When Auburn Police Sergeant and K9 program Supervisor James Perry and his canine partner Ikia—an eight-year-old Labrador retriever and German wire-haired pointer crossbred trained in explosives detection—are working, Perry’s thoughts occasionally return to his 2003 Alabama National Guard deployment in Iraq. It was there that he saw firsthand the havoc that IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, could cause, along with how military dogs trained to detect them could help prevent tragedy and make soldiers and civilians safer.
Today, keeping people safe is the mission of both Perry and the other handlers and dogs in the City of Auburn Police Division, or APD, K9 program. It is also the primary goal of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Canine Performance Sciences, or CPS, program, which has led to the two programs forming a close and cooperative relationship. Currently the APD has four dogs specifically bred at CPS for becoming detection dogs or so-called Auburn Dogs—Ikia, Ginger, Underdog and Blair—three of which are trained in explosives/firearms detection and one that alerts on narcotics.
“Auburn’s CPS program breeds dogs specifically for performing detection work and is the longest continuously running institutional detection dog breeding program in the nation,” explained Pamela Haney, manager of CPS performance research and development. “From the time they are 3 days old, our puppies are engaged in age-appropriate protocols to prepare them for detection tasks. By the age of 12 months, the dogs have had several evaluations assessing their potential to be successfully trained as detection canines. We focus on preparing dogs that will be placed with operational explosives detection programs, particularly for the specialty of person-borne explosives detection.
“Some dogs may be retained by the program for detection-related research across a myriad of other target materials, including improvised/homemade explosives, endangered and invasive species ecological detection and biological/restricted hazardous agents,” she continued. “One or two of the highest performing dogs from successful litters are retained for breeding, and other dogs are retained with particular characteristics conducive to needed special detection research, development and other applications.”
With the Auburn Police Division having its own growing K9 program, a close relationship between it and CPS was a natural fit. The first CPS-sourced APD dog, a Belgian Malinois named Dora, began serving in 2004. Through the mid-to-late 2000s, Auburn CPS instructors and dogs supported APD’s security operations for football games with a new person-borne explosive detection capability that eventually evolved into its patented Vapor Wake explosives detection technology. With this person-borne capability, dogs are trained to detect and track the scent of explosives in the aerodynamic wake from moving persons.
The success of those efforts led to ever-greater cooperation between CPS and the Auburn police, culminating in 2014 with another CPS German shepherd named Elvis joining the APD as a tracking dog. Soon after, Blair, a narcotics-detecting Labrador retriever, who is still working with handler Officer Justin Fant at Auburn High School, was added to the force. The APD has had multiple CPS dogs in its K9 group ever since.
Although Dora, Elvis and Blair came to the APD directly from Auburn, other Auburn Dogs have come to APD by way of private canine training services that have trained the dog and APD handler as a team.
“Auburn invests close to $18,000 into the development and training of each dog, which will further advance detection technologies to make the world a safer place,” said Haney. “Although a goal of CPS is to place exceptionally capable and prepared dogs in some of the nation’s most sensitive security operations, the purpose of the program is not as a business to sell dogs. Rather it is to serve as a national resource for performing research, development and innovation to enhance detection canine capabilities.”
In 2015, the APD acquired Ikia, its first CPS-bred Explosives Detection Dog, or EDD. Since then, two more Auburn-bred EDDs have been added, Underdog and Ginger. Sergeant Perry said the APD’s plan going forward is to concentrate on EDDs—which can also detect firearms—when adding future dogs. Ginger was recently donated to the department’s K9 unit by the College of Veterinary Medicine as a replacement for veteran K9 Emily, who was retired earlier this year. Before Emily’s retirement, she served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, helping to protect U.S. troops before working for seven more years with handler Sergeant Bud Nesmith and the APD K9 unit helping keep the Auburn community safe.
Now her role will be taken over by EDD dog Ginger, whose litter was sponsored by a philanthropic gift from Walt and Ginger Woltosz—Auburn Dog Ginger’s namesake—through the “Help Raise a Hero: Support a Litter” initiative. The program is comprised of a philanthropic community of donors who financially support the Canine Performance Sciences breeding program. Ginger mothered several litters of her own before undergoing training to become a police K9.
“Ginger is our first person-borne explosives search dog,” Perry said. “With her being brought in to the program in this capacity, we have started moving in that direction with the program as a whole. We have trained Ikia for person-borne explosives detection and are currently working to train and certify Underdog as well.”
