Going Down the Leash

[cap]W[/cap]hile fans are cheering on their home football team in passionate displays of green and yellow, Will Turner and his German shepherd are searching the University of Oregon’s Auzten Stadium—from the parking lot to the video deck on the roof—for explosives. Some people walking past will stop and reach to down to scratch the dog behind his ear.

“His name is Cheeto, just like the snack,” says Turner.

Turner is an Inspector/K9 Handler for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Service in Eugene, Ore. He has been working with this agency for nearly eight years and seven of those with K9. Turner and Cheeto compose a certified Explosive Detector Dog (EDD) Team and have been working together for almost a year.

EDD teams work to physically and psychologically deter potential explosive threats by conducting searches for explosive materials. There are more than 70 teams nationwide. In the past few years, Turner has done sweeps for the king of Jordan, President Obama, Former President Bill Clinton and his family and a few other dignitaries. Turner is currently planning for the Olympic Trials 2012—he planned the 2008 trials at Hayward Field as well.

The process to become a K9 handler begins with a ten-to-twelve week training course at the Basic Federal Protective Service Canine Academy at Fort McClellan in Alabama. While at the academy, handlers learn how to imprint the dogs with the explosive odor and also learn basics such as leash handling and first aid for dogs. According to Turner, the explosives used during training include “all the families of explosives as well as homemade explosives.”

Turner says that the academy’s certification process covers seven different search areas including vehicles, office buildings, and open-areas to work on grid-pattern searching. Throughout this process, the handlers have to ensure that the dogs are hitting on all of the explosive aids with a 90 to 100 percent success rate. Turner says the K9s are play-reward dogs and are trained to sit when they find explosives.

The academy also provides time to build a strong relationship between the handler and his or her K9. Cheeto and Turner are with each other seven days a week—at work and at home. Turner says, “If I take a couple days and go to the coast, then he’ll go with me.”

Turner defines his and Cheeto’s relationship as symbiotic.

“You have to keep a clear head every time you’re searching…because everything you have going on goes—what we call—going down the leash. So, if you’re having a bad day, they can have a bad day,” says Turner. There is a strong bond of trust between the team. Turner says that when Cheeto sniffs and sits—he knows that Cheeto has found something. Cheeto is rewarded after identifying explosives with a few minutes of playtime with his favorite toy, the Kong. Turner says the dogs choose their own reward, some prefer food or a rope.

Turner says that Cheeto is a “phenomenal working dog. My first certification with him was probably the easiest certification I’ve ever had.” Turner’s first dog, Sasha, retired last year because she had a spur in her spine that would hurt when she would sit.

It took a little time to transition from a partnership with Sasha to Cheeto. Cheeto came to Turner after working for the U.S. Border Patrol. Turner says, “It’s just like having a new officer to work with.” Personalities play a big role. Sasha is a very low-key, mellow dog whereas Cheeto has a lot of energy and loves attention.

“The first night that he [Cheeto] was home, I put him in a port-a-crate to get used to my house and when I came in the next morning, he had cut a hole in the port-a-crate and was lying on the couch,” says Turner.

Even while working, Cheeto insists on getting attention. “He’ll come up and lean on you and paw at you and make sure you’re paying attention to him. He’s like a big kid,” says Turner.
The ability to work with people is an aspect of the job that both Turner and Cheeto appreciate. Turner says he got into this line of work to help people.

“Everything we do is about keeping people safe and most people can support that,” says Turner.

And according to Turner, Cheeto loves his job. “They [the dogs] don’t enjoy their days off as much,” says Turner.

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