K9s, handlers certify on old ISP grounds

A handler with the Ida County Sheriff's Department takes "Blitz" through a vehicle drug detection scenario at an Iowa State Penitentiary bay Monday morning in Fort Madison. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


FORT MADISON – For the second time in three years, canine officers and handlers from around the state came to Fort Madison for an annual detection certification at the old Iowa State Penitentiary.

This year’s event, hosted by the Lee County Sheriff’s Department and the Iowa State Penitentiary, brought in 59 animals from 30 divisions representing all four corners of the state.

Melinda Ruopp, a 31-year veteran of the Marshalltown Police Department, was the Region 21 national certifying official at the event. Ruopp she also was certification official and judge at the 2019 trials on the old ISP grounds.

“The whole purpose of this is to show that the dog knows the odor of marijuana or meth or cocaine,” Ruopp said.

“We set up the hides to put out the odor. The hides are blind so the handler’s don’t know where the drugs are and have to go into three different rooms where we’ve set out two different sets of drugs. One room doesn’t have anything.”

The handlers and dogs were not only scored in room searches, but also in detecting drugs hidden in vehicles in one of the ISP bays.

ISP Sgt. Mike Barnes, a veteran K9 handler and advisor to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department’s handlers said with the chemical makeup of drugs changing all the time, the animals and handlers have to prepare for that.

“You have to train and adapt with that,” Barnes said.

He’s gone to a passive detection with his dog where the animal will sit when drug odor is detected or just stand and stare. He said that prevents needless damage to property than can happen with aggressive alerts.

“I’ve seen aggressive indicating dogs, which you will not see in the Department of Corrections of ISP, but other departments do have them,” he said.

“We’ve going to passive indicating dogs that sit, or stand and stare so you don’t have dogs tearing up property that may have had narcotics in there prior to, but not at that time.”

Roupp said the certification tests the dog’s ability to locate the odor and it tests the handler’s ability to recognize the dog is alerting and alerting properly.

She said the test drugs come straight from the Drug Enforcement Agency so the animals have to react to the latest chemical makeup of the drugs.

“Most of the time the samples come straight from the Drug Enforcement Agency, so that’s the most current you’re going to get. Meth is made so differently now, it’s important that it come from them so it’s fairly recent.” she said.

“The dogs go to the molecular level so if there is some minor changes in the meth composition, they still can recognize the drug at that level.”

The two-day training was part of the United States Police Canine Association’s Region 21 annual Detection Dog Certification Trials.

Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber said with the high-level of the K9 program at ISP, it made sense to partner with them for the 2021 trials.

“This year we co-hosted with ISP since we’re fortunate to have such a large professional team of dogs and handlers here at the Fort Madison prison. It just made sense to partner with them and do this together,” Weber said.

Weber’s department has two K9s and two handlers. Kion works with deputy Jordan Maag and Gunner works with deputy Bryson Hennigar. Hennigar and Gunner have been together for less than six months, Kion and Maag have been partnered up for about two years.

Weber said both those animals will work the trials. He said the animals have been mostly used for detection, but he hopes continued training and opportunity show the added potential of the dogs. They are trained to track, but he said timing is critical in getting the most out of the dogs in those situations.

“Timing’s everything with tracking. When people realize someone is missing there’s such a time lap that occurs that tracking doesn’t always work. But do I want them to be able to do that, absolutely,” Weber said.

“I want them to be well-rounded. When the officers roll up on something I want them to have all the tools and the K9 officers are just another part of that tool box,” Weber said.

The K9 officers and handlers are paired up 24/7. They are with the officers when on patrol and then they go home with them at the end of the shift.

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