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Troopers, K-9s come together for explosives search training

WSP K-9 trooper Rich Louthan rewards Raz, a labrador retriever, with a chewing toy after training drills at the Washington State Patrol Academy in Shelton Wednesday morning. - Photo by Jesse Beals
WSP K-9 trooper Rich Louthan rewards Raz, a labrador retriever, with a chewing toy after training drills at the Washington State Patrol Academy in Shelton Wednesday morning.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

SHELTON — Quickly sniffing each locker, Raz was in search of only one thing: Explosives.

A labrador retriever, Raz and handler-in-training Trooper Scott Harter of the Washington State Patrol (WSP) practiced just one of many real-life scenarios at the academy on Thursday. The state mandated 400-hour training is preparing the four handlers and dogs, in the current class, to effectively and efficiently search for explosives aboard Washington State Ferries.

“The state patrol is charged with the security of the ferries,” said canine training officer/handler Trooper Steve Gardner. “These dogs are a lot more effective and can cover a lot more ground than troopers visually searching the ground.”

“Prior to 9/11 it was just a mission of the state patrol. It’s now a mandate of the ferry system,” added Trooper Brian George, spokesman for WSP’s District 8.

Harter as well as Trooper Rich Louthan will be assigned to the Kitsap area which includes the ferry terminals in Bremerton, Southworth, Kingston and Bainbridge Island.

Although the teams will be assigned to the ferry system, the training — implemented in 1997 — also prepares them for searching for explosives at an array of facilities including schools and stadiums.

“Part of our responsibility is to make sure these dogs are capable of searching in all environments,” Gardner said.

Working with several of the dogs, Harter is looking forward to the conclusion of the training when he will be assigned his own dog and will have the opportunity to begin building a bond.

“I’m looking forward to having a dog I can bond with and see how his personality changes once we’re out of the training environment, I’m kind of excited to see that,” Harter said. “I’ve been trying hard to stay impartial to the dogs because the final decision hasn’t been made of who we can take home.”

Instead of pairing a dog and handler right from the start, trainers wait to see which dog and handler have the best working relationship.

“We do things a little differently ... We have a pool of dogs and determine which handler and dog work best together,” Gardner said. “Throughout training the handler will use different dogs. We figure out which work better with that one person.”

The dogs used by WSP for searching explosives vary in breed, but are typically labrador retrievers and Belgian malinoises.

“They have a very high drive, they’re very driven,” Gardner said.

During training, the exercises are toy-driven and used as rewards for the dogs.

“It’s their drive for the toy and their natural ability to hunt,” Gardner said. “We replace the toy with a trained odor. Essentially they’re looking for their toy.”

At the beginning of training, scent boxes with pigeon holes are used and when the dogs put their nose in the hole that has the trained odor, they get a toy. More than 20 base odors are used throughout training. Later in the class, the teams are taken out into the “real world” to train.

“We’ll take them to realistic places,” Gardner said. “That’s how we train them to search in all environments.”

Even after graduation from the class, training doesn’t end there. Both the trooper and his K-9 will continue with maintenance training 16 hours a month.

Many of the dogs trained and used by WSP are rescued from humane societies, shelters and private homes. Many also are purchased from vendors.

“When the dogs get to us we have no idea of its history,” Gardner said. “A lot of times through temperament we’ve seen they’ve been abused. A lot of dogs do have agressive behavior but through training on a specific task, it diminishes it.”

WSP works closely with the Kitsap Humane Society and has recieved dogs from the shelter in the past.

“We have a really good relationship with the Kitsap Humane Society,” Gardner said. “We taught them a condensed version of our screening test. When they call we know it’s a good dog.”

Many of the dogs WSP receives for training, he added, are those who have been given up because they are unmanageable.

“The dogs that we get, people get rid of them because the dog is digging everything up or is chewing things,” he said. “We take that and focus it to a job.”

Due to security reasons, Gardner could not divulge the exact number of WSP K-9 teams, but did say it’s “in the neighborhood of 50 dog teams in narcotics and explosives.”

Depending on their size, the dogs are typically kept in commission until 7-9 years of age. Upon retirement, its handler gets first preference as far as adoption. In rare cases if the trooper chooses not to keep the dog, it is put up for adoption.

“Very rarely do we have a handler who doesn’t want the dog,” Gardner said. “They get pretty attached to them.”

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