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In Harford, police dog unit enjoys sweet smell of success


The Harford County Sheriff's Office is confident that when faced with the threat of an explosive device, it has the right man for the job.

In this case, however, the right man is a dog: Elliot, a chocolate Labrador retriever.

"A dog's nose is so far beyond a human's, it's hard to comprehend," said Deputy 1st Class John Seilback, a member of the sheriff's canine unit.

"When you have pizza delivered, you smell pizza. A dog smells the dough, the sauce, the cheese, the delivery boy ... and scents wafting in from the street," Seilback said.

Harford's unit has six dogs. The detention center has two patrol dogs, and the northern and southern precincts each have a patrol dog. In addition, there is one dog that is trained in narcotics detection and one trained in explosives detection.

Deputy 1st Class Chris Gibbons handles Spencer, a German shepherd, the only narcotics dog in Harford County. Elliot is the first explosives dog Harford County has had since the K-9 unit began in the late 1960s.

Being the only explosives or narcotics dog has drawbacks: "Our dogs are always on call," said Sgt. Joe Van Seeters, supervisor of the Canine and Traffic Division.

A dog's superior nose is essential for detecting explosives. The explosives can be mixtures and can have different proportions, said Deputy 1st Class Eric Blottenberger, Elliot's handler.

Explosive devices can contain different proportions of C4 (a plastic explosive), black powder, smokeless powder or a variety of other ingredients. Elliot is responsible for detecting one or more of these ingredients and then alerting Blottenberger to its presence.

"The dog is strictly a locating tool," Blottenberger said.

Each dog in the K-9 unit alerts his handler in a different way.

"His alert is a sit, he won't bark," Blottenberger said of Elliot. "He's trained not to disturb it.

It's my job as a handler is to interpret his signal."

"That's where reading your dog comes in," said Lt. Mike Tolliver, commander of Special Operations. "That's why the handler has to go through training also. You have to know your own dog."

The dogs are bred in the Czech Republic, where they undergo some basic training. The sheriff's office typically pays between $3,500 and $4,000 for a dog.

"At this point in time we'd like to add another dog," Van Seeters said, "but the big issue is manpower and money."

The dogs are not rushed into additional training right away.

"We usually have a dog a couple months before training so he can form a bond with his handler," Blottenberger said.

Since 2000, the dogs have been training with the Montgomery County Police Canine Unit. Patrol dogs are required to go through a 14-week course that includes tracking, suspect apprehension and article search.

"After the 14 weeks, we work a dog for one year," Seilback explained. "After that, they can take a 10-week narcotics class."

In order to maintain their skills, patrol and narcotics dogs are required to attend maintenance training once every three weeks. The explosives dog is required to attend a training session every other week at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

A narcotics dog is trained to alert on any scent of illegal substance.

"Even if it's just the smell of marijuana in the car, the dog is going to alert [the handler]," said Seilback. "The dog is doing its job: detecting the scent of an illegal substance."

The canine officers often save their partners valuable time at a crime scene.

"You can see the benefits," Van Seeters said. "Without ... a dog it would take you days [to search a building]. With a dog you could clear it in 30 minutes."

"A dog can clear a building safer and faster than several officers can," said Seilback.

The Harford K-9 unit has been certified by the Maryland State Police, which regulates K-9 units in the state. Each dog in the unit is issued a license and a badge after examiners have determined that the animals have received the proper training.

The officers are confident in the training their dogs are receiving in Montgomery County.

Improved tracking ability is one facet of the Montgomery training that officers praise.

"We have very skilled dogs," Van Seeters said. "I'm very pleased and confident. They're a very effective tool."

The dogs are also taught recall, which allows officers to call the dog off the trail of a suspect, even when the animal is in hot pursuit.

One need not look further than the dogs' work in the field to see evidence of their exemplary tracking skills.

Gibbons and Spencer received an award from the Pennsylvania State Police as well as the Region 3 Patrol Award from the U.S. Police Canine Association for tracking they did on a four-hour-old scent in Delta, Pa.

Seilback also recalled a noteworthy track with his previous dog, Ranger: "We went over a 6-foot-high fence, across Route 40, and into the woods on the north side of Joppa."

The dogs' sociability is another important area that has improved with the Montgomery County training. "Before, none of us could get near them without getting bitten," Tolliver remarked.

The best dogs for police work are German shepherds, chosen for their even disposition, and Malinois, chosen for their high drive. Curious, energetic dogs are the ideal candidates.

The dogs in the Harford County unit work in order to do what dogs love to do: play.

"They're working for a toy," Seilback explained. "The dog dictates what toy; the dog in narcotics works for a piece of PVC pipe."

If the dogs were given a food reward, it would be difficult to keep them in the good physical shape that is essential for dogs in the K-9 unit, he said.

"One of the rewards of being in the K-9 unit is that they get to go home an hour early for exercise and maintenance," Tolliver said.

Participation in the USPCA dog trials is another bonus of being a member of the unit. The dogs are given the chance to compete against other dogs in the area.

Gibbons and Spencer placed in the category of Police Dog I article search. Seilback's old dog, Ranger, took third in the novice search category.

Ranger died last year after suffering an intestinal blockage. He was given a police funeral.

Officers often become attached to their canine partners, and it is difficult when a dog dies.

"That's the hard part - they're fragile," Seilback said. The length of time a dog remains in service at the sheriff's office varies.

Seilback now works with Saber, a German shepherd.

"The length of service is dictated by the dog and his health - and how it's doing service-wise," Van Seeters said. "We want more bang for the buck."

Once a dog has completed his service in the unit, the county signs it over to its handler to live out the rest of its years as a part of the family.

Most of the dogs in the unit are young; Niko, the newest patrol dog, handled by Deputy 1st Class Jeremy Mothershed, is 20 months old. Seilback's partner, Saber, is 2 years old. And Spencer, the narcotics dog, is about 4.

The officers in the canine unit are eager to attest to the value of their furry partners.

"The dogs make us more effective police officers," Seilback said.

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