I had the greatest pleasure to do a ride along with two of Rock Falls finest police officers that make up the K-9 unit: Officer Scott Allspaugh and K-9 Nero! I got to see some of Nero’s training in action, as well as learn what’s the driving force behind the four paws of this dynamic duo.
Nero, who will be 7 in January, is a 90-pound purebred who comes from a kennel in Germany; (an actual German Shepherd-I love it!) This means that Nero only understands German commands or phrases. A lot of police get their working dogs from this breeder. Shortly after they are born they go right into being trained. After 7 weeks has passed, they are shipped to their new home and put through more training with their new handler. Once united with their new handler, they continuously try to improve their training, whether it is commands, drugs, or tracking.
I got to watch Nero show me why he is one of the top ranked drug dogs in Illinois. We went out to one of the training facilities and let the magic begin. Scott hid the drugs in a few vehicles and then in a few of the wooden boxes that are mounted to the fence. After getting the drugs ready for Nero to find, we had to let them ‘cook’, or to let the air circulate around the drugs to help it not be so obvious. What Nero was about to demonstrate was called a ‘Free Air Sniff’, which is used at the beginning of a search using the air around the vehicle and through the cracks that air can get in through from the outside. This approach also helps get the nose focused on where the air is coming in and out of the vehicle. The Free Air Sniff is favored as the first way to proceed because you don’t need a search warrant.
Once the drugs have cooked long enough it’s time to get Nero out and go to work. Scott leads him to the first vehicle and leads him up, down, and all around the vehicle. What exactly is Scott looking for when Nero is searching? Any change in behavior; whether that be ears going from erect to pinned down, to his tail going from wagging to stiff. The dogs used to scratch at where the scent was coming from on the vehicles, but we have to remember that dogs are just like us- they make mistakes once and a while, and then the people would have damage to their car. Once Nero has located the drugs, his final command is to sit or lay down. To my surprise, there was no barking; Nero found the drugs and immediately sat down without any verbal command; showing just how extensive his training has been over his 6 years of being an officer.
Nero’s talents don’t stop there. If he is out on foot tracking someone’s scent (or trail) and a group of kids or something else crosses the path, he is able to tell the difference between the path he was following before and the new scents. All of this means he won’t lose the scent regardless of what disrupts it. When it comes to weather, humidity wind, and heat all play a part in the hunt. Ideally it will be a wind free day, but even a little rain isn’t bad because it can actually help keep the scent longer. Heat can affect how long the dog can actually be out working; normally the dogs are out for 15 minutes than take a break during the searches on foot. I found out that dogs don’t have to be trained “cadaver dogs” because all dogs can pick up the scent of a rotting body. Some days Nero is chomping at the bit to get to work, and other days he is more relaxed and snoozing in the back during patrol. Even k9s need a vacation.
Nero, along with police officers everywhere, put their lives on the line for our safety, doing things none of us would do willingly. I think people are so quick to think that “it’s just a dog” when in reality it couldn’t be further from the truth. He isn’t a machine; he is a working dog that comes up close and personal with danger some people couldn’t imagine. He is a best friend; the best backup you could ask for. Seeing Nero at work is incredible. It’s what he lives for; it’s what he was made for. He loves what he does (and it shows), almost as much as he loves his partner Scott.