Keeping region safe with four paws, a nose and a badge

You can find them anywhere in the Northern Neck.

In Westmoreland County, you’ll see one trotting beside her companion as she puts her sniffer to work on school lockers and car doors.

Take a trip down to Lancaster County, and they can be found in the training yard alongside their Northumberland teammates, brushing their noses past a wooden wall to track down an ‘illegal substance’ and sinking their teeth into bite suits worn by dedicated handlers pretending to be criminals.

And for the first time in history, some of them now live with deputies in Richmond County, assisting in locating missing persons and illegal narcotics.

These law enforcers are dogs, and together with their human partners, the four counties’ K9 Units patrol the region to hammer home the message that there is no place for crime in the Northern Neck.

But in order to stay in operation, they must rely on the kindness and generosity of grateful locals, who provide the sheriff’s offices with essential donations.

While each unit has a slightly different story to share, for every one of them, a strong relationship between dog and handler is key to its success.

RICHMOND COUNTY

Vernon Baylor and Butters are proud to represent Richmond County’s K9 unit.

For Sheriff Douglas Bryant, the venture is new territory.

After beginning discussions about starting up a K9 unit in May 2012, Bryant and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office welcomed its first handler to the team: Vernon Baylor, an experienced K9 instructor who had retired from the Department of Corrections.

Baylor’s former employer took interest in Bryant’s initiative and, after helping Vaylor attain the necessary certification, supplied the county with Butters, a Bloodhound trained to track down missing people.

Bryant then spoke to the board of supervisors, the Rotary and Ruritans to enlist their support for the K9 program.

According to Bryant, all three groups sent donations to get the program up and running.

In addition, Lowe’s Home Improvement in Tappahannock donated a dog kennel to the sheriff’s office for Butters.

“I’m very thankful for the community support that we’ve received from the civic organizations,” said Bryant. “We’ve just been blessed.”

For Bryant, the unit enhances the community and is crucial to the county’s police efforts.

He said Butters’ tracking abilities allows the sheriff’s office to locate missing children and elderly persons much faster while not instilling fear in the public.

“We wanted dogs that people didn’t have to be afraid of,” said Bryant, adding that Butters’ training has conditioned her to find individuals, not attack them.

He plans to form an “excellent K9 team for this locality” by pairing Baylor and Butters with Dan Kurdziel, who aims to complete his K9 narcotics detection class June 7.

”The handler and the dog are to form a bond, and they have to get along good together,” said Bryant. “The handler needs to be able to read the dog, and then the dog needs to be able to understand and read the handler.”

To reinforce the relationship between canine and deputy, Bryant said that each handler is tasked with taking the dogs home and caring for them as their own.

But as they are strictly work dogs, Bryant said, the deputies are expected to keep them in kennels at their houses.

With the K9 unit in operation and Kurdziel nearing certification for narcotics detection, Bryant said he aims not only to protect Richmond County, but to help other jurisdictions as much as they can.

He also vowed to reciprocate the assistance he received from the Department of Corrections in getting the program off the ground.

“We’ve told them that anything we can do to help them in return for their assistance, we’d be glad to do it,” said Bryant. “If they need a dog or anything, all they got to do is call and we’ll be glad to help them.”

For more information, or to make a donation, contact the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office at 804-333-3611.

LANCASTER COUNTY

The Lancaster County K9 Unit. From left to right: EOD canine Lakota, Deputy Kevin Dawson, Master Deputy Shawn Hogge, Patrol/Narcotics canine Bruno, Deputy Tommy Evans and Tracking canine Sadie.

Master Deputy Shawn Hogge didn’t mince words when discussing his commitment to the Lancaster K9 Unit and his partner Bruno, an energetic Belgian Malamois tasked with patrol and drug detection.

“To get into it, you’ve got to want to do it. It takes a lot of time,” said Hogge. “The relationship between you and your dog, they’re like another one of your children.”

Having gotten Bruno from North Carolina, Hogge and his multi-purpose canine are trained in tracking individuals, performing building searches, detecting narcotics and apprehending suspects who attempt to run.

Working with Hogge and Bruno on the K9 unit are Deputy Tommy Evans with his tracking canine Sadie and Deputy Kevin Dawson, whose Belgian Malamois, Lakota, is trained in sniffing out explosives.

Hogge said the dogs’ ability to locate narcotics was “astounding,” adding they were crucial in both cutting the officers’ working time in half and keeping them safe.

“It’s just stuff we [humans] can’t do,” said Hogge. When you smell vegetable soup, you know you smell vegetable soup.

