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Top dogs heading to Cloquet

The town of Cloquet is going to the dogs.

From May 16-20, more than 100 of the most highly-trained canines across the country are coming to showcase their sniffing skills in the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) National Detector Dog Trials.

"It's a big deal to participate at this level and to hold this event in Cloquet," said Darren Juntunen, Minnesota State Patrol sergeant canine and criminal patrol coordinator. "Only about 70 dogs across the country are certified at the national level."

With close to 600 dectector dogs in Minnesota alone, the percentage of nationally certified dogs is small, according to Scott Holman, who is a Cloquet Police sargeant, handler of the departments narcotics dog and organizer of the event.

Detector dogs are trained to detect bombs, narcotics, wildlife (poaching) and fire accelerants (arson).

"These dogs are a great tool - much like our sidearms," Holman said. "They are one of the finest aids we have in the prevention and detection of crime."

Teams who qualify will participate in this event to earn national certification (which must be renewed annually) as well as compete for top rankings and trophies.

Dogs and their handlers qualify for the national trials by earning a high score during regional certification, according to Holman.

"The state of Minnesota only requires that detection dogs are certified at the regional level," Holman said. "I go for national [certification] for the added training. The distinction is also useful in drug-related court trials."

Holman and his narcotics detection dog, Tessa, have consistently ranked among the highest nationwide since they began training together in 1999. Most recently, they placed second at a regional certification event this year in Coon Rapids, Minn. Fond du Lac Police officer Casey Rennquist and his dog, Victor, were only one point behind them.

Other local law enforcement officers participating include Carlton County Sheriff's Department Deputy Tony Bastien and his dog King, Carlton County Sheriff's Department Deputy Paul Coughlin and his dog Cliff, and Minnesota State Patrol Officer David Vereecken and his dog Rico.

Other officers and their canines at the city, county, state and federal levels will attend the event from places as far away as Florida, New York and Montana.

Most will stay at Black Bear Casino & Golf Course during the trials, Holman said.

Two events during the five-day trials will be free and open to the public. The first is a Canine Squad Parade on Friday, May 18 at 6 p.m. The route will start at 18th Street and Cloquet Ave., and will end at 8th Street and Cloquet Ave. Parade-goers will see a wide variety of police dogs and squad cars from all over the U.S. and candy will be tossed to the spectators.

"There will be cars of all colors and dogs of all shapes and sizes," Holman said.

On Saturday, May 19, at 6 p.m. a free police canine demonstration to include a SWAT team and helicopters will take place at Cloquet High School football field.

"I can promise a lot of action there," Holman said.

Many local businesses generously donated to the trials. The highest donors were the Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee at $5,000 and Sappi with $3,000.

"We are grateful to all our sponsors who contributed to this event as well as all the people who helped make this event a reality," Holman said. "We're looking forward to the parade and public demo to give back to those who have stepped up and provided much to make this happen."