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A Kentucky state trooper stands in the middle of an empty field. He’s wearing a thick, burlap-like suit that makes him look like a salmon-colored Michelin man in the hot sun. Any passer-by would wonder why he was wearing this strange outfit; that is, until they saw the snarling dog streaking across the grass towards him. The dog bounds into the air and latches its teeth onto the trooper’s arm, protected by the Michelin man suit.
The trooper is Martin Wesley and the menacing dog is Fero, a member of the K-9 unit of the Kentucky State Police post in Elizabethtown that also serves the surrounding areas. Fero is coming off his apprehension of Jetto Dye, a Hodgenville man who was arrested last week and charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, first-degree sexual abuse and first-degree attempted rape of a child; and resisting arrest. The dog is also part of a much larger trend of canines being used to track criminals and narcotics across Kentucky.
Typically, if a K-9 unit purchases a dog when it’s young (18 months to 2 years), it can serve for about eight years. That’s eight years of multi-thousand dollar seizures of narcotics, apprehensions of dangerous criminals and friendship with the handler.
Perhaps the single most important quality a canine brings to a police force is its sense of smell, which can track the scent of drugs, explosives and humans.
“Their sense of smell is so much more powerful than ours,” said Chris Knifley, the supervisor of Fero’s K-9 unit. “If we walk into a restaurant, we can say they’re cooking pizza. But the dog knows that’s wheat crust, there’s garlic in the sauce and they can smell every ingredient in that pizza.”
Knifley hinted the dogs’ senses of smell were maybe even more powerful than that. One day, the police force took a K-9 unit to do a search at a school. The dog was able to point the officers to a car in which there was one, single marijuana seed.
Whether it’s a single seed of a drug, or a large quantity worth a significant sum of money, police dogs can find the illegal substance. When it comes to more dangerous situations, such as tracking explosives or criminals, the dogs are distinguished in that category as well.
The canines recruited to KSP K-9 units are trained based on their “play” drive and their “prey” drive. The play drive is when a dog is proficient at finding its toys. Say you hide a dog’s toy ball in the bushes: a dog with a high “play” drive will not give up until it finds that ball.
The “prey” drive, on the other hand, is a dog’s desire to chase after moving targets. According to Knifley, it’s when the canine wants to “chase something white and fuzzy.”
Dogs with a high play drive are usually trained to track narcotics or explosives and those with high prey drives are trained for suspect apprehension. However, a combination of both qualities is desirable.
In terms of those dogs with the high prey drives that are used to track dangerous suspects, there are some misconceptions within the public.
“Our apprehension dogs are not attack dogs,” said Knifley. “From our standpoint, it’s a formally trained dog doing what it’s supposed to do.”
A first-class Kentucky state trooper, Mark Combs, unleashed “Skip” on Wesley (still in the suit) as he ran away across the field. Combs also had the same idea about the dogs he works with.
“It’s a game for the dogs,” he said. “It’s not out of aggression. They’re trained that way and they’re rewarded for doing the right thing.”
While the officers said what a canine does to a suspect fleeing a scene might look like an attack, they explained the animals are not trained to injure, but to apprehend. In the case of Dye, for example, officers at the scene gave the suspect several chances to surrender, but Dye, who was hidden in a wooded area, would not. That’s when Fero was released to catch Dye.
During the apprehension, Dye suffered a bite from Fero that required hospitalization and repair work to some of the arteries in his leg. He was lodged in the LaRue County Detention Center for two days but later transferred to Kentucky State Reformatory as they had more appropriate facilities to care for his wound, according to Hodgenville Police Chief Steve Johnson.
Although there was an injury during the situation, the officers did what they had set out to do and the suspect was taken into custody.
To put it simply, according to Knifley, “They (the dogs) run fast so we don’t have to.”
The canines in a KSP K-9 unit do a lot that humans cannot do such as sniffing out dangerous explosives or tracking criminals on the run. But it turns out they are even more than that to the officers involved in the units.
“It adds a whole new aspect to the job,” said Combs. “It makes it a lot more fun and enjoyable for me.”
Something that means even more than fun, however, is what a police canine offers in terms of loyalty. Fero’s handler, trooper Seth Payne, said that companionship is what he has really gotten out of the experience.
He said, “I always have a partner in the back with me.”