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With a nose for trouble, K9s are put on trial

By Paul Clark  • Contributor •

Norris Bunch called his dog Maxo to attention. Maxo, alert and ready, waited for his release.

Barbara Holt, a judge for the U.S. Police Canine Association, gave the go-ahead, and Bunch, a K9 handler at the nuclear Savannah River Site, shouted for Maxo to move.

Laser-quick, Maxo charged toward the “decoy” – a fellow K9 officer acting as a criminal suspect. The decoy had a 25-yard head start on the football field at Waynesville Middle School. And, he certainly had the sympathy of the civilians spending a sunny June morning watching the police dog trials from the stands.


But, he was losing to Maxo, who was gaining ground fast.

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“No!” Bunch shouted suddenly from the start line. “Heel!”

Maxo peeled off the pursuit, letting the decoy escape as he sped back to sit at Bunch’s side. “Good boy,” Bunch said, petting him as several police dog handlers applauded. “You’re a good boy.”

Maxo and Bunch were among 16 teams seeking annual certification from the U.S. Police Canine Association during the three-day trials in Waynesville. There are several teams in Western North Carolina, and the number has grown as drug trafficking has increased, according to Sgt. Erik Oswalt, a K9 officer with the Cherokee Police Department.  

Trained police dogs can find narcotics, bombs, illegally taken game and bodies that have been disposed of. They can locate evidence flung by suspects and run down people police are trying to catch. They track criminals, look for lost people and search buildings and areas for suspects.

North Carolina does not set standards for police dog performance, and like the various bodies that govern professional boxing, there are several associations that offer various kinds and levels of certification for its member law enforcement agencies, said Kevin Johnson, a K9 officer for the Wilson Police Department. One of several judges at the Waynesville dog trials, Johnson is also the national president of the USPCA.

Police dogs in North Carolina don’t even have to be certified, he said. “But if you get a certification, it helps if you’re involved in a lawsuit, that you can say that your dog has been tested and passed these standards,” he said.

“But, there’s nothing in North Carolina that says you have to do that,” he added. “You can take your dog out in your backyard and say he’s a police dog and take him to work.”


Making the grade

Leaning against the chain link fence that separates the football field from the stands was Trudy Rogers. Her husband R.O. Rogers, a longtime K9 handler and teacher, was there to tally the scores assigned by Johnson and the four other judges on the field. Trudy Rogers has been to so many of these trials that she’s a pretty good judge of what makes a good detection and patrol dog.

“Like people, they all have their own personalities,” she said, peering at the action from under the visor she wore to keep out the bright sun. “Some are very friendly. Some of them, you need to be careful with.”

Before R.O. retired from the Washington, D.C. police K9 unit in 1989, his dog Caesar, a strapping German Shepherd, lived with the Rogers. He, she said, was a great dog. R.O. now trains police dogs at their home near Raleigh. He trained many of the teams that were competing today, she said. The dogs had to score 490 out of 700 possible points during the three-day event to get certified. Some dogs might not make it if they performed badly in the three categories tested – agility, apprehension and detection.

“Then you go back and train some more,” said Gabe Shinn, a Chapel Hill K9 officer.


Rewarding good training

Good police dogs, typically German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, have an insane desire to chase balls and tug on ropes. “Once these dogs learn to associate the smell of narcotics or explosives with a ball or a toy, they learn to find them just to receive a reward,” said Brandon Gilmore, a Waynesville Police Department K9 officer. Some federal agencies use a food-based reward system, “but we don’t like that system,” he said, “because our cars are full of the smell of French fries and hamburgers.” Instead, the Waynesville PD uses affection.

Most professional police dog trainers, who can get upwards of $4,000 for their dogs, train them by making a game out of finding whatever it is they want the dogs to find. Find the narcotics and play with your toy. Find the cadaver and ditto. Dogs have 100 times the odor-detecting facility that humans do, and they can pick a scent out of a dozen meant to mask it.

Gilmore retired his last dog last year after 12 years of service. His current dog Arco, a detection dog, has been on the job since March 2011. Gilmore declined to talk about the cases Arco has helped with because many are still under investigation. But because vehicles used to ferry felony amounts of drugs are forfeited to the agency that busts them, Arco has nearly paid for himself. He cost $10,000.


A game of chase

Stephen Shaw, an officer with the Chapel Hill Police Department, walked onto the football field. He commanded Jax, a 3-year-old German Shepherd-Malinois mix, to sit beside him while Holt made sure the field judges were ready to go. When Holt dropped her hand, the decoy, wearing a thick arm protector, took off running between two lines of bright orange police cones.  

Shaw barked for Jax to go, and Jax took off with cheetah-like acceleration and hawk-like concentration. His leather harness bouncing on his back, Jax zeroed in, latching on to the decoy’s padded arm (police dogs are taught to bite the arm because that’s likely where the weapon is). Jax put the full weight of his body behind his viselike grip, pulling the officer toward the artificial turf.

Shaw caught up with them and shouted so loudly for Jax to release that the command bounced off the bleachers. The decoy was sweating as he walked off the field. So was Shaw. All K9 officers serve as decoys, in part to help them feel what a suspect feels. As many times as Shaw has done it, it still is scary, he said. Those are powerful dogs.

“It can get your hackles up,” he said. “The suspect feels enough fear to stop what he’s doing. If not, he’ll feel some pain. We’ll get some compliance.”


