Leo already making his mark
By MAKAYLA TENDALL
If you’re hiding drugs in your car and aren’t cooperating with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, here’s some advice — stay calm or keep your eyes at waist level and watch for an angry German shepherd.
K-9 Leo joined forces with the sheriff’s office in January, and has since discovered 13 pounds of marijuana his handler, Chief Deputy Jack Williams, said they would not have found without Leo’s help.
Leo is taking over for retired K-9 Ranger, a black lab who in his entire career discovered 15 pounds of marijuana, several ounces of meth, cocaine and some heroin.
Both Ranger and Leo are able to detect marijuana, heroin, all forms of cocaine and methamphetamines and its derivatives — drugs like ecstasy that have a meth base.
Two weeks into his job, the new four-legged deputy was able to detect marijuana hidden in the sink trap of a bathroom sink at Sparky’s.
Leo is also trained in tracking, meaning his heightened sense of smell can help track down a child who ran away from home or a suspect who ran from law enforcement.
Once his nose leads him to the person he’s meant to track, Leo is trained to use his mouth to hold an arm or leg — not bite, unless the person is struggling — until an officer on the scene gives him the command to let go.
While it may be difficult to believe the German shepherd is anything more than a lover of bones, belly scratches and tennis balls, Williams warned that Leo is not a pet, even though he lives with Williams’ family.
The sheriff’s office chose a German shepherd over another lab because “they want to be top dog,” Williams said.
One of Leo’s most important assets is his intimidation factor he uses to keep officers safe. He’s trained to recognize his handler’s uniform and that of other officers so if someone is acting aggressively toward an officer, Leo is ready to respond.
“If they hear the dog barking, they’re done. They don’t want any part of getting bit by the dog,” Williams said. “We had a guy with a knife last week, and he gave up when we were 75 yards away because the dog’s there, instead of us having to approach him and possibly get stabbed or have to shoot him because he has a knife.”
I experienced firsthand how Leo’s wagging tail and bright eyes hide the intimidating, trained professional after volunteering to get attacked by the beast.
I watched as Dave Kersey, a deputy who does a lot of bite work with Leo, laced his forearm with the protective covering in Kelso Park and taunted Leo the way an aggressor would. It wasn’t until Leo raced across the grass, latched onto Kersey’s arm and all four paws caught air while Kersey swung him in a circle that I realized Leo’s bark is just as bad as his bite.
Kersey also played the part of the aggressor while he pushed the uniformed Williams to the ground, triggering Leo’s instincts to protect his handler. Leo brings the “man’s best friend” label to life, literally using his whole body to protect a uniformed officer.
“If you want to fight with the police, you’re going to have to deal with the repercussions,” Williams said. “Most of the time, it’s just puncture wounds because it’s more of a deep bite. If they continue to fight, the injury will be worse.”
Though I knew Leo was trained to bite with his back teeth instead of the sharp canines, I didn’t want to fight.
Kersey suited me up in the thick red training jacket that weighed what seemed like 10 pounds — long sleeves covering my weak journalist’s fingers from Leo’s teeth.
Leo recognized the jacket and was barking immediately.
Williams gave Leo the cue and let go of the leash.
It took not more than two seconds before Leo was ripping my arm to the side, feet stamping and all of his furry body focused on dragging me down.
The jacket was thick, but I could still feel the faint impressions of his teeth in my arm while I fought to stay on my feet.
Leo clearly has a deep respect for Williams, immediately releasing me when given the command. He trotted back to Williams with his tongue out, the end curling toward me and eyes bright as if he was taunting me.
“He’s never shown any aggression toward somebody without me telling him to do so. He knows when it’s work time and when it’s not,” Williams said.
How they’re trained
That training is due to a good handler/canine relationship and training received by Dennis George at his Des Moines-based company, Midwest K-9, that trains police and narcotic detection dogs.
George worked as a handler and trainer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for 20 years before opening Midwest K-9. George said the goal for his company is to “keep quality dogs for a cheap price.”
“The biggest thing I was noticing was there were a lot of departments that would like to have dogs but can’t afford it,” George said.
George said departments are improved with the use of a dog, whether it be for protection and intimidation or simply for the enhanced senses that allow the department to take more narcotics out of circulation in a community.
“There’s a drug problem everywhere, I don’t care where you go,” George said.
A dog with good tracking abilities will be able to track down a suspect on the run or a child who ran away from home.
The dogs also add a public face to a department, which allows the community to easily interact with law enforcement in positive ways, George said.
George gets the majority of single-purpose dogs — dogs used for tracking and narcotic detection only — from the Animal Rescue League, which allows him to keep the price of the dogs affordable for law enforcement.
Dual-purpose dogs, such as Leo, who came from Czechoslovakia, are bred overseas to be work dogs.
George said he often sells dual-purpose dogs at a lower-than-normal price as well to make sure departments can purchase them.
“They have to have the drive,” George said about a dog’s potential. “They have to have that desire to want a ball, and it’s not just, ‘I’ve got the ball.’ You’ll see the attitude of the dog is like, ‘Oh my God, I have to have this.’ ”
George said many of the dogs he adopts would most likely never find homes because they’re just too high energy to be kept busy in a regular home.
“These dogs were born to work.”
For the first two weeks, George uses odor towels to train the dogs on narcotics detection. He takes the towels to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and lets the towels absorb the odor of narcotics in sealed containers.
George then hides the towels in a training building filled with school lockers, an oven, filing cabinets, desks, dressers, car seats and many more props that a dog may need to search for narcotics with a law enforcement agency in the future.
George said a cluttered space teaches the dogs not to fear crawling through small spaces to search for narcotics.
Once the excited dog finds the odor towel, it uses passive alert by sitting and signaling that they have pinpointed the smell. Once on a force, a dog will be able to alert officers to the smell of narcotics or the location where narcotics have recently been stored, George said.
The second two weeks are devoted to another trainer who specializes in tracking, and dual-purpose dogs have an additional week of training to learn handler protection with another specialized trainer.
Dogs and handlers also endure an initial training process to acclimate them as a working team. George also allows handlers to bring dogs back for free maintenance training on a yearly basis.
“It’s up to the handler to decide how good they’re going to be as a team. Once a dog’s trained, it isn’t over. It’s just getting started. Jack has proven with his first dog that he is a good handler,” George said of Williams.
Though both Williams and George stressed that the canines are not pets, George said it’s difficult not to bond with the dogs he trains.
“You learn to kind of put up a wall, but you don’t really get it all the way up,” George said of Leo and the dogs he trains. “Everybody loves dogs.”
Except those who are unlucky enough to hear Leo’s bark.
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