K-9 hits the ’doggie lotto’ at South Side schools

Skunk, a mixed-breed dog rescued from a shelter in New Orleans, is now a drug-detection dog for the South Side Area School District.

GREENE TWP. – He’s only been in the district about two weeks but already is becoming the most popular guy on campus in the South Side Area School District.

“He’s cute,” said one girl as she stepped off a bus.

A few students won his affection with treats eagerly accepted.

Alan Fritz, district superintendent, called him a “lucky dog.”

And doesn’t Skunk know it.

The nearly 2-year-old mixed breed had a rough start in life, abandoned as a puppy and found wandering the streets of New Orleans before taken to a shelter.

Skunk hit the dog lottery, Fritz said, when selected for training as a drug-detection dog thanks to a nonprofit organization in New York that rescues and re-homes animals in partnership with a training facility in Texas.

Drugs haven’t been an overwhelming problem in the small, rural district — enrollment is approximately 1,000 students — but officials want to make sure it stays that way.

Bob Kavals said he’s seen only two incidents involving illegal substances – one, marijuana; the other, a vape pen containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana – since being hired in August 2016 as the district’s chief safety officer.

“Even though it is not a problem, we don’t want it to become a problem,” he said. “We want everybody — students and parents – to know we are doing everything we possibly can to make this the safest school in Beaver County, if not the commonwealth.”

Having Skunk on duty as the district’s K-9 narcotics officer will go a long way to make that happen.

‘A good help’

It’s obvious how Skunk got his name. The 57-pound dog’s black coat is marked by a blaze of white that starts on his forehead, snakes between his eyes, around the right side of his muzzle and down his chest.

His thick, black collar is imprinted with “POLICE K-9” in yellow. He also sports a dapper bow tie.

Last week before school buses began arriving at 7:30 a.m., Skunk sat on a crosswalk island beside handler Jim Lewis, a school resource officer the past four years since he retired from Hopewell Township Police Department with 36 years of service.

Skunk wasn’t sniffing for drugs this day. He was being introduced to students and staff before his official swearing-in ceremony March 11 at the district’s board meeting.

“I’ve seen him before, but I never really stopped to pet him,” said Sydney Payne, a senior at South Side. “I think it’s great,” she said, to have Skunk on campus, as he will “make sure to keep us a lot safer.”

Seth Robertson, a junior, and his sister, Melissa Robertson, a sixth-grader, paused to greet Skunk before entering the school.

“I think he’s a good help and very protective, plus he’s just nice to look at and pet,” Seth said. “I’ve seen him around the school and out here in the mornings sometimes, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to walk up to him and pet him.”

Autumn Gielarowski, a senior, called the district’s decision to acquire Skunk “smart” and said she feels safer having him around.

“And he’s adorable. He came in the end of last week, but I love seeing him every day. It makes your day better getting to see a dog first thing in the morning for school.”

Elementary pupils, especially, are excited to meet Skunk.

“The little kids lose their mind,” Fritz said. “The other thing that happens is nobody talks to Jim. They just talk to the dog.”

Aubrey Papsan, a fourth-grader, offered Skunk a treat.

“He’s kinda like a school pet,” she said.

First-grader Josh Stewart called Skunk “calm” as he stroked the dog’s back.

“They all love him,” Kavals said.

And that’s the purpose of these initial meet-and-greets.

Skunk’s not trained to be mean or aggressive.

“He has such a good temperament,” Fritz said, one of the reasons he was selected by Animal Farm Foundation for its Detection Dog Grant Program.

Since the mid-1980s, the nonprofit in Dutchess County, N.Y., has been rescuing shelter dogs and funding their training to work with police departments or school resource officers to detect narcotics, weapons or explosives.

AFF also trains shelter dogs to be service dogs for people with disabilities – hearing, mobility and psychiatric, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We are an advocacy group for dogs that are labeled pit bulls in shelters, and we try to end discrimination for those dogs and for their owners,” said Erich Steffensen, AFF’s special programs manager.

“There is no actual breed pit bull,” he said, but people are “labeling them by looks, and we don’t want to equate behavior to somebody guessing what a dog is.”

AFF does not DNA-test shelter dogs.

“We don’t know what they are,” he said, but emphasized that like people, dogs are individuals and shouldn’t be stereotyped.

But the foundation likes to showcase shelter dogs as “able to do the same work as a purpose-bred dog,” Steffensen said.

Originally, Skunk was destined to be a service dog.

During an evaluation, however, staff noticed Skunk’s detection abilities.

“He kinda just started sniffing around everywhere — sniffing and sniffing – and ended up looking up at a shelf and staring at a backpack. Our director was like, ‘What’s going on?’ She had her lunch in there — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or something. He was very food motivated and knew there was a sandwich in there and just stared at it,” Steffensen said.

That’s when Skunk was repurposed for drug-detection work.

“He was great at it. He loves it,” Steffensen said.

Skunk was fostered at Steffensen’s home for a few months before going to Sector K9’s training facility headquartered in Midlothian, Texas.