“But when the dog smells it, he doesn’t smell vegetable soup,” Hogge continued. “He smells the carrots, the beans, the broth and every little thing that goes into it. He can actually separate the ingredients.”

Hogge said that whenever the unit performed a ‘sniff’ in the schools, the dogs could quickly trace the odors of any narcotics back to a specific locker where they were kept.

On the other hand, it would have taken the officers one to two hours to individually search each locker, Hogge added.

Hogge shared that he and Bruno had made significant drug finds together in the schools, as well as through traffic stops and search warrants.

“Every time you use a dog, you’re amazed,” he said. “You go in, you’re nervous and you say, ‘All right, this is it.’ And when he does it, it’s just awesome.”

In describing a relationship that he said was “like having a “two-year-old kid,” Hogge shared that whether it was on the job or at home, he and Bruno were virtually inseparable.

“You spend ten hours a day with the dog, you and him in the car,” said Hogge. “Outside of work, it’s the cleaning, feeding and the training. You spend time a lot more time with your dog in most cases than you do with your family.”

He also shared that socializing was definitely not Bruno’s number-one priority.

“He doesn’t pay attention to people unless they come up to them,” said Hogge. “[He’s] not about that at all. He’s aggressive.”

But even if Hogge and his dog aren’t playful together, their bond allows Bruno to loyally follow his handler’s commands.

“If [we are] doing a track, I take him out of the passenger side of the car, I put his harness on [and] he knows what’s getting ready to happen,” said Hogge.

But if he wanted to let Bruno know they were on the hunt for drugs, he would bring him out of the driver’s side and put a chain on him.

“When you give him a command and he starts working, he’s working,” said Hogge.

In order to hone the dogs’ skills, the K9 unit utilizes a 100-by-70-yard training ground that was made possible by contributions from the community.

Hogge said that Sheriff Ronald Crockett’s willingness to let him take donations has enabled the unit to add two dogs to the force.

Hogge called the K9 force a “tremendous asset that people don’t realize.”

“As far as narcotics, it’s something that nobody is ever going to get rid of,” said Hogge.

“To have dog as far as narcotics is just tremendous because of what they can do and how fast they can find it,” he added. “A dog takes on the presence of ten police officers.”

For more information, or to make a donation, contact the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office at 804-462-5111.

NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY 

Moon with Patrol/Narcotics canine Syrus.

Master Trainer Austin Moon lets his background speak for himself.

A Military Working Dog Handler in the U.S. Army from 1999 to 2003, Moon currently serves as the Director of K9 Operations for Tripwire Ops, teaching classes on homemade explosives and bomb-detecting canines.

He also lends his expertise to the Northumberland County Sheriff’s Office, conducting patrols and traffic stops with his dual-purpose canine, Syrus while responding to local bomb threats with his explosives expert Gabby.

Having brought Syrus with him from his previous post in Middlesex County and being the one to train Gabby to detect explosives, Moon shared that he was very close to his partners.

“They’re just like one of my kids,” Moon said of Syrus and Gabby.

While the differences in his two canine companions are pronounced, Moon valued both of their skill sets as essential tools for protecting both the county and the region.

At 65 pounds, the 7-year-old Syrus packs a punch when tackling suspects after he chases them down at over 30 miles per hour.

“If I get into a situation, I can give him one command and he’ll light up and be very attentive to what’s going on in the area,” Moon said while adding at that point, it wasn’t a good idea to be near Syrus.

“But there are other times where I can just be very relaxed with him, and he would be fine around people,” said Moon. “He’s very good where you can turn him off and on.”

Aside from his physical prowess, Syrus’ senses help him to quickly locate persons of interest by sweeping the ground for their scent. His detection of narcotics has also played a pivotal role in investigations.

“We’ve had cases where we’ve done traffic stops [and] we’ve gotten crack cocaine…just from a canine sniff,” said Moon. “Any other time, I wouldn’t have a reason to be able to get into the car.”

Moon noted that a canine sniff was not the same as a search, as it simply revealed the presence or absence of the odor of narcotics.

“The dog gives you probable cause, because [it] can’t tell whether you’re white, black, red, yellow or green,” said Moon. “The dog is just doing its job as to whether the odor is there or not.

“Narcotics crimes are usually related to other violent crimes, so you really hit the drug dealers…where it hurts them as far as their assets,” Moon added.

On the other hand of the spectrum, Moon’s affectionate black Belgian Malamois, Gabby, sometimes finds herself immersed in an environment with children as she sniffs out schools and vehicles for bombs.

“The explosive dog is a very important tool,” Moon said.  “You can be waiting five hours [for state police to send a bomb dog] or you can have one trained up and ready to go to respond to anything, whether it be a package or any type of armed threat situation.”

