This energetic, yellow lab is trained to detect death. He’s the first of his kind for local law enforcement.

K9 Phi brings his new skills to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Other agencies can call on him, too.
Published June 5
Updated June 6

NEW PORT RICHEY — Phi quickly leaped into the room, tugging on a pink leash with his handler on the other end.

The 3-year-old yellow lab, his green harness marking him as part of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office K9 team, was on the clock.

Enthusiasm, it seems, is one of the job requirements. He needs the energy to scour a field for human bones.

Phi, introduced at a news conference Wednesday, has been trained to sniff out death. He is the first of his kind to go to work with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. He's been with the Sheriff's Office for around a year and moved to the forensics unit in March to partner with investigator Heidi Sievers.

Together, the duo has been sent out to look for human remains three times since their pairing. So far, Phi has searched for someone in water, helped a Florida Gulf Coast University anthropologist, and tried to find clues in a cold case.

He is one of 24 deputy dogs in the Sheriff's Office K9 team and the first in the Tampa Bay area to work with a law enforcement forensic unit, sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said.

These types of K9s are commonly known as cadaver dogs. They can be used for search and rescue missions or to help a forensics team. Phi will be focused on forensics — scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime.

The dogs will able to work until they’re about 9 years old.

Before Phi joined the team, the Sheriff's Office would ask volunteers for the use of their cadaver dogs to sniff out crime scenes. Now, the office can loan the dog to other local law enforcement agencies as it can with all its dogs.

To get dogs like these street ready typically costs around $10,000, Sheriff Chris Nocco said. The forensic unit plans to add another dog soon, for investigator Sue Miller. The unit also has someone who volunteers a dog. Money to pay for the animals has come from community donations.

Cadaver dogs generally are fielded by private owners, but more and more law enforcement agencies are adding them, said Amber Siebsen, a dog trainer at Highland K9 Training in North Carolina.

"Typically, law enforcement agencies have narcotics or bomb dogs with trailing (skills) on them," she said. "It's really, really beneficial to have (a cadaver dog) with law enforcement just so you know there's one available."

The dogs help cut down search time for investigators, Siebsen said. They can clear a field in minutes that could take days for humans.

Phi was trained inside the Sheriff’s Office, said head K9 forensic trainer Jimmy Hall. Hall traveled to see how the FBI trains its dogs and learned they need the capability to search for bodily fluids, decomposition materials, fluids and bones. They'll also be able to help with underwater searches and traces on vehicles.

"We're taking it to a new level," Hall said. "This is unlike what anyone else is doing, at least regionally — maybe even throughout the country."

Contact Paige Fry at pfry@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @paigexfry.

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