For more than 30 years, the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office has "gone to the dogs" for solving crimes.
In 1981, Lt. Andrew Lawrence began the K-9 program in the sheriff's office with its first dog, Buster. Eleven dogs have served in the program since, and K-9 Deputy Bryan Burmaster said the program is changing with the times.
In the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office, the K-9 program is part of normal law enforcement and dogs ride along with their deputy handlers on normally scheduled shifts.
K-9 Deputy Jason Beichner holds Drago back as he gets ready to attack.
Photo by Shirley Pulawski
Dog and deputy handler form a strong bond. From the beginning of a dog's training through its career, it will work with one deputy, Burmaster told The Post-Journal in an exclusive interview. Each K-9 handler is assigned to a dog, and the two will work as a team for about 10 years.
"Everyone keeps the same dog. Basically, your dog is your partner. You learn their nuances, things about the way the dog reacts others might not see, and you have a bond with that dog."
K-9 Deputy Jason Beichner, who has been working with K-9 Drago for about two years, said, "If you're having a bad day, the dog knows it. He can see it, even smell it - the adrenalin, your posture, everything," he explained.
"The dogs are a law enforcement tool, but this is a tool with a brain. It's not a computer you can just click on something and get a result. It has its own mindset. It thinks and it breathes. And just like people, sometimes they have a bad day where they're just not thinking clearly," Burmaster said.
He also said the dogs are intelligent and need activity and regular physical exercise.
"These dogs need a job. They need to be mentally stimulated. They excel when they have something to do," Burmaster said, and added, "If they're not given something to keep their minds busy, they will find something to do."
While a normal part of the schedule, K-9 officers' shifts are different from those of other law enforcement officers and involve planning. "You have to make sure you have places where you can stop and the dog can get out and run around, where you can throw the ball around for them. They can't just go from one kennel (in the vehicle) to another (at the handler's home). It's bad for them physically, and it's bad for them mentally," Burmaster explained.
Currently, the program has three dogs. Two are German Shepherds from Czechoslovakia, where they are bred as police dogs and cost about $7,000 each. Burmaster said the dogs arrive at 12 to 18 months old and already have some training, but not too much. He said the dog and handler don't learn to read each other as well if the dog arrives with too much training. "We like 'green dogs' mostly. We don't want them to come in with too much training so they learn to do things our way," he said.
"We try to be as self-sufficient as possible and do everything in-house that we can. We try to keep costs down," Burmaster said.
Food is donated by Purina in Dunkirk, and veterinary services are provided by Russell Veterinary of Pennsylvania. "Most of the equipment we've gotten on grants," Burmaster said. He said the department also accepts donations specifically for the program and holds an annual golf tournament in June which raises most of the remaining operating costs.
Until a few years ago, K-9 officers had to travel to other counties to keep up to date with training. "For a while, it seemed like I was traveling to Buffalo or Onondaga County or somewhere else all the time. Now, we offer the training here, so people come to us," he explained.
"The whole program has been streamlined," to be more economical and efficient, he explained, and said the dogs provide results humans can't deliver.
The dogs are trained to sniff out bombs and other explosives, drugs, human scent, and anything out of the ordinary.
"We imprint the dogs with a required list of odors for certification. Basic odors. For drug dogs, this includes opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine," Burmaster said. For explosives, dogs are trained on eight to 10 odors to receive certification through the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. "All of our dogs are certified," he explained.
In the past, Burmaster said K-9s were used more for directly apprehending suspects, but said that has changed.
"The whole attitude is changing across the entire industry," he said.
He explained the program is now used more to assist with rescue missions, locating missing persons and stolen or lost property, as well as finding drugs and explosives.
"They get a lot of cross training in patrol work, tracking, area searches, apprehensions, all kinds of things."
Burmaster said just seeing the dogs and fearing the threat of being bitten is enough to cause some "bad guys" to surrender. K-9 Deputy Beichner agreed.
