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K-9 units gather for training seminar

Staff Photo: John Bohn Deputy David Wood of the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office works a drill with K-9 Rocky during a K-9 certification seminar, held at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn. Television host Victoria Stillwell visited the event.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Deputy David Wood of the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office works a drill with K-9 Rocky during a K-9 certification seminar, held at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn. Television host Victoria Stillwell visited the event.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Chad Norris of the Barrow County Sheriff's Office, works with K-9 Ace as the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office hosts other agencies in a K-9 certification seminar, held at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn on Monday. This drill was a drug sniffing exercise. Television host Victoria Stillwell visited the event.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Brian Turner, of the Harriman Police Department in Tennessee, works with his K-9 partner Mexx, a German Shepherd dog, as the Gwinnett Sheriff's Office hosts other agencies in a K-9 certification seminar, held at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn. Television host Victoria Stillwell visited the event. Officer Turner and Mexx were working on a drug search exercise.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Television host Victoria Stillwell photographs Gwinnett Sheriff's Deputy David Wood working with K-9 Rocky during a K-9 certification seminar, held at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn on Tuesday.

LILBURN -- For only being in training about three weeks, Ace has made strides to improve his skills as a police dog.

That's according to his handler, Barrow County Sheriff's Department investigator Chad Norris. With more training this week, Norris hopes Ace, who is 15 months old, could be certified in narcotics today.

"He's come a long, long way," Norris said. "It's taken a lot of work."

Hosted by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, more than a dozen K-9 units from around the Southeast have gathered this week at Providence Christian Academy to receive certification, brainstorm strategies and network. The seminar, called the "Next Level K-9 Seminar," is designed to help police dogs and their handlers go beyond the basic techniques that pass certifications. The three-day seminar ends today.

"The idea is to find the holes in your dog," said Scott Zimmerman, agency K-9 trainer with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office. "If you find the holes in your dog program, your dog team, then you know where to start and how to fix them. By having other people around, you see different scenarios, and you've got people who can help you no matter your level of experience and knowledge."

Sgt. Paul Corso and Deputy Jason Cotton led the seminar, which began with an evaluation of each dog and handler's strengths and weaknesses. Cotton said many handlers typically only have time and resources to get certified regularly, and don't fix problems.

One of the certifications performed was through the International Forensics Research Institute, which established a recommended scientific standard of practice for trainers, Cotton said.

Among the training techniques were how to find narcotics, search building and track criminals. The dogs are trained to find an odor associated with four drugs: marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

Because the dogs and handlers had varied levels and types of experience, Corso and Cotton said they focused on the team. At times, they coached the handler more than a dog, such as in one example where Corso rattled car keys against a metal chair to strengthen skills against distraction.

"It's a team. It's the dog and the handler," Cotton said. "You can have the best dog in the world but if you get him with a mediocre handler, you'll have a mediocre team. That's why we focus on teaching the team aspect, not the dog."