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K-9 units train at York's Santander Stadium
Murphy, an energetic German shepherd, eagerly sniffed out the halls of Santander Stadium Monday morning before sitting definitively by one of the facility's fire extinguishers, hanging on the wall.
"Because there's two sticks of dynamite in there," said Lt. Harry McKinney, a Chester County man who heads the multi-county K-9 unit training program.
Not to worry though. The explosives were planted by McKinney and his team as a part of the mandated 16 hours of training per month for the four-legged branch of the police departments in Berks, Chester, and York counties.
"We've hidden objects all throughout the stadium and we use all real-life aids," McKinney said.
Murphy is a patrol dog, McKinney said, which essentially means he's been "trained to the max."
"His primary function is to look for explosives," he said. "He's trained in search and rescue and finding people. His job is to catch the bad guys."
Murphy was joined by several other types of specialists, including bomb, cellphone and drug dogs.
Training: The process begins as soon as a litter of puppies is born, McKinney said.
"You try to pick the best dog," he said. "You look for the play drive and the play skill levels as well as the alertness of the pup. We can train any dog, but we always hope to find the best."
The pups are then moved in with a family so their social skills develop, and training begins as early as 11 months old.
"After three years, they've usually been through some really extensive training," McKinney said. "They'll let you know when they're ready."
The dogs are street-ready as soon as they pass their six-week certification program and can remain in service for well over 10 years.
One key to training is imprinting certain smells on the dogs, using a wall with holes in it. It's labeled one way with numbers and the other with letters, like the grid of the Battleship board game.
The holes on the board will each have different kinds of smells to the dogs, McKinney said. There are nine different odors drug dogs need to learn.
"So when a dog identifies the smell in N,1, let's say, we put their toy through the hole in the wall and reinforce it that way," he said. "So when you see them looking around out here, you may think they're looking for a smell, but what they really want is that toy."
Relationships: Getting the dogs to recognize smells isn't the bulk of the training though, McKinney said.
"The handler really has to get to know the dog and understand what some of its tells are: When does the dog get excited and why? Why are his ears perking?" McKinney said. "It's a very personal relationship."
Relationships were put to the test during Monday's training session when dogs and their handlers had to find an object in a dark bathroom.
"When you go in you can't flip on a switch; for all we know that could set something off," McKinney said. "So the handler really has to rely on their dog for guidance and understand what some of the smallest movements and quirks mean."
The Unit: Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a courthouse in Chester County had a bomb scare and was shut down for more than four hours until a K-9 unit could respond.
"Our sheriff decided that we needed our own unit, so we started with one dog, and it all just grew from there," said McKinney.
There are now eight dogs in Chester, six in Berks and two in York. They protect more than 60 municipalities across the counties.
"They come with us to court for trials, and they're out and about every day," McKinney said. "The value of these dogs is irreplaceable."
Reach Jessica Schladebeck at email@example.com