K9 patrols return in Lower Burrell

Chuck Biedka
| Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Dax is ready for the streets of Lower Burrell.

The 16-month-old German shepherd is scheduled to begin regular patrols with Patrolman Stephen Cernava on Monday.

The department has been without routine K9 patrols for about 18 months.

On Oct. 12, 2011, Patrolman Derek Kotecki was killed in the line of duty.

His police dog, Odin, also a German shepherd, was retired to live with Kotecki's family.

The new dog, Dax, is a robust, 80-pound black-and-tan patrol dog. Dax will be able to visit Burrell School District students with Cernava — often the first contact children have with police.

Dax can smell illegal drugs, lead searches for missing people and hold suspects at bay.

Like all dogs, he has better eyesight and sense of smell than humans.

“Human beings have 5 to 10 million scent receptors. A dog's nose has about 225 million. That's 50 times better,” said Shallow Creek Kennels owner John Brannon, a retired Florida police officer and master K9 trainer.Brannon said he has graduated about 3,000 police dogs — some for explosives detection — in the past nine years from his kennel and training grounds in Sharpsville, north of Sharon.

Dax is trained to detect four types of illegal drugs: heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

He also knows how to find missing people as well as crime suspects who leave their scent behind.

If a robbery or shooting suspect held a pistol and then tossed it away, Dax can usually find it by scent unless it rains or the suspect was wearing gloves.

Dax is trained to bite and hold onto a suspect on direction from his handler, Cernava.

Dax also is trained to protect Cernava, who can direct Dax to protect other people, too.

Lower Burrell police Chief Tim Weitzel said Cernava volunteered for the new responsibility.

Last week, Weitzel watched closely as Dax and Cernava demonstrated what they can do.About three ounces of marijuana was hidden in the engine compartment of a car parked at the kennel.Dax was inside his “office” — a Lower Burrell police SUV — and couldn't see, hear or smell what was going on.

At Cernava's direction, Dax circled the car, his nose working with each step. When he reached the hood, he stopped.

Then he jumped up on the hood, sniffed, and then sat down.

Next, he stood on his back legs and smacked the hood with his two front paws.

There was no question there were drugs inside.

Dax also was congratulated by Cernava, and the dog appeared more interested in his attention than the toy.

Family important, too

“We've had family pets and I grew up with dogs,” said Cernava. Becoming a K9 officer seems like a logical progression for the officer, who has logged 16 years on patrol watching Kotecki.

When Dax isn't working, he will stay with Cernava, along with the officer's wife, Mary, and teenage son, Stefan, Cernava said.

“Dax is a gentleman when he isn't working. That's the only way I can describe him,” Cernava said.Although Dax appears to be all business when he is training to work, his youth sometimes shows through when Cernava praises him for doing the job.Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, most police dogs were age 2½ or 3 before they started patrols. Now, they start much younger.

“The demand is so much. And we found the dogs are doing OK,” Brannon said.

Many of the Valley's K9s trained here

Dax had an impressive pedigree from Slovakia — even before vets for Shallow Creek Kennels checked him to make sure he was physically and mentally sound.

Then Dax was put through the paces by master dog handler Brannon and his staff for six weeks. He then trained together with Cernava for the next six weeks.

Cernava will train the dog at least weekly.

And like many of the Shallow Creek graduates, Dax and Cernava may periodically return to the kennel in Mercer County for updates.

That's likely the same for a Mt. Lebanon officer who went through training with a patrol dog in the same training cycle with Dax and Cernava.

West Deer police and the Butler County Sheriff's department are among many in the Alle-Kiski Valley who use Shallow Creek dogs.

The West Deer and the sheriff's department use patrol dogs, although neither are German shepherds.

“Jimi” is a Belgian Malinois that has found missing children, drugs, and a number of suspects, said West Deer Chief Jon Lape. K9 Officer Ed Newman has handled the dog at least six years.“Bullet” is German shorthaired pointer on patrol in Butler County.

“If you ever have a problem, they resolve it,” said Sheriff Michael T. Slupe.

The first Bullet was returned to the kennel. Since then, a switch was made to a different dog and handler.The latest Bullet found a 14-year-old missing boy in a wooded area in minutes.

“It was important because it was about 20 degrees and (the boy) wasn't dressed well,” Slupe said.The dog also has found drugs in cars and routinely goes through the county prison searching for contraband.

Dogs used across country

Trainees and dogs come from across the United States and Canada.Last week, the kennel's parking lot included more than a dozen specialized SUVs used to haul police dogs.

The Lower Burrell SUV was the same one used by Kotecki and Odin, but most people wouldn't believe it because of the new paint job and other changes ordered by Weitzel.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said.

The other SUV license plates were from New Jersey, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Georgia.

“We get everything from small departments with a few officers to the Chicago department,” Brannon said. His staff also trains dogs for federal agencies and the military.“The military then takes them and gives them the added training for their mission,” Brannon said.

Some of the Shallow Creek training happens inside the kennel where the dogs find a bank of lockers and other places where contraband can be hidden.

Other day and night training forays happen in a shut-down steel mill and along 40 acres of woods and fields owned by the kennel.

The dogs wait in their K9 vehicles or crates until they go to work.

At other times, they have outdoor and indoor runs and large kennels with fresh straw to flop on.

The kennel has federal licenses to have drugs and explosives so dogs can be trained.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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