BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MONTROSE – First impressions last and the Lee County Sheriff’s Department’s new K9 animal left an impression with those in attendance for a demonstration on Tuesday morning outside the sheriff’s office in Montrose.
Chris Kearns, the chairman of the Lee County K9 Association meandered over behind the sheriff’s garage where Dep. Uriah Wheatley was prepping his new partner Gunner for the demonstration. The Lee County Supervisors were on hand and several other members of the public were invited out after the supervisors regular meeting.
Gunner quickly let Kearns know he was in the wrong place and Kearns quickly rejoined the gathering for the demonstration.
“The other dog, when I first went up to him, kind of walked around and sniffed me and went back and I knew something wasn’t right,” Kearns said. “That’s more of the reaction I would expect.”
As part of the demonstration, Chief Deputy Will Conlee had a volunteer hold a pen in his hand for about a minute and then placed the pen out in a field next to the office building.
Wheatley brought his new partner around the other side of the garage on about a 10-foot leather lead and being held in close proximity. The two walked into the field about halfway and then Wheatley gave a command to search. Gunner found the pen in about 20 seconds.
The duo showcased Gunner’s nose for narcotics. Deputies had placed about a tablespoon of marijuana in a cellophane wrap and stashed it inside the door compartment of a vehicle that was parked in the field. Wheatley walked Gunner around two vehicles and Gunner sniffed and sat right by the driver’s side front door in what was is called “passive identification”. Wheatley opened the door and pulled out the small amount of marijuana that the German Shepherd had indicated.
At each step as a reward for achieving the right response, Gunner was given an orange ball to chew on. There were no treats or snacks, but a simple orange ball.
“That’s called ‘Ball Drive”,” Wheatley said after the demonstration. “That’s how you know a dog’s going to work. If he’ll be motivated by chasing the ball. If he doesn’t want to chase the ball, he may not have the right instincts and then it becomes the reward for work.”
Then, newly sworn in Deputy Jordan Maug was “tasked” with putting on a training sleeve and was told to come at Wheatley with a weapon. When he got about 30 feet from Wheatley, Gunner was tugging at the lead and when Maug approached 20 feet, Gunner was up on his hind legs tugging at the lead.
While Wheatley warned Maug not to come any closer, Maug continued with the training exercise and Wheatley released the animal and it went to work on the arm of Maug.
Wheatley said the training with the dog is done daily beginning at 7 a.m. and the dog has already been used in cases with the sheriff’s department, although he couldn’t elaborate on what the dog had been used for. He said it took less than three days to see that Gunner would be a better fit for the department than the previous animal because of his activity levels and alertness.
It was also announced that a second dog has also been purchased by the department and will be assigned to Dep. Dakota Foley who works the night shift.
Foley said the new dog could be in his hands by October 31 and could be ready to join the department by December He credited the response of the public for the department being able to come up with the K9 team. The second animal will also be a multi-purpose dog.
“The citizens have to take a lot of the credit for this. If it wasn’t for them, this wouldn’t be possible,” Foley said.
The K9 Association was formed at the end of last year and has been holding fundraisers with any social groups, businesses, and schools and has been applying for grants on behalf of the program to raise money to purchase, house, train, and feed the animals in the program.
Sheriff Stacy Weber said the demonstration wasn’t to show the vicious side of the animal, but to show that Gunner is there to protect the deputy first and foremost, and then to help with other law enforcement duties.
“People need to know that this isn’t about how vicious he can be, but that he’s here to protect that deputy and I think you all have seen today you don’t go up to Deputy Wheatley without his permission.”