UW News

February 15, 2007

Good dog: Canine bomb detector Kali becomes a Husky

This week the UW Police Department swore in a new recruit, but she didn’t speak during the ceremony — at least not in English. Kali, the new recruit, is a chocolate Labrador retriever who will work with Kenneth Johns, newly trained as a canine officer.

Kali won’t be tracking crime suspects; she’s a bomb detection dog — specially trained to sniff out explosives from wherever they’ve been hidden. She and Johns will not only respond to bomb threats, they’ll also do preventive “sweeps” of areas to make sure they’re safe.

Kali was acquired in response to a growing need, said UW Police Chief Vicky Stormo. “Since September 11, there have been more and more demands that events on campus be properly secured and protected,” she explained. “We have had to contract out to other law enforcement agencies to bring dogs in.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to find an available dog for those situations, so the UWPD decided to apply for a federal grant to start their own canine unit. The grant paid for the dog, the training and needed equipment — including a special car with a temperature-controlled cage in back and a kennel for Johns’ home, where Kali lives.

Johns, who has been with the UWPD for four years, applied for the job knowing that it had some unusual demands. Not only does he have to take care of Kali when he is off duty, but he also has to be available for callback on short notice if there is a bomb threat or a suspicious package.

“Just seeing the job description, it seemed like a lot of work and commitment to the department,” he said. “But it was so intriguing to me that I really wanted to do it. I love animals and it’s a different way to do my daily job.”

The department chose Johns for the position and acquired Kali in late October. In early November, man and dog were off to Shelton for three months — more than 400 hours — of training with the Washington State Patrol.

The first week, Johns said, was a barrage of information about both dogs and explosives. Then the small class of three officers was taken to a training facility for more practical work. “At first you don’t work with a real dog,” Johns explained. “They have a training device they call a stick dog, and you learn how to handle a dog by using that.”

Training includes working with a leash and giving commands. Dogs don’t understand language, John said, but they do understand tones of voice, and that’s what the handler uses to communicate with the dog.

After the real dogs are brought in, work with scents begins. The dogs learn to recognize the odor of 14 different explosives. The handlers hide dummy packages containing each odor in scent boxes in the training facility, and the dog gets a toy when she sniffs the package and sits.

“When it’s a bomb you’re looking for, you don’t want the dog to try to scratch or bite,” Johns explained. “So we train them to passively indicate the presence of the odor and to pinpoint the exact area where it is.”

After the dogs get accustomed to detecting the odor in the training facility, the training moves out to other areas — a ferry terminal, a stadium, a major dock — and packages are hidden there. This part of the training is not only harder for the dogs, it’s also harder for the handlers, who now don’t know where the package is either.

The handler, Johns said, needs to assess the areas of opportunity where explosives might be placed and direct the dog to sniff there. He also needs to be able to “read” the dog — to notice changes such as faster breathing in the dog that would mean the dog has gone on alert.

A number of breeds can make good bomb detection dogs, but not all dogs successfully complete the training. “They need not only a good nose, but the drive to work, the drive to get that toy,” Johns said. Some dogs, he said, just decide that the toy isn’t that important to them and refuse to work to get it. Kali, however, came through the training with flying colors. The two graduated on Feb. 4.

“As soon as I put this uniform on at home, she knows we’re going to work, and she gets excited,” Johns said of Kali. “That’s a true working dog.”

Now that they’re on duty, Johns expects their first big assignment will be to sweep the Bank of America Arena before home basketball games. And when he and Kali don’t have specific assignments, he’ll do his own training with her so the dog’s skills remain sharp. In addition, the two will attend maintenance training sessions that the state patrol offers twice a month.

At 2 1/2, Kali could potentially serve the department for six years, after which she’ll retire and Johns will probably claim her as a pet. But for now she’s strictly a working dog who can’t be allowed to be coddled like his 5-year-old Australian cattle dog, Daisy.

She may not be a pet, but Stormo thinks Kali will be good PR for the department because, after all, “Most people love dogs.”

More important, Kali and Johns will be providing a needed service that the University hasn’t had available internally in the past. “Now we have the tools to make sure campus venues are safe,” Stormo said.