Dog's job is to sniff out explosives

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Daniel Shanken, Associated Press

Officer Mike Ferrell of the Capitol police hides dynamite in the rear of a vehicle outside of the state Capitol in Harrisburg to give Fox, a 5-year-old German shepherd, positive reinforcement after a long and tiring search during a bomb threat at the Dauphin County Courthouse proved negative for explosives. Fox is trained to search for both civilian and military grade explosives.

By Lindsay Minnema

HARRISBURG -- What do President Bush, Mick Jagger and hundreds of Pennsylvania schoolchildren have in common?

At some point in the past several years, they've all owed their security to Fox, a 5-year-old German shepherd with the Capitol police who has the ability to sniff out hidden explosives.

"I trust him with my life," said Capitol policeman Mike Ferrell, Fox's human partner. "And I trust him with everyone else's life."

Officer Ferrell and Fox work as a team, sweeping the Capitol every day for bombs. They patrol the hallways and grounds of the 100-year-old green-domed building, with Officer Ferrell running Fox's nose by every trash can and suspicious item.

The partners can travel elsewhere in the state if their services are needed.

So when it came time to secure Hershey Park before a rally for President George W. Bush, Fox and his handler were on the scene. They sniffed around before a recent Rolling Stones concert in Hershey, and they are called out to area schools whenever there's a bomb threat.

In his four years of service, Fox has never uncovered an unfriendly explosive, that is, one that wasn't planted for him for training purposes, Officer Ferrell said.

But don't tell Fox that.

"He works for the reward," Officer Ferrell said after returning from a sweep of the Dauphin County Courthouse on July 27. "We just did a long search and didn't find anything."

To keep the energetic pooch from getting discouraged, Officer Ferrell hides a small item. On that courthouse mission, it was a bit of dynamite tucked behind the tire of a car. And he allows Fox to find it.

For Fox, it was a quick and easy find. When Officer Ferrell ran him along the side of the vehicle, Fox stopped fast at the rear left tire, eagerly poking his head up under the car. Afterward, Officer Ferrell rewarded him with a few moments of playing tug-of-war over a chew toy.

Officer Ferrell said Fox was trained to uncover every civilian and military grade explosive, including fireworks. He is certified annually by both the U.S. Police Canine Association and the Pennsylvania State Police, and he carries his own badge on a chain around his neck.

At the end of the day, Fox goes home with Officer Ferrell. But this puppy is no pet. He even holds an honorary rank of sergeant to reflect his importance to the overall mission of the Capitol police.

"He's a tool, just like your gun's a tool or your flashlight's a tool," Officer Ferrell said.

"When he sees me come downstairs wearing shorts and a T-shirt, he knows it's an off day. But if he sees me wearing my grey uniform, he knows it's time to work, and he gets really excited. These dogs, they live to work."

The Capitol's canine program began in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County, Capitol Police Superintendent Richard Shaffer said.

"We felt the need to update security around the Capitol complex," he said. "We knew that if we came across a suspicious object, we wanted dogs there."

From the start, the program has included two dogs: Fox and a Belgian Malinois named Condor.

"When it comes to push and shove, dogs have been proven to fight terrorism every time," Officer Ferrell said.

"They work longer and cover a bigger area" than electronic sniffers designed to perform the same job.

And having bomb detection dogs on the premises serves as a good deterrent to potential terrorists, said Condor's handler, Officer Dale Zartman.

Officers Zartman and Ferrell both dedicate several days every month to training the dogs, keeping them at the top of their game. Once the dogs hit the age of 8 or 9, they must be recertified more often. The dogs are forced to retire when they become too slow.

"Drug dogs can afford to make a mistake every now and then without anyone getting really hurt," Officer Zartman said. "But we can't afford to make any mistakes."

Handlers have the first choice of adopting their retired service dogs as pets. For Officer Ferrell, there is no question that he would keep Fox, who, after some initial battling, now gets along relatively well with the Ferrell family's dog.

Officer Ferrell said he would apply to handle another dog once Fox retires, even though serving for the canine force means he can't pursue any promotions.

"I told my wife that, even if it entails me giving up some stripes, I'm going to stay in this," he said.

"Not a lot of people can say they really love what they're doing. But I'm lucky that way."

Officer Zartman agreed that the bond between the handler and his dog is very strong. "I look at [Condor] as my partner," he said. "He's near human."


Lindsay Minnema is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.


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