Charlie, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, is the first and only electronic-detection forensic K-9 in Pennsylvania. (Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

As technology becomes more advanced, child pornographers are using smaller, more discreet devices to hide their crimes. The smallest of these devices are easy to conceal, beneath floorboards, in crevices and hidden compartments where they are undetectable to the naked eye.

That’s why the Internet Crimes Against Children task force in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, which serves the entire state, is bringing in Charlie, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever capable of sniffing out even the smallest and most well-hidden of electronics, to aid them in their searches for evidence of child exploitation.

“As years have progressed, in the area of technology, the flash drives and the microdisks all have gotten very small—some are so small that they’re the size of a thumbtack, and it’s easy for our detectives to go in and miss that,” said Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan, in an interview with Forensic Magazine. “Charlie can find anything that the detectives miss, and quite often Charlie is hitting on electronic devices that the detectives may have missed—or areas that electronic devices were once stored.”

Charlie is trained to detect the scent of specific chemicals found in small electronics such as flash drives, external hard drives and micro SD cards. These devices can be used to store electronic evidence of crimes against children, including child pornography. When ex-Subway spokesman Jared Fogle’s residence was searched on suspicion that he was involved in child exploitation, a Labrador retriever named Bear helped investigators find a hidden flash drive that turned out to contain crucial evidence. Fogle later pleaded guilty to child exploitation charges and was sentenced to a minimum of 13 years in federal prison.

Whelan said hearing about that case was the first time he became aware of electronics-sniffing K-9s, and members of the ICAC team were further informed on the possibility through the periodic conferences and seminars they attend to continually improve their investigative toolset. The team was ultimately connected to Charlie through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which helped fund her six weeks of training at a specialized facility for police dogs in Ohio and an additional two weeks of training with her handler Nat Evans, a forensic analyst with ICAC.

“The training method consisted, as you would expect, of rewards for good behavior, and her behavior in finding electronics was rewarded simply not by food or treats but by using a tennis ball and playing with her,” Whelan explained.

Charlie was introduced at a press conference earlier this month after completing her training and officially joining the task force. She showed off her skills to the conference attendees by finding a flash drive that had been hidden in a meeting room earlier that day, and was rewarded with her favorite ball. 

Charlie, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, is the first and only electronic-detection forensic K-9 in Pennsylvania. She was introduced to the community Wednesday, Sept. 13 during a suburban Philadelphia demonstration. (Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

There are only about two dozen electronics-sniffing dogs in the United States, and Charlie is the first to go to work in the state of Pennsylvania. In her first two weeks, she has been involved in about 15 searches so far, according to Whelan, and while most of her work has been concentrated in Delaware County, he expects she will go on to help with searches across the state and possibly nearby states as well, wherever she is needed.  

For many years, dogs have been used by police to sniff out evidence and illicit substances, including drugs, explosives, illegal wildlife and arson accelerants. In addition to finding electronic evidence of child exploitation, device-sniffing dogs like Charlie have also been used to find cellphones smuggled into prisons. The FBI introduced their first electronics-sniffing dog, a black Lab named Iris, in August of last year. Whelan says Labs make especially good detection dogs due to their high intelligence and non-aggressive nature.

While she’s not on the job, Whelan says Charlie is well taken care of by Evans who treats her not only as a beloved family pet, but “another child.” He says she has not only improved the investigative potential of the task force, but has been an emotional benefit to the members of the team who deal with the reality of serious and upsetting crimes on a regular basis.

“Everyone that meets Charlie loves her, so we’re very happy to have her,” Whelan said. “[ICAC investigators] are dealing with cyber tips of children being abused, child pornography, something that’s just horrendous to deal with day in and day out. Charlie now acts as a therapeutic dog and actually relaxes people in a way that we never anticipated (…) She’s just been awesome.”