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Ronan Police Department adds canine unit

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RONAN – Police Chief Ken Weaver stood on Pennsylvania soil last week and took dozens of photos of the department’s new canine member in an effort to share the addition with everyone back home.

“We want community involvement with this project,” he said after coming home with the photos.

The 11-month-old Belgian Malinois didn’t exactly smile for the photos, but he did strike a handsome profile while sitting for a command with ears alert and a shiny black and tan coat. He looks much like a German Shepard.

Weaver and officer Brandon Smith went back east to select a dog to assist the department with things like drug detection, apprehension and tracking. 

Weaver decided a canine unit would benefit the department’s efforts to enforce the law. Currently, when a suspect is pulled over, officers can’t search the car without a search warrant or permission from the car’s owner. With the canine unit involved, the dog can walk around a car, and if he smells narcotics, officers have probable cause to search the car. 

The dog can tell the officer where drugs are hidden much faster than if an officer searched the car. Weaver said methamphetamine, heroine, and marijuana are the three most common substances found in the town. He said meth is found more often than anything else. He believes the dog will help detect drugs, apprehend criminals, and deter people from bringing them to the area. 

Ronan officers arrived at Shallow Creek Kennels in Sharpsville on Monday, March 19. They chose this kennel because the Montana Highway Patrol gets their dogs there and gave it a good recommendation. 

In the morning, Smith started a six-week training class to learn how to work with a police dog. He will be the dog’s handler. His experience with narcotics arrests and love for animals made him a good choice for the job. 

While Smith was in class, Weaver went out to the kennels to watch four “excellent” dogs and find the right fit for the department. He watched the dogs demonstrate their skills with commands from trainers.  

Weaver was looking for a dog that had certain behaviors when it searched for and found drugs with a trained nose. “We wanted him to sit when he found a mark instead of pawing at it,” he said. 

The chief watched to see how skilled the dogs were at tracking for scents. One task involved searching through a large field of grass to find a specific scent. The dogs combed through the field with their noses to the ground, and quickly found what they were looking for.

The skill is useful for finding lost people or criminals. For example, the dogs can go into a building to find a criminal. “If they don’t come out, the dog can bring them out,” Weaver said.

Weaver was also looking for a dog with the ability to apprehend a suspect with direction from an officer. Trainers in padded suits taught the dogs to bring people down to assist an officer. Continued training was done with arm pads. The chief said it was much safer for a dog to chase a suspect in a foot pursuit and take him down than to have an officer do it. 

After watching the dogs, Weaver narrowed the choice down to two animals. Smith took a break from classroom work and went out to meet the dogs. The chosen dog would be working with Smith and living at his home. It was important to find a good fit. 

“It was an easy decision,” Weaver said. 

Sandor, whose name means defender of man, was able to quickly detect drugs hidden among many cars, track and find a person, and take down a mock criminal on command. And Smith really liked him.

With the selection made, deciding on a name was the next step. Weaver had taken name suggestions on the department’s Facebook page, but the name the dog was given at the kennel, Sandor, has a nice meaning, so they decided to keep it. "Defender of man, we like that," he said.

Smith will stay at the kennels to work with the dog and training professionals for the next five weeks. He will be home on May 1. He drove a Ronan patrol car, customized for the dog, to the training program. 

Sandor is a highly trained working police dog, but he is still a dog, so the back doors on the car were modified so he can’t chew on them. The doors were also fixed so the handler can quickly release the dog from the car. 

When Smith returns, the canine unit will start working the streets of Ronan. Weaver isn’t sure yet how the dog will interact with the public. 

“We hope our dog is a public figure and people can interact with him, but we’ll have to find out how he reacts to the attention,” Weaver said. 

The Ronan City Council approved the purchase of the dog to help with law enforcement. The town’s general fund was used to pay for the $14,000 project that includes the cost to purchase Sandor, the training program, room and board for the officer in training, a kennel, leash and training equipment. 

“We are looking into the cost of a bullet-proof vest for the dog,” he said. 

Montana Code states a person can face prison time and fines if they are convicted of harming a police dog, which includes shooting, killing or injury. 

Weaver said Smith is staying in contact with the department while he is in training. He read off one of Smith’s recent texts: “Sandor is an awesome dog: strong, easy to handle and has a great nose.”

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