Meet Zargo, North Huntingdon's newest police dog
In a dingy office of a long-shuttered Sharon steel mill, Sgt. Kari Bauer, North Huntingdon's K-9 handler, was busy training her new police dog, Zargo, to detect drugs stashed in a metal cabinet.
Moments after being led around the room, he sniffed out a bag of marijuana hidden among the poorly lit debris left from Sharon Steel Corp.'s demise.
Zargo's treat for finding the marijuana was not a dog biscuit, but a 2-foot-long piece of hard plastic he clasped in his jaws as Bauer playfully tugged at it. She ended the little game with a command in Dutch — “let go and sit” — which is the German shepherd's “native” language because he was born in the Netherlands and just recently came to the United States.
“This training is very, very important. This is pushing me. I'm going at it 150 percent,” Bauer said of the two weeks of intensive work she underwent with the 18-month-old, 75-pound Zargo through Shallow Creek Kennels near Sharpsville, Mercer County.
Bauer, who is in charge of North Huntingdon's K-9 program and has been a dog handler for about 25 years, was training Zargo to replace her former partner, Vegas.
Vegas, a 10-year-old German shepherd, served the police department for eight years before dying May 3 of natural causes. Vegas collapsed while preparing to start his shift with Bauer, who rushed him to a veterinary hospital.
Bauer was practicing with Zargo to equate locating the stash of drugs with finding a toy with which he could play, such as a simple rubber ball on a rope.
“All he wants to do is work and get his toy. The dog looks at me like a big toy dispenser. He's getting rewarded for doing something properly,” Bauer said.
Rewarding the dog with food, however, is something for household pets, not for police dogs, Bauer said.
“You can't stop the work and have the dog eat something that's on the ground,” Bauer said.
Bauer, who returned to her duties in North Huntingdon this week, said she wanted to train her new K-9 at the Shallow Creek Kennels even though it is about 120 miles from North Huntingdon. The kennel's trainers are known for their expertise. As proof of their reputation, she pointed out that K-9 handlers from as far away as North Dakota and Wisconsin were training alongside her.
“This is a top-notch school. This place has made me a better handler,” Bauer said.
Despite her years of experience, Bauer said she benefitted from the training because the dogs are getting smarter.
“The handlers are getting smarter because we are learning to think like the dog. That way, I can utilize him more to his capabilities,” Bauer said.
The training techniques have changed over the years because the dogs have changed, said Jeremy Riley, senior lead trainer at Shallow Creek. Dogs selected for police work are younger than dogs picked for those duties years ago, Riley said.
Neither size nor gender matters when selecting dogs for police work, Riley said.
“Your want to have a dog with a nice drive, that has the characteristics and traits to do police work. We're looking to see how the dog uses his nose to find the toys and sociability, how he gets along with people,” Riley said.
Bauer, who joins Officer Jeremy Nichols on North Huntingdon's K-9 team, said she selected Zargo because “he had a spark about him.” She said she will work with Zargo to get him acclimated to a new environment — her police work, her fellow officers and visits to schools. Bauer knows how much a crime deterrent a police dog can be, or even the threat of one.
A week after Vegas died, Bauer said, she and fellow officers responded to a hit-and-run crash at a business where police know drug activity occurs. One driver ran into the woods behind the business. Officers considered how to respond, not knowing if the driver was armed.
Bauer said she drove her K-9 vehicle close to the woods, got on the vehicle's loudspeaker and said she would send in the K-9 unless he came out. Within moments, the driver said he did not want to be bit and surrendered.
“It's the presence of the dog. They know I have a K-9 and will respect that. I don't know how to do the police work without one,” Bauer said.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.