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Chester County Press

K-9 Academy trains dogs for duty

05/16/2018 11:11AM ● By J. Chambless

Deputy Michael Sarro and Dexter, a Belgian Malinois. The high-energy dog is certified in narcotics detection, patrol, tracking and apprehension. The partners also serve on the Chester County Seriff's Office Fugitive Apprehension Unit. (Photo by Jie Deng)

By Natalie Smith
Staff writer

There’s no doubt in Lt. Harry McKinney’s mind that dogs have their own personalities. It’s his business to know, and Chester County is safer for it.

And as head of the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, McKinney knows how crucial it is for the handler and dog to understand and bond with one another. As supervisor of the Sheriff’s K-9 Academy, he helps train the partners to do their jobs.

“We'll have the handlers take the dog home, even two or three weeks before the Academy,” McKinney said. “Once you start feeding the dog, giving the dog water and walking the dog, you start developing a relationship with that dog -- a bonding relationship. You need that bonding relationship before you go right into training. Our unit all take the dogs home. When they get a partner, that's their partner.”

The canines and their handlers – all sheriff’s deputies – spend 400 hours primarily on obedience, patrol work, and detecting explosives, narcotics and fire accelerants via scent.

The K-9 unit currently has seven German shepherds, two English Labradors and one Belgian Malinois. “We work with three or four companies that sell dogs,” McKinney said. Many import their animals from overseas. These young dogs can know basic commands. “They’re usually trained in the language [from the country they] came from. If it was a German dog, most are trained in German. If it's a Czech dog, it could be trained in Czech,” McKinney said.

“We started with all shepherds. Every dog has a unique sense of working. We try to get the best dog and have it trained in more than one thing. We have four bomb dogs -- four shepherds -- and all four are trained in patrol. They track, they look for bad people, lost children or evidence.”

The lieutenant personally handles three dogs -- two German shepherds and a Labrador. The German-born shepherds – Afra, a bomb dog; and Jessie, a narcotics dog – also work on patrol and article searches. He’s the primary handler of a black Lab, Melody, who is a comfort dog. A friendly and relaxed animal, her purpose is to calm those who might need reassuring, particularly children.

Melody, lolling at McKinney’s feet during an interview, responds to English. “That’s as excited as she gets,” he said, smiling. “They play with her or they pet her belly. She's trained to comfort, to touch, to lie next to someone.”

The Lab was found in Morristown, N.J., where she was working as a certified Seeing Eye dog. But a propensity for stealing food off plates made her inappropriate for that work and eligible for placement elsewhere.

“They knew we were looking for a comfort dog,” McKinney said. “We got a call and spent the whole day with her. I brought her home, a week before Christmas. The Crime Victims Center called and said it was an emergency. We took her there before she was trained, and the child started talking.”

The K-9 unit itself started in 2006, in the wake a bomb threat at the Justice Center in West Chester that had the complex shut down for the day. Officers had to wait for an outside sniffer dog to arrive. Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh then had the idea of her office acquiring its own bomb dogs.

The unit started with two. They were initially trained at an academy in Ohio, McKinney said, “with a specialized trainer coming in every month [to West Chester] to keep their abilities up to federal standards.” As the unit grew, McKinney and now-retired Lt. John Freas eventually took on the responsibility of becoming trainers, McKinney in due course continuing to the level of master trainer. The two lieutenants were certified to do the in-service training themselves.

In 2015, Sgt. Paul Bryant, a retired cadaver canine handler with the Philadelphia Police Department, joined the Sheriff’s Office. With his 33 years of experience, “He took our unit to a whole different level,” McKinney said. “He accelerated us here in Pennsylvania.” Incorporating Bryant’s expertise in the mix, a year later, they established the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Academy, allowing them to fully train their dogs and others.

Bryant’s proficiency with his dog, Don, has been recognized nationally. “In 2017, Don was named No. 1 cadaver dog in the nation” by the United States Police Canine Association, McKinney said.

“Techniques may vary a little bit,” McKinney said, in comparing the Sheriff’s K-9 Academy to others, “but the common goal is ultimately to find the bad guy, the narcotic or the bomb.”

