SUMTER (AP) — Dina, a black-and-tan German shepherd, is friendly, outgoing and extremely curious.
She’s also a good tracker, according to her handler, Cpl. William Self.
“We just had a successful track with her about two weeks ago,” Self said.
A suspect fled from an officer off an interstate after a car chase, he said, a situation that can put a pursuing officer’s life in danger from ambush in South Carolina’s dense woods.
“That guy had warrants out of North Carolina for burglary charges, trafficking charges, probation violation charges, and Dina found him in about an hour and 15 minutes,” Self said.
He has had Dina for about six months.
“She is still in training, but her tracking ability is very good,” he said. “I have a lot of experience with dogs. I’ve had several dogs, and her tracking ability is what I’d call ‘more than the average dog.’
“It almost comes natural to them. Sometimes they get off the track, and you have to be able to read the dog. If they are tracking and they get off the track, you have to be able to know that, which is very simple if you have that kind of experience. In addition to tracking, they also seem to, if you are walking through the woods and they find a human odor, they’ll go straight to it. If you are trying to clear, say, an acre of land, you can pretty much follow a grid, and they will pick up the odor and go straight to it. Even if somebody’s hiding in a hole, they are going to go to it.”
It doesn’t take long to sense Self’s enthusiasm for his police dogs and dogs in general.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 13 years,” Self said. “I’ve been a dog handler since, I think, my first year.”
He has had four police dogs in that time, he said.
Dina may represent the future of the K-9 unit for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.
“She is the first dog that we decided to actually train in-house,” Self said. “We didn’t buy her; she wasn’t pre-trained when we brought her here. She has done real well.”
In-house training at the sheriff’s office is only possible because Staff Sgt. Robert Reynolds, who heads the K-9 unit, has been certified as a master trainer. Not only is he certified to train dogs, but he can also train the trainers and handlers, he said.
The cost of a fully trained police dog can run from $10,000 to $14,000, Reynolds said. By training dogs in the department, that expenditure can be saved.
Reynolds, who has been in K-9 programs for more than a decade, started off as a handler, then went to a master’s training course to become a trainer. He said the sheriff’s office is one of only a few agencies in the state authorized to certify trainers through an agency at the Criminal Justice Academy.
It is not only the dogs that have to have training and special skills, however. Dogs and handlers must work as a team, and the bond between them is crucial to their success.
“We had a few officers that the dog just didn’t bond with,” Reynolds said. “I have actually, when I got back into the K9 program, had a dog, me and the dog just did not bond, we both were bull headed, and so I got another dog and gave him to one of the other handlers.
“It’s a matter of personality. You want to match the handler’s personality with the dog’s personality,” he said.
“When you have a young fellow, like (handler Cpl. Cameron) Prescott, who can run like a jackrabbit, you want a dog that is a little high strung and can keep up with him. You don’t want a mellow dog.
“For somebody like (Cpl. Larry) Wicks and them who are a little on the mellow side or the older side, you want a dog that matches with them.”
The handler and the dog also have to have a keen ability to read each other’s body language and detect subtle signs of stress or excitement.
“We have certain dogs, a lot of the apprehension dogs, when you get close you watch the whole body posture,” Reynolds said. “They posture up, the ears pop up, breathing changes, or their wagging of the head changes or you watch their tail wagging. They really tell us ‘we know something.’”
“Ten years ago, before we were allowed to have apprehension dogs, we had dogs that were not allowed to take any bites,” Reynolds said. “One of my dogs actually laid down on top of the person. I couldn’t see him because he was covered up with leaves and heavy brush. … He wasn’t a bite dog, but he was sitting there looking down on them.”
“The guy says, ‘Please don’t let your dog bite me.’”
Reynolds said that at this point, handlers don’t have to be certified, but he expects that to happen.
“They are going to have to have certification of the handler and the team to be certified. The way the law sits right now, they have to certify as a drug team,” he said.
“I couldn’t take somebody else’s dog,” Self said. “Even if that dog is certified, I couldn’t take another handler’s dog and search a car with it, because I am not familiar with the dog. You have to use the dog you are certified with.”
“The way it sits right now, the way the system works, he gets his dog, we make him work with that dog,” Reynolds said.
“Whether the dog gets the final result or not, the sit or the scratching, I am not looking for that. I am looking for where the dog goes around the car. (The handler) can read the breathing changes and the posture changes because he knows his dog, because when he says ‘yes, there are drugs there,’ that is probable cause.”
“A lot of people think the dogs have to sit; they don’t,” Self said. “If I am able to tell by the dog’s breathing change that there are drugs in the car, for example, then that’s also an indication. We don’t have to have that sit.”
“I couldn’t go with his dog, for example,” Reynolds said, “because the courts would say ‘Well, you have only picked up the dog once, how can you tell just from a sit? Any dog will sit.’