In many ways, Travis acts much like an ordinary dog—he plays fetch, runs around with other canines, and enjoys lying in the sun. But the bloodhound also has a job to do: As a trailing dog in the K-9 unit of the Montgomery County Police Department, he follows human scents to help find missing people.
Three-year-old Travis came to the police department from a breeder in Alabama when he was 12 weeks old. All K-9 unit dogs live with their handlers, so Travis moved into the Damascus home of police Officer John Greene, who says Travis became “part of the family.” Greene trained Travis with the help of his two now-grown daughters who lived at home at the time, and he was certified as a trailing dog when he was around age 2.
Travis, who weighs about 100 pounds, is the only bloodhound in the police department’s search operations unit, though another hound is set to join him this fall, according to police. There are 21 handlers in the K-9 unit and some work with more than one dog. In addition to Travis, the unit includes patrol dogs and dogs that are cross-trained for detecting narcotics and explosives.
Travis’ training included playing games that strengthen and refine the bloodhound’s natural skills, according to Greene. Trailing dogs differ from tracking dogs in that trailing dogs follow a specific scent, while tracking dogs follow someone through an area, he says. “You’re sort of focusing a lot on hide-and- seek-type games where the dog is rewarded for using his nose to follow the scent and find the person who then rewards them,” he says. As the dog gets older, “you start adding complexities to that—turns, time delays, distance—but it remains a game in the dog’s mind.”
Police bloodhounds are trained to pick up a scent from personal articles collected from a missing person. Bed linens and clothing are used most often, as well as pieces of gauze containing scents collected from a steering wheel or a vehicle headrest. “We take the dog to the area where the person was last seen, we let the dog walk around and kind of explore for a few minutes, and then we present them with that scent, and then it’s off to the races,” Greene says. “They experience smells like we see words.”
K-9 unit dogs are also trained from a young age to adjust to various situations they might encounter, such as areas with people, traffic and loud noises. When Travis was younger, Greene says he would take the dog to places like Home Depot and Great Falls in the C&O Canal National Historical Park so he could get used to the noise made by machines and the crowds he might encounter while trailing a scent.
Greene says trailing dogs can help determine the direction a missing person was headed and eliminate areas where searchers think the person may have traveled. “Think of the dog as being our GPS,” he says.
In one notable case, Travis searched for the father of another county police officer, according to Greene. The man, who was in his 70s and had dementia, went missing from a nursing home in Wheaton in 2018. After getting the man’s scent from his pillowcase, Travis picked up a trail along nearby Bel Pre Road. Patrol officers searching that area found the man, who was uninjured, a mile from the nursing home.
Travis is expected to be able to work for another five years or so—most bloodhounds retire by age 9 after showing physical signs of aging that can also cause them to lose interest in the job. When Travis isn’t searching for missing people, he helps the department connect with county residents. Greene says he often takes Travis to community outreach events where they demonstrate his skills and children can hug and pet him. “He is a big, lovable dog,” Greene says. “He is probably one of the friendliest dogs you could imagine.