is a camouflaged rifle.

After Carlo finds the gun, he is rewarded with praise, playtime and plenty of petting. He wags his tail as Carver embraces him.

“It’s all about fun and games to the dog,” said Carver. “That’s what we want. We want the dogs to have fun.”

Carlo loves his job, but what he does not know is that his job may have saved his life.

Carlo is one of three officers in the Utah DWR’s newly revitalized K-9 program. The DWR had a K-9 program decades ago, but it was discontinued in the 1990s. A new dog, Cody, joined the force as Carver’s partner in 2016, but that dog succumbed to cancer last year.

Before he was brought to the force, Carlo was owned by a man who thought the dog was too energetic and misbehaved. He was hoping to find a law enforcement position for Carlo because he didn’t think the dog would do well with a family.

When Carver contacted the owner, he consented to having him tested for a DWR position and told Carver he was considering euthanizing the dog if no one took him. Fortunately, Carlo had everything Carver was looking for. His energetic nature and strong desire to play meant he would be highly motivated for police work. The two now work with Cruz, a black Lab, and his partner, conservation Officer Matt Burgess.

For the past nine weeks, Burgess and Cruz worked with the dogs at a training program through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. They are now certified and ready to serve. A third K-9 officer is still in the process of being trained, and the department hopes to eventually bring on a fourth.

Carlo and Cruz will be primarily assigned to find poachers.

While DWR has a small enforcement team, it often gets three or four cases a week. It’s tough to follow up on every incident and things move a lot faster when there are dogs to trail suspects or search overgrown fields for evidence, Carver said. The dogs will also assist other law-enforcement departments by searching for missing hikers or kidnapped children.

Unlike typical police K-9s, Cruz and Carlo are not trained to bite, which means they are friendly and sociable. Like other K-9 officers, Cruz and Carlo are trained to search for objects, but instead of searching for drug-related items, the DWR dogs find wildlife-related items, including animal parts, shotgun shells and sunglasses. They are also expert trackers, capable of following a person for miles.

Burgess said he hopes to strengthen the DWR’s relationship with city and county K-9 programs by having the dogs train together.

The DWR dogs didn’t come cheap. Carlo was free, but Cruz cost just under $1,000 while the third dog cost $1,200, according to K-9 Coordinator Chad Bettridge. The Indiana training program cost about $1,000 per officer plus travel. But the DWR has managed to offset some of the costs by paying for the trainings with restitution money payed by poachers.

For Carver, Carlo is much more than an expensive tool. The dog is family. He hopes the two will work together for at least another eight years but said that when Carlo eventually retires he will remain at Carver’s house.

“I’m living my dream,” said Carver. “I get to go to work every day with my best friend.”

Correction • 7:22 p.m. A previous version of the story misstated the name of one of the dogs.