Handling Halo: New K-9 joins DTF unit
by Jessica Loeding
Sep 22, 2013 | 2875 views | 0 0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print
* Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on new K-9 units operating inside Bartow County.

When you think of guardian angels, you imagine white robes and wings, not fur and four legs.

But, when Jeremy Woody began picking a name for the newest Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force K-9, a protector is exactly what he wanted.

“His name was Cedro. ... Overseas, in Holland, they don’t give the dogs cool names; they just give them names,” Woody said. “... I started looking online, looking at different names, trying to figure out stuff. I ran across Halo and said, ‘That’s a cool name. I like it.’

“I think of halo as your halo above your head, so he’s my little guardian dog. He’s always going to be here. Luckily, we’ve not had to use him for anything like that, to come rescue daddy or anything, but I know he’s going to be there if that happens. That’s why I picked Halo.”

Born March 7, 2012, in Holland, Halo was selected in early May from a vendor in Pennsylvania. The German shepherd was among roughly 40 canines viewed by Woody.

“The first thing we’ve got to do is, they do tests on the dog to make sure they have the type of drives — the hunt drive, the prey drive, the play drive, the fights — to make sure they are going to be a good patrol dog. We tested those when we went to the dealer up in Pennsylvania, and we picked from the dogs we felt were the best for what we were looking for,” said Woody.

Based on the needs of his agency and the county, Woody chose a calmer, less aggressive animal than larger organizations may select.

“In Bartow County, we are not Fulton County, DeKalb County, Atlanta, those dogs they probably get a bite a week … around those high-crime areas, those target-rich environments basically is what it’s called. … Those dogs are going to be more vicious, not as friendly as, say, my dog and some of the local dogs around here,” he said. “… We do demos for schools and we do those things to where kids are very interested. … They look at dogs as their pets. They’re not going to look at dogs as a tool like how we look at it, so they want to touch the dog, they want to pet, play with it. You’ve got to have a dog to be able to do that, to somewhat turn it off and not fire off on a child.

“That’s why we chose the dog I’ve got now, Halo. He fits perfectly for Bartow County.”

Certified K-9

Arriving the first week of May, Halo was considered a “green dog,” or one with no training.

Woody and Halo, who are certified as a unit, began working immediately on identifying the odor of narcotics. Known as imprinting, the canine is capable of recognizing the odor of four major narcotics — marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

Behind narcotics comes the one trait Woody stresses repeatedly — obedience.

“You’ve got to have your dog to be obedient to you before anything else. Other than the imprint, that’s the first thing we do because that is very, very important,” he said. “This is a dog that has to obey your every command because it may come down to biting somebody or not biting somebody. Whether they are doing something wrong one second, the second they stop you’ve got to stop your dog as they’re chasing toward them.

“… Once the fight stops, the fight stops. If you don’t have the obedience and control over that dog, you’re not going to be able to. That dog’s not going to be able to listen to you and do what you want — ‘If I don’t do what daddy tells me to do, I’m going to be in trouble.’ But, if that dog thinks that he’s the alpha dog in your little pack, he’s not going to listen to you. You cannot have that.”

Although Woody and Halo designate one day per week for training, the handler said each day is a learning opportunity.

“… Regardless, before certification, after certification, you train every day in order to keep your dog up to his top potential. You tell your dog to sit, to lie down, to stand, and in doing all these things, you are [reiterating] your training every day with the dog,” he said. “If you are working with a dog and you go say five or six months without any training with your K-9 and you go back and you expect them to do a perfect track or a perfect area search they haven’t done it in so long … you’re losing that skill set, not completely, but your enhancement has dropped tremendously because you haven’t done it in so long. That’s why we train every week.

“… If there is a scenario or something has happened that you think you may never come in contact with, like tracking across water or something, if the dog needs to swim to pick up another track, you may not necessarily train on that, but at some point, you’re going to need to. … When we have training every week, we always train on narcotics and obedience. Always. Those are the top two things.”

The nose knows

During the three months between the selection of Halo and the unit’s certification in August, Woody also worked with the dog on tracking. Trained to detect human odor, Halo follows the freshest trail, which becomes difficult if others have traversed the area.

“… Our dogs are not trained to find a specific scent. Our dogs can’t take someone’s shirt that was left in a car and track the shirt. Our dog goes off the freshest scent,” Woody explained. “So … wherever someone runs from, wherever the expectations are met for you to be able to track that person or a missing child, hopefully no one else has messed with the area because that person would be the freshest track. That’s what your dog is going to do — he’s going to find skin cells that are falling off your body at an enormous rate.”

German shepherds typically have in the ballpark of 220 million olfactory receptors — located in the membranes of olfactory receptor neurons — used for odor detection, according to research. Humans have about 5 million.

