Monday, 17 December 2018
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K9s take on expanding roles in Smyth County law enforcement

The use of man’s best friend to help sniff out crime has become much more common in Smyth County.

The addition of Patrol K9 Navir, a 78-pound Belgian Malinois trained to take down violent criminals, brought the number of Smyth County Sheriff’s Office K9 units to four in June. That number will hit five later this fall when K9 Gary and his handler complete their narcotics-detection training with the Virginia State Police.

Trained in bite work and detection, the five-year-old Navir can be used to track, bring down and hold violent criminals, secure buildings and even control crowds, if the need should arise.

Navir’s handler, Cpl. Neal Brooks, said making the decision to become a K9 handler is one he’ll never regret.

“I had no idea how much responsibility and training and time would be involved, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done since I’ve been in law enforcement.”

Brooks said Navir will primarily be used for the sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, a team of specially trained law enforcement officers who respond to high risk situations throughout the county.

Since he completed his training in June, Navir has already seen action. Twice since his certification, he was sent in to clear two separate buildings that had been burglarized. On those occasions, police were unsure if the offender was still inside when they arrived.

 “He’s trained that if he finds what he’s looking for he’ll get a reward,” Brooks said.

Lucky for the burglars, they had already gone.

“When he tracks, his reward is the bite,” Brooks said. “That’s why he’s not used to track missing persons, only violent subjects.”

That’s what K9s Mags and Abel are for. The two Bloodhounds and their handlers, Cpl. Brad Johnson and Sgt. Michael Lowe, are deployed to find those who have gone missing, wandered off or run away. Until Navir joined the department, they were also used to track criminals in certain situations.

But that doesn’t mean Navir can’t put his nose to good use when a dire situation calls for it. First on the scene in an incident involving a suicidal woman, Navir was able to track the woman’s scent to the location where she was picked up in a vehicle. A short time later, the woman’s family was able to locate her at another residence.

Also trained in handler protection, Navir knows what to look for in aggressive subjects.

“He was trained that if anyone is aggressive toward me, that’s a cue and something he should react to,” Brooks said.

Navir rides in a special kennel inside Brooks’ patrol vehicle. He usually stays behind in the vehicle on regular patrol, but if a situation escalates and Navir’s aide is needed, a special gadget Brooks keeps on him at all times allows him to remotely unleash the canine. 

Brooks described Navir as intense, intelligent and loyal. Though the fierce looking patrol pooch may appear aggressive, Brooks said the track and the bite are really just a fun game for him.

“When he bites, he’s not doing it because he’s mean; he’s doing it because it’s fun to him.”

Navir’s bite isn’t meant to maim an individual, he said; it’s simply meant to detain them. Once the subject is subdued, Navir is trained to release them on Brooks’ command.

Though his nose and his bite are the patrol dog’s primary weapons, Brooks said sometimes the mere presence of a police K9 will command compliance.

“Sometimes they’re a lot more afraid of an 80-pound dog with teeth than they are a 200-pound guy with a gun,” he said.

Prior to his certification in the Virginia State Police Canine Training Program, Navir trained with Beyond Sit and Stay owner Paula Shupe, who got him as a puppy. Shupe, who also works security at the courthouse, originally intended the pup to be her own competition and training dog, but his skill, drive and nerve made him an excellent candidate for a patrol dog, she said.

 “When he’s working, he gives 100 percent every time. That’s what he lives for. This is not a dog that wants to go out and play for 10 minutes. He wants to work for 10 hours.”

For those reasons, Shupe knew he would excel as a patrol dog and donated him to the sheriff’s office.

“He wants to work for his handler,” she said. “That’s what he’s looking for and that’s what makes him happy.”

Always eager to work, Navir doesn’t like to be left behind at home when he’s not on duty.

“He loves riding in the vehicle,” Brooks said. “If he doesn’t get to go, he gets mad and barks at me.”

While Navir, Mags and Abel are happy to sniff out criminals and missing persons, it’s narcotics K9s Luna and Cooper who see the most action.

“They’re worth their weight in gold,” said Sheriff Chip Shuler. “They work those dogs every day.”

Though Cooper, a six-year-old Yellow Lab, is a Marion Police Department K9, the need for a drug-detecting K9 arises so frequently, he’s often called in to assist the sheriff’s office.

Donated to the Marion PD by the Virginia Department of Corrections, Cooper and his handler Officer Jeff Horn have been tracking down hidden drugs for two years.

Trained to sniff out marijuana, hash, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, Horn said the narcotics K9s are a huge asset to law enforcement.

“A lot of times, if we don’t get consent for a search and we don’t have anything else to go on, we don’t get the opportunity to find the drugs that someone might be concealing,” he said. “With a K9 alert, we can get a probable cause search warrant and find whatever they’re trying to keep from us.”

While masking drug odors with cigarette smoke or perfume might work on a human officer, those efforts are no match for Cooper’s nose. The narcotics dogs can smell each odor individually.

“They might try to hide the odor with dryer sheets, but what the dog smells is the dryer sheets and the marijuana,” Horn explained.

He compared the situation to a human walking into a house where stew had been cooking all day.

“All you smell is the vegetable beef stew, but when the dog walks in, he can smell the corn, he can smell the green beans, the salt, the pepper, the beef. You just smell soup, but he smells everything in that soup.”

A narcotics K9’s reward for finding its mark is a little different from a patrol dog’s.

“When their nose hits those odors, we give them their toy, towel or tennis ball and we just play tug-of-war and run around and talk in a high-pitched voice to get them really excited,” Horn said.

Horn believes keeping drug offenders off the streets also helps bring down other crime rates.

“Higher drug enforcement efforts can also affect things like assaults and thefts,” he said.

The high need for narcotics K9s led the sheriff’s office to welcome a second narcotics K9 to the department. Gary, a Malinois, and his handler Deputy Daniel Hamm are currently in training with the Virginia State Police in Richmond. Once their training is complete, they’ll join Luna and her handler Sgt. Landon Smith, in tackling the drug problem.

Though police dogs are often viewed as equipment on paper, Horn said they are not viewed as such within the department.

“I consider him, and my fellow officers see him, as just as much a part of the department as they are or I am.”

More than just a drug dog, Cooper often brings comfort to children who have been caught up in the crimes and disputes of adults.

“I think one of the more important parts of the job is that he’s a very docile breed, so when I get a call to a domestic, if there’s a kid there, I get to pop Cooper out of the car and let them see a police dog,” Horn said. “Maybe one day down the road, they might look back and say, ‘I got to pet Cooper. That was pretty cool.’”

Out in public, Horn said kids pile in around Cooper to give him attention. He’s such a hit with the kiddos that he even has his own trading card his fans can collect.

While Cooper’s is an increasingly important job in the area, Horn said at the end of the day, “He’s still a dog, so he still has to have that time to be a dog and run around and smell everything.”

Horn often takes Cooper to local baseball fields, where he can run until his heart’s content. Other times, he can be found snoozing away, when he’s off duty.

Likewise, Luna, Navir, Mags and Abel also spend their free time with their handlers, who care for and play with the respected law enforcement pups.

To help keep them safe and healthy, each dog has its own emergency and Narcan kit. In addition, Cooper was granted a ballistics vest through the nonprofit group, Vested Interest in K9s. Horn expects the vest to be shipped in the next few weeks. Brooks hopes to have a vest for Navir in the near future.


The Bark Box

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