Dogs, handlers test their skills

NEWELL – The annual state convention for West Virginia K-9 units opened in Hancock County on Monday with dogs and their handlers testing their skills on everything from narcotics detection to tracking.

Up to 60 K-9 units from all over the state are spending the week here to get their essential certification or recertification. Although most of the seminar is being held at Tomlinson Run State Park, indoor training is taking place at the Wells Building and the former Jefferson Elementary School in Newell.

Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher welcomed the K-9 units – dogs and their handlers – to the northernmost point of West Virginia on Monday morning.

“Very rarely do we have this kind of visitation from law enforcement,” Fletcher said. “Although we’re small in square miles, we’ve got a lot of West Virginia up here that we’re quite proud of.”

The 20th-annual state seminar of the West Virginia Police Canine Association is offering certification training for K-9 units that specialize in narcotics detection, bomb detection, tracking and other duties. The dogs include German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, bloodhounds, Labrador retrievers, an English springer spaniel and a golden retriever.

Early Monday, the former Jefferson Elementary building was transformed into a certification site for narcotics dogs. Officers had to sign a liability waiver because the building is owned by Mountaineer Park Inc.

Officers took turns going from classroom to classroom so their dogs could sniff for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin – the “four food groups,” as one officer joked.

Narcotics detection is, by far, the most popular and rewarding specialty of police K-9 units, said Beckley Police Cpl. Will Reynolds, president of the WVPCA. “Of all the dogs that are here, I would say 99 percent are narcotics dogs.”

Reynolds, an instructor this week, said certification training is like sharpening a pencil.

“It’s your job to keep it sharp,” he said. “We want better dogs in West Virginia. We want people to respect us.”

Huntington Patrolman 1st Class Jason Smith came to the convention with two dogs – a bloodhound named Copper, trained in tracking, and an English springer spaniel named Duke, trained in narcotics.

Reynolds and Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Gittings, an evaluator this week, watched as Smith and Duke went from room to room, looking for strategically placed, small samples of drugs.

“Any dog that has a high hunt drive is going to make a good narcotics dog,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of harnessing their instincts correctly.”

Smith’s cue for Duke to start working is to snap his fingers. When Duke indicates that a drug is present, he sits down – what’s known as passive indication.

Passive response is a growing trend in K-9 training because, among other things, it reduces the potential for damage and liability, Reynolds said.

Charleston Police Detective Justin Hackney has trained his dog, a golden retriever mix named Peanut, to offer a passive response.

“When she detects something, she sits,” he said.

Peanut is a single-purpose dog whose specialty is narcotics detection, especially the detection of narcotics in packages sent through the mail or a parcel service, he said.

Hackney has been Peanut’s handler for five years, during which time they have done more than work together.

“If you can’t bond with them, your working relationship will be sour,” he said. “You bond by grooming them, bathing them and doing stuff outside your normal work activities.”

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)