Courthouse bomb-sniffing dog is a rare breed

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) – “Find the bomb,” a sheriff’s deputy demands of Nevie, a playful 3-year-old German shepherd who had been enjoying a game of fetch.

Stiffening at the command, Nevie shifts her attention to a knapsack on the courtroom floor. She sniffs the bag, then sits, ears straight up.

With a sense of smell up to 1,000 times greater than a human’s, detection dogs such as Nevie, who recently joined the Lehigh County Sheriff’s Office staff, are in high demand in courthouses across the country. And like Nevie, who was born in Germany, few bomb-sniffing dogs are bred domestically.

That’s a problem, experts warn, that will only get worse as concern grows about potential terrorist attacks on so-called “soft targets” such as concerts, malls and other public places.

“Lehigh County is lucky to have Nevie,” said Cindy Otto, a veterinarian and the founder and director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. “Dogs like her are not available very often.”

There are several reasons why most of the dogs working in U.S. law enforcement come from Eastern Europe: The region has a long history of raising and training protection dogs, and the animals that come from there have traits that set them apart from dogs bred as pets.

For example, Otto noted, a German shepherd bred for work has a different physicality than a show – or pet – dog.

“If you put a dinner plate on a working German shepherd’s back it will balance. If you put it on a show dog’s back it will slide right off,” she said.

Another reason is cost. Even factoring in the price of transporting an animal from overseas, a European working dog is usually less expensive than a domestic dog.

Plus, law enforcement agencies aren’t the only ones clamoring for detection dogs. Hospitals employ canines who can detect diseases in patients and hotels need them to sniff out bed bugs.

Adding to the scarcity are government procurement rules that require agencies to give preference to U.S. breeders. The Transportation Security Administration alone needs more than 1,000 dogs each year to patrol airports.

Combined, these factors mean that domestic breeders can’t produce working dogs fast enough.

She associates her collar and vest with work … When she’s in the courthouse, she’s always on duty.

Nevie lives with her handler, Deputy Sheriff Richard Garner. She know when she’s off duty and when she’s not, he said.

“She associates her collar and vest with work,” Garner said. “When I put them on, her whole demeanor changes. When she’s in the courthouse, she’s always on duty.”

In addition to daily exercises with Garner, Nevie completes 16 hours of specialized training each month.

Nevie responds to German commands. When Garner wants her to release an object from her mouth, he says “aus,” which means “drop it.”

Sheriff Joseph Hanna bought Nevie from Progressive K-9 Academy, which imports and trains law enforcement detection dogs. The county paid $12,500, which was partially offset by a $1,200 grant from the Berks County-based Richard Groff and Meda Kern K-9 Corps Fund.

Hanna said he was especially glad to have Nevie on staff earlier this month, when courthouse employees found a backpack tucked under a bench in the hall. With the Austin, Texas, bombings in the news, nerves were rattled.

“We live in a world where everything has to be checked. If there’s an unattended backpack, you cannot assume it’s benign,” Hanna said. “Before we got Nevie, it’s likely we would have evacuated everyone from the building until we knew it was safe.”

Nevie is trained to sit down if she smells something suspicious in a backpack, such as a chemical used in bomb making.

According to the American Kennel Club, which held a symposium on the detection dog shortage last year, since 1968 at least four government agencies have launched breeding programs in the United States, but each initiative fizzled out due to lack of funding.

At the conference, experts warned that the U.S. reliance on foreign breeders to provide detection dogs is a threat to national security. Sheila Goffe, vice president of the American Kennel Club, echoed those concerns when she testified in October before the U.S. House of Representatives.

“As Americans, we should be concerned that an ever-growing percentage of the dogs that serve on the front lines of protecting the public, our public institutions and our national security are obtained from foreign rather than domestic sources,” Goffe said.

Otto, with the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, testified in 2016 before a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee tasked with solving the detection dog shortage, arguing there are many advantages to increasing our home-grown supply of animals.

While the German shepherd and Belgian malinois are prized breeds in law enforcement, an expanded domestic program would mean other agencies would have greater access to less fierce-looking breeds.

“A German shepherd can be very intimidating, and if you need a dog to work in a building with a lot of people, you may want to choose a Labrador, which most people are more comfortable around,” Otto said.

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We live in a world where everything has to be checked. If there’s an unattended backpack, you cannot assume it’s benign.

– Sherrif Joseph Hanna

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Attempts to train dogs rescued from shelters for detection work have showed limited success. And no matter how reputable a European breeder is, Otto noted, a dog’s early-life experiences may make it unsuitable for certain jobs.

“Like working in a courthouse, for example,” she said. “What if the dog was raised on a farm and had never encountered tile floors, or elevators?”

Luckily, Nevie is perfectly comfortable in the courthouse. She starts her day doing a sweep of the courtrooms in both the old and new courthouses in Allentown, then patrols the courthouse hallways as well as the Lehigh County Government Center down the street.

Nevie is the second dog to join the Lehigh County courthouse staff. In July, District Attorney Jim Martin introduced Ramona, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever trained to calm child victims and nervous witnesses.

Along with explosives detection, Nevie is trained in human scent tracking. When needed, she is loaned out to police departments who don’t have a K-9 unit for search-and-rescue missions.

Chief Deputy Sheriff David Faust said courthouse employees feel safer with Nevie around. Faust is the former chief of the Emmaus Police Department, where he oversaw the K-9 program.

“Any time you see a package or bag that’s been left behind, you have to worry,” he said. “You think, is there a weapon? Is there something in there that’s dangerous? She can check it out pretty quickly.”

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Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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