In the fight against child exploitation, New Hampshire has a secret weapon.
Niko is an “electronic storage device” (ESD) dog, trained to sniff out anything that can store digital images. He has proven a key asset in law enforcement’s pursuit of cases involving the distribution and possession of child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
Since last May, the good-natured golden/Labrador retriever cross has been the partner of Matt Fleming, a deputy at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department who is an investigator for the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force.
Fleming took on that assignment after retiring in 2019 as a detective at the Bedford police department, where he worked on CSAM cases for many years. “I just feel like somebody has to fight for kids, and I wasn’t done being in the fight,” he said.
The task force purchased 2-year-old Niko with state grant funding from Jordan Detection Canine in Indiana, which has trained ESD dogs for police agencies around the country.
Niko’s job is to accompany Fleming on the execution of search warrants anywhere in the state and look for evidence. While police investigators may miss something that’s well-hidden, Niko is trained to detect a particular chemical that keeps electronic storage devices such as cellphones, thumb drives and tablets from overheating.
Since Niko came on board last May, he has participated in 70 searches.
He has found electronics every time.
“Every time I work that dog, I am completely humbled by his ability,” Fleming said. “It’s something that until you see it you’d never believe a dog could do.”
“He can find hard drives, flash drives, micro SD cards, cellphones, iPads, iPods. If they can store something, he can find it,” he said.
When he does find something, Niko alerts his handler by sitting close to the hidden object. “Show me,” Fleming tells the dog, and Niko places his nose on the exact location of the scent.
Niko’s reward for his work is food — something the Lab half of him enthusiastically embraces, Fleming said.
Lt. Eric Kinsman, commander of ICAC, said ESD dogs find things humans may overlook.
“Because humans are constantly reasoning and constantly in this state of deducing what may or may not be somewhere, sometimes things get missed,” Kinsman said.
Dogs don’t make judgments about whether a hiding place makes logical sense, he said. “All the dogs work for, all they care about, is working for that reward,” he said.
Niko originally was slated to be a seeing-eye dog but that wasn’t his destiny, Fleming said. “We never say that they failed, because that would be mean,” he said. “They call it ‘career changed.’”
Fleming spent a few weeks in Indiana last spring, learning how to work with Niko, and the team was recertified for ESD work this year.
A certified therapy dog, Niko also is trained to provide comfort to any youngsters at the scene of a search, Fleming said. “It will sometimes help take some of the tears away from the children who are in that environment,” he said.
Fleming said Niko has become an invaluable member of ICAC. “We say Niko is our employee, but he’s also probably our dearest friend and teammate,” he said.
Nicole Thorspecken, an assistant county attorney for Hillsborough County who heads the county’s cybercrime unit, said New Hampshire is “incredibly lucky” to have Niko working for ICAC.
Technology is always changing, and law enforcement has to keep up, she said.
“Everything connects to the internet now, so every kind of electronic device could have evidence of the criminal possession, distribution or manufacturing of child sexual abuse images,” she said.
Portsmouth police Lt. Eric Kinsman, the commander of ICAC, said the investigators, prosecutors and case workers who deal with such terrible cases “are doing God’s work.”
And Niko does his part to help them, he said.
“Having Niko stroll around the office is a nice break,” Kinsman said.
“He’ll come and rest his head on your lap and let you forget things for a moment.”
Niko is a frequent visitor to the lab where forensic examiners have to look at horrific images of children being abused, his handler Fleming said.
“They can sit on the floor with him, play with him. They can try to forget that what they’re looking at on a computer screen is probably something no person should see,” he said. “Niko offers them the opportunity to take them away from that.”
Prosecutor Thorspecken said working on such cases never gets easier. “It’s always a really hard thing to see a child at their worst moment and have that captured and memorialized permanently,” she said.
She calls Niko her “best bud.”
“I hate doing image reviews,” she said. “I can tell you in my experience, it’s so much easier when you have an adorable dog sitting next to you.”
One particularly tough day, she said, Niko placed his front paws on her chair, “pulled the mask off my face and gave me a big kiss.”
Niko’s contribution, Fleming said, “is so much bigger than a dog who can find a cellphone.”
“He has saved investigators,” he said. “He has saved children.”