Originally created 09/21/00

Police canines face danger nose to nose



Bruno sniffed his way down the luggage conveyor belt, stopping at each of the four black bags lined up like a multiple-choice test.

After a few stops at each bag, the German shepherd found what he was after - a marijuana stash buried deep in one of the suitcases. For a veteran crime fighter, Bruno seemed easily pleased with his rubber toy reward.

The simulation was part of Richmond County's K-9 Task Force display at Augusta Regional Airport on Wednesday. The media event allowed the task force to show its fairly new dog detective team in action.

In February, local law enforcement bought two explosives-detecting dogs, bred in Czechoslovakia, and two narcotics-detecting dogs, originally from Holland.

Bruno, the squad's first dog, served four years by himself with the Richmond County police.

"He had a hard time," said task force supervisor Sgt. John Gray. "He's still the main man."

The task force covers one of three regions in the state. While based in Richmond County, the group also is responsible for Burke and Jefferson counties.

Each dog forms a partnership with its handler, and the teams are equipped to handle everything from drug searches in local schools to bomb threats.

The dogs have not had to hunt for a real bomb yet, but they are trained to sniff out 17 different devices.

"On every mission we go on is the understanding that that day's going to come," Sgt. Gray said.

To prepare, canine and officer teams train every day in simulations around Augusta. At the airport, the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center and even private businesses, trainers create scenarios to test the dogs.

"He smells what we can't," Deputy Gerald Hessenberger said."He's an extension of our capabilities."

The dogs - worth $5,500 for each narcotics canine and $7,500 for a bomb-sniffing hound - have been earning their keep. During a 3-month period this year, the dogs helped authorities uncover 4,667 grams of marijuana, 1,000 grams of crack cocaine and about $32,000 in seized currency, Sgt. Gray said.

Deputy Hessenberger said the hunt was like a game for the dogs.

After finding a small bag of marijuana and residue from bomb materials Wednesday, Bruno and his teammate Tarzan slobbered on the rubber chew toys thrown to them for positive reinforcement.

"We're pretty proud of our program," Sgt. Gray said. "It's fairly new, but it's off to a good start."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.