Police K-9 handlers test, teach 4-legged officers in Valparaiso seminar

Gary Police Cpl. John Aribey, who’s in charge of the K-9 unit for his department, said a national K-9 training workshop being sponsored by the Valparaiso Police Department this week is a boon for Gary police.

“Obviously we don’t have the means a lot of the times to attend these workshops so having it close is really nice,” he said while his Dutch German Shepherd Nero sat nearby at the Multiple Agency Academic Cooperative, or MAAC, in Valparaiso.

The department, through community donations, got its first two dogs eight years ago, and the K-9 unit now has four officers, Aribey said, adding Nero is trained for narcotics and utility work, including tracking and searching.

“We come out here to network, to train and meet master trainers,” he said.

In all, said Valparaiso Police Sgt. Todd Kobitz, a 15-year K-9 officer who organized the event, said around 100 K-9 handlers from throughout the U.S. and Canada are attending the North American Police Work Dog Association national seminar.

“For NAPWDA, our primary goal is to build stronger working dog teams,” he said, adding that results in greater safety for communities, dogs and their handlers.

The handlers come from as far away as Hawaii and Massachusetts, and as nearby as Portage and Hobart, Kobitz said, adding the Porter County Sheriff’s Department is assisting as host agency. Valparaiso hosted the state seminar in 2013.

“We’ve never held the nationals,” Kobitz said, adding the seminar continues through Thursday at MAAC, Benjamin Franklin Middle School, the former Hayes Leonard Elementary School, and other places throughout the community.

Handlers can receive national certification for the training they receive, which officials said is crucial when they are called on to testify in court, and work on a wide array of skills, including sniffing out cadavers, accelerant, narcotics, explosives, and search and rescue, Kobitz said.

The purpose of the national seminars, which rotate around the country every year, is twofold, said Rick Ashabranner, president of the NAPWDA.

The dog teams can get national certification, he said, “and apart from that, they have the opportunity to pick the brains of trainers from around the country.”

Smaller departments don’t have access to trainers, he said, adding their officers can take what they learn at the seminar back to their departments.

In one of the buildings on the MAAC campus, Tommy Pleasant, a master trainer from San Antonio, Texas, said dogs at his station would be detecting ignitable liquids.

The seminar, he added, “puts all of us on the same sheet of music. You get to see all different types of dogs and correct all these issues.”

Zuch, a chocolate Labrador retriever, came bounding up the stairs of the building with handler Donnie Pfeiffer, an investigator and K-9 handler with the Olathe Fire Department in Kansas.

“This is a chocolate Lab that’s just outstanding,” Pleasant said before Zuch, full of energy, sniffed out various locations for accelerants and was rewarded by one of two squeaky toys, and sometimes both, stashed in Pfeiffer’s back pockets.

Pfeiffer said he started working with Zuch seven years ago.

“By coming here, you get time with a master trainer as well as a trainer so if you have issues, they help you with that,” Pfeiffer said, adding he learns something new “every time” he attends one of the programs.

“As a handler you can create problems and not know you’re creating them,” he said, adding there are other benefits to the seminar. “You expand your network. You’re meeting with people from all over the country.”

Amy Lavalley is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.


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