"You'll have someone with a gun pointed at them with a bright red laser sight on their chest, and they're just worried about the dog, and say, 'Just don't let the dog loose,' so there really is a respect for the dogs," he said. "And there should be," he added.
Beichner said last year alone, Drago sniffed out 12 pounds of marijuana and located around 14 people. One, a missing hunter in Lockville, was located within 15 minutes in the woods by Drago.
Drago was also on the scene when fugitive Keith Reed, accused of murdering a Clymer school superintendent, was apprehended.
A K-9 enforcement dog is not a deadly weapon, according to Burmaster. "They're a locating tool first, and use of force second, and only if needed."
"It's not about aggression. It's the dog's prey drive that we work with. Every dog has the drive. You can build it up or knock it down, but it never goes away," he said.
"We're huge on obedience, both on and off lead. You don't want to be out in a situation and have the dog go after a squirrel, so we work to train that out of them and funnel that drive toward certain things," Burmaster said.
"Every place we go into has its own odors. We go into places with cats, and there's cat poop and other dogs and people odors. Every dog has to be able to keep focused on the job with all of those distractions," he explained.
In addition to detecting specific odors while ignoring distractions, the dogs are taught to smell something that is different in the environment, like metal in grass. Burmaster said he places pennies in the grass as part of training exercises for the dogs. He said this ability proved valuable after a robbery at a Jamestown-area Home Depot. The dog on the scene found pennies and nickels in the parking lot left behind, which signaled the location where the perpetrators took off, making camera and other area search tools more effective.
Criminals beware: creative tactics for concealing contraband are no match for the K-9 detectives. In a drug arrest incident, a dog on the scene noticed something no humans could have detected. After a suspected narcotics dealer was stopped in his vehicle, Burmaster's dog behaved unexpectedly.
"My dog kept running through the car and out the other side over to the car parked next to it. He was running around the back of it and crawling underneath it and going crazy."
He said he kept trying to call the dog off, but the dog crawled under the car parked next to the suspect's car.
"He started chewing on the tire," he said. "It turned out there was $16,000 cash inside the tire," he said, and explained the dog either smelled the residue of drugs which had been transferred to the surface of the bills, or smelled something different about that tire.
"Too often, I try to out-think my dog," Burmaster said, "but they know what they are doing."
"We try to get them out as much as we can," Burmaster said, and not always for crimes but also for issues of safety. He said a horseback rider lost a gun on a wooded trail, and a K-9 was able to safely recover the gun.
The dogs also visit jails on a regular basis, and not just to the Chautauqua County jail. Burmaster said the dogs detect odors of contraband in jails in Fredonia, Jamestown and Dunkirk, too.
Training for the dogs and their handlers is done weekly in groups of seven to 13 dogs and their handlers. The dogs come from other agencies from within and outside of the county. This allows the handlers to learn from each other, share experiences and for the dogs to experience working on locations with each other.
Dog handlers in the K-9 program also work with each other's dogs and the dogs may work together while in a training session. This helps during investigations because the dogs and handlers are all more familiar with each other, and the dogs are not going to confuse a law enforcement officer or another dog with a suspect.
"The community of dog handlers is a real asset," Burmaster said. They learn from each other, share training and situational tips, and Burmaster said, "Everyone has experienced something and we all learn from that."
However, during the training sessions, as well as in real life and in criminal investigations, an officer may act as a decoy. The officer will don street clothing and engage in suspicious behavior while the handler in the role of an investigating officer yells for the person to stop and raise their hands. During a training session visited by the The Post-Journal, Jamestown Police Officer Erik Kraft posed as a suspicious person and played the role out in front of Drago by running and yelling and refusing Beichner's commands to stop and surrender.
Burmaster said the decoy must also know how to interact with the dog. "You have to be able to read that dog, and how to posture yourself and not confuse the dog. You can end up with a hurt dog, or if that dog knocks you down, you have to know how to handle that," he explained.
The decoy's work is not play. Any officers wishing to join the K-9 program must put in a lot of work and meet special challenges.
