All work is ‘play’ for newly recruited bomb dog

Officer Miguel H. Witt praises bomb dog Dexter in the parking lot of the Kent State University Police Department on E. Summit Street on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. Dexter will partner with Officer Witt and Coco, a 3-year-old German Shepherd that became Kent State’s first police dog last fall.

Mark Opera

At a recent press conference at Kent State on Wednesday, Nov. 19, a 6-month-old Belgian Malinois puppy named Dexter was the center of attention. Officer Miguel Witt, the dog’s new handler, showed off the latest K-9 addition to the Kent State Police Department as he would one of his own German Shepherds. At one point during the conference, the canine broke free from Witt’s grip and ran excitedly around photographers and police officers, sniffing at their shoes.

“He’s having a Dexter moment,” Witt said.

Dexter, one of the five new explosive detection canines, or EDCs, deployed by the Ohio Department of Homeland Security, is a playful pup. He howls like any other Malinois, jumps up to his owner, tongue at the ready and has his own version of “catch.” Unlike other 6-month-old dogs, Dexter is trained solely for one precarious purpose: detecting life-threatening explosives. 

Bomb-hunting, Witt said, is just daily “fun-time” for the pup.

“For people, his job is serious business,” he said. “But for him, it’s play.”

Dexter, being a Malinois, is of a very special breed. He was born at the Police Dog Centre in Holland, an organization that has contracted with Ohio Department of Homeland Security to bolster Ohio’s repertoire of explosive detection units. According to an article, “The Education of a Bomb Dog” in The Smithsonian, Malinois are highly valued because of both the power of their olfactory and their play-based reward habit. With brains that are 35 percent devoted to scent, these breeds have nasal engines 40 times more powerful than a human’s — their noses having 240 million more cells devoted to scent reception. Along with being man’s best friend, it’s no wonder why these canines are the ideal companion for hunting bombs, especially at universities.

According to news reports at the time, after the 2012 Boston Marathon Bombings, explosive detection canines surfaced as essential and well-known members of police forces. They’re stationed alongside troops encountering Improvised Explosive Devices in Iraq, placed in airports and big-city malls. One Ohio University dog was deployed recently on Oct. 28 to sweep the Washington Township High School when a threat was made through social media. The K-9 unit was called to the school at noon and cleared the entire building in only a little more than an hour.

Dustyn Fox of the Ohio Department of Public Safety said this sense of security and swiftness is why there are already eight Ohio universities with bomb dogs at the ready, with plans for more on the way.

Fox said for just a “relatively small investment” of $12,767, the Ohio Department of Homeland Security receives each EDC, like Dexter, trained and fed, ready to serve around six to seven years with their handler. Some, like KSUPD canine veteran Coco, can even be dual-trained in both narcotics and explosive detection. Although there are no plans to train Dexter in such a way, it’s his bomb-sniffing skill, prepped since birth, that Fox said is such an indispensable asset to the community.

“It’s trying to find the best bang for your buck when you’re trying to prevent disasters from happening,” he said. “In essence, even if you just save one life, that would be a tremendous value.”

Both John Born, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, and Fox said that adding Dexter to the KSUPD is a reactive and preventative effort to make Ohio, as well as Kent State, a safer place. Dogs strategically placed around the state can effectively carry out protective sweeps at auditoriums and stadiums, and possibly even prevent school shootings. Born cited two recent threats at California schools — and the last KSU threat in Stark in 2012 — as reasons why having a furry friend around goes hand-in-hand with campus security.

“You go to an event, and you’re safe because you feel safe,” Born said.

All thanks to a dog.

But for canines such as Dexter, bomb-searching is life, and life is bomb-searching. Every single day during his and Witt’s training at the Columbus Police Academy, Dexter played “find the explosive” in parking lots, malls and elementary school. His trainer used the scents of dynamite, TNT, nitrate and hydrogen dioxide to fine-tune Dexter’s talent. The dog even went on a practice airport sweeping at the Akron-Canton Airport, where Witt ran him through stationary luggage at the baggage claim, picking up on any scents of explosives. Dexter dug his nose into a pocket on one special suitcase, revealing a sizable bit of C4, and pleasing his owner.

“He got to have his fun,” Witt said.

He said the job for the Malinois, like with most high-capacity dogs, is to sniff out the bombs by their ingredients, not by one whole, compiled smell. It’s the reason why something that would take a whole team of officers several hours to pull off takes a team of EDCs around 30 minutes to maneuver. Witt puts his partner’s talent in a simple analogy of smelling a home-cooked stew: instead of the whole pot, Dexter picks out the meat, carrots and potatoes, all without much effort on his part. Oftentimes, specificity in scent can mean the difference between crisis and crisis averted.

For Witt, who has owned two dogs — Dunkin for two years, and Peanut for 12 — bringing in another makes this step in his career the “best job ever.” After Peanut was put down in 2012, Witt said that having a dog like Dexter reminds him of the German Shepherd he brought home to his family. Yet the sense of mutual reliability makes this kind of partnership a difficult one, even though Witt looks forward to working with the new Malinois.

“Before I got (Dexter), people told me that it was the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” Witt said. “But I think that we’ll make a great team.”

Watching Dexter leap up with his paws on Witt’s black, wool vest, it’s apparent that the two have gotten along in the past five weeks they’ve spent training in Columbus, often running through three to four mock searches a day. Because it’s important for Dexter to spend as much time as possible with his partner, Witt brought the pup home with him during their “off time,” where the Malinois played with Dunkin in the backyard and napped in the Witts’ living room. Witt’s wife said Dexter gets antsy and prances around the house when the officer isn’t home, whining from boredom.

But a dog’s life on the force isn’t filled with ennui. Because Dexter is a Homeland Security dog, he can be borrowed by any other department in the area that needs an emergency sweep. This constant potential for call-to-action keeps Witt on his toes and Dexter on his excitable paws. Searching for bombs is a skill that needs to be exercised frequently, or else, Witt said, “it can be lost.”

While Dexter was just beginning to get his bearings at the Kent State Police Department last Tuesday, a bomb threat was called in to a Rite Aid in Tallmadge. A man had demanded 10 prepaid credit cards filled with cash on them, or else he would blow the place up sky high. Brimfield dogs were still in training, so Witt’s unit was called up right away for the sweep. Working alongside veteran Akron EDCs, a part of two other K-9 units, Witt ran Dexter through the drug store’s vacated aisles, just like they did in training. After 40 minutes, Witt and the other officers determined the spot clear. Dexter, he said, had done his job well.

“It was great. He did exactly what he was trained to do,” Witt said. “I was really proud of him. I mean, I’ve got to put as much trust in Dexter as he puts in me.”

In the 14-year span Witt has served on the force, his department has never come across an actual live explosive, and Witt is glad they haven’t. He said in the sweeps that he’s been a part of, thinking about catastrophe is only detrimental when working with a “detonation time” on one’s mind.

“You only think about something happening after you’ve gotten out of there and done the job,” Witt said.

That is a dangerous job for Officer Witt, but “playtime” for Dexter.

Contact Mark Opera at [email protected].