“Their nose is tenfold times better than the human nose,” DTF Commander Capt. Mark Mayton said. “If we suspect there are drugs in a vehicle, an automobile, container, the mere fact that he senses those odors gives us probable cause to move forward with the incident or the case or the traffic stop. Without his nose sometimes, we wouldn’t make a case.”

Woody agreed, placing Halo’s nose as the No. 1 benefit of having a K-9.

“Their sense of smell is so sensitive that, if even a miniscule amount, a residue amount, just an odor transfer on a seat or on clothing if someone has smoked a narcotic ... the dog can still give an indication to the smell, the odor of a narcotic ... That’s things that officers, we can’t do,” he said.

Getting inside

Sitting along the shoulder of Interstate 75 Tuesday, Woody and DTF interdiction officers have reason to believe the driver of a Chevrolet has marijuana inside the vehicle.

When called upon, Halo jumps from the SUV, makes a detour to the wood line and then circles the car. As expected, the K-9 locates a mason jar of marijuana behind the passenger’s seat.

“… These guys that come out here and they work interdiction or they just do traffic a whole lot, [a K-9 is] such a great tool to have, for them to be able to get inside a vehicle,” Woody said. “There’s only so many ways to get inside a vehicle, you know, with a warrant, ... probable cause, vehicle inventory, and ... a K-9 sniff.

“Most of the time you can smell marijuana coming from a car if there is marijuana in it. Of course, that gives us probable cause to search the vehicle with or without consent, if we smell green or burnt marijuana. ... If it’s the other three narcotics he can alert to, it’s going to be the same thing — it’s going to allow us to get inside the vehicle. Otherwise, they may have whatever inside the vehicle that you can’t see or anything, and if you’ve got the dog, he’s able to smell it out and get you inside the car or get you inside the house or anywhere else it may be.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two Florida cases concerning the use of police dogs.

In the first, the high court overturned in February the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Florida v. Harris. The case revolved around the performance history of a K-9 and his handler after the dog alerted to the door handle of the same truck in two separate traffic stops. In neither stop were narcotics located. However, in the first stop, the officer located ingredients for the manufacture of meth.

The state’s high court said the dog’s alert did not constitute probable cause, calling into question the number of “hits” and “misses” in the K-9’s performance and training records.

Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the unanimous court.

“The question — similar to every inquiry into probable cause — is whether all the facts surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime. A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test,” the opinion stated.

However, in the second opinion issued in March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement cannot bring K-9s onto private property in a search for evidence without a warrant.

“My position on that is it’s no different than an officer. Halo is actually considered an officer, or a member of this task force,” Mayton said. “That said, if we are somewhere, if we are at a property, if we are at a public place, we have to have a legal right to be there. And, if we do not have a legal right to be there, anything we develop from where we are at, and we don’t have that right to be there, is no good in court. … That evidence is suppressible.”

A lack of exposure to the DTF and K-9s may be behind a public misperception about the use of police dogs, he added.

“We have a stellar record in court. … We don’t move forward unless there is some legal basis for us to move forward in a case, and sometimes because, I think, of a lack of exposure to what we do, our careers, our discipline that we practice, that people just don’t understand … It’s not because anyone is less intelligent; it’s just they’re not exposed to it on a daily basis,” Mayton said. “We study weekly changes in law, changes in case law, something that happens on the West Coast could absolutely affect what happens right here in Bartow County, so we make sure that the things we are doing is consistent with current rulings and current case law outside our normal practices that we are taught and educated on in our law enforcement careers.”

Beginning of a career

At the tender age of 18 months, Halo is just beginning his law enforcement career, which reasonably could span 10 years.

Woody, who himself has almost a decade behind the badge, compares his four-legged partner to a toddler.

“Halo is a puppy, so they need a lot of attention,” he said. “... They are kind of like children, like babies, they need full attention all the time. If they don’t get attention, they whine, they bark, they want to be attended to.”

Residing with Woody at his residence, Halo receives baths twice weekly, exceptional veterinary care and daily brushings.

“Brushing helps them relax if they’re really stressed out,” Woody said. “If ... we’re doing a track and the dog gets stressed out, a long track, a 30-minute, 45-minute track and there’s nothing really to it and we’re not coming up with anything and the dog’s getting stressed out, the best way to calm them down is take them back, just have you-and-daddy time, just brush them out, relax, pet them from nose to tail and just calm them down. It’s very comforting to them when you are sitting there brushing them.”

Perhaps the one area — because of his work environment — Halo seems shorted is in his diet.

“He gets nothing but dog food. He may get a treat; he may get a hot dog every now and then if he does something really good,” his handler explained. “... There’s a reason we don’t give them hamburgers, we don’t give them scraps, we don’t give them bones. If a dog goes into a vehicle, we do different training where we can put different items in the vehicles to where it might be pizza or Chinese food in the back of a car. We’ve placed narcotics in it during training and the dog knows not to mess with that other food. That’s why they don’t get fed it — because those are things that are very common that could be in someone’s car.”

