Assumption Parish hosts annual recertification for teams

NAPOLEONVILLE — Denali, a cadaver-searching dog from Maine, paced back and forth on a small, slow-moving Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office flatboat and sniffed for the scent of putrid flesh.

The black Labrador retriever mouthed a little water from cypress-lined Bayou Crab, which flows into Lake Verret, to pick up the faint smell of death.

When the scent of a small, hidden piece of a real human body was close by, Denali barked in the direction of a specific spot in the water, paw at the water and, once, even partially jumped in.

“She’s just a natural,” handler and partner Katherine Heselton beamed.

Denali and Heselton, who works as a dog handler for the private Merrill’s Investigations and Security of Readfield, Maine, were training Wednesday for their annual certification through Law Enforcement Training Specialists International Inc.

LETS, of Powder Springs, Ga., has been conducting the five-day training and certification session in Napoleonville. It wraps up today.

Sgt. Joe Young, a LETS trainer and former canine handler for the Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Matranga said 21 teams from across the nation were able to chose certification classes in one of three categories: narcotics, tracking or searching for cadavers.

For a second year, the Sheriff’s Office has sponsored LETS certification due to Young’s and Matranga’s longtime connection to the nonprofit group and its founder, Billy Smith, an instructor with the Laredo, Texas, Job Corps.

The training was as much about seeing how the dogs perform as it was about the relationship between dog and handler.

Lillian Hardy, of Edinburgh, Ind., and her Belgian Malinois practiced Wednesday in a land-based cadaver exercise.

Hardy, search-and-rescue training manager for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, and 2-year-old Drake traced a circular path outlined by 12 evenly spaced plastic pipes in the ground.

Drake, whom Hardy rescued from a shelter, zipped through the course and identified the two pipes holding human remains.

After each identified pipe, Hardy gave the young dog the appropriate petting and love, as well as the expected chew toy.

“They’re working for the praise of their handler and that toy,” Young said. “That’s the paycheck.”

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