In February 2016, when a man speeding in a stolen pickup truck turned abruptly on U.S. 24 and T-boned a William Chrisman student who just started her drive home, nearly killing her, that driver fled the scene but didn't get far.

Isaac, an Independence Police K-9 officer who had just finished training that morning and was on his first assignment, tracked the suspect to a few blocks away, hiding next to a porch.

That dog's predecessor on the Independence force, Dax, once found a gun hidden in the leaves of a yard weeks after a murder suspect had been captured, and another time found a gun hidden under mulch that officers missed.

Earlier this week, a bus passenger trying to transport nine pounds of heroin and fentanyl across the country got snuffed out in Kansas City by a police K-9 and now is in federal custody.

With law enforcement agencies and security personnel across the metro and the country, trained dogs perform a variety of tasks that have made them invaluable.

“They can do some amazing things that are very beneficial,” said Sgt. Eric Onstott, who heads IPD's K-9 unit that includes five dogs (the department also has a therapy dog).

The Oak Grove Police Department obtained its first K-9 officer early last year after a citizen-driven fundraiser, and Officer William Anderson said Merlin has been a much-needed asset.

“Where do I begin,” Anderson, his handler, said. “He has saved us I couldn't count the man hours – clearing buildings, finding drugs. He's probably saved ourselves more than once. They give up when the dog comes.”

Anderson said a couple times police have entered a building and arrested a suspect whom they found with a gun but who wouldn't initially surrender.

“We asked the guy why he gave up,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘I didn't care until you said the dog was coming in.’”

The Blue Springs School District Police also has some K-9 officers, though handler Russ Berry makes sure to point out that Ado is not trained for apprehending suspects.

In Ado’s case, he’ll never work at Arrowhead Stadium, where he was practicing last week with dozens of other dogs, but the stadium concourse and suites are like the halls and classrooms at school, and the pretend dignitary motorcade outside is like the student parking lot.

“He finds dangerous items; he's not a bite dog,” Berry said between training sessions at the stadium. “We want the students to see him. They bring a smile to the kids' faces.”

 

More common

A police dog or security dog used to be seen mostly in just federal and larger municipal agencies, Berry remembers, until 9/11.

“It was rare to everybody back then at the (small) local level,” he said.

Now, they're common enough that a training event like last week's at Arrowhead for explosives detection – hosted by Kansas City Police and run by the Department of Homeland Security and a specialized contractor – will draw from Blue Springs Schools, Shawnee, Kansas, and even the Federal Reserve Bank.

“It's kind of hit and miss,” Onstott said of smaller agencies having a K-9 program. “A lot of times, it's not cheap. We're extremely lucky where we have two vets who take care of us.”

To obtain a dog and put it and the handler through standard training can run up $13,000 or $14,000, Onstott said. Beyond that, a car has to be specially equipped to handle a K-9, and then there's equipment and food. Blue Springs Police has had federal grants that helped its K-9 program, and both Onstott and Anderson spoke of their departments receiving donations that helped offset costs.

“Even with all the supplies, it's still be a minimum of $2,000 for the city,” Anderson said.

 

Why those dogs

For pure sniffing purposes, a hound or Labrador breed can be good for an agency, like Kansas City International Airport. Onstott said he's read about dogs trained to find computer flash drives.

For most police work a German shepherd like Ado or a slightly smaller and more agile Belgian malinois like Merlin is ideal.

“Their hunt/prey drive, they're athletic and agile and they can work for a long time,” Berry said, rattling off some traits. “They have a long snout, so they have lots of smell receptors.”

“They can do everything good,” Onstott said. “It takes a lot of training for scent discrimination, but they can also do apprehension. They have such a high ball (reward) drive.

“When you train at first for narcotics, you take a drug and toy and just play fetch. The dog's associating the toy with that smell. The dog's looking for his toy. It's all set up on getting to play.”

Onstott said IPD's dogs are trained for narcotics and article/human searches. For the rare time they need explosives detection, Kansas City can provide assistance. Helping other agencies with a K-9 task is quite common, he said.

For example, this summer Merlin and a Jackson County Sheriff K-9 helped IPD find a suspect who, while in possession of two guns, had approached an IPD cop conducting a traffic stop and then fled into the caves.

No matter the work or training session, handlers agree that to the K-9 it's more like play.

“People might see the dog sitting in the back of the car and think, 'Oh, poor dog,'” Onstott said. “My golden retriever at home would love to ride around in a car and get to play several times a day.”