NEW CUMBERLAND - Hancock County Sheriff's Sgt. Chuck Stanley patiently guided his German shepherd, Jesy, around a police vehicle Thursday in search of strategically placed drugs.
The K-9 and his handler work as a team, but, in the end, it was Jesy's nose that won the day. For locating the source of the drugs - a strip of paper reeking of marijuana - Jesy was rewarded with a chance to play with a tennis ball tossed by Stanley.
Two of the sheriff's department's four K-9 units received the specialized training in drug detection this week, with Hancock County playing host to the four-day seminar that concluded on Thursday. Nine K-9 units, representing seven law enforcement agencies from Ohio and West Virginia, participated in the training, Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said.
Christina, a German shepherd assigned to Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy 1st Class Scott Little, above, detects a trace of marijuana hidden in a police vehicle Thursday. -- Stephen Huba
Fletcher said he invited Battle Born K9, a police dog training school based in Las Vegas, Nev., to conduct the training because of the enthusiasm of two deputies who received similar training in Huntington earlier this year.
"The idea is to make the dogs work more proficiently," said instructor Jay Carlson. "It just focuses on teaching the dogs hunting skills and capitalizes on the dog's natural instincts."
Carlson likened the enhanced search behavior training to the dog moving from high school to college.
"This gives us here the opportunity to enhance the drug part of it and brings them up to a higher level," Fletcher said.
New Cumberland Police Lt. Jeremy Krzys was among the participating officers, along with his K-9, a Dutch shepherd named Copa.
"The training was excellent. What I've learned in four days is amazing," he said.
Krzys said he learned new techniques for searching vehicles for drugs and how to make more effective use of his dog's natural abilities.
This week's seminar was a prelude to a statewide K-9 convention that Hancock County is hosting in April 2014. The annual seminar of the West Virginia Police Canine Association will bring an estimated 75 K-9 units from three states to Hancock County for certification and recertification training.
The Enhanced Search Behavior training, which included classroom time, a lecture and practical exercises, was meant to supplement the annual certification training that K-9 officers receive, Carlson said.
The seminar focused on how police dogs in pursuit of drugs are engaged in "the hunt," according to the Battle Born K9 website. Carlson discussed the five phases of "the hunt" and how, if the concepts are properly applied, "find rates will increase and false indications with be almost nonexistent."
Carlson and fellow instructor Mark Rispoli used different controlled substances - marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and various opioid derivatives - in the real-world scenarios, hiding them in parcels, boxes, vehicles, classrooms and school lockers for the dogs to find, they said. Heroin is easy for a dog to find because of its strong odor, Carlson said.
Training sessions were held at the former East Junior High School in East Liverpool's East End, the Hancock County Maintenance Garage in New Cumberland and an old fire station in Weirton.
"It's a big game of find and seek," Carlson said. "If the dog is able to locate the substance, he gets to play with a ball."
Fletcher said the need for specialized drug training has never been more urgent. "Heroin has taken a foothold (in Hancock County)," he said. "The vast amount of crimes in Hancock County - probably 90 percent - are related to drugs in one way or another," he said.
Carlson said the training was tailored to the needs of the participating law enforcement agencies, including the East Liverpool, Weirton, St. Clair Township, Huntington and New Cumberland police departments.
"We tried to cover the gamut of the mission that the sheriff has," he said.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)