Looks can be deceiving. That old adage certainly holds true when looking at Chip, a honey-colored golden retriever/Labrador mix with a gentle appearance, sitting obediently in the State House lobby surrounded by an array of dignitaries.
But behind his sweet appearance is a highly trained, highly specialized electronic storage detection dog who sports a K-9 officer badge. Chip can sniff out small electronic devices that human eyes may overlook in a search for evidence in child abuse or trafficking cases. Dogs like Chip are trained to sniff out the chemical compound that coats even the smallest memory chips.
When carrying out a search related to someone suspected of child abuse or trafficking, law enforcement officers typically look for evidence like photographs that could be stored on electronic devices such as computers, phones, or tablets. Often, however, this type of evidence is hidden on very small electronic storage devices, like a jump drive or even a computer chip, that are easily missed by human eyes.
Chip’s arrival at the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services received special attention when Gov. Henry McMaster introduced him at a State House press conference in December 2022. SCDPPPS oversees more than 700 sex offenders who are on probation, have been granted parole, or have been released to a supervisory program. The offenders agree to unannounced searches by SCDPPPS agents as part of their release arrangements.
Chip came to the SCDPPPS as a donation from the Greenville-based charity, Defenders for Children. The organization’s founder and CEO, Toni Clark, says she has a passion for helping children. This passion translated into efforts to reduce the rate of child sex abuse in Greenville County and beyond.
When Toni first heard about dogs trained to detect electronic devices that might hold evidence, she remembers having a gut instinct that these dogs needed to be in every law enforcement agency. “It was a no-brainer for me. A lot of perpetrators will take photos and keep their own files. These dogs have the ability to locate missed evidence that offenders hide or leave behind.”
SCDPPPS Director Jerry Adger first heard about electronic storage detection dogs when Toni approached him several years ago. He admits he was a little skeptical. But he’s now an enthusiastic supporter after seeing dogs like Chip in action. He recalls a story of Chip detecting a fake coin that could be unscrewed to hold a chip.
“Chip found it. He sniffed the coin out and sat down beside it,” Jerry says. “It excites me to know that if there’s someone out there who’s preying on children, this is a new resource we have to keep children safe.”
Caring for a dog like Chip isn’t cheap and involves a dedicated public-private partnership to support his safety, health, and training. Defenders of Children raised the money to buy Chip, train him and his handler, and cover basic needs such as beds and toys. The nonprofit raises about $23,000 for each dog it places. Spectrum stepped up to donate upfitting an SUV with features like special heat and air conditioning that keep Chip safe while he’s on duty and waiting to work. SCDPPPS covers the handler’s salary, vet bills, and food.
Chip’s job at SCDPPPS is two-fold. First, he works with probation and parole agents who check in on sex offenders who are under house arrest or on probation. “The Department doesn’t need a search warrant to check up on the offenders under their supervision,” Toni says. “The SCDPPPS agents take the dog when they suspect an offender may be hiding evidence.”
Chip’s second role is therapeutic. “In some cases, children are on-site when law enforcement arrives, and the dogs can help keep victims calm.” Toni says. “The dogs are also helpful to officers because they have to view awful evidence that we can’t imagine. The dog can also be a comfort to them.”
Chip’s handler is SCDPPPS Agent Benji Partain, who has experience as a dog handler in the military and with the Anderson police department. He and Chip received their training from Jordan Detection K-9 in Indiana.
Chip lives with Benji. They go to work together and train twice daily. Benji says, “Chip is a food reward canine, which means he eats when he trains. Chip travels to various places to train to become well-versed in all areas, like indoor searches, outdoor searches, and vehicles. This ensures his skills are honed and that he stays alert and on top of his game.”
Benji gives Chip different commands to let him know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to play. While their relationship is strictly business when they are on duty, this inseparable pair does have fun at home when they are off the clock.
“Chip is a very happy and energetic 2-year-old that loves to play as well as work. Once we finish training, I let Chip know that playtime can begin,” Benji says. “Like most retrievers, he likes to play fetch. When Chip is at home, he usually lies on one of his three beds. I feel extremely honored and blessed to be his handler as well as the one who gets to play with and take care of him each day.”