UAPD Officer has Nose for Explosives
February 14th, 2011 - Filed under: Cover Story
The best-looking and most popular officer at The University of Alabama Police Department cannot shoot a target two inches in front of his face. Neither can he maneuver a patrol car along streets during a high-speed chase.
But when it comes to locating hidden explosives, Benny is the man for the job.
Or rather, make that dog for the job.
Benny, a yellow Labrador retriever, and his handler, Sgt. Rusty Romine, make up the K-9 unit for UAPD. The two have built a strong bond over the years as they work to ensure that the University stays free of explosives that could endanger the lives of UA employees and students, visiting dignitaries or people attending large events on campus.
Benny was born on Sept. 11, 2004, so one might think he was destined for explosives detection. But it was his “alpha” behavior that led Benny into police work. The alpha trait is one of two characteristics that K-9 trainers look for in dogs, Romine said. The other is a “heightened sense of prey.”
Alphas like to lead the pack, and Benny was doing that at an early age. “It took Benny a little while to adjust to me being in charge,” Romine said.
Benny had undergone 14-16 weeks of training at a facility in Daytona Beach, Fla., before Romine even met his future partner. UAPD had already purchased the dog based on pictures and a review on the Web. Following a two-week basic course for handlers, Romine transported Benny to Tuscaloosa. The two spent the entire summer of 2006 bonding and sharpening their skills.
A dog is easy to train, Romine said. The hard part is training the handler, who must learn to trust the dog through close observations of the animal’s mannerisms. A dog will tell its handler everything through those mannerisms, Romine said.
Benny is a “single-purpose-detector” dog certified to locate explosives. Other single-purpose dogs are trained in detecting narcotics. “Dual-purpose-detector” dogs perform apprehension work and either explosives or narcotics detection.
“Benny doesn’t know he’s looking for a bomb,” Romine said. “He thinks he’s looking for his toy.” Benny’s training involves positive re-enforcement. When he performs correctly, he receives a toy. On the day the interview for this story was conducted, Romine used quick hand signals and verbal commands to direct Benny in a room search. Benny immediately stopped when he located an explosives pack that Romine had hidden earlier. Benny sat on
his haunch, with tail extended straight back. He did not move or take his eyes off the object until Romine threw him a toy. At that point Benny bounded out into the hall, flipped on his back and began chewing mightily on his rubber goody in a blissful state of swaying legs and twisting head.
Dogs trained in explosives detection identify specific, individual odors from a base of 21 odors, Romine said. Using his knowledge of those odors, Benny can find over 2,000 different types of explosives, weighing any amount. Labrador retrievers are “proven to have a better sense of smell,” Romine said.
The majority of police dogs are German shepherds, Labrador retrievers or Belgian Malinoes, Romine said, but any dog is capable of K-9 work if it possesses the two main characteristics mentioned earlier.
Romine issues commands to Benny in German and Dutch so that the dog will not be confused if he is doing his work in a large crowd of Americans. Benny was born in the region that now constitutes the Czech Republic and Slovakia and moved to the Netherlands before coming to America. In addition to his Dutch passport, Benny has a police badge and rides patrol in a silver car that has been specially outfitted with a metal canine insert in the back to keep him stable and safe.
Benny and Romine are members of the Region 3 Response Team for Homeland Security. The two must be ready to be mobilized when called upon by outside agencies for assistance.
The two also visit schools in the community, where the muscular, 90-pound dog is known to give kindergartners rides on his back. “He gets along with everyone,” Romine said.
He is also the more popular of the two. “Everybody remembers Benny. Nobody remembers Rusty.”
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