Program Rescues Pit Bulls For Expanding Role In Police Work | Pit Bull Press | Positive Pit Bull News
Published On: Tue, Mar 19th, 2019

Program Rescues Pit Bulls For Expanding Role In Police Work

FERRIS, Texas — Pepper has what some might call spunk. Wes Keeling simply calls it “play drive.”

The wheat-brown pit bull barreled into the carpeted auditorium as a huffing mass of lunging enthusiasm, held in check only by the sheriff’s deputy at the other end of the leash.

“She loves everybody,” said Keeling, reassuring the spectators gathered south of Dallas in the Ferris Independent School District board meeting room to see the latest graduates of the Animal Farm Foundation’s police dog program. “She wants to say hi and lick everybody in the face.”

The nonprofit foundation’s fully funded police dog training program for rescued pit bulls is conducted by Sector K9, the facility Keeling runs in Midlothian. So far, the program, launched in 2016, has sent more than 40 dogs into duty nationwide.

Pepper, assigned to Franklin County, Arkansas, sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Chancey, and her fellow pit bull grads are not what typically come to mind when you hear the words “police dog.” The rescued pit bulls reflect the New York-based Animal Farm Foundation’s mission to change public perception of the often maligned breed by preparing them for work as police K9’s and service animals.

“What we have been able to show is that dogs previously pigeonholed as unsafe in our community can take on roles of protecting people in the community,” Stacey Coleman, the foundation’s executive director, told The Dallas Morning News. “They can be absolutely essential.”

Bit by bit, law enforcement agencies around the country are starting to agree. Coleman and others who have worked with the breed say they’re just as capable as the German shepherds or Labrador retrievers bred for such work, often at great expense.

“Whenever you buy a specific breed, you’re looking at, at least, $10,000,” said sheriff’s Deputy Corey Yarbrough of Johnson County, Arkansas, whose pit bull, Maverick, was among the afternoon’s graduating class. Instead, Maverick’s approximately $3,000 training was covered by the foundation.

Because program dogs are carefully vetted rescues, the foundation also saves canine lives while positioning them, through the playful energies they already possess, to make positive community contributions.

“They’re just as good as any police dog out there in finding narcotics,” said Lt. John Julin of the Ferris ISD Police Department, whose two dogs, Heat and Storm, are program graduates. “Sometimes they’re even better.”

Heat is also the program’s first weapons-detection dog, trained to sniff for gunpowder.

“We can literally take a bullet and throw it in a field, and Heat is trained to locate and source the odor and give us an alert,” Keeling said.

A recent ceremony took place in a matter of minutes, and the dogs’ unbridled gusto likely spoke to the fact that trainer Keeling had previously used the chamber as a practice area, hiding tennis balls throughout for the dogs to find.

First came Hype, a creamy-brown pit bull who burst into the room like a punctured balloon. Then came Maverick, lean and measured, who stood dutifully facing the board dais while Yarbrough posed for photos.

Both had been rescued from a shelter in upstate New York and driven to Ferris by Erich Steffensen, the Animal Farm Foundation’s programs manager. Each swelled with the bouncy energy that had made them unsuitable as pets.

“Maverick was a busy dog, always getting into stuff,” Steffensen said. “He wasn’t going to be just a couch-potato dog. His owner said he just needed something to do.”

The dogs had been screened for their promise as obedient trackers and enrolled in Keeling’s four- to eight-week program. The officers then spent two weeks training as handlers and bonding with their new animals.

“Some people have dogs that will literally run around all day for a ball or stick or whatever,” said Keeling, a police veteran who 14 years ago launched Sector K9 and in August began training foundation dogs for police work. “We channel that energy toward finding narcotics.”

Keeling “reads” the dogs, whose shelter backgrounds can make it challenging to know what conditions or memories might set them off.

“We don’t know if they’ve scrounged on the streets or dug through dumpsters to live,” he said. “So the training styles might be different; we have to teach from the ground up.”

At first, the foundation’s Coleman said, many departments were set on more traditional breeds, no matter the cost, not thrilled about working with a breed of bad repute. And some who did faced heckling from their colleagues.

“I would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. The first time you find something, they’re gonna lay off,’ ” Coleman said. “One cop in Louisiana, her dog looked like a meathead, but within his first week of working she started making drug busts. He was a rock star. And that put an end to her being picked on.”

In addition to police departments, the dogs are placed with school district officers as much for their public relations abilities as their effectiveness as deterrents.

For Ferris ISD’s Julin, Heat and Storm are constant companions. And while he’ll search locker areas, classrooms and buses for evidence of guns or narcotics, he’ll also station himself in public areas to make himself approachable for students.

“I’ll let them pet and love on the dogs,” he said. “It builds a relationship with the students. Like, maybe a kid is afraid to talk with me because I am a police officer, but they’ll come see the dog.”

As Yarbrough, the deputy sheriff, and his family prepared to make the six-hour drive back to Arkansas, it was hard to tell through his official exterior, but it seemed he was, on the inside, just as excited as his new K9 to get to work.

“He’s wanted one ever since he started law enforcement,” said his wife, Abbie. “And because he likes drug interdiction, this really gives him a leg up.”

But for Yarbrough, there was even more to it than that.

“If not for this program, chances are this dog would be euthanized,” he said. “I think these dogs understand that this is a second chance at life.”

Source: www.sfgate.com

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