What’s it like working with these incredible canines? In addition to pre-event sweeps and person screening at large events like Auburn sports venues, the dogs work every regular shift just like their police partners. To a man, the handlers sing the dogs’ praises.
“Underdog and I work on a patrol shift, and he is with me anytime I put my uniform on,” said handler Officer Justin Sanders, a six-year APD veteran who joined the K9 program in 2020 with his new partner, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever. “On an average day, we respond to suspicious package complaints, calls for service, assist in locating firearms when needed, respond to bomb threats and assist surrounding agencies if requested. At the end of our 12-hour shift, Underdog comes home with me, and he is my responsibility at all times.
“He has come to be my best friend and he is a very good listener,” Sanders added jokingly. “I enjoy working with him, and I would like to think he enjoys working with me. Even on off days, we hang out together most of the time, whether it be going on walks, to the park or him riding with me while I run errands.”
Perry is similarly attached to his partner, Ikia, but her unusual breed mix often raises eyebrows.
“People are always asking what kind of dog she is, or I’ll overhear them saying things like that’s a ‘labradoodle police dog,’” he said. “That always leads to a conversation about her breed. I usually start by joking that she is a giant schnauzer.
“Then the conversation goes into explaining the cross-breeding process and that she was bred by Auburn University specifically for explosives detection work. People generally are amazed to hear about the program and find it very interesting that Auburn is involved in that kind of research. They usually follow up by asking her name, and of course then they want to know if her name is the same as the store. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘she came with all of her nuts and bolts, but no directions.’”
But actually, the dogs do come with a long list of preprogrammed directions from their extensive training while at CPS.
“Superior detection dogs are rare,” Haney said. “CPS breeds and develops canines to possess specific traits. They must have a high reward value and be willing to search for long periods. CPS dogs must also have high hunt instincts, with their noses always stimulating them to investigate. They need high trainability, which gives them the ability to learn new tasks quickly. They must be highly motivated, not easily discouraged, attentive and able to work in any environment. And most importantly, the dogs must be medically sound.”
To achieve this, CPS follows state-of-the-art theriogenology practices, incorporating genetic and genomic concepts to influence breeding selection and enhance puppy development. These practices ensure CPS is making genetic progress. CPS puppies attend the program’s 11-month puppy school, where they are socialized, acclimated to being comfortable working in all types of places and learn the game of alerting to an odor to receive a reward.
Dogs undergo constant evaluations to tailor their development and training programs for their future work placement, giving them the greatest chance to succeed. The agency or private detection canine services companies that purchase the dogs from CPS then provide further training in specific targets before each dog begins its working career in law enforcement, security or other detection applications.
Even after the dogs become working canines, training for both dogs and handlers never stops according to Officer Jason Bryan, a New Jersey native who joined the APD in 2018 after transferring from Rutgers to Auburn, where he lettered three years in track and field. He is partnered with Ginger, the four-year-old Labrador retriever recently donated to the police department by the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Training to become a K9 handler is very hands-on,” Bryan said. “To become a basic EDD handler takes a four-week course. Then Ginger and I had additional training in order to become a Kinetic EDD Team, which means we can search persons in a crowd.
“Once trained, we had to pass a certification test through the United Police Working Dog Association, which involved searching vehicles, rooms, boxes, open areas and people. We had to find all of the training aids with no false indications. After certification, the department requires a minimum of 16 hours training every month for each K9 team, and every year Ginger and I will have to recertify to continue working together.”
A tremendous amount of work, training and love goes into making an Auburn Dog one of the finest detection dogs in the world, from the time it is born into a litter at CPS until it is retired to a life of leisure, usually between the ages of 8 and 10 years. During that time, each dog will work intimately with a human handler, putting in the same number of long hours and taking similar risks to keep people safe. It is a tough, sometimes thankless job, but nothing else—man or machine—does it better.
“The CPS program,” noted Haney, “provides a unique platform in the college for educating veterinary students, breeders, trainers and the public about canine reproduction, puppy development, detection training and, ultimately, protecting the public around the globe through the development of some of the world’s most highly regarded detection dogs. We like to say we are proud to be an essential part of keeping man’s best friend, as man’s best defense.”
For Perry, the feeling is similar, but even more personal. He remains in awe of the dogs’ abilities even after many years spent working with them.
“These dogs are simply amazing,” he concluded. “Their detection abilities far outweigh where all other technologies are today. I genuinely believe we can protect our community and visitors to Auburn and Auburn University in ways that could not be done without these dogs. And they are so much more than simple tools to their handlers. They are police officers, they are friends and they are family.”
(Written by Mike Jernigan)