Browser is a black Labrador who frolics in the presence of other dogs and loves nothing more than to hang out with his handler’s grandkids. But he’s also a shrewd detective who has been put to work on some of the most disturbing cases a law enforcement agency can handle.

The two-year-old dog, owned by the Lake County – in Illinois, the United States – state’s attorney’s office since last November, is trained to detect a chemical used in the manufacture of electronic storage devices, and that allows him to sniff out tiny gizmos often used to stash images of child pornography.

“A lot of this digital evidence is not easily found,” said Carol Gudbrandsen, Browser’s handler and a cybercrimes forensic analyst. “By bringing the dog through, we’re able to find this kind of stuff.”

State Attorney Michael Nerheim said he took an interest in electronic-sniffing dogs after learning that one named Bear located a thumb drive authorities in Indiana overlooked during the investigation of Jared Fogle, the former Subway pitchman later convicted of trading in child pornography.

“We were also seeing a trend here where child pornographers, rather than downloading evidence onto a computer, would download evidence onto a removable device and then hide that device in their house,” he said. “When I heard about the use of the dog in the Fogle case, I thought this is something we should do here.”

With the help of the Waukegan Police Department, the state’s attorney’s office bought Browser for US$10,000 (RM41,500) from the same company that had trained Bear – Jordan Detection K-9 in Indiana.

Dog

Prosecutor Jeff Pavletic pauses to pat Browser while walking among rows of legal files.

The owner, Todd Jordan, said he has trained dogs for 21 years. He uses only Labradors, many of which initially were trained by prison inmates to help people with disabilities but ultimately proved unsuited for that line of work. (Browser, for instance, liked to bark at other dogs).

He puts them through a new regimen so they can detect a chemical used as a bonding agent within electronic storage devices, a faint scent compared with fire accelerants or drugs.

“I had to completely change how I train the dogs,” he said. “It took me a year to develop it.”

In 2016, the Will County state’s attorney’s office bought a dog named Cache from Jordan, and it has since used him 24 times while executing search warrants. State’s Attorney James Glasgow said that while the dog has been used in child pornography investigations, he also can be useful in probes of financial skulduggery and drug dealing.

“Any crime that involves a computer or computer records, Cache would be available,” he said.

Browser, too, has handled a variety of cases in the dozen or so search warrant executions he has worked on, but child exploitation investigations are his main task. Gudbrandsen said before the dog’s arrival, she was the one who went along on such assignments to try to find digital evidence such as thumb drives, SD cards and external hard drives.

“I still go out on search warrants, but instead of me manually looking for digital evidence, I bring Browser through and let him indicate when he finds it,” she said.

Browser sits or gives a tell-tale whine when he sniffs the chemical, Gudbrandsen said, and is swiftly rewarded with a treat. So far, he has found SD cards in obscure places – secreted in a slipper in a case involving the unlawful video recording of a minor, and stashed in a jewellery box in a child pornography case.

The state’s attorney’s office could not cite any arrests or convictions resulting from Browser’s work.

The dog is also put to work in school presentations on Internet safety (Nerheim said kids hide a thumb drive and watch the dog find it). But one of his most important duties is just to be a friend to Gudbrandsen, whose job can involve looking through many disquieting images.

“To be able to have him here, he reminds me of the good and what’s important in life,” she said. “He snaps you back to reality, and then you can come back to work with fresh eyes. He’s been an awesome therapy dog for me.” – Tribune News Service/Chicago Tribune/John Keilman