Training is done at various sites around the county, including parks and the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus in South Coatesville. The K-9 Academy has trained dogs from outside the department, including for SEPTA and Ridley Police Department. “We’ve been approached by Lincoln University,” McKinney said. “They have a dog that’s getting ready to retire.”

In choosing dogs, they are looking those with a “strong play-drive,” McKinney said, because their canines are rewarded with the handler playing with them with a favorite toy. The dogs are kept excited and the search is a game for them.

“We don’t reward with food,” McKinney said. “Our philosophy is: You get up in the morning, you feed your dog. You go home at night, you feed your dog. It's not a reward, it's time for them to eat.” He said the meals of most food-rewarded dogs may be divvied up over the course of a day, so the dog doesn’t overeat. There’s also the bonding aspect.

“If I’m playing with the dog and rewarding the dog, I’m the only one that's going to reward the dog,” McKinney said. If someone else feeds the dog over the weekend, perhaps, the food loses its reward aspect.

McKinney said it’s vital to keep the dog “playing” to maintain its attention.

“We always have a ‘hot spot’ in anything we do -- whether we're looking for bombs, drugs or a cadaver … if the dog works two or three days and doesn't find anything, sooner or later he'll lose interest. If we played every day and there was no reward, you wouldn't want to play again.”

A “hot spot,” McKinney explained, is the deliberate planting of a pseudo searched-for object.

McKinney said officers were recently called to a convenience store for a bomb threat. “We searched for a couple hours and didn't find anything. But there was an area that we deemed was clean. Then we set up a ‘hot spot’ that was monitored by an officer all day. So, when the dogs went in and searched for 30 to 40 minutes, you could let the dogs come out to the hot spot, find something, reward the dog, play with the dog and the dog is ready to go again.”

Of course, they don’t plant bombs. The object could be a can of smokeless powder, McKinney said.

Bomb dogs are trained to detect 33 odors. “With those 33 substances, someone can make a combination of 10,000 bombs,” McKinney said. “If there was a bomb built, it had to use something from that list of 33. Same with a drug dog. They’re trained in the odors of nine drugs. And the dog's not looking for a bomb. He's looking for his toy. He's looking for the smell, and when he finds it and sits, he's going to get his toy.”

The Sheriff’s K-9 Academy dogs are trained in the passive manner, meaning when they’ll alert their handlers that they recognize a scent by sitting down. An aggressive manner would have the dogs scratching and chewing at the detected scent.

McKinney said he has “been with the sheriff's office 32 years. I’ve probably learned every aspect of the sheriff's office. From the first day of coming in, I've worked through every division in the office.”

His becoming a canine handler and trainer came naturally to the lieutenant. Growing up on a farm near West Grove, “I always loved animals. Have always loved dogs,” he said.

With a handler opening his or her home to a canine partner, it’s important that they get along with the handler’s family, including other pets. It’s imperative that the canines know that while the handler is the boss, they are the “top dog.”

“Our dogs need to know they're alpha,” McKinney said. “They can do whatever they want as long as they listen to me and do what I tell them to do.”

These Academy graduates are socialized, however. “Our dogs are very good with kids and very good with people.” said McKinney, who has nine grandchildren. “I watch them playing with the kids out in the yard, and then I use them the next day for patrol work.”

The dogs are brought to about 100 calls every year in Chester County’s 67 municipalities, McKinney said. “Everything from missing persons, to running traffic stops, to bomb searches, to narcotic searches.” He noted that after the Nov. 16 fire at Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester, the cadaver dog worked the property grounds for a week.

McKinney said his training experience, besides making him more patient, has made him a perceptive observer of canine behavior.

“When you get this close to a dog, they actually can talk to you,” he said. “When you learn your dog, they have a different approach when they want to go out, want a drink. They can really communicate.” He feels it’s true with one dog in particular.

Despite her years with the unit, McKinney’s first dog, the patrol/bomb dog Afra, with whom he started working in 2009, isn’t quite ready to retire. “They let you know,” McKinney said. “She turns 11 in November. I’m hoping to get one more year out of her. She’s got a heart like a lion. She hasn’t lost a step … but one day she’ll look up at me and let me know, ‘I’m kind of tired today.’ Then I’ll know.”

More information about the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit and K-9 Academy is available at

Natalie Smith may be contacted at