Nelson County, Virginia
By Jennie Tal
Bill McDonald, the Nelson County School Resource Officer, spent one recent Wednesday in an empty building looking for narcotics with his K-9, Nicodemus. And, although it wasn’t a real drug bust, Nicodemus was successful. We first told you about the team in the March 2010 printed issue of Nelson County Life magazine on page 20.
Officer McDonald and Nicodemus were just practicing that day. They’re both members of the Blue Ridge Police K-9 Association, a group of police officers and their K-9 partners who train all day every other Wednesday. The association was formed about five years ago to help train the dogs and their handlers.
“It just sort of formed out of a necessity for area K-9 handlers to train together,” said City of Charlottesville K-9 Officer and Handler Lynn Childers. “Most departments have only one or maybe two dogs and the training you need to do, you need other people to help you.”
Officer Childers said that the 16 hours a month the association trains is really only the minimum that police dogs should be training and that most of the dogs, including her K-9 Brett, get training at home daily.
“A dog needs constant repetition and constant reminders to stay good at what he does,” she said. “There’s a lot of things you can do by yourself, but the group really fills the gap with doing more advanced skills.”
Brett, an 8-year-old German Shepherd, is considered a cross-trained K-9 who does both full police work of tracking and apprehending people and searching for drugs. Nicodemus and Officer McDonald, on the other hand, focus mainly on narcotics, something Officer McDonald says has been extremely helpful to him as a school resource officer.
“I think the school credits [Nicodemus] with keeping drugs out of the school by a large margin,” he said.
Just by having Nicodemus, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, around the school, it prevents some students from bring narcotics to class. Likewise, Officer Childers says that by having Brett at her side, suspects are quite often more likely to cooperate.
“Just showing up on a chaotic scene… with a dog really makes a difference in the outcome,” she said. “[Suspects] don’t seem to be as concerned with officers pointing rifles at them as they do with dogs.”
For years, the group has been open to any local police departments with K-9 components, but recently it has attracted some new members. Helene Dodge and her yellow Labrador retriever, Orso, were invited to be part of the association. Orso, a search and rescue dog, specializes in live wilderness searches and human remains detection.
“This is kind of a different end of the spectrum,” said Dodge. “But they have a really great trainer and he will help me kind of move my dog along and help with some of the weak spots he has in his searching.”
While the officers really do learn from each other, they have some professional help, too. That trainer Dodge mentioned is Armin Winkler who has been training dogs since he was a kid and is now a professional trainer who lives here in Central Virginia. After meeting with the Blue Ridge Police K-9 Association to help with a dog having training trouble and then teaching an annual in-service course for K-9 Handlers, Winkler has become a mainstay in the training program.
“All dog training, especially in law enforcement, is what a dog naturally likes to do,” he said. “Like he’s hunting a rabbit.”
The trick is just getting them to do it on command.
“What we do in training is we manipulate the dog to believe that a make-believe rabbit smells like narcotics,” said Winkler. “We give him replacement prey.”
Be sure to check out the print story in the March 2010 issue of NCL, ONLINE, by clicking here!