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K-9 officers: Training unleashed

Forget the dog days of summer.

It was more like the dog days of fall as more than 100 police dogs and their handlers gathered in Monroeville last week to connect, train and share notes on their roles in law enforcement.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., whose office covered the $10,000 cost of the three-day program at Monroeville’s public safety training center, hopes the event will become a yearly affair.

“Anytime we can do things regionally, anytime we can do business with our friends in Ohio and Maryland and the other agencies we worked with during the G-20 summit is great,” Zappala said. “I especially appreciate what you do in schools, working and interacting with children, which helps bring a community together.

“There’s no better kind of policing than that.”

The district attorney said K-9 units have been instrumental in reducing violence in many of the schools where they are used.

Organizer Maria Watts, a K-9 officer with the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office, said she got the idea for the training after attending a similar program in Chester County.

“It can be difficult and expensive to travel clear across the state for this kind of training,” she said. “So I thought, why not try to do something closer to home?”

In addition to classroom programs to keep officers abreast of changes in the laws that affect their work, the K-9 units conducted drills on searching for drugs, weapons and explosives.

Monroeville police Corporal Mike Colberg, a K-9 officer, said patrol dogs make potentially dangerous situations safer for officers.

The dogs have proven valuable for locating people and evidence.

“Their primary function is as a locating tool,” said Colberg, a 16-year veteran. “If a gun is tossed in the woods or an item is inadvertently dropped, they can locate it within a few minutes instead of having officers spend hours on end combing an area to find it.”

To demonstrate their keen sense of smell, drugs were hidden in a car. Within seconds of entering the vehicle, a 6-year-old dog named Drago was able to pinpoint their location.

A second dog, Kuly, who attended the training with his handler, Pittsburgh police Officer Ron Absten, repeated the drill with the same results.

Drago’s handler, Monroeville Officer Tom Vaughn, said the amount of drugs used in the demonstration — 80 grams of marijuana — was an easy test. Most searches for marijuana involve 10 grams or less.

“If someone has a small amount of a drug in their back pocket and gets out of a vehicle, these dogs will hit on the car seat,” he said.


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