Ohio sheriff’s new bomb-sniffing dog has day job as DARE sidekick

By Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch

COMMERCIAL POINT, Ohio — The Pickaway County deputy sheriff stood at the front of the fifth-grade classroom to teach a most-important lesson about what happens when you drink too much alcohol, so he adopted his serious, I-mean-business, law-enforcement face.

Until, that is, someone basically Army-crawled to his feet and licked his boots.

Well, not a someone. A dog. And not just any dog, but Deputy Mike, a Belgian Malinois who will turn 2 in November.

Mike stretched his long and lean body as far as he could — he was temporarily tethered to a desk because the kids would be throwing a ball while wearing “drunken-driving” goggles — to try to wrap himself around the legs of Deputy Dale Thomas. As Mike did so, the 25 students in Classroom 318 at Scioto Elementary School dissolved into a chorus of “awwwwwwws” and giggles.

Thomas broke character and laughed. “This guy,” he said about Mike. “Geez.”

For just a moment, the class became a lesson in Cuteness 101.

Although Mike has become quite an ambassador for Thomas, and has turned out to be a great companion and tool in the classroom, this is not his job or primary objective. He is a bomb dog, specifically trained to sniff out explosives. He is the first such dog in Pickaway County, and each of the four school districts in the county, plus Ohio Christian University in Circleville, pitched in $2,000 apiece to help the Pickaway County sheriff’s office obtain Mike and outfit and train him this summer.

Pairing him with Thomas, who has been the county’s DARE officer for 21 years, just made sense, Sheriff Robert Radcliff said.

Bomb threats are (thankfully) rare, Radcliff said. He recalls only four since he became sheriff in 2013. One of those was at the Circleville Wal-Mart; the other three were in the Teays Valley school district, home to Scioto Elementary.

“In these times, especially, you take nothing for granted. It is expected when you have a threat — any threat — you take it seriously and investigate it quickly,” Radcliff said. “A dog can sweep a school or a building or an event quickly and efficiently, and everyone can get back to normal.”

When the sheriff asked Thomas if he would like to have a canine partner, the deputy jumped at the chance.

“No hesitation,” Thomas said. “I try to make the DARE program the funnest part of the kids’ day, and Mike certainly now steals that thunder.” Deputy Mike’s whine when no one pays attention to him is evidence of that.

But on a more serious note, Thomas is in the county schools every day. He knows the layouts, the students, the staffs. If a threat arises, it made sense that he and Mike would be able to find it or discount immediately.

Teays Valley Superintendent Robin Halley said the district’s nonprofit education foundation happily ponied up the district’s $2,000 share.

“The landscape of schools has changed, and security is our first priority,” Halley said. “We already get a high degree of support from our village police departments, but when the sheriff said this dog would help us — in an emergency — not have the kids on lockdown so long and more quickly get back to the business of the school day, we were all for it.”

Before Deputy Mike, Pickaway County had called on the sheriff’s office in neighboring Ross County to bring in a bomb-sniffing dog. Now, Ross County is calling on Pickaway County. Just two weeks ago, after regularly training with the Columbus Bomb Squad, Mike had his first real test: The Ross County sheriff was investigating a bomb threat at a halfway house in the middle of the night and needed a hand. Deputies Thomas and Mike responded. Nothing was found, but you can’t put a price on security, Thomas said.

Each district has welcomed Mike as an addition. Some of the schools where Thomas teaches DARE have made sure that Deputy Mike has a special and comfortable bed in his room. Between classes, Thomas takes Mike outside to run off his energy, fetch a ball, get a drink and, ummmmm, you know.

“He is high energy,” Thomas said. “That’s what makes him so good, his drive.”

Mike is a passively trained dog. Although he can do some passive tracking (such as when a child is lost), he isn’t trained in drug detection or bite-aggression of suspects.

In the summer, when Thomas isn’t in school, Deputy Mike will sweep festivals and special events; he’ll also be at the iconic Circleville Pumpkin Show in October.

“When it’s time for him to work and sniff out trouble, he does great,” Thomas said. “But here in the classroom? Here, he’s just a big help in teaching the kids that officers are their friends.”

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©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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