Ohio’s Whitehall Police Department to Receive 420-Friendly K-9 Units

After Ohio voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, opening a regulated legal market, the Whitehall Police Department (among others) faces a unique challenge: replacing K-9 units that have been trained to detect marijuana. These loyal, four-legged officers have been instrumental in helping to keep illegal drugs off the street; however, with the new marijuana legislation, it’s time for a wet-nosed “changing of the guard.”

Many citizens, especially those of us who adore dogs, have many questions surrounding the canine transition, including:

  • What will happen to the retired dogs?
  • Why can’t the dogs be retrained to ignore marijuana?
  • What do K-9 officers do besides sniff for drugs?
  • Do we still need police dogs these days?

We went down to our local police station to take an inside look at the Whitehall Police Department’s K-9 unit and discuss what the new cannabis legislature means for the future of canine law enforcement.

Very Intelligent, Much Wow

It’s true that dogs bring companionship, joy, and adventure into our lives. However, from the beginning, our canine friends have also accomplished incredible feats to help protect and assist humans in a staggering number of tasks. Below are “just a few” jobs we’ve taught these furry geniuses.

  1. Service dogs. These dogs have been trained to help people with various disabilities. They see for the blind, hear for the deaf, and provide mobility assistance for those with physical limitations.
  2. Medical detection dogs. Trained to detect cancer and other ailments.
  3. Therapy dogs. (Aren’t they all?) Most dogs want to see their human friends happy. With the addition of therapy training, these pups provide emotional support in our homes, hospitals, assisted living institutions, and during traumatic events.
  4. Psychiatric dogs. Specially trained to work with people who have mental disorders like autism, schizophrenia, and mood disorders. Psychiatric dogs are trained to bring medication to their handler, fetch a phone, and guide their handler back to their home should they become disoriented, among other tasks.
  5. Search and Rescue. These life-saving sleuths are trained to locate people trapped by various types of disasters. Their sense of smell can track over long distances and even under snow in instances of an avalanche.
  6. Hunting dogs. This job taps into a dog’s natural instincts and comes first-nature for most canines. We may train them to follow and, when possible, retrieve an animal; however, they often teach us as much about hunting as we teach them.
  7. Guard dogs. Since recorded history, dogs have been trained to guard people and property. Much like hunting, guarding comes built-in with each dog. And with additional formal training, they are nearly unmatched in their detection and alerting skills.

That’s only the short list, and each of those breaks into even more specialized tasks.

Not the Hero We Deserve

Dogs are incredibly passionate and fully committed to everything they do. If you’ve ever owned a dog that barked loudly to alert you to a plastic bag or leaf blowing across the yard, you understand this enthusiasm. Whether at work or play, dogs give maximum effort.

For their tenacity, intelligence, and highly evolved skills, our loyal companions have been drafted into the army and tours of service. While working these jobs, they place their lives on the line without hesitation and demonstrate remarkable bravery.

Here at last is help, here is first aid. [The soldier] knows that medical assistance cannot be far away, and will be summoned by every means in the dog’s power.”

Barrett, C. (2024, January 5th). Mercy dogs: Meet the heroes who delivered aid and comfort. https://www.historynet.com/mercy-dogs-meet-the-heroes-who-delivered-aid-and-comforted-the-dying-on-the-battlefields-of-world-war-i/

When brought on as partners for soldiers and police officers, the highly trained dogs trade their civilian collar for a police uniform and their family car for a Humvee or police cruiser. It would be great if the world were a safe place, but the reality is sadly different. Although it’s often said that we don’t deserve these amazing creatures, our canine friends have our backs and have proven themselves many times over.

We had the privilege of meeting one of these heroes. We’ll introduce you to this four-legged police officer (Zara) a little later in the article, but first we want to answer a common question…

Why Do We Need Police Dogs?

After arriving at the station, we spoke with Sargent Jon Earl, who was welcoming and happy to answer all our K-9 questions and provide a wealth of insight into their police dog units.

The De-Escalating Power of Police Dogs

One of the first questions I asked the Sargent was why some people tend to be concerned when they spot a police dog. He explained that it’s a common misconception that police dogs exclusively want to take down violent criminals or find your “illegal stash.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as they are trained to do so much more. (Although for those breaking the law, the dog’s reputation may prove more accurate.)

When a police officer with a K-9 on board arrives at a location, the dog creates a level of intimidation for perpetrators. If someone is selling narcotics or there is a domestic violence call, oftentimes the dog’s presence in the police cruiser is all it takes to de-escalate a situation.

A highly trained and confident K-9 handler can assess the situation and ascertain whether the situation necessitates signaling the canine’s skills.

Protectors, Partners, and Community Champions

As our conversation continued, Sargent Jon Earl reiterated, “People think they’re out there just to bite and sniff drugs. There are a million ways we use them.” K-9 units are incredibly versatile, serving roles beyond narcotics detection. Below is a short list; some of these jobs might surprise you.

  1. Police dogs participate in community outreach programs.
  2. They can be brought in on career days so kids and young adults can be educated on K-9s, helping to reduce fear or apprehension.
  3. When at a scene where children (or adults) have experienced a traumatic event, the dog can be used to provide a comforting distraction.
  4. During a police interview or before a court proceeding, K-9’s can provide therapeutic relief.
  5. Tracking over long distances — useful to locate missing individuals.

All of Whitehall’s K-9s are “dual/multi-purpose.” This means they are certified in multiple areas of expertise. In addition to the list above, they are trained in apprehension (bite deployment to apprehend a dangerous or fleeing suspect), evidence search, and narcotics detection (minus marijuana for the new recruits). Continuous training is essential to keeping them at the top of their game.

