Although his partner is nearing retirement, Illinois State Trooper Steve Steckenrider knows his partner will be there when he needs him. Steckenrider’s partner is K9 Ace, a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois, a certified law-enforcement canine officer that has been on the force since 2004.
Steckenrider and Ace are the canine team for ISP District 22 in southernmost Illinois, and being the district’s only K9 team has kept the pair busy throughout the years – including a big find for Ace earlier this summer.
In July Steckenrider stopped a truck tractor semi-trailer combination on Interstate 57 in Alexander County for a motor carrier safety inspection. During the course of the inspection, Ace alerted to a controlled substance in the truck. A search revealed approximately 75 pounds of marijuana in the sleeper berth area – a big find that made news, but all in a day’s work for Ace and Steckenrider.
In addition to narcotics searches, Ace has been used to apprehend suspects, look for missing children and Alzheimer’s patients, find articles that are later used as evidence, and search buildings.
“He’s been used to find people in their houses. We’ve gone in with the tactical response team,” Steckenrider said. “A guy, they believed, went under the house. Got the dog and put him under the house. The guy was coming out then real fast.”
“Ace is a full-service dog,” he said. “Basically that means he is trained on all these factors we were talking about. The only thing we don’t do with this dog is explosives. We don’t do bombs and things like that. That takes a whole lot of other work. Plus, if you train a dog on explosives and if he alerts on a car and you have a gun in the car, well, it’s not illegal for everybody to carry a gun. You can carry a gun in your car if you have a FOID card and had it properly put in your car.”
Steckenrider explained that Ace is looking for human scent when looking for articles other than drugs.
“That’s what they are alerting to in an article search is if you throw a pen out in the grass the dog is trained to find human odor,” he said. “So when you tell them to find that article, they’re going to go out and find that human odor. If you find a gun, they’re not trained to find firearms as far as the explosives part, the gunpowder and stuff like that. They are trained to find human odor. So if the dog goes out there sniffing, he smells that human odor and will alert to a gun, but he’s not alerting to the gun powder or anything like that. We have used him for that before. Down in Cairo, we were called to go down in there and use the dog for an article search. He was able to locate a gun that was used in a crime down there.”
In training, Steckenrider said that a lot of time is spent on obedience. “We work a lot on obedience because that’s the foundation of all the other aspects of police work. We have to make sure that [the dogs] are going to do as they are commanded to do; otherwise, you have a dog that’s not controlled. We are required to have our dogs under control at all times. We spend a lot of time doing obedience.”
While Ace is also trained to take down a suspect if needed, he is primarily used as a detector dog.
“I guess it’s been pretty fortunate,” Steckenrider said. “We’ve never had a real bite on any subject. The guys surrender, which, to us, we consider those apprehensions ’cause the dog helped lead to that arrest. We don’t have to bite somebody all the time to get an arrest. Sometimes you do if a suspect gives you no alternative. If not, the dog can locate them. That’s what their main priority is to do is to be a locating tool for us. Every track we start out, it’s a locating tool. We go out and we start looking for the suspect.”
Steckenrider said that when he and Ace get on scene, it is determined “whether or not we have to use the dog, based upon the crime elements, what the suspect has done, whether or not he is still resisting or running or whatever that may be. But for the most part Ace is used as a locating tool. I had a couple of people who ran on us before. We were able to track him along the way. We found narcotics; we found their keys, found their hat. They’re throwing stuff out. As they’re running, they’re laying this stuff down trying to get rid of it. We were able to find that kind of stuff that would lead to an arrest later.”
Not every search is so exciting. Steckenrider told about the time he and Ace helped a man who had lost his car keys along the highway. The man was sure he had lost them in a certain place, but Ace wasn’t picking up on anything. “They were nowhere near where [the man] said they were. There was a fence. I got on the other side of the fence [with Ace] and worked there and found them on the other side of the fence. How they ended up there you don’t know, but you trust your dog and let them work and find that human odor.”
The most memorable find Ace and Steckenrider had was their biggest a few years ago when Ace alerted on a semi-trailer that was carrying about 800 pounds of cannabis hidden in a load of carrots. The find had come at the end of their day. Another trooper had a truck that was a little overweight and had asked Steckenrider if he could run Ace on one more.
“[Ace] alerted on the truck. We had permission then because with the dog we had probable cause,” Steckenrider said. “We did the VACIS [vehicle and cargo inspection system] scan, and they said, ‘Yeah, it looks like something is in there.’ We put him up [in the trailer], and he alerted again inside the truck. We didn’t smell anything, but once we got down to it – actually probing the truck to find out what it was – we busted one of the vacuum seals which let the odor out. Then we knew: we got cannabis.” Steckenrider chuckled. “We did a lot of shoveling. That’s when we found that large amount.”
Steckenrider said that Ace has some hip dysplasia and, therefore, he will probably be retired sometime next year. In the meantime, another trooper will be going to a 10-week class at the end of August to start training with a new dog. Steckenrider said he’ll be “passing the torch” to the new handler.
“We usually run our dogs according to their health,” he explained. “They can retire at five years if their health is bad, but normally between 10 and 12 years. Some go longer. [Ace has] a little bit of dysplasia in his rear. He’s getting up there. I figured it’s probably best that we get somebody in a class. We have talked about if they want to keep working [him]. As long as he can work, we’ll keep him working. If the district can’t support two dogs – that’s based upon a lot of things, factors that they decide in Springfield and here at the district – then what they’ll do is just go ahead and retire him and put the new dog in his place.
“Sometimes you have to go get a dog when you can because you’re not sure you’ll be able to get it the next year or if somebody will be interested [as a handler] later or not. The chance was there to get another dog in a class, so I put in a memo that I would retire him next year and that way it gives us that time in between to get somebody ready. So, we’ve got a dog going to a new class August 29, and they’ll be done mid November.”
Ace’s retirement date isn’t set in stone. Steckenrider explained that the Illinois State Police get their dogs “green” which means that the dogs have no training and the 10 weeks is spent in training and imprinting them with the scents that they will be asked to detect.
“Not all dogs pass, so if our guy gets up there and week nine his dog fails out, he’s got to start over again. So, therefore, it gives us more time if that happens to go ahead and get another dog. It’s one of those things you try to prepare for it instead of waiting until the last minute [instead of being] stuck without a dog for who knows how long,” said Steckenrider, who also wants to be able to help the new handler and his dog as they adjust to their new assignment.
When he eventually is retired, Ace will be signed over to Steckenrider as his own personal dog. He said that he knows it will be an adjustment for Ace, who gets excited and ready to go to work whenever Steckenrider starts to put on his uniform.
And Trooper Steckenrider knows that he’ll miss having K9 Ace with him on the job.
“Ace doesn’t ask for credit. He just is glad to be here doing his job,” he said. “That’s the nice thing about a dog. They’ll go out and work and give their life for you and everything that we do just because of the bond and the trust that the dog has in you. They’ll give their life, without any question, for their handler. They just go out and do their job – just to make Dad proud.”
Sources: Illinois State Police, District 22; in-person interview with Trooper Steckenrider
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