“It’s a Team Effort”: MSUPD K-9 Unit handlers and their dogs perform many duties on campus

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Storm, one of the MSU Police Department’s K-9 dogs, leaps into the room lined with rows of boxes. Some have rubber gloves, dog food, and other scents ready to throw him off the trail, but only one contains explosive powder.

Storm drags his handler with him as he quickly sniffs each of the crates. In a matter of seconds, he recognizes the powder and sits quietly in front of the box, alerting the handler and waiting for his reward: a tennis ball.

This explosives detection activity is one of the training practices for MSUPD’s K-9 dogs. In an empty building on campus, the department holds three organized training days a month. Handlers are expected to also train their dogs for at least an hour during their shift.

From 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., the dogs engage in various activities such as building and article searches and running on the trail

“Most of our dogs, the way we work and the way we train them, they’re so excited,” says Sgt. Adam Atkinson. “I took off my fatigue pants today, my German shepherd…he was so excited to come to work. They really live more than anything for this stuff.”

MSUPD’s K-9 unit has a total of eight dogs trained in explosives detection. Half are dual-purpose certified, meaning they are trained in tracking, obedience, handler protection, and various searches. The other half is carried by people, which means they look for explosives on people.

Named Jarvis, Cora, Ozzie, Kenai, Ellis, Major, Cas, and Storm, the dogs are primarily used to ensure security at various campus activities, including sporting events, graduation ceremonies, concerts, and appearances by controversial speakers.

At 4am before the football games, the handlers bring the dogs in to sweep the entire Spartan Stadium. Then they bring the human-carried certified dogs up and down the rows of fans to sniff for explosives. Visiting team buses and hotels will also be swept ahead of their arrival.

Explosive sweeps and community events are also called activations. In a year, the device makes an average of about 400 to 500 activations.

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“If you think about what’s happening on campus, … for example, the weekend before Ohio State had Midnight Madness, there was a hockey game, volleyball, or some other event,” Atkinson said. “We take our dogs with us and just walk around everywhere.”

Sergeant Shaun Porter said that the relationship between the dog and the handler is essential to working efficiently. On training days, the unit will conduct searches of office-like areas where there may be small areas that are difficult for the dog to reach, or alert exactly where the scent is.

“It’s a team effort,” Porter said. “We don’t just rely on the dog 100 percent. The dog cannot go back there and search, so the handler needs to realize that there is an area that we haven’t checked, so the handler needs to lead them in.”

Porter said that team dynamic is present within the unit as well.

“We’re all sort of playing off against each other and that’s what makes it so much better is the dynamic within the unit and within the dogs,” Porter said. “We all kind of help each other and make the team a little bit better.”

Besides working with the dogs on the clock, the handlers also live with their dogs. Storm’s supervisor, Officer Paige Hartman, calls him her best friend.

Storm is a black German Shepherd who traveled from Germany to an importer in Ohio. The dogs at the importer are not trained apart from the basic “sit” command, but they were bred to work in K-9 units. The department favors dogs like Storm that are sourced overseas because breed standards are stricter and pose a lower risk of health problems in larger dog breeds like German shepherds.

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Before Hartman first got Storm, she went to the Ohio facility with Atkinson and another sergeant to “speed date” the dogs.

“We’re looking for a dog that’s really interested in getting that tennis ball,” Hartman said. “They’re going to throw it, they’re going to hide it… They want a dog that has high ball drive because that’s like they do all these other chores and then get a ball as a reward.”

She ended up bringing home Storm, who she has been with for almost four years. Most dogs retire after eight or nine years of service, depending on their health. From then on, the dogs are signed over to their handlers as official owners and are no longer owned by MSU.

Hartman spends almost 24 hours a day with Storm, who can sometimes get too close to be comfortable.

“It’s tough just being with someone for that long,” Hartman said. “Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘I just need a minute alone,’ but then I go to the bathroom and he tries to come through the stall door when I’m at work. Or when I’m home, I open the bathroom door and he’s right there. He wants to be with me and I want to be with him.”

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However, Hartman said this close relationship has been positive for both of them.

“I trust him more than some people,” Hartman said. “It’s kind of crazy to think of a dog like that, but I think it’s true what they say: the bond between a handler and a dog is second to none.”

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