Being a game warden can be difficult, occasionally dangerous, and a lonely job.
But for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks state game warden Paul Luepke, the vast Big Sky Country that he annually safeguards in his four-wheel drive Ford F-250 patrol truck has been a little less intimidating in recent years. And that has been because of the 24/7/365 presence of his canine partner and pal Axel, a certified working German Shepherd.
The story of the Montana warden and his unique working dog partnership with Axel will be featured in a Wardens episode on Outdoor Channel starting March 16.
"I got him when he was 10 weeks old and started training him immediately," said Luepke, a former hunting and fishing guide turned game warden over the past 10 years. "When he was a year and a half old or so, he was certified as a working dog and was cut loose (to go to work)."
After growing up around hunting dogs in Iowa, and being around them during his guide work in Alaska, Minnesota and Canada, it didn't take long before Luepke knew he was training a special dog to ride in the kennel in the back of his state game warden rig.
"My partner Derrick Sagone and I were putting a decoy out and (Derrick) lost his cell phone somewhere in a five-acre field," said Luepke. "We looked and looked and looked but couldn't find it. And since it was on vibrate so that our cover wouldn't be blown (while watching the decoy), we couldn't call it."
The next day, Sagone asked Luepke if he thought that Axel might be able to find the missing phone.
"I said sure, we'll see what he can do, but remember that he's only seven months old," laughed Luepke.
As it turned out, Axel, youthful canine or not, was ready to put on a show.
"We turned him lose and he started searching just like he was trained to do," said Luepke. "He was searching just like a bird dog would, quartering back and forth. And then all of a sudden, he indicated and laid down."
Not even a minute into the search across the five-acre field.
"We were like 'No way!" recalled Luepke. "But we went over there and went 'Oh my gosh!' because he had laid down with his front paws on the phone, just like he was trained to do. I knew right then that I was going to have a pretty good dog."
Indeed he was. In fact, over the next six years, Axel was a constant figure in Luepke's patrol truck as he logged more than 20,000 miles per year on Montana's paved highways, washboard dirt roads and rugged backcountry two-tracks.
From days of checking fishermen in the Yellowstone River country as summertime temperatures soared in the dusty air to 100 degrees or more to checking big game hunters in the Beartooth Mountains with wintertime snow flying and temperatures pushing zero, Luepke grew accustomed to the continual presence of his canine partner.
In fact, the moments were few and far between when Axel wasn't by the Montana warden's side as he served as a first responder, assisted other law enforcement agencies on calls and performed his own varied duties.
"With a hunting dog, you train them, you hunt with them a handful of days during the season and then they spend a lot of time at home waiting for you to come back from work," said Luepke.
"But with a working dog, it's all day, every day and I never even took him to a kennel when we left to go on vacations and such. He went on patrol with me, he walked alongside me on horseback in the mountains and he went on jet-boat patrol with me."
Just the mere presence of Axel made Luepke's job a bit easier and he believes that there were probably several instances where the dog helped keep a situation from escalating.
"When you arrest someone and there's a 70-pound German Shepherd staring them down, that alone is a force multiplier," said Luepke.
But it wasn't just Axel's ability to help keep suspects under control that made him such a valuable asset in the field, it also was his ability to find things, especially evidence in cases.
"His job was to find stuff, anything that might be out in the field with human scent on it," said Luepke. "He would find hunting knives, licenses, clothing and even a pop can once."
But Axel's specialty might have been the brass casings of spent cartridges that were often important pieces of evidence in poaching cases.
"He was great at finding shell casings," said Luepke. "In Montana, like it is in most other states, it's illegal to shoot from a public roadway. When I had one of those cases, he would search the road in front of the truck as I followed behind him slowly."
On one search, Axel didn't find any shell casings. But he did find something else that helped nail down an investigation, which was the hat from a trespassing suspect who had been claiming all along that he had not been on the property.
Six years into their time together as the only warden/canine partnership among Montana's 100 or so game wardens, Luepke was looking forward to a number of other years serving together with Axel.
But when Luepke came home to his family, following a rare overnight trip where he had left Axel behind, those dreams suddenly and tragically dissolved.
Fueled by the anxiety that can sometimes occur during the separation of a dog and its owner, Axel had apparently chewed on some things in the yard and swallowed a sharp edge or two that had left the German Shepherd ill, weak and barely able to lift his head.
"I took him to the vet right away, but he died that night from internal bleeding," said Luepke. "He was strong, muscular and in the prime of his life and suddenly he was gone."
Gone and leaving a huge hole behind in the heart, life and state game warden work of Luepke.
"It was all kind of a blur," he said. "There was suddenly something missing in a house that had seemed so full a few days before with Axel, my wife and our two kids. I had Axel in my life since before we had kids and all of a sudden, he was gone."
In the days that followed, the lack of Axel's presence in his home was notable as Luepke's colleagues gave their heartfelt condolences to him over the loss of his German Shepherd partner.
"There was no barking when the UPS man came to the house," said Luepke. "He was an incredible guard dog and I noticed that (the absence of Axel's barking) right away."
If life at home where Axel had been a fixture was difficult, life out on the road as he patrolled again was even more difficult.
"The first couple of times I went on patrol without him, I didn't even want to go," said Luepke. "I would look in that rearview mirror and he wasn't there."
But those times on patrol without Axel also helped spur the notion in Luepke's mind that he needed to get right back on the saddle, so to speak, and obtain another canine working dog.
"When I had people in the truck before, they had always kept their attention on him," said the warden. "He would give them the evil eye and they (paid attention). Not having him there was like not having my body armor on. So I knew pretty quickly, that right or wrong, I needed to get another dog."
And that he did, obtaining a young Dutch Shepherd female named Oola.
Warden Paul Luepke's new working dog, a female Dutch Shepherd named Oola. (Paul Luepke photo)
"It's different," said Luepke, laughing and noting that so far, the spunky eight-month-old pup Oola can be a handful at times.
"She's a little smaller and a little faster," he added. "But she seems pretty smart. Axel was very smart and very easy to train."
As Luepke and Oola continue the process of getting to know each other, the training of his next canine partner has begun with finding things, retrieving things and a lot of structured playing.
"Training a working dog is a lot like training a bird dog," said the Montana warden, "except in this case, you're training the dog to find evidence and not flush or retrieve a bird. The bird isn't the reward. She comes back to me to get the reward."
It's a process that in some ways resembles the backyard retrieving sessions that countless dog owners have with their canine companions every day.
"They're always looking for a ball whether they know it or not," said Luepke of working dogs. "Whether they find a gun, a shell casing or some clothing, in their mind, they're always playing ball."
But all the while, they're doing so with a unique bond and a close-working partnership that transcends mere play between a dog and its master.
While helping to make the daily grind of being a state game warden a more successful task. And a whole lot less lonely job to boot, even in the vast and rugged territory of Montana's Big Sky Country where Paul Luepke's patrol truck melts away tens of thousands of miles each year like winter's snow giving way to spring, with his canine companion and working dog riding shotgun in the wings.
The “Axel and Chains” episode will air Monday, March 16 at 12:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 19 at 7 p.m. All times are Eastern. Check the Wardens show page for additional air times.