Moon noted a situation where he was called to Lancaster Primary School to search for an alleged gunman in the building.

“I was able to clear the building with a dog in a lot more timely fashion than it would be to have a SWAT team stack up and clear the building by themselves,” he said.

But the situation also reminded him of the grim reality that canines face by putting their lives on the line.

“If you send a dog into the room and there’s somebody in there, you hear fire and a dog does get hurt, then at least that’s saving an officer’s life,” said Moon. “It’s one of those things too where I’d rather…I’d hate to say it, the dog is like a child to me…but I would rather lose that dog than lose an officer.”

For Moon, the addition of dogs adds a beneficial aspect to law enforcement that would not be possible without the support of the community.

“We run off of a lot of donated stuff,” said Moon. “We’re always in need of something, whether it be dog food, buying bite suits, training aids or whatever have you.”

For more information, or to make a donation, contact the Northumberland County Sheriff’s Office at 804-580-5221.

WESTMORELAND COUNTY

Davis and Zena participate in a training session involving detection.

The two are unmistakable to anyone they see in the county. While they greet frightened children with warmth and affection, no one who knows them wants to end up on their bad sides.

They are Deputy Brian Davis and his German Shepherd Zena of the Westmoreland County K9 Unit, and as Davis put it, they are here to stay.

Having graduated from the Virginia State Police (VSP) Basic Canine School in December, Davis admitted he was “new to the game” with the three-year-old Zena, who made the overseas trip to Montross from the Czech Republic to join the unit.

But in spite of having only 13 weeks of real experience, he and Zena bonded quickly.

“I come from a [Labrador Retriever] family and I don’t ever want my dogs to pass because I treat them like kids,” said Davis. “But if they did, I think I may be done with labs after having her.”

Davis and Zena assist in any type of operation that involves narcotics, whether it’s following up on search warrants, making traffic stops or assisting in schools.

Davis added that, under state police jurisdiction, he could go anywhere in the region with his drug-finding companion, provided the distance was reasonable.

Zena has even assisted VSP in drug searches within schools as far out as Yorktown and Richmond.

Sheriff C.O. Balderson said Zena was the county’s first-ever narcotics canine.

“It’s crucial to us, especially in our unwavering efforts to combat the use and distribution of illegal drugs,” said Balderson. “This was a resource that we wanted to have before now, [and] to be able to finally acquire this is an amazing opportunity.”

Balderson added that Davis and Zena were “very compatible.”

“They work really well, and it’s the partnership and the bond that the two [need to] share in order to do this type of operation,” Balderson said.

With drugs becoming an increasingly pressing issue in Westmoreland County, Davis said Zena’s biggest contribution to their work is deterrence.

“If you’re going out in the general public, whether it’d be the local county or our county in general, it’s just the talk of the town,” Davis said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, crap,’ because our drug detectors are already on top of their game.”

But while intimidating and bursting with energy, Davis noted that Zena’s job description entails her to be friendly, as she often interacts with students in the schools that she searches for drugs.

“I can just walk her in and around 7-Eleven on a Friday night, just letting her know that people are okay,” Davis said.

At home, Zena also gets along wonderfully with Davis’ family, but her playtime with her handler is strictly work-oriented.

“She’s got to want the reward,” said Davis, as K9 handlers reinforce the dogs’ work on every assignment with a toy.

The training paid off for Zena as she located marijuana in a vehicle on her very first shift.

“That’s really good for her. Even the instructors that I called and let them know were like, ‘Okay, that didn’t take long,’” Davis chuckled.

When questioned about the inconsistency of retaining dogs and their owners in local law enforcement, Davis said it was a matter of the officer remaining dedicated to his or her canine.

“With the training of the dog… you have to do something roughly every night with her…to keep her going and keep her excited,” said Davis.

“With that, it’s all great in the beginning,” he added. “You’re like, ‘I love dogs and I don’t mind the training.’ But then when you get to actually doing it, you can get burned out really quick.”

But Davis, who was already aware of the commitment coming into Westmoreland County, does not plan on leaving anytime soon. And he certainly won’t allow himself to be separated from Zena.

“Personally, they’re going to have to, like, kick me out and blow me up or something [because] I don’t want to leave without her,” said Davis. “Of course, I don’t plan on leaving, but…she stays with me 24/7.”

As they continue with their assignments, Davis said with a laugh that Zena is still trying to figure out what he can accomplish. But both of them are steadfast in their duties, he noted.

“It’s just another thing for me as far as just trying to get drugs out of the area,” he said.

For more information, contact the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office at 804-493-8066.

Posted on Monday, May 6, 2013 at 9:29 am