● Published by J. Chambless
Deputy Michael Sarro and Dexter, a Belgian Malinois. The high-energy dog is certified in narcotics detection, patrol, tracking and apprehension. The partners also serve on the Chester County Seriff’s Office Fugitive Apprehension Unit. (Photo by Jie Deng)
Gallery: K-9 officers in West Chester [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Natalie Smith
There’s no doubt in Lt. Harry
McKinney’s mind that dogs have their own personalities. It’s his
business to know, and Chester County is safer for it.
And as head of the Chester County
Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, McKinney knows how crucial it is for the
handler and dog to understand and bond with one another. As
supervisor of the Sheriff’s K-9 Academy, he helps train the
partners to do their jobs.
“We’ll have the handlers take the dog home, even two or three weeks
before the Academy,” McKinney said. “Once you start feeding the
dog, giving the dog water and walking the dog, you start developing a
relationship with that dog — a bonding relationship. You need that
bonding relationship before you go right into training. Our unit all
take the dogs home. When they get a partner, that’s their partner.”
The canines and their handlers – all sheriff’s deputies – spend
400 hours primarily on obedience, patrol work, and detecting
explosives, narcotics and fire accelerants via scent.
The K-9 unit currently has seven German shepherds, two English
Labradors and one Belgian Malinois. “We work with three or four
companies that sell dogs,” McKinney said. Many import their animals
from overseas. These young dogs can know basic commands. “They’re
usually trained in the language [from the country they] came from. If
it was a German dog, most are trained in German. If it’s a Czech dog,
it could be trained in Czech,” McKinney said.
“We started with all shepherds. Every dog has a unique sense of
working. We try to get the best dog and have it trained in more than
one thing. We have four bomb dogs — four shepherds — and all four
are trained in patrol. They track, they look for bad people, lost
children or evidence.”
The lieutenant personally handles three dogs — two German shepherds
and a Labrador. The German-born shepherds – Afra, a bomb dog; and
Jessie, a narcotics dog – also work on patrol and article searches.
He’s the primary handler of a black Lab, Melody, who is a comfort
dog. A friendly and relaxed animal, her purpose is to calm those who
might need reassuring, particularly children.
Melody, lolling at McKinney’s feet during an interview, responds to
English. “That’s as excited as she gets,” he said, smiling.
“They play with her or they pet her belly. She’s trained to
comfort, to touch, to lie next to someone.”
The Lab was found in Morristown, N.J., where she was working as a
certified Seeing Eye dog. But a propensity for stealing food off
plates made her inappropriate for that work and eligible for
“They knew we were looking for a comfort dog,” McKinney said. “We
got a call and spent the whole day with her. I brought her home, a
week before Christmas. The Crime Victims Center called and said it
was an emergency. We took her there before she was trained, and the
child started talking.”
The K-9 unit itself started in 2006, in the wake a bomb threat at the
Justice Center in West Chester that had the complex shut down for the
day. Officers had to wait for an outside sniffer dog to arrive.
Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh then had the idea of her office
acquiring its own bomb dogs.
The unit started with two. They were initially trained at an academy
in Ohio, McKinney said, “with a specialized trainer coming in every
month [to West Chester] to keep their abilities up to federal
standards.” As the unit grew, McKinney and now-retired Lt. John
Freas eventually took on the responsibility of becoming trainers,
McKinney in due course continuing to the level of master trainer. The
two lieutenants were certified to do the in-service training
In 2015, Sgt. Paul Bryant, a retired cadaver canine handler with the
Philadelphia Police Department, joined the Sheriff’s Office. With
his 33 years of experience, “He took our unit to a whole different
level,” McKinney said. “He accelerated us here in Pennsylvania.”
Incorporating Bryant’s expertise in the mix, a year later, they
established the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Academy,
allowing them to fully train their dogs and others.
Bryant’s proficiency with his dog, Don, has been recognized
nationally. “In 2017, Don was named No. 1 cadaver dog in the
nation” by the United States Police Canine Association, McKinney
“Techniques may vary a little bit,” McKinney said, in comparing
the Sheriff’s K-9 Academy to others, “but the common goal is
ultimately to find the bad guy, the narcotic or the bomb.”
Training is done at various sites around the county, including parks
and the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus in South
Coatesville. The K-9 Academy has trained dogs from outside the
department, including for SEPTA and Ridley Police Department. “We’ve
been approached by Lincoln University,” McKinney said. “They have
a dog that’s getting ready to retire.”