“I really wanted to keep him, but figured he’s too good of a dog for possibly doing an important job. It’s exciting to see him get placed as a police officer. It’s really cool,” he said. “It’s not only good for the dog, but good for the whole community.”

Typically, training a detection dog takes eight weeks and costs from $10,000 to $20,000, according to AFF. But because of grants, dogs are provided free to police departments and schools.

The only costs to South Side were transportation, lodging and meals for the two weeks Lewis was in Texas to participate in Skunk’s training at Sector K9, said Kavals.

Sector K9 works with animal shelters across the country to find dogs willing and focused. He trained six weeks in Texas before paired with Lewis for the final two. Those 14 days, the duo worked from 9 a.m. to about 8 at night, and then Skunk would retire with Lewis to his hotel room.

“He jumped up in bed and slept right next to me,” Lewis said.

Skunk is trained to detect cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine in classrooms, lockers, gymnasium bleachers and vehicles.

His motivation is reward based – treats, said Kavals.

When Skunk finds drugs, “he freezes like a pointer dog, pins his ears back and completely freezes, yet you can see him look from the corners of his eyes waiting for a treat to drop.”

Wes Keeling, a Sector K9 trainer, told Kavals Skunk is so driven “he will go until he finds it (drugs) or passes out. He said he’s never seen a dog that driven before.”

But when not commanded to search, “he’s so docile,” said Kavals.

Lewis said he’s only heard Skunk bark once and that was at “something random” – a guy with an object he’d never seen before — an infant car seat.

‘Good boy’

Though no drugs are hidden in a South Side conference room, Lewis demonstrates Skunk’s search skills.

“Skunk, sit,” he says, holding the dog’s leash.

Skunk obediently sits, awaiting his next command.

“Find it. Find it,” Lewis says.

Skunk sniffs along a baseboard, and then stands on hind legs, his nose pressed against a chalkboard rail.

“Check here,” Lewis says, pointing to a corner.

“Right now, his nose is kicked into overdrive,” Kavals said. “He just won’t find anything, but he has to learn that he’s not going to find something every day.”

A dog’s olfactory center is 200 to 300 times bigger than a human’s, Lewis said.

“I’ll give you a for instance. We smell bread when it’s baking. They smell every ingredient in the bread.”

Lewis continues to lead Skunk on his search.

“Check here. Check here,” he says, directing the eager dog to sniff chairs and boxes piled on a table.

“Good boy. Good boy,” he praises after circling the room.

But Skunk doesn’t get a treat this time.

“I can’t reward him on a false alert,” Lewis says.

‘This is awesome’

Kavals learned about AFF and Sector K9 through friend and police colleague Brian Cunningham, a deputy with Hancock County Sheriff’s Department in West Virginia.

Last summer, Cunningham attended an annual conference of National Association of School Resource Officers and told Kavals schools could apply to receive a K-9 officer and training for its handler for free.

“I was like ‘no way,’” Kavals said.

He researched the program; discussed it with school administrators; and asked Lewis if he’d be interested in being a K-9 handler.

It didn’t take much to convince Lewis, who said he loves dogs and has had one “from when I was a kid.”

The district applied and by December received approval.

“This is awesome — a great addition and it’s free,” Fritz said.

While Skunk’s main purpose is to deter anyone from bringing narcotics on campus, Kavals has seen a “nice, additional benefit with him because of his temperament.”

One student, Kavals said, is “pretty much nonverbal. He came to my office four times (on Skunk’s) first day and would just peek in and go, ‘Dog here?’ All he wanted to do was walk over and stroke him one time. He walked away smiling. That’s the kind of affection he’s bringing to kids.”

Skunk is an ice-breaker, too, helping students interact with school resource officers to see that “we are there for them,” Kavals said.

Prior to Skunk’s presence, Kavals, assisted by K-9 officers from Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, would conduct narcotic sweeps in the school about five times a year, he said.

“Now, the administration would be able to say ‘Hey, I have 10 minutes. Let’s go check the high school locker room. Students will never know when that will take place,” said Kavals. “Nobody except my staff and administration will know when that will take place. Even teachers don’t know that. Now, we have the same ability to do it (sweeps) every single day.”

He emphasized the district’s primary goal is to deter the presence of drugs.

“Our No. 1, absolute goal is for this to be a drug-free campus. Obviously, we don’t want our kids ever to do drugs, but we certainly don’t want them bringing it into school.”

‘Doggie lotto’

When Skunk’s workday ends, he goes home with Lewis and becomes a “house dog” and plays with Harper, Lewis’ Saint Bernard. She and Skunk “get along like brother and sister,” he said.

“He sleeps on the couch just like a regular dog,” Lewis said.

Skunk likely will work as a drug-detection dog about four or five years.

“They usually retire when they’re 6 or 7 years old,” Lewis said.

As if on cue, Skunk hopped up and curled into a conference room chair.

“He’s not being overworked, though,” Kavals said, looking at the dog settling in for a nap.

“It’s almost as though Skunk knows he got a second chance,” Kavals said. “Talk about hitting the doggie lotto. He went from living in a shelter to a school district where every kid wants to run over and feel love.”