Since she started her new job in San Diego a couple months ago, Willow the English Labrador has already proven her worth to handler Ron Burleson.
The 2-year-old pup, specially trained to sniff out electronic storage devices, has gone out on a half dozen warrant and probation searches with Burleson, an investigator with the county district attorney’s office.
On one outing, she found a cellphone that law enforcement officers had missed.
“We are confident we are going to be able to find things that were missed before,” Burleson said.
The pair is assigned to San Diego’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a group that draws upon resources from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to target offenders who use the internet to sexually exploit children.
Decked out in a special vest that touts her electronic detection abilities, Willow looks for a distinct chemical compound used in electronic devices such as cellphones, thumb drives, hard drives and memory cards. Such devices are often hidden by predators and can be difficult for law enforcement officers to find.
“We know when she hits, she’s hitting on storage media because there’s nothing else [the chemical she detects] would be used for,” he said.
When an electronic detection dog determines the unique odor is present, they will sit down to alert their trainers. When the dog is correct, he or she is given a food reward.
These specially trained dogs have assisted in high-profile cases including the arrest of former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle in 2015. He was convicted on child pornography and other charges. A dog named Bear helped investigators find thumb drives hidden at Fogle’s home.
Burleson said 31 dogs have undergone similar training to become electronic detection dogs, and Willow is the first one assigned to Southern California.
According to her online bio, Willow initially trained as a service dog but underwent a “career change” to become an electronic detection K9.
In a video produced by county district attorney’s office, Willow and Burleson are shown searching a room. Storage cards and cellphones are hidden in a box of plastic toys, in a cabinet and underneath a beanbag chair.
“Show me, show me,” Burleson says in the video as the canine investigator makes a find. “Oh, what a good dog!”
Willow, who cost more than $12,000, was paid for by a grant from the San Diego Police Foundation, Burleson said.
When she’s not finding hidden devices, Burleson said, Willow helps in other ways, too.
Sometimes law enforcement officers serve search warrants at a suspect’s home where children are present. “The dog there can act like a therapy dog and can be there to calm the kids down and bring some comfort to them,” Burleson said.
She also serves as an unofficial therapist in the task force’s Kearny Mesa office.
“When I’m not doing a search warrant, she’s there in the office. She goes from cubicle to cubicle, looking for someone to throw the ball for her,” he said. “When we are having a bad day looking at some of this evidence, [the dog] is kind of a nice addition.”
Burleson has three other dogs at home, where Willow lives. Because she’s a working dog, she is treated differently, particularly around mealtime.
Willow eats three cups of dog food a day, all of it from Burleson’s hand.
“She never eats out of a bowl,” he said. “The only time she eats is out of my hand. I’m hiding stuff and we are searching for it and then she gets her reward.
“I’ve got to do that a couple times a day. It is definitely worth it, but it is a lot of work.”
Kucher writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.