In choosing dogs, they are looking those with a “strong
play-drive,” McKinney said, because their canines are rewarded with
the handler playing with them with a favorite toy. The dogs are kept
excited and the search is a game for them.
“We don’t reward with food,” McKinney said. “Our philosophy
is: You get up in the morning, you feed your dog. You go home at
night, you feed your dog. It’s not a reward, it’s time for them to
eat.” He said the meals of most food-rewarded dogs may be divvied
up over the course of a day, so the dog doesn’t overeat. There’s
also the bonding aspect.
“If I’m playing with the dog and rewarding the dog, I’m the
only one that’s going to reward the dog,” McKinney said. If someone
else feeds the dog over the weekend, perhaps, the food loses its
McKinney said it’s vital to keep the dog “playing” to maintain
“We always have a ‘hot spot’ in anything we do — whether we’re
looking for bombs, drugs or a cadaver … if the dog works two or
three days and doesn’t find anything, sooner or later he’ll lose
interest. If we played every day and there was no reward, you
wouldn’t want to play again.”
A “hot spot,” McKinney explained, is the deliberate planting of a
pseudo searched-for object.
McKinney said officers were recently called to a convenience store
for a bomb threat. “We searched for a couple hours and didn’t find
anything. But there was an area that we deemed was clean. Then we set
up a ‘hot spot’ that was monitored by an officer all day. So,
when the dogs went in and searched for 30 to 40 minutes, you could
let the dogs come out to the hot spot, find something, reward the
dog, play with the dog and the dog is ready to go again.”
Of course, they don’t plant bombs. The object could be a can of
smokeless powder, McKinney said.
Bomb dogs are trained to detect 33 odors. “With those 33
substances, someone can make a combination of 10,000 bombs,”
McKinney said. “If there was a bomb built, it had to use something
from that list of 33. Same with a drug dog. They’re trained in the
odors of nine drugs. And the dog’s not looking for a bomb. He’s
looking for his toy. He’s looking for the smell, and when he finds it
and sits, he’s going to get his toy.”
The Sheriff’s K-9 Academy dogs are trained in the passive manner,
meaning when they’ll alert their handlers that they recognize a
scent by sitting down. An aggressive manner would have the dogs
scratching and chewing at the detected scent.
McKinney said he has “been with the sheriff’s office 32 years. I’ve
probably learned every aspect of the sheriff’s office. From the first
day of coming in, I’ve worked through every division in the office.”
His becoming a canine handler and trainer came naturally to the
lieutenant. Growing up on a farm near West Grove, “I always loved
animals. Have always loved dogs,” he said.
With a handler opening his or her home to a canine partner, it’s
important that they get along with the handler’s family, including
other pets. It’s imperative that the canines know that while the
handler is the boss, they are the “top dog.”
“Our dogs need to know they’re alpha,” McKinney said. “They can
do whatever they want as long as they listen to me and do what I tell
them to do.”
These Academy graduates are socialized, however. “Our dogs are very
good with kids and very good with people.” said McKinney, who has
nine grandchildren. “I watch them playing with the kids out in the
yard, and then I use them the next day for patrol work.”
The dogs are brought to about 100 calls every year in Chester
County’s 67 municipalities, McKinney said. “Everything from
missing persons, to running traffic stops, to bomb searches, to
narcotic searches.” He noted that after the Nov. 16 fire at Barclay
Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester, the cadaver dog
worked the property grounds for a week.
McKinney said his training experience, besides making him more
patient, has made him a perceptive observer of canine behavior.
“When you get this close to a dog, they actually can talk to you,”
he said. “When you learn your dog, they have a different approach
when they want to go out, want a drink. They can really communicate.”
He feels it’s true with one dog in particular.
Despite her years with the unit, McKinney’s first dog, the
patrol/bomb dog Afra, with whom he started working in 2009, isn’t
quite ready to retire. “They let you know,” McKinney said. “She
turns 11 in November. I’m hoping to get one more year out of her.
She’s got a heart like a lion. She hasn’t lost a step … but one
day she’ll look up at me and let me know, ‘I’m kind of tired
today.’ Then I’ll know.”
More information about the Chester
County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit and K-9 Academy is available at
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia.com