WHEATLAND – Three new officers were added to the sheriff’s office this past month.
K-9 police dogs Toro, Poncho and Piccolo, were trained and brought aboard to team with Platte County Sheriff K-9 handlers and sheriff deputies, David Russell, William Kirlin and Ward McConahay.
The department had one dog for the past five years that was owned by McConahay and was used predominantly for sniffing out narcotics. K-9 Chloe was retired Aug. 21, just days before the three officers went to train and bring home the new police dogs.
“We just looked at expanding the program,” McConahay said. “These two guys got involved and it’s kind of a group effort on how to get it done.”
The Wheatland Police Department that just recently added a K-9 unit and new police dog is a separate program and the dog, K-9 Ace was bred and trained at Makor, whereas the sheriff department’s dogs were trained at the Little Rock K-9 Academy in Arkansas.
“The police department has a single purpose dog, and ours are dual-purpose dogs,” McConahay said. “They are trained for narcotics detection and they will also be used for apprehension, tracking and search and rescue.”
All three dogs are Belgian Malinois, which is a popular choice for those who want a smart and obedient dog that is agile and hard-working.
According to the American Kennel Club, “Belgian Malinois are squarely built, proud, and alert herders standing 22 to 26 inches. Strong and well-muscled, but more elegant than bulky, there’s an honest, no-frills look about them, as befit dogs built to work hard for their feed. If you have ever seen a Mal perform an obedience routine, you know firsthand what a smart and eager breed this is.”
“Mals” as they are affectionately called weigh between 60-80 pounds and have a life expectancy of between 14-16 years.
“Ous don’t work off of scent articles, like a true search and rescue dog does,” McConahay said. “Ours are more for somebody who has left the area, say a hunter has left his vehicle, he walked in, he’s now lost. We can put the dogs on the trail of that person.”
The dogs are trained in Arkansas, but they are not bred there. Although the blood lines originated in Europe, the dogs were bred south of the US border.
“They start in Guadalajara, Mexico,” Russell said. “Then they import them to Little Rock and they finish them before we get them. Part of the training in Mexico is that they send the dogs out with families for certain periods of time and then they are brought back to the facility to train them. It gets them used to that interaction.”
The initial family training is important for the temperament of the dogs.
“That helps,” Kirwin said. “Because I’ve got a 3-year-old at home that this dog will probably protect just as much as I would. He can pet him and there’s no issues and I know David experiences the same with his daughter who is almost three.”
Depending on the breeding site, dogs can develop different habits and interaction skills.
“That’s one of the things Little Rock prides themselves in is the temperament of their dogs,” McConahay said. “And the knowing the difference between what is and isn’t a threat. Ours are trained in handler protection as well.”
The dogs will sense whether an officer is being pushed in an aggressive way versus a nonthreatening movement. All three officers went and trained for two weeks with their dogs before bringing them back to Wheatland.
“Some of the training we did down there is we would send a dog in and let him apprehend a person,” McConahay said. “Then we’d pull him off and lay him down and we would physically pat them down like we were searching them and the dog will lay there and allow that interaction to happen.”
As the officers first went to train, there were 11 in the class. For selection, the officers were each sent a video with a choice of five dogs and the Platte County officers would determine before going down to Arkansas which dog would best suit their personality. Due to the needs of Platte County as opposed to a bigger city, McConahay said that the dogs picked for them were less aggressive and friendlier.
Even so, these dogs are trained for law enforcement and the officers have to always have control of their animals.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Kirwin said. “It’s also a huge liability if something were to happen. They’re a dog, but your personal dog could do the same thing, and with these dogs, they may find one person that they don’t like and they could lash out at them. With my dog’s temperament I wasn’t overly concerned about it.”
Kirwin, who had his dog out for the Wheatland Trunk or Treat said that with all the fluffy dinosaurs and costumes running around, he did have to keep the dog on a short leash just in case, but didn’t have any issues at all.
“We’ve been back here with them since the 10th of October,” McConahay said. “They’ve been in service for the county since then.”
As for the alpha dogs all getting along, the officers have really only encountered one incident and that occurred while down in Arkansas at the motel where the officers were bonding with the dogs.
“We had a little elevator fight the first day,” Russell said. “We went up in the elevator once and mine and his dog did fine, so we tried it again later in the day. Mine growled and his came at it full force, so it was a fun time. They are all wanting to play for the dominant role.”
At this point, the dogs have already been used multiple times in Platte County doing school searches and have been called upon to do other narcotics work as well.
“We’ve deployed them several times on narcotic sniffs,” McConahay said. “As a team we have got probably as a whole, 15 deployments with 6 or 7 seizures since we’ve been home. These so far have been seized out of vehicles that we have searched.”
The officers said that at this time, they are working with the school districts of Platte County to randomly set up a schedule. They are planning to do a search at least once every quarter.
Although the officers work predominantly in Platte County, there are occasions where they will be called to assist other counties if needed. They also mentioned that there was shared cooperation with the Wheatland Police Department’s K-9 unit and that there was a good working relationship.
Each officer has a specialized K-9 vehicle that has a reinforced kennel within the vehicle.