"You have to learn how to be on the receiving end of a dog bite, and how you react to that is important. You've got 750 pounds of pressure per square inch in a bite from one of these dogs," Burmaster stated. "You have to be the kind of person who is going to handle that to do this."
Burmaster said intense training is vital for both dog and handler, who must be very committed to the program and the individual dog assigned to them. "It's a 10-year or more commitment. Sometimes, you think you're leaving to go to a nice dinner, and you get that call, and you have to go," he said.
"I tell them it's hard and it's a lot of work.
"You end up spending more time with the dog than anyone in your family. There's eight hours in the car minimum, plus training, so it's a significant part of your life. You have to be dedicated to it," Beichner said.
Burmaster said he tries to make sure those interested in working in the program understand it is hard work.
"I sit them all down and I lay it out. I know at first they don't believe me, but I tell them for 10 to 12 hours a day, you have an obligation to another living animal. All day, every day, they need food, water and care. You can't be taking a long vacation. You have to have someone who can take care of that dog while you're gone. That dog is not going to accept just anyone coming to their kennel," he explained, and added, "It's a family decision. It affects the whole family. If you get that dog home, and it doesn't like your wife or your kids, then you have to deal with that and make it work.
"It's not easy. It really takes a special person to do this."
Once selected to become K-9 handlers, the deputies are assigned to a new dog and both undergo a rigorous initial training program. "It's very physical," Beichner said. "I don't know how much, but I lost at least 10 pounds in probably just the first week (of training)," he said.
The course of lessons and work is followed by an oral board, then ongoing training is done with both the handlers and dogs on a weekly basis. Training may also take place after an investigation if the dog encounters something unexpected or doesn't receive an expected outcome.
Burmaster said to the dog, a successful apprehension on a crime scene is rewarding. "If we do a drug search or something like that, and the dog doesn't find anything, I'll bring him back (to the training grounds) and do a quick search with him so he can get that reward," he said. "The more the dog wants to do it, the better off we are."
The handlers try to make sure the dogs enjoy working, which makes them more effective.
"It's a reward-based process," Burmaster said, and noted it helps build the bond between the handling officer and the dog, unlike results from harsh leash corrections.
"They get fed up with the corrections. "You just get a better result with the training being reward-based," he said.
Burmaster said correcting behavior is often accomplished by repeating an exercise until the desired behavior is achieved, then the reward is given.
One type of training exercise involves setting up several boxes to sniff, and the box containing the reward will also contain the scent of something the dog is trained to detect. The reward, typically a ball or other toy, is placed on a hunting launcher, so the reward pops up and out of the box when the dog has selected the correct box.
For Drago, being rewarded with his ball to play with is very motivating to him, but during the training session, Drago made a mistake. He pawed at a box he was inspecting, and a bomb-sniffing dog could be in a lot of danger by disturbing a bomb.
"I don't know why he did that. It's very unusual for him. We'll go back and try to figure out why he did that and work on it," Burmaster explained.
"We're constantly training, constantly trying to improve. You work on the little stuff with the dogs, then you try to improve the higher stuff. We go through these exercises with them, and when we see problems, we try to figure out how to correct it, and think about it and figure out why the dog made a mistake," he explained.
Beichner said, "The dog's goal is to get what he wants; to better his life and improve his current position. The goal of the training is to turn that around. I mean what would you rather do if you can - take five steps or walk three miles?"
Burmaster agreed and said, "We constantly train them for excellence. If they learn how to cheat, then they know they can get away with it. We work to try to make sure they're going to do it right every time."
Each investigation is very different, however, and the dogs and handlers need to be ready to manage the unexpected and change tactics very quickly.
"Everything is a surprise. Nothing is ever textbook. You have to be flexible and adapt to each situation. You could be in a field, then in the woods or on a road. You don't know what people are going to do or where they will be. You have no way to plan," Burmaster said.
The dogs perform functions humans cannot, and Burmaster said the extra time and effort working with the dogs and the program provides a valuable resource.
"It's not about the officer, or having some cool car to drive around. It's about the service these dogs provide to the community," he stated.