Originally created 08/08/99

Dogs to search area schools



Bruno stretched his neck and pointed his nose outward, his slim body falling in line behind his nose -- his detector -- trailing a scent like an army of fire ants trekking up and into their red-hill home.

When the 75-pound Belgian Malinois pinpoints the unmistakable stench, his back legs buckle beneath him and he anxiously glares at his partner, awaiting the coveted prize: a rubber ball.

Bruno is half of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department K9 unit that searches for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin, stashed under mattresses, in ash trays and within ceiling panels. When he detects, he sits, indicating a find.

"He's gotten to where he'll check the (car's) ashtray because it is often there or he'll smell the door handles because if you just smoked pot, your hands will smell like that," said Deputy Tom Boettcher, Bruno's handler. "He'll do whatever it takes to get that ball."

Bruno and his K9 colleague, Mr. K, a 2-year-old German shepherd, ride with the department's Crime Suppression team, a special operations unit that works primarily on drug interdiction in high-crime neighborhoods.

But this fall, the handlers will add a new assignment to their dog's duties -- the Richmond County school system.

"In our minds, where there's drugs, there's weapons," said Deputy Richard Dixon, Mr. K's handler. And with weapons at the center of parents' fear throughout the nation as they send their children off to school, any steps taken to rid the schools of drugs and weapons is a good one.

"IF WE DON'T FIND

anything, that's great, and if we do find drugs, we're getting it out of the schools," Deputy Dixon said. "This way we can say look at what we're doing to keep it out of the schools."

School Safety Director Maj. Mike Farrell said the dogs will be brought in on an as-needed basis to search classrooms and cars.

"Occasionally we ask the sheriff's office to give us some help since we have 10 high schools and only one dog," he said.

Columbia County sheriff's officials also have offered their bomb-sniffing dogs to be on call 24 hours a day, he said.

"The Board of Education has taken many steps in curbing violence in schools and this is part of many things we are doing," said Chief Deputy Ronald Strength. In recent weeks, members of the sheriff's SWAT team have been in the schools learning floor plans and layouts to be better prepared in an emergency.

School officials also are planning regular searches of cars parked on school grounds.

Bruno and Mr. K -- named before they became police dogs -- and their deputy handlers are credited with more than 200 drug finds during more than 500 searches of vehicles, buildings and businesses in the last year.

Although finding illegal drugs is their primary goal, Deputies Dixon and Boettcher hope to expand their training into tracking.

A child who has wandered from a park while playing is more likely to be found by a tracking dog who can pick up the scent than by family, friends and police looking for the youth.

CHIEF DEPUTY STRENGTH

said the department will be looking into expanding its K9 unit in the near future and consider cross-training. Additional dogs also may be trained in bomb-sniffing, he said. Narcotics dogs cannot be cross-trained as bomb dogs because the different scents can confuse the dogs.

Bruno and Mr. K were bought for the department through a federal grant but usually a narcotics dog costs about $5,000. Cross-trained canines can cost as much as $7,000, and an explosives dog would run the department about $10,000.

But the dogs easily pay for themselves.

During a drug bust in which Mr. K detected one gram of methamphetamines, a GMC truck also was seized along with $3,000 cash. The truck's owner still owed $2,700 on the vehicle, which was paid for with the confiscated money. The sheriff's department then auctions confiscated cars or uses them in undercover operations.

"All that because of one gram of meth," Deputy Dixon said.

Sgt. Robert Partain, of the sheriff's drug unit, was instrumental in bringing the K9 unit to Richmond County and said he'd like to see the program expand.

"The dogs have been very instrumental in our search and interdiction efforts," he said. "It cuts down on search time."

The dogs are not trained to be attack dogs and are not considered dangerous.

BRUNO, MR. K AND THEIR

handlers go through rigid and constant training. The deputies first met their canine partners in Savannah, where they are trained together in how to teach the dog to sniff and detect, and then alert the handler to drugs.

The dogs already understand basic commands in Dutch and the handlers learn those commands to search and sit.

"They are taught to want the ball. That's the reward," Deputy Dixon said. "You have to reward them within a second of the find or they don't remember what they're getting the reward for."

Once the dogs are trained that detecting the drug will earn them the ball, they are tested. In order to be a certified drug dog, the dog must successfully detect and alert to drugs 110 times consecutively. If he misses, say the 95th find, he must start over.

"It's a very simple process," Deputy Dixon said. "But it's the handler's job to see that the dog does what he is trained to do. If the drugs are missed, it is my fault."

The dogs often are used during traffic stops by crime suppression team members. The dog circles a vehicle, for example, and conducts a "free air" search. Police do not need probable cause to let the dog search the air around a vehicle.

"But if he alerts (to drugs), it's an instant search warrant (to search the car)," Deputy Dixon said. "It's very unintrusive."

After an alert, the handlers guide the leashed dog throughout a vehicle, making him sniff every part of the car -- in the gas cap, ash tray, under the seats and in the glove box. If the dog detects a drug, he immediately sits.

"They are passive-alert dogs, they don't tear anything up," Deputy Dixon said.

Good handlers also must learn to read their dogs well, to know and see the difference between a dog alerting to drugs or to food or another animal having been there.

"Dogs will be dogs and we have to learn how to read them," Deputy Boettcher said.

Because the success of the dogs depends so highly on the handler, the deputies who choose to be one must be very dedicated, Chief Deputy Strength said.

"It's almost their lives, they have to feed and take care of them," the chief deputy said. And to Deputies Boettcher and Dixon, the dogs often come first before many other things.

"This is my partner," Deputy Dixon said, pointing to the 105-pound German shepherd sitting patiently in his makeshift kennel in the back of the patrol car. "To the department he's just a tool, but he's very protective and loyal."

Both Bruno and Mr. K live with their respective handlers, who also spend much time on their own training and practicing mock searches with the canines.

"You have to love it," Deputy Dixon said. "But to us, it's not work."

Meghan Gourley covers crime for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3227 or mgourley@augustachronicle.com.