Asked Tuesday about why his vehicle was “wasting gas” while Woody picked up lunch, the handler simply explains there is a dog inside.

Public misconceptions about his job and his partner often raise questions for the officer.

“They are not pets. You can’t humanize K-9s for law enforcement,” Woody said. “They are animals. You know, we don’t mistreat them. You treat these dogs different than you do a home pet.”

And, unlike house pets, Halo faces very real job hazards.

“No. 1 concern, my main concern for him is him getting hurt on a track. I’m not worried about the heat exhaustion. It does cross your mind, but I do have some very good equipment that has proven that it works and I know that it works as long as I have it on,” Woody said. “Most K-9 deaths occur on tracks and most K-9 officers that get killed occur on tracks because there is so much unknown. When you are tracking, you have to watch your dog. Your dog is doing the job, you’re not. … That’s why we have officers that go with us. Their job is to watch the area around you to make sure that you and your dog and everybody else there is safe. … It’s not just the heat exhaustion in the car. … Things happen.”

Flying solo

While he works alongside agencies across the county, for the most part Woody and Halo are alone — even more so now because the pair is, with the exception of one agency, the only certified K-9 unit in Bartow.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Woody said of his position. “Working in the jail, it was fun as an experience. The jail was a fun job to me; I really enjoyed it, to get to know the laws, to get to know policy before I got transferred to patrol. And patrol was fun. You didn’t have to meet with all the bad people. You got to go to calls and meet with the very nice people, who are hard-working people, who just happen to have a bad run of luck and someone broke into their house or somebody stole the gas out of their car.

“… But, with here, I’m the only one in the county. A lot of people rely on me to do anything. I’m constantly on the radio listening for calls, seeing what’s going on.”

Bartow County, just a few years ago, employed three K-9 units. Woody went solo early in 2012 with the retirement of Sgt. Mark Roberts and K-9 Eron.

When he began working as a handler three years ago, he said he was not the first pick to take over now-retired K-9 Remi.

“They give it to another deputy. He had the dog for a couple of days and ... he had just had a baby and things just weren’t working out with the dog, so they called me and asked me if I was still interested,” Woody said. “Of course, I was, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m interested.’ It was another couple of weeks and I went and picked up the dog and was taking him home, still working patrol, trying to get acquainted to the dog and all that fun stuff, make sure we were going to jive together.”

Remi, who was 5 when Woody took over as his handler, worked seven years — three with Woody — retiring in the spring after experiencing medical issues in his hip. The dog now resides at a Cobb County location.

Because the DTF duo is it for Bartow, Mayton said the agency is looking to add to the unit.

“We were up to three K-9s at one time. Because of personnel cuts and budgetary constraints, we were not able to replace those. We are in the process now of getting in the position from a financial point of view that we can add additional K-9 units,” he said. “It is very tough on Jeremy; my hat’s off to him because he’s it as far as the county and the city of Cartersville is concerned. If there is a K-9 needed, he’s basically on call seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

According to Mayton, the cost to get a K-9 unit off the ground runs between $45,000 and $65,000, minus the handler’s wages.

“You look at a vehicle, by the time it’s fully outfitted and equipped, that’s about $35,000 in itself. A K-9 can run us from $7,000 to $10,000, and then the equipment that goes along with that can be up to $10,000. ... That’s just to get one on deck and get it ready for service,” he said. “Labor law says that a K-9 handler has to be paid one hour of overtime every day for care of the K-9. That’s feeding, bathing, needs that may transpire, so that’s a built-in cost. ... You’re looking at $300 to $400 just in food bills, and then veterinarian bills can vary. It can be as cheap as $200 a month up to $2,000 a month. … It’s really hard to budget for that.”

Until the time he’s no longer flying solo, Woody said he’ll be there to help.

“I’m in a specialized unit where I’m not held to where I have to go answer calls. … I can ride around and use my dog to the best of his abilities. I’m able to help everybody else,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to come out and there’s a patrol officer or CID or another agency that’s needing a dog, which is something that’s very, very needed and utilized in the county, and I get to help them.”

The importance of Halo and his handler is not lost on the agency’s commander.

“It is a vital part of this division. We offer services not just to our respective parent agencies. We help other municipalities in the county, other agencies outside this county, federal agencies,” Mayton said. “Jeremy and his K-9 are just as important as any other moving part of this task force. Without him, we would be handicapped because, not only does Jeremy function as the K-9 handler, he is also an active member of the task force, and we have to utilize him as an officer just like he does the K-9. … He’s a part of every moving part that goes on in this division. We would be less without him.”