INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is celebrating 25 years since the launch of its K-9 program.

For the dogs in the program, playtime is also paired with practice. In one scenario, for example, the dogs search for a gun in the grass.

“It’d take 10, 15, 20 people to search that whole area,” Indiana Conservation Officer Matt Tholen. “But as a K-9, they smell the human scent.”

Tholen works with his 8-year-old K-9 partner Drake.

“It’s a different ballgame,” Tholen said. “You’ve always got your partner with you.”

A lot of their work involves searching for people, Tholen said. In state parks, that includes lost hikers and hunters.

“Throughout the hunting season, we get called more often than in, say, boating season during the summers,” he said.

But the K-9 unit also helps local agencies in searches for missing people on both public and private land, Tholen said.

And the dogs are trained to detect certain criminal activity as well and find evidence.

According to Conservation Officer Lance LaBonte, K-9 coordinator for the Indiana DNR, the dogs’ work has been tied to more than 2,300 arrests statewide since the program launched 25 years ago.

“A lot of times we’re dealing with poachers, especially during hunting season,” LaBonte said.

Unlike many dogs who work in local law enforcement, DNR K-9s are trained to recognize certain wildlife, including deer, wild turkey, waterfowl and ginseng LaBonte explained.

“Poachers, they will try to conceal wildlife,” he said.

Currently the unit consists of 12 K-9s across the state, LaBonte said.

LaBonte said his team has helped train K-9 units for wildlife agencies in at least nine other states and the African country of Zambia.

Early next year, they’ll train officers and dogs from Oregon, Kansas and Utah, he added.

“I would like to see our program maybe grow a little bit,” LaBonte said. “Continue to evolve in our training and just get utilized as much as we can.”

Staff salaries and K-9 training are paid for by the state, LaBonte said, and the dogs’ care is funded by donations.

If you’re interested in donating to the program, click here.