BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The John Bennett Center at the old Iowa State Penitentiary converted from outdated prison space to testing grounds on Monday and Tuesday.
Handlers and K9 officers from around the state descended on Fort Madison for two days of training at the former prison site.
The two-day training was part of the United States Police Canine Association’s Region 21 annual Detection Dog Certification Trials.
Melinda Ruopp, a 31-year veteran of the Marshalltown Police Department, was the Region 21 national certifying official and judge. The event was for narcotics dogs only.
Ruopp was a K9 handler in Marshalltown and, for more than 20 years, worked with two dogs before shifting to training and certifying.
There were 63 dogs and handlers at the competition and all 63 went through the same search scenarios. The judging is done by certified law enforcement handlers.
“This is cops judging cops,” Ruopp said. “You have five people that take a look at your dog so it’s nice to be able to say, “‘Hey, I had five certified handlers that judged my dog and all five said my dog could do the work’.”
She said the dogs are being tested on three factors: recognizing narcotics, responding to the odor, and the handler interpreting what the dog is telling them and locating the narcotics.
The odors being detected were marijuana, cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine.
On the first day the handlers and canines searched five cars in an old ISP garage with methamphetamine and cocaine hidden inside the framework of the vehicle. On the second day, the teams worked three different former correctional officer rooms on the third floor of the John Bennett wing looking for hidden marijuana and heroine.
The dogs typically have two alerts, a passive alert where the animal will sit or stare in a stopped motion, or “Freeze”. The other dogs take an aggressive approach and will scratch at the site and/or bark to alert the handler.
Ruopp said K9 utilization grew rapidly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
“After 9/11 we saw a big uptick in the use of the canine’s and that wasn’t just for use in detecting explosives, but for detecting in general,” she said. “Dogs have such instinctive abilities. You can’t take a machine and get the same results. They try, and keep trying, to get machines to detect like a dog, but ultimately you cannot replace a dog’s nose for scent. The detection ability of a well-trained dog is off the charts.”
She said the events were more trials than competitions, where the purpose wasn’t to bring home a trophy, but to show a minimum standard of operation between the search, the dog, and the handler.
“This is not meant to be challenging. It’s not meant to be the toughest thing you will ever do with your dog. It’s meant to show that the dog knows the standard and the handler knows what the dog knows. Then you do training to improve the skill level from there,” Ruopp said.
All the trials had 10 minute time parameters to find two ‘hides’, but when the handlers were confident the animals had detected everything in the cars or rooms, they stopped the search. The handlers then had to show the judges where the hides were located on both days.
The judges, who have years of experience, would talk with some of the handlers after the trials and give them advice to help with leash leads and lengths, and on several occasions told the handlers to trust their animals.
German Shepherds were the most common at the event and are still the most common in the United States, but Ruopp said Belgian Malinois will probably take over the Shepherds in terms of numbers.
“Belgian Malinois are spectacular dogs. They have overall skill, they’re smart, agile, and they’re very well-rounded for everything you ask them to do,” Ruopp said. “But pretty much any dog that has the drive to hunt for something can be taught to search for narcotics or any other skill you want to teach them.”
There were also Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Dutch Shepherds on site ranging from 8 months to 12 years old.
Ruopp said the toughest thing about the trials is how the handlers work with their animals.
“The hardest thing about this is handling the dog. You can take a really good dog and put him with a bad handler and really screw that dog up. But you can also take a minimally skilled dog and put him with a good handler and have a fantastic team,” she said.
“By the nature of the beast, that dog is going to take you to the very heart of danger if it’s a tracking or patrol dog. Detection work is complicated and you have to consider a lot of things when you’re working a dog. The dog can do it, but he needs your help. It’s a teamwork thing.”
There are 26 regions of the USPCA in the country and Iowa is 21. Mike Barnes, a handler with Iowa State Penitentiary and an advisor to the Lee County K9 Association, helped set up the trial scenarios. He also worked his dog during the trials.
Ruopp said the USPCA appreciated the efforts of Barnes to help set up the event and thanks ISP Warden Patti Wachtendorf, for allowing the trials to take place in Fort Madison.