Luna serves as second electronic detection K-9 for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension
K-9 Luna, a 3-year-old English Labrador working with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is one of just two K-9s in Minnesota who are specially trained to locate electronic evidence by detecting triphenylphosphine, or TPPO, a chemical coating found on electronic devices.
BEMIDJI, Minn. -- K-9 Luna has a very particular set of skills.
The 3-year-old English Labrador is one of just two K-9s in Minnesota who are specially trained to locate electronic evidence by detecting triphenylphosphine, or TPPO, a chemical coating found on electronic devices.
Working with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, like drug or arson dogs, these K-9s are trained to detect evidence in criminal investigations and are able to locate electronics by sniffing out TPPO on devices like phones, laptops and SD cards.
In cases of child exploitation or other crimes where electronic evidence is vital, these K-9s play a big part in the investigation. It’s a job that very few K-9s are trained to do -- in fact, only about 60 in the country. For K-9 Luna, though, it’s just another day at the office.
Luna is the state’s second electronic detection K-9, with the first being K-9 Sota, another 3-year-old English Labrador who joined the BCA in May 2020 and is stationed at its state headquarters in St. Paul.
Due to K-9 Sota’s success and a growing number of cases involving electronic evidence, Luna was brought onto the team and placed at the Bemidji Regional Office just under a year later.
To BCA Superintendent Drew Evans, the emotional support that Luna and Sota provide is a great side-benefit for BCA agents and office staff.
“This is really difficult casework, you’re looking at children being abused on a regular basis,” Evans said. “It can be challenging for our agents who have to endure that work because they care so much about rescuing exploited children.”
Having Luna at the Bemidji office every day, Evans said, provides some much needed emotional relief to agents who work on these tough cases.
“She started as a service dog, and now she’s doing K-9 work for us. In many ways, she’s a service dog for our staff who get to see and interact with her every day,” he added. “She’s really a great, fun-loving dog."
Showing off her skills
For Luna’s handler, BCA Special Agent William Bennett, it’s not his first rodeo.
“When I was a deputy (sheriff), I had a German Shepherd K-9,” Bennett said. “They opened this position up to whoever wanted to do it, and I had some K-9 experience in the past.”
Luna has worked on about 19 search warrants since she joined the BCA Investigations team, typically assisting local agencies.
"We basically work on predatory crimes, child pornography, downloading images, that kind of stuff is what we’re looking for specifically,” Bennett said.
In cases of that nature, police or investigators might not be able to find important pieces of evidence such as tiny SD cards or well-hidden cellphones -- that’s where K-9 Luna comes in.
“Usually we’ll go into search warrants and do the initial sweep, get the items that we see out in the open,” Bennett explained. “Then we’ll bring her in to do the fine-tuning stuff like closets and underneath the beds.”
Luna is trained daily through food drive, meaning she needs to locate devices before she eats. Bennett typically hides three or four devices twice a day so she can get fed.
“She’s imprinted on the TPPO chemical,” Bennett said. “When she finds that chemical, she thinks she’s finding her food."
During a demonstration at BCA’s Bemidji Regional Office, Bennett led Luna around a room to show how she can locate an SD card taped to the underside of a table.
“She searches with my hand, so I’ll point in an area for her to search and she’ll sniff that area,” Bennett said, leading Luna through the room. “If she smells the chemical, she’ll sit.”
As Luna began sniffing the table with the hidden SD card, she quickly sat down.
“Now she’s locked on it,” Bennett said as Luna sat attentively. “I can walk around the room and do whatever I want to do, but she’s not going to move because she smelled the chemical now.”
After receiving a “show me” command from Bennett, Luna jumped up, putting her front paws on top of the table to signify that she had located the card, and she was then rewarded with a handful of food for a job well done.
'Driven to work'
Luna was originally working toward becoming a service dog through the Michigan-based Paws with a Cause program. However, she failed out of the program after a year and a half.
Evans said that dogs who fail out of this service dog program can sometimes find success in being trained as K-9s.
“Oftentimes they get these dogs that are maybe a little too rambunctious or don’t have quite the demeanor to be able to be a service dog, but they’re perfect for the type of work that we do,” Evans explained.
To Jill Oliveira, public information officer for the BCA, K-9 Luna never really failed as a service dog -- she just expanded her client base.
“For both Sota and Luna, they were training to be service dogs where they would provide a service to one person, and that didn’t work out for either one of them,” Oliveira said with a laugh. “They both flunked out of service school.”
Luna and Sota were a great fit for becoming K-9s because they enjoyed working and already knew many of the basic commands from their time training for Paws with a Cause.
“These dogs are often driven to work. . . It fits in perfectly for what we do,” Evans said. “(Luna is) the second dog that we received through a grant program, at no cost to the taxpayers of Minnesota.”
Although Luna and Sota didn’t become service dogs, Oliveira believes that, as K-9s with the BCA, they’re able to help with investigations that benefit the community on a larger scale.
"Now, they’re serving the people of Minnesota by doing this work,” Oliveira said. “So they’re really continuing to be service dogs, only now they’re serving the whole state.”