It is not always easy to keep and hold the attention of school children but Harry McKinney had them glued to their seats. McKinney, a Chester County Sheriff’s Deputy and member of the K-9 unit, brought his dog, Jessie, to the Honey Brook Elementary Center on February 13 for a series of afternoon demonstrations.
McKinney, a 26-year veteran of the Chester County Sheriff’s office, put Jessie through her paces as the students watched spellbound. The kids did not come up short in terms of great questions - though the most common question was “Can we pet her?”
“What type of dog is Jessie?” asked one student.
Jessie, as black as midnight, is a German Shepherd, explained McKinney. Born on March 23, 2010, Jessie is certified in narcotics detection, tracking and article searches.
Both Jessie and her half-sister, Afra, are East German dogs who, amazingly, take their commands from McKinney in German. Each is 65 pounds of muscle and teeth. Despite this, the dogs are “apprehending dogs, not biting dogs,” says McKinney.
“If you can run faster than 35 miles an hour, you can get away from them,” says McKinney, chuckling, “Otherwise, you’re going to get caught. In most cases, all I have to say is `I’m releasing my dog’ and the bad guy gives up.”
According to McKinney, German Shepherds were chosen for the Chester County K-9 unit because they are easiest to train for a wide variety of jobs.
“In larger agencies where they have a lot of dogs they train dogs for specific jobs. Here we need dogs that can do a lot of things,” said McKinney.
Chester County began its K-9 Unit in 2006 with two dogs trained in explosive detection, patrol and tracking. Since then the unit has expanded to five dogs: Buster and his handler, Deputy Lt. John Freas, Yukon and his handler Deputy Brian Bolt, Sabre and his handler Deputy John Heisler, and Afra and Jessie and their handler McKinney. The most recent addition to the team is special deputy John “J.D.” DiBuonavanturo and his dog, Leo. DiBuonavanturo and Leo will be heading to Ohio in the spring for Leo to undergo the training needed to become an arson dog.
Training for K-9 dogs like Jessie and Leo begins at the age of 11 months and can last until three years.
“Not every dog can be trained for every job,” noted McKinney.
The deputies are quick to warn that K-9s are not pets but rather working dogs, though there is clearly a strong relationship between the handlers and their animals. In fact, the dog will listen to no one but its handler according to McKinney.
The handlers are “the top of the food chain, the dogs are number two and everyone else is below,” he said.
Chester County’s K-9s are treated as the professionals they are. To one student’s question, Deputy McKinney replies that Jessie “eats chicken and rice,” and that when the two travel they get a hotel room with two king-size beds.
“The handler sleeps in one bed and the dog sleeps in the other,” said McKinney.
It is important to note that no taxpayer money is spent on the cost of upkeep for the Chester County K-9s.
“We pay for the food and veterinary care out of our own pocket or we find a sponsor,” said McKinney.
Jessie and Afra, for example, are sponsored by Dr. Amy Kidd V.M.D. and the staff of Pocopson Veterinary Station, and Ed Mallard at Unionville Feed & Pet takes care of rations.
Sheriff Carolyn Welsh, in a phone conversation discussing the K-9 unit, said that she is a big supporter of the man and dog tandems.
“I appreciate our four-legged deputies. They’re always happy to see you. They never call off from work and they never file grievances. If I could only teach them to drive,” she said with a laugh.
In Chester County, as in many jurisdictions, police dogs are sworn officers of the law. They are issued badges and sworn into service with an oath of office, said Welsh.
Though the use of canines – hence the term, “K-9” – is relatively new in Chester County, there is evidence that dogs were used by constables to help keep public order as early as the Middle Ages. During the reign of King Henry I, for example, money was set aside for the maintenance kennels for the protection of the royal court.
Policing itself became professionalized in 1829 when Sir Robert Peel formed London’s Metropolitan Police. One of the earliest professional attempts to use dogs in the apprehension of a criminal occurred in 1888 when commissioner of the London Police, Sir Charles Warren, brought in two dogs to help hunt for the notorious Jack the Ripper. The result was not what had been hoped for – the commissioner was reportedly bitten and, in the ensuing scuffle, both dogs ran off, requiring the police to go searching for them instead of the Ripper.
A lot has changed since those first trials, however, with today’s police dogs being very highly trained.
Amtrak, for example, faces enormous security challenges protecting the millions of people passing through the nation’s transportation hubs every day. Since the air itself can carry clues there is a new kind of K-9, the vapor detection dog. Trained by Auburn University’s Canine Detection Research Institute to detect the smell of explosives, vapor detection dogs and their handlers seek out signs of trouble by simply moving among the crowds. According to William Parker, Commander of the Amtrak Police Canine Program, vapor detection dogs can follow a scent from 10 to 50 feet away and follow the trail as long as 15 minutes after explosive material has passed through an area.
For a full list of K-9 sponsors visit http://www.ccsk9.org/home/ccsk9-s-sponsor-s-page.
Individual citizens can help support the unit, too. For a donation of $10, the Sheriff’s office is offering an official, full-color, Sheriff’s Office K-9 patch. For a donation of $25, there’s a jet black Sheriff’s Office t-shirt with a picture of one of the heroic K-9s on the back. For more information on these and other ways you can support the Chester County K-9 team, go to http://www.ccsk9.org/donate-to-ccsk9.