Influenced at an early age by her mom, Deputy Melanie Merritt remembers writing a first-grade essay about wanting to work with dogs for a living. Her mom trained and showed Doberman Pinschers, and Melanie cultivated a deep love for animals in her formative years. In 1997, Melanie received her first bloodhound, Forrest, as a pet. When she discovered what the breed was capable of, she began to train him for search and rescue.
Her first-grade essay turned out to be nigh on prophecy, and in 2004 Melanie started training bloodhounds for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. “For 14 years,” Melanie says, “I was the sole bloodhound handler and on call 24/7 during this time. Recently, Deputy Nick Cooper was added to the roster as the workload and calls were getting out of hand.”
The process of training a K9 starts with the training of the handler. “We have K9 tryouts,” says Melanie. “A potential handler has to pass endurance tests and write an essay about why they want to be a K9 handler.”
Then the fun begins. “I pick a puppy (right at eight weeks old) from the breeder and bring it back to the handler. Bloodhounds are quick learners and usually ready to go at nine to ten months of age,” she says. “From the litter, I will pick out the pup that is most curious and always wandering away from the others checking things out with their nose on the ground. Also, it is imperative they have no fear of humans at all.”
These precious bloodhounds are used for tracking missing children, Alzheimer patients, and criminals. The challenges are extreme – officers never want to let a family down that has lost a loved one, but of course, sometimes have to deliver the tragic news of those who don’t make it. But about the rewards, Melanie says, “It is gratifying to find the missing unharmed and even bringing closure to a family that had a loved one missing who didn’t make it.”
One case that stood out for her was finding a child who had gone missing from his grandfather’s place near a swamp area. During this rescue, Melanie fell on a Cypress stump and broke a rib. The bloodhound, Kahlua, wouldn’t work with another deputy, so Melanie persevered. She still remembers the look on the grandfather’s face when they found the child.
Trainers of service animals always talk about how the bond is unbreakable, and Melanie is no exception. “My recent partners were Invey, Cagney, and Kahlua. Invey recently passed from cancer, and it ripped my heart out,” says Melanie. “She was my best hound, and over the years she found several missing persons as well as tracked numerous criminals. Now I am starting over with Hope; she is only five months old and still in training. She will be my last working K9, and I plan on retiring with her.”