Nothing gets away

The U.S. Police Canine Association is the largest and oldest active organization of its kind in the country, and R.O. Rogers, who edits the association’s quarterly magazine Canine Courier, has been at it a pretty long time himself. “I spent more time with my dog than my children, and my wife, really,” he said, taking score sheets from the judges. “Your dog is like a child, and he looks at you like a child. They work for praise.”

“They can catch odors that are unbelievable,” he said. “They even have dogs now that can smell the odors of an illness that you’re carrying. If you train them on an odor, they’ll ignore all the other odors. For us to have probable cause in court, we have to show that the dog will alert only to that odor.”

That’s why the dog teams were going through certification on that rapidly warming morning in Waynesville. Their human partners need to be able to testify in court that the dogs are certified to alert only on the substances that brought the defendant to trial. If officers do the searching, a defendant who throws away a gun running from police stands a chance of not seeing that gun again. But with a trained dog? Rogers just shook his head.


Intimidation factor often enough

A police dog’s presence is often persuasion enough. Officers can’t take handguns into the Haywood County Detention Center, but they can take Abel, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois.

“If you have a suspect or a prisoner in the jail and he’s acting up or you need to transport him from one cell to another, you can use the dog for intimidation,” said Doug Carver, a Haywood County Sheriff’s Department’s K9 handler. “Or if you have an assault in the jail, where the prisoner won’t get back in the cell, you can use the dog for intimidation again.”

Neither scenario happens often, though, maybe once a year, he said.

Abel is also good for checking prisoners coming back from picking up trash by the road. Sometimes friends will stash drugs in an area where inmates are working, so Carver will take Abel through their cells when they get back. In his 11 years handling dogs, Carver has found drugs that way only twice, he said.

Situations like those happen rarely because prisoners know the dogs play a better game of hide and seek than they do. Any kind of game that involves running away, squaring off or staring down, the dogs win.

“A lot of people are just scared of a big, ol’ police dog,” Carver said. “They hurt.”


Police handlers recall canines’ achievements

Heath Plemmons, a Waynesville Police Department K9 officer, has the only bomb-detection dog west of Charlotte. Working together about five years, Plemmons and Levi haven’t had much bomb action in Haywood County. But they’ve done sweeps in nearby counties.

“During the last presidential elections (in 2008), every time a new candidate would come to Asheville, the Secret Service would call and I’d go over there. It seems like it was every other day,” Plemmons said.

That meant prowling through buildings and motorcades before and during appearances by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and (in Flat Rock) Laura Bush. Plemmons believes he may be called to work the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this year.

Levi and Plemmons train just about every day, but Levi, 7, isn’t all business. He lives with Plemmons and plays with his three children all the time.

“All dogs have their own attitudes,” Plemmons said. “Some dogs are crazy wild. Some are kept outside. I keep mine inside with us because I think it helps build the bonding a little bit better.”

Levi is good at tracking too. Three years ago, not far from Waynesville Middle School, an older man with dementia wandered off from his apartment. He’d been missing 12 hours by the time Plemmons and Levi were called in. Levi tracked him to some nearby woods. The man was almost dead from hypothermia, but he survived.

“That felt great,” said Plemmons, who won an award from U.S. Police Canine Association for the search.


Three years ago, the post office on the Qualla Boundary called the Cherokee Police Department after workers there smelled marijuana in the mail. Sgt. Erik Oswalt, on the force then for 11 years, took over his service dog Bruni, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois. She discovered 23 pounds of pot in a package.  

“To her, everything’s a game,” Oswalt said. “Basically, when she finds the drugs, she’s found her toy. She knows she finds her reward when she finds a certain odor. It’s just a game to find the toy.”

Though she’s never been tested, Oswalt has no doubt she would die protecting him, he said. People tend to give up before it gets that far, he said. Once you shout into a building that you’ve got a dog, it’s generally over. Which is the whole point of having a police dog, Oswalt said – they protect officers’ lives.

During training, K9 officers feel a service dog’s bite, much in the same way officers experience the Taser. During training exercises, Oswalt has seen a dog break the crystal in an officer’s watch under the thick padding the officer wore on his arm to receive the bite. The dogs often punch through the pads into flesh.

“Most guys have scars on them,” Oswalt said. “When Bruni bites, she’s like an alligator in one sense because her head jerks all over the place.” That can cause a lot of damage, he said.


Four years into his career with the Canton Police Department, Sgt. Jason Hughes decided to become a K9 handler because “it’s interesting being able to handle a dog and having a partner with me wherever I go,” he said.

Tuff, a 7-year-old German Shepherd, is a “wonderful” partner, he said. “I’m going to say he’s the best dog. We get partial to our animals. It’s not just a tool for the police department, it’s also one of our best friends. The dog is trained to take care of us, as we are trained to take care of them.”

Tuff is certainly part of Hughes’ family, he said. Hughes takes him to area schools, where kids pet him and, the department hopes, feel at ease around police officers.

About a year after Hughes and Tuff teamed up, the N.C. Highway Patrol called for assistance on a possible drug transport on Interstate 40. Hughes and his dog went out. “Seek!” Hughes said. About 30 seconds later, Tuff alerted to a suitcase in the trunk of the car. Inside the suitcase was 25 pounds of marijuana. The amount certainly put into perspective the $10,000 Tuff and his training cost. To a law enforcement agency, that’s a great return on investment.

“He’s very valuable to the town of Canton,” Hughes said. “He’s an extraordinary animal.”

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