As we were speaking, Sargent Jon Earl asked if we’d like to meet one of the police dogs. Of course, we responded with a resounding, “Yes, please!”

Meet Zara: Model Citizen and Police Officer

Zara is a Dutch Shepherd police K-9 who is over nine years old. Her handler is Officer Kyle Jacobs, and like all K-9s in Whitehall, Zara lives with her handler. This arrangement provides a happy and safe home and fosters a strong bond between the K-9 and their handler, which is crucial for effective teamwork.

Zara, the K9 police dog, poses for Omega as we discuss what a good girl she is. She is lifting her head while sitting on the floor.
Zara, the K-9 police dog, poses for Omega as we discuss what a good girl she is. Zara is over nine years old and in great physical and mental condition. She will be retired from the force due to her cannabis drug detection imprinting. At that time, she will live out a well-earned life of fun and family.

As we mentioned above, Zara and her canine comrades in the Whitehall Police Department have been trained and certified across several fields of work. Zara’s skillset includes:

  • Searching for articles (evidence search)
  • Apprehension (biting, securing a perpetrator)
  • Tracking
  • Narcotics and drug detection

It’s often assumed that police dogs are “always on.” Officer Jacobs continued to elaborate on Zara’s personality to dispel this notion.

When it’s time to work, she’s eager to work. When she’s not working, Zara is like any other typical, friendly dog. It’s really no different than when each of us goes to work. We have our jobs, and we have our home lives.”

Officer Kyle Jacobs (2024), Whitehall Police Department. “Interview With Omega Equipment & Supply”

From Duty to Downtime

A well-balanced K-9 that can both conduct police work and have fun with family and civilians (like Zara) is the result of continued training and certification.

The Whitehall Police Department’s policy of allowing K-9 officers to return home with their handlers after duty is a practice we strongly endorse. This approach fosters a healthy work-life balance for the dogs, allowing them to de-stress and experience the joys of a loving family environment.

“All our dogs go home with the officers,” Jacobs says. “Whitehall doesn’t have kennels. When they are on duty in a patrol car, the dogs enjoy climate control, Tempur-Pedic beds, and water. Off-duty, they enjoy all the comforts of home.”

Officer Kyle Jacobs (2024), Whitehall Police Department. “Interview With Omega Equipment & Supply”

The Impact of Cannabis Legalization

Cannabis legalization has far-reaching implications, not least for police K-9 units. Many of these dogs were trained to detect marijuana, among other illegal substances, with unmatched precision in comparison to human methods alone. With the change in the legal status of marijuana, the handlers of K-9s, such as Zara, will need to adjust their in-the-field techniques until the pups are eventually retired from narcotics duties.

As you can guess, this has prompted the need for newly trained police dogs who are not imprinted on marijuana. The new K-9s will be needed in Whitehall, across Ohio, and across the country in states where cannabis has been legalized.

With talks of grant money (possibly procured from a portion of the adult-use tax dollars), the Whitehall Police Department is set to train a new generation of K-9 units. These new recruits will undergo rigorous training, just like their predecessors, but without marijuana detection in their skill set. The process involves comprehensive certification through the state, covering various specializations like narcotics (that remain illegal), tracking, evidence search, and apprehension.

Navigating the Nuances of Canine Detection

Why can’t the current dogs be retrained? The answer lies in the incredible sensitivity and specificity of a dog’s nose. Dogs are creatures of habit, and retraining them to ignore marijuana after years of reinforcement is nearly impossible. Moreover, communication between dogs and handlers is limited; you can’t simply tell a dog, “Ignore the scent of this particular drug.”

Officer Jacobs shared the following insight: “A dog can come into a location that’s been searched by humans, and a dog can point it out immediately.” This precision is why K-9 units are indispensable.

What About False Positives?

While concerns about false positives and bad actors are certainly valid, it’s worth noting that a skilled police dog can detect tiny amounts of a drug that are not visible to the naked eye. If an illegal substance had been in the car prior to the traffic stop, the dog could still detect it. Despite what may appear to be a false positive, a dog may beg to differ.

In these instances, it’s the responsibility of the handler to make a trained, educated decision on how to conduct the traffic stop. It’s a delicate balance of keeping the community safe while treating every citizen with fairness and respect.

Follow my nose. Just because you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.”

Agnes Campan. (2024). Canine Pawsibilities. https://www.pawsibilities.co.uk/

Other states have faced similar challenges with K-9 units post-legalization. The Whitehall Police Department’s K-9 units spotlight the state’s efforts to adapt and lead the way. The officers continuously learn from other jurisdictions and share best practices to ensure their K-9 program remains top-notch.

K-9 Life After Retirement

Many of the current K-9 pups in Whitehall are slowly getting close to retirement. Dog lovers will be happy to know that these retired heroes often integrate seamlessly into civilian life. In Whitehall, police dogs typically retire to their handler’s home, continuing their bond and enjoying well-earned recreation and rest.

Of course, their health and post-retirement activities are a priority. Rest assured, these canine officers receive the care they deserve. In some districts, retired K-9s even embark on new missions as therapy or service dogs, continuing to contribute their skills and compassion to society.

420-Friendly Police Dogs

Once trained, the cannabis-imprint-free K-9s will continue to serve and protect, using their exemplary skills in ways that align with the current legal landscape. Between Ohio providing grant money to fund the next generation of K-9 units and the Whitehall Police Department’s commitment to excellence, Ohio sets a great example of adapting along with the cannabis industry.

It’s clear that K-9 units remain an invaluable asset to law enforcement, often times bridging the gap between human officers and the communities they serve. So, next time you see a K-9 unit, remember the dedication, training, and heart that go into each one of these community-serving teams. They’re not just working dogs; they’re officers, partners, family members, and friends who play a vital role in keeping our communities safe.

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