They live together, work together, play together. They’re side by side 24 hours, almost every day.
Most of their time is spent wandering open desert, driving along dirt roads, sometimes working more than 16-hour shifts.
In a lot of ways, it sounds like the makings of a buddy cop movie.
But it’s all very real.
For almost three years, Mike Carpenter, a law enforcement officer and K9 handler for the federal Bureau of Land Management, and his 4½-year-old black German shepherd, Enzo, have teamed up to sniff out — literally in Enzo’s case — narcotics and evidence of other crimes on federal land.
The trust they’ve developed for one another, Carpenter said, is unlike any other relationship.
“You can only understand it if you’re a K9 handler,” he said.
The duo is basically the first and last line of defense against drug trafficking on BLM land across northeastern New Mexico, from Santa Fe County to the Colorado and Texas state lines. Carpenter is one of just 12 uniformed agency officers in the state and its only K9 handler.
The work — and for Enzo, the training — rarely seems to cease.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Carpenter and Enzo drove over sandy arroyos in the Buckman area near Santa Fe, when Carpenter pulled over, parked his truck and hid a bundle of marijuana in a tall juniper bush.
In the back of the truck, Enzo paced back and forth, his amber eyes fixed on Carpenter.
“He saw me hang that there,” Carpenter said, getting back in the truck. “I don’t want him to cheat.”
Carpenter then drove around the corner, waited a few minutes and finally released Enzo with the command, “find gift.”
“I’m watching for his behavior,” said Carpenter. “I can see where he picks up his head, when his tail goes straight up.”
Enzo put his nose to the ground — zig-zagging back and forth, tail continuously wagging. The 85-pound dog came to a halt, looked up to the bush and started leaping. Moments later, the bag of pot fell to the ground.
Carpenter erupted with praise.
Walking back to the car, Carpenter talked to Enzo, sternly giving him the “truck” command to get inside the back of the vehicle. As he started driving again, Carpenter spoke with Enzo as if the dog were human, not a canine.
“I talk to him all the time,” he said with a laugh, “to the point that when he’s not there, I still talk to him.”
Carpenter said only 12 dogs work for the BLM nationwide. The placement process is “highly selective,” he said, but once a placement is approved, the agency is one of the few that allows an employee to select their own dog.
When Carpenter, 37, first met Enzo, the dog stood alongside five purebred Belgian Malinois — each costing between $10,000 to $15,000, including training.
Though Carpenter said he was “trying to decide which one would match my personality best,” deep down, he said he knew Enzo was the one.
“I’ve always been a German shepherd guy,” said Carpenter.
Before Enzo, Carpenter worked with another narcotics-trained German shepherd named Ranger for more than five years. Then the dog died of cancer.
Carpenter said he was able to pour all his time and energy into training Enzo. But the transition away from Ranger wasn’t easy.
“It’s like losing family,” said Carpenter. “I can’t imagine if I didn’t have Enzo” when Ranger died.
It took about a year and a half of handling Enzo to get “really in sync,” Carpenter said.
“We spend 24 hours a day together. … I spend more time with [Enzo] than I do my wife,” Carpenter said, laughing.
His wife, Kirsten Carpenter, agreed, adding, “The connection Mike and Enzo have — you get a little jealous, to be honest. They’re together all the time.”
Because the BLM is responsible for covering 256 million acres of federal land, Mike Carpenter’s work with Enzo requires extensive travel across the country. That includes finding and seizing narcotics at the annual Burning Man festival in northwestern Nevada, assisting with natural disaster relief and patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border.
Last year, the duo were in Yosemite National Park to help provide security during a fire. And this weekend, they took off for California’s Imperial Sand Dunes, where Carpenter will serve as the the area’s supervisor through June.
Kirsten Carpenter, who works remotely, and the couple’s two “personal dogs” will join them.
When Mike Carpenter and Enzo are in Santa Fe, they spend a lot of time searching BLM land, and at least one day a week is dedicated to training. Sometimes, training includes group sessions with Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies or state police, who also use a handful of working dogs.
Enzo has been trained to detect methamphetamine, marijuana, ecstasy, heroin and cocaine, as well as recover evidence and track suspects. Everything the dog does, Mike Carpenter said, is based on scent.
“We don’t have anything tool-wise like a dog,” he said. “He does things that nothing else could do for us.”
Enzo also is trained to protect Carpenter. “That’s one of the biggest things for me because I work in the middle of nowhere most of the time,” he said, adding Enzo has prevented numerous attacks and alerted him of potential danger. “He’s my backup.
“I essentially put my life in his hands,” he added.
Carpenter said Enzo is a bit of a workaholic — even when he’s off-duty.
“With Ranger, you take his collar off, and he just wanted to be a dog, chew on bones and play,” he said. “But with him [Enzo], he doesn’t really have an off switch. … You take his collar off and he’s sniffing around the garage trying to find drugs.”
At home, the Carpenters personal dogs are an 11-year-old Shih Tzu named Stuart and a 14-year-old yellow Lab named Boulevard.
But Mike Carpenter’s bond with Enzo is “totally different.”
While the two elderly dogs are given free range of the house and sleep in bed with Carpenter, Enzo is kenneled, has to work for his treats and is prohibited from getting on furniture.
A K9 is “not a pet, and you can’t treat them like a pet,” Carpenter said, “because otherwise they’ll lose their discipline.”
Keeping Enzo in a crate overnight “is a bummer,” Kirsten Carpenter said, but it helps Enzo maintain respect.
“He listens to Mike at the snap of a finger,” she said.
Back in the desert, after scattering a few random items for evidence training, Mike Carpenter calls out, “Find it.”
Enzo excitedly locates the targets one by one, lying completely still in front of each item, his paws on either side.
Carpenter looks at the dog and can’t help but smile.
“He’s like my best friend,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”