Police dogs don’t know they’ve found methamphetamine in a vehicle or a missing child in the woods.
To them, the job they’re doing is just a game, said trainer and Nashville Police Chief Deputy Tim True.
His 7-year-old German shepherd, Biker, is one of three police K9s living and working with Brown County law enforcement.
The Brown County Sheriff’s Department has two dogs, partnered with Deputy Andrew Eggebrecht and Sgt. Bill Southerland.
Story continues below gallery
Dogs can detect scents in a way people can’t, whether it’s drugs or a missing person.
To a human, methamphetamine, after it is cooked, doesn’t have a scent, but a police dog can smell it, True said.
Handlers, trainers and their dogs can be trained on apprehension, tracking and narcotics detection.
Biker has been trained for all three; the sheriff’s department’s two dogs each have a specialty.
“The dogs don’t have to cost a lot of money, and they work pretty cheap. As long as they’re fed, they seem to stay pretty happy,” Sheriff Scott Southerland said.
“It’s not work for them. It’s all about a game. It’s all about finding the ball or the toy,” True said.
“When he gets out of the car, he’s looking for a ball. He doesn’t know what marijuana is. He’s looking for that ball.”
How they train
On Dec. 16, 30 to 40 police dogs and their handlers came from all over Indiana and from Ohio County, Kentucky, to CYO Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County. They were completing the last American Police Canine Association training of the year.
The APCA meets twice a month to train. Most sessions take place in Bedford, but Brown County has hosted the last training session for four years.
Maintenance training is important for a police dog, True said. Even when the dogs learn a skill, they can lose it, so the pair train at least 16 hours a month in sniffing — the amount required by federal law.
It takes about two weeks to train and certify police dogs in narcotics detection, True said.
For Biker, it took about a week and a half. The dog showed “excellent ball drive” when True went to pick up his partner for the first time in North Carolina in January 2012. He was highly receptive to retrieving tennis balls and being rewarded for finding them.
That same year, Biker placed first in the American Police Canine Association drug “sniff off” in Martinsville. Since then, they’ve finished in the top five or 10, True said.
When training a dog to detect illegal drugs, five canisters are used that contain methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, marijuana and crack, True said.
The canisters funnel down to the size of a tennis ball. The trainer puts the ball into the canister, and it disappears.
“To the dog, the ball is gone. He has to go find it. What that does is that teaches the dog to get his nose down into that cone to smell for the drugs, or whatever,” True said.
This method can also be used to teach dogs to search for explosive devices, chemicals commonly used to start fires and cellphones. “It’s just a matter of whatever you want to train that dog in,” True said.
Once the ball is associated with the narcotic odors, the ball is taken out of the game, and the dog sniffs for the drugs instead.
“It’s a game to him now. Now he knows when he smells that and he sits, he gets a ball.”
True’s dog was trained to “passive alert,” or sit when he picks up the scent of what he was looking for. That’s the method of the American Police Canine Association, of which True is a member.
Other dogs are trained to “aggressive alert,” to bark and claw when they find the hidden object.
True uses a specific command to let Biker know to go find drugs.
Biker will systematically search any room, starting at the edges and working his way in. But True is always by his side, watching him in case Biker gives any “second indicators.” They may show that the dog detected a scent, but it wasn’t strong enough to alert his handler by sitting.
“Did your dog’s breathing change? Does a tail move a different way? Did his head turn? Did his ears pop up? You can’t just turn a dog loose; you have to watch,” he said.
True will also conduct “detailing” with Biker — going to specific areas in a room or on a vehicle where Biker showed a second indicator.
If Biker alerts on a vehicle, that gives True probable cause to immediately search it, he said.
True and Eggebrecht said that the ability to search a vehicle immediately for illegal drugs is one of the benefits of having a canine partner.
Eggebrecht’s K9, a 2-year-old yellow lab, Reese, has been certified in narcotics detection training since last July.
Reese started as Eggebrecht’s pet. He bought her when she was 6 weeks old and began obedience training with her at 10 weeks.
“With most illicit drugs, there are only a few other ways to immediately search a vehicle,” Eggebrecht said.
“That’s a big issue, specifically with heroin and methamphetamine around here.”
On the run
Bill Southerland’s K9, 2-year-old German shepherd Zoey, is trained to track and do general area searches for people, Sheriff Scott Southerland said.
The dog has been working with Bill Southerland for less than a year.
Biker is also certified to track missing people and apprehend suspects who have run from police.
Skin rafts, or dead skin, help dogs pick up a human scent, True said. Dead skin falls off faster when a person’s heart rate is up, like someone who is running from police.
K9s are trained in scent discrimination, distinguishing different scents and knowing which one they are chasing.
The dogs are sometimes given scent articles, like glasses or a hat, worn by the person they are searching for.
“If we don’t have a scent article to start with, he’s just going to track human scent,” True said.
Like with narcotics scent training, the trainer makes an association in the dog’s head between human scent and a game.
If the dog is tracking a lost person, a tennis ball is a reward for finding that person. The dog stays on a leash and leads his handler.
But if the dog is trying to find someone on the run, the dog is released from a lead rope when he signals to his trainer the person is near. When the dog finds the person, he gets to play tug-of-war with a “bite sleeve” the trainer wears.
In a real apprehension situation, the tug-of-war would be with the suspect’s arm.
The dog knows which kind of tracking they’re doing because of command he gets, True said.
“There’s no limits on how far the track is,” he said. “Your dog will track for miles. You just need to know, as a handler, when to lay your dog down and give them a break, give them water and then start the track back up again.”
Building a bond
Biker is a member of True’s family.
“He’s perfect,” True said. “He is absolutely wonderful with kids. He’s protective of kids. When I’m not around, my wife can tell him to go to his kennel and he listens to her.”
But when “Dad” is around, Biker only has ears for him.
“I never envisioned it. I didn’t know a lot about it. I didn’t know how it worked,” True said of his partnership.
True was in “the right place at the right time” when a local woman who was moving approached him while he was eating breakfast at McDonald’s to offer to donate her German shepherd to be a police dog.
After testing, that dog didn’t work out, he said. But former Nashville Town Marshal Stephanie Hess told True she wanted to continue to find another police dog, and that’s when Biker showed up.
The partnership doesn’t come without challenges.
Eggebrecht said he has to be careful not to praise Reese too much at home because that’s her “paycheck.”
“If she were to get praise at home and be a regular dog, lay on the couch and all that, she wouldn’t have as much desire to work,” he said.
A K9 handler also becomes constantly responsible for another living being. The officer has to make sure the dog eats, drinks, goes to the groomer and visits the vet if they’re sick.
The officer has to carry double, if not triple, the equipment as other police.
“I’ve got, like, four or five different leashes. I’ve got his toy. I’ve got a pinch collar I use for him. I’ve got his bullet-resistance vest. I’ve got his tracking harness, documentation,” True said.
Biker is almost always by True’s side, at work and home.
“It’s amazing the bond that you build,” True said.
“He will follow me wherever I go. But if I tell him to lay down in the middle of the room while we’re sitting here talking, nine times out of 10 he’s going to stay until we get done.”