Claws rattle the chain-link fences and ripple across the metal, and a chorus of deep, loud barks fills the air as Lt. Chad Hyler unlocks the kennel area at the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office.

“They’re excited. They think we’re gonna go somewhere,” he said of the dogs that are part of the Aiken County Bloodhound Tracking Team.

The Sheriff’s Office houses eight dogs currently, but is equipped to house up to 12, according to Hyler. All the dogs are what is known as “SLED stock” – a mixture developed by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division of full-blooded bloodhound, Redbone and Bluetick hounds.

“Bloodhounds are so slow in stamina,” Hyler said. “They’ve got great noses, but they put the Redbone and Bluetick in the bloodline and created a SLED stock for the stamina. We want them to run faster. We want to get it done as quick as we can.”

The Bloodhound Tracking Team consists of officers from the Sheriff’s Office, the Aiken Department of Public Safety and the North Augusta Department of Public Safety.

The dogs are born and trained in-house, and begin training at 10 weeks old.

“We’re feeding them constantly when they’re weened off their mother,” Hyler said. “We go out there, play and roll around in the grass and create that bond. They know we’re here to take care of them.”

He said the training begins as a “cat-and-mouse” game.

“Just trying to get them to catch up with us,” he said. “As they get bigger, we’ll make that distance longer and longer, to the point where we’ll go over there and hide, then bring the dog out and give that same command. They know – they’ll associate it with, ‘There’s a trail here.’ They’ll pick up on it and go find that person.”

The dogs only track human scents.

“It could be a lost child of any age to an Alzheimer’s patient that has wandered off from their home, to a bad guy that just robbed a bank,” Hyler said. “They don’t distinguish between a bad or a good person, they just know they’re there to track a human scent.”

What sets bloodhounds apart from other police dogs is that they work off of “pure love,” Hyler said.

“Most dogs work for food or a toy,” he said. “Nothing against our bomb dog or our narcotics dogs, but these are our ‘pure love’ dogs. Their reward is the attention we give them at the end – the praise. That’s what they work for. Their drive is to please us, and they do a very good job at it.”

The dogs follow the scent on dead skin cells that are constantly falling off of humans, Hyler said.

“Each one of those has odors, and these dogs’ noses are 10 times better than ours are. They can pick up on that,” he said. “As you run, and if you’re afraid or scared, those pheromones in your body produce a strong odor, so it’s going to hold. Once they get locked on it, they want to finish the job. They know we’re going to be there and that they’re going to get that attention and love.”

Preserving that scent is one of the reasons law enforcement officers establish a perimeter around a crime scene, Hyler said.

Hyler said all the dogs are equal in tracking ability, but some are better suited for certain environments than others.

“Each one’s like a person,” he said. “Some do better in urban environments versus suburban or around other dogs. Some you want to have strictly in the woods. We know if we get a call in downtown Aiken with a bank robbery, our guys are trained to know which dogs are better suited for that atmosphere.”

Just like with people, Hyler said handlers have to develop and nurture relationships with the dogs.

“We’ve got to know each individual dog, because each one’s got their own personality,” he said. “It creates a bond, just like a partner that rides in the car with you. They’re our partners, basically. Just with four legs.”

One of their partners, “Duke,” is back on the job and living a dog’s life just over a year after he suffered two stab wounds during a chase.

On Nov. 15, 2011, the Bloodhound Tracking Team was called to search for two suspects accused of stealing a tractor-trailer cab in Augusta and driving into Aiken County. Hyler said the team routinely brings two dogs to each call.

“We tracked the suspects through some very thick stuff,” he said.

The dogs used to be tracked with a bell on their collars that let handlers know their location. Now they’re tracked with a GPS unit on a collar, which sends a signal back to a handheld device the handlers hold.

During Duke’s chase of the two suspects, his signal was lost. Hyler said that meant either there was a malfunction with the satellite, or – most likely – that the unit had been cut off the dog.

“We didn’t know until we got to the last spotting and found the articles,” Hyler said. “They cut both the collars, and the harness that they wear was thrown over to the side, trying to basically hide it.”

Duke had two wounds. While officers tended to him, the second dog finished the search and found the suspects.

Patrick Spires, 31, of Aiken, was found hiding in the attic of a barn in Beech Island. It was there that Spires fought with deputies, causing one to fall from the attic and suffer injury.

Spires was found guilty last month of cruelty to a police dog and resisting arrest, and was sentenced to five years in prison for the stabbing charge and one year for resisting arrest, with the sentences running concurrently.

Duke was rushed to the veterinary clinic and made a full recovery. Hyler said that after a couple of weeks of “light duty,” he was back on the job.

“From time to time, they get injured or hurt their leg,” Hyler said. “We’ll take them out of service and make sure they’re taken care of and not pushed back into service.”

Hyler said one of his favorite memories with one of the bloodhounds was with a female named Brooke, who died not too long ago.

“We called her our mama dog,” he said.

One cold night, a young girl had gone missing from her home, Hyler recalled.

“We were trying to find her but didn’t have a good location of where she might have gone,” he said. “They put Brooke on the trail. We stopped hearing the bell and knew she was in the general vicinity. We actually found her laid up next to the girl, keeping her warm. There’s some instincts like that that are so bonding; she knew the child was cold or scared, and she just laid up next to her.”

Hyler said the dogs are not trained to bite, and reiterated that they don’t know a “good” person from a “bad” person.

“We don’t teach any of our dogs to bite,” he said. “They’re pure love – you can’t teach them to bite and be pure love. It doesn’t go hand in hand.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.