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Police dogs take a dive

Chip Ellis
Lt. James Elkins watches as Jenna, his Belgian Malinois (shepherd dog), dives into the water at Coonskin Park on Tuesday.
Chip Ellis Kanawha County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Lyons and DEA scoured the pool deck until the K9 found a hidden capsule with drugs inside. DEA indicated that she had found something by sitting on it.
Chip Ellis Dunbar Police K9 Kratos flies into the water to bite an protective sleeve worn by Kanawha County Sheriff's Cpl. Robert Evans. Handlers worked to familiarize their dogs with the water at the Coonskin Park swimming pool on Tuesday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Police K9s can sniff out drugs, bombs and dangerous suspects, but even they get skittish around a swimming pool for the first time.

Kanawha County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Mathis and a group of K9 officers trained their dogs at the Coonskin Park swimming pool on Tuesday.

Every year just before the end of summer, the swimming pool is opened for Mathis and his police dogs. The dogs think it's one big game of catch and a chance to be rewarded with treats. But Mathis knows exposing the dogs to the water is an important part of their training.

"It's about socializing the dogs to a water environment," Mathis said. "If we were conducting a track of a suspect and we came upon a creek, it would not be a big deal to them."

Mathis likened the swimming training to exposing the dogs to the sound of gunfire. But some dogs are better with the water than others.

Kanawha Deputy Jeremy Ferrell had to get in the pool and pretend to be hurt before his K9, Scout, would jump in after him. The dog's protective nature overrode any fear of being around a swimming pool for the first time.

"If you ever get attacked in your swimming pool, you know you'll be OK," a fellow deputy joked.

Mathis' K9, DEA, was afraid of the water at first but eventually wanted to swim in the deep end before the training was over, he said.

"The reward and the praise that they get after jumping in is what they work for," Mathis said.

Eventually, Mathis hid a training weapon in a grassy field near the swimming pool. DEA frantically searched for several minutes until she found it.

"To be honest, I forgot where I had hid it," Mathis said. "But that's what we look for in a dog -- a dog that won't quit until they've found it."

Cpl. Robbie Evans later put on a bite sleeve and got into the kids pool. Each K9 took turns jumping in the water after him.

Dunbar Police Lt. Mike Lester had no trouble getting his dog Kratos to jump in and take a bite. Kratos, he said, was eager to please his master.

Lester understands the bond between K9 and handler. His department is mourning the loss of Alley, a German shepherd who died last week after a decade of service.

There are nine dogs in the Kanawha County K9 unit. All of them completed a 12-week course to detect drugs such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine, Mathis said. K9 dogs retire as they grow older and begin to slow down.

"But sometimes the dogs are not ready to retire," Mathis said.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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