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Swiss police recruits sniff out the crooks

Bloodhounds are the latest additions to the police force Keystone

The latest recruits to the Swiss police force are a little unusual. Their detecting skills are first-class, but they are unlikely to scare even the most timid criminal. The reason is that their only weapon is an ultra-sensitive nose.

This content was published on September 3, 2000 - 11:28

Alsatians and Rottweilers may make formidable police dogs, but when it comes to tracking crooks, or finding missing people, nothing beats a bloodhound.

Now four police dog handlers from the forces in Basel, Berne, Lucerne and Zug are being trained to work with these canine sleuths, thanks to veterinarian and bloodhound specialist, Marlene Zähner, from Widen in Canton Aargau.

Zähner introduced working bloodhounds to Switzerland in 1995, after spending several years in the United States, where she learned how to handle the dogs. The Swiss police first got wind of the breed's potential, when Zähner set up a club for people who were interested in bloodhounds.

A number of the country's forces began asking her for help in finding missing people (she has since taken part in 50 searches). In fact, so successful were her bloodhounds that the police dog handlers she met - used to working with Alsatians and Rottweilers - went a step further, and came to her for training with their own bloodhound puppies.

Zähner is passionate about the breed. "There's no better scent hound," she says, "and they've been around since the seventh century."

Bloodhounds were first bred in Belgium's Ardennes region, and brought to England 1,000 years ago, where they were used for their hunting skills - both in tracking game and humans.

Seventeenth-century English settlers took them to North America, and police forces in the US have used them ever since. But European police have preferred other, more versatile breeds, which can be used to defend and attack as well as track.

The bloodhound's incredible sense of smell is enhanced by its sagging jowls and constant drooling. The loose skin around the muzzle helps to capture the scent, while the drool keeps its nose and mouth clean and moist.

The cinema solution to putting a bloodhound off your scent is to run through a stream. But Zähner says this is a myth - the dogs can even track you if you escape by car.

"Our understanding of scent is wrong," she says. "We think that scent is left by our tracks, but in fact it's caused by mites giving off gas as they digest flakes of our skin:"

An explanation not for the squeamish, perhaps. But since everyone's skin is unique, so is the scent given off by the mites. A car's air-conditioning system pushes out your smell as you drive along, leaving a trail for the bloodhounds.

The Basel police's dog has already claimed one major success - even though its handler is still in training - after it located within half an hour an elderly woman, who had been missing for days. Other forces are queuing up for training from Zähner.

"It's not like a police force needs a pack of dogs," she says. "One bloodhound is enough. But it all takes time. The handlers I'm training need to get used to a different kind of animal. But the four officers I've been training since January are doing really well."

by Jonathan Fowler

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