01/23/08 — Canines to the rescue

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Canines to the rescue

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on January 23, 2008 2:23 PM

As helicopter blades spun above the open cockpit of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office chopper, dog handlers inside were thinking about more than their training.

They were thinking about how to get out of the frigid air caused by the whirling blades and open doors, canine coordinator Jimmy Howell said.

The police dogs aboard may have been thinking the same thing.

"Some of the guys that got of the helicopter told me that they were glad to be on the ground -- it was a lot warmer," said Howell, who started the canine officer program for the Sheriff's Office in 1994.

Howell, a retired Highway Patrol officer, has managed the program since its inception, financed by a federal grant, community donations and drug seizure funds.

The coordinator said Sheriff's Office officials started looking for ways to increase the effectiveness -- and range -- of their police dog outfit.

About eight years ago, he and the dogs' handlers decided to load the keen-nosed animals on the department's helicopter, allowing faster dispatch and further distances.

But one doesn't just load up a canine on a chopper, Howell said -- that's not something a dog, even a police dog, is accustomed to.

"Every dog won't ride on the helicopter, especially one with the door open," Howell said. "We started out doing practices to get them acclimated to going up and down."

Practices started out with elevators, going up and down. Then the dogs were moved into the helicopter with the motor running, just to get the dogs comfortable with the machine itself, Howell said.

Once the dog is used to the chopper rides, the dog handlers move on to training sessions like the one they worked on last week, Howell said.

The six handlers with the Sheriff's Office took their dogs aboard the helicopter to run tracking operations.

"We load the dog and the handler on the helicopter, and somebody gets set up several miles away and they lay a trail like a bad guy," Howell said.

One newer addition to the team, a bloodhound named Katie, concerned Howell -- he wasn't sure how the tracking dog would take to a helicopter ride.

"I was pleasantly surprised -- she took to it," Howell said. "She laid her head in the handler's lap and closed her eyes while they were flying."

When the dogs aren't getting training, they may be searching local schools -- Howell said that the Sheriff's Office checks all the Wayne County Schools with random, surprise visits.

"These are also drug dogs, and they are all service dogs," Howell said. "I feel pretty confident that at least once a day, there's some call for a dog's use -- if it's just sniffing a car that some officer's stopped."

Howell said that although the dogs are well trained, it's the six officers who handle the dogs that really determine their effectiveness.

"It doesn't matter who the leader is. If you don't have good handlers, you're not anything," Howell said.