By David Dunn Waxahachie Daily Light

FERRIS, Texas — Six police officers and their tail-wagging partners graduated from the Sector K9 training program last week at the Ferris Independent School District.

Trained for two weeks at the Sector K9 training facility in Midlothian, these six dogs and handlers are trained to detect narcotics, weapons and even attack on command. Sector K9 trainer Wes Keeling said the six handlers that graduated from the program came all over the nation.

“We’ve got some guys from Colorado,” Keeling said. “We’ve got guys from Missouri. We have one from Ferris ISD. This is their second dog.”

The first dog-handler pair to graduate was Colorado Police officer Tom Campbell and K9 Spark. Keeling said Spark was from Tennessee and this will be the first K9 unit at Campbell’s department in Lamar.

“She was in a shelter down there,” Keeling explained. “Pretty much a dog no one wanted, a dog that tears up backyards and has super high drive. This little dog wants to work. That’s all she wants to do.”

Following K9 Spark was Hico Police Lt. Anthony Donoso and K9 Riggs, who came out with leash vest. Keeling said Riggs came from the Animal Farm Foundation in New York.

“He’s a big boy,” Keeling remarked. “We partnered him with the biggest officer we can find.”

The next two dogs were trained for dual-purpose in tracking narcotics and biting. Those dogs are K9 JD and K9 Dino, who are respectively going to Missouri and Franklin County in Texas.

“They will bite, but that doesn’t mean they are mean,” Keeling said.

Lastly was K9 Pepper and K9 Heat, who are going to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and Ferris ISD, respectively.

“This is the first weapons dog we’re producing out of this program,” Keeling said of Heat. “She’s trained in the detection of weapons, gunpowder in backpacks.”

Keeling said you could release her into a large field to track down one bullet, and she would find it.

“She gives an alert by sitting or laying down,” he said. “Depends how she feels that day.”

Partnered with the Animal Farm Foundation non-profit, Sector K9 works with shelters across the United States to identify dogs that would be a good fit for the program. Keeling said they train shelter employees to test the dogs to see if they are willing to track scents in exchange for a toy or food.

From there, the dogs are enrolled in the program with their pre-determined handler and train with them for two weeks.

“The first week is usually eight hours,” Keeling explained. “The second week, we put them in practical applications. Everything that we experienced as law enforcement, we put them in those situations and try to prepare them to go out and hit the streets with the dogs.”

The program continues to train the dogs as well, honing their tracking skills to detect narcotics and weapons.

“They understand that odor is everything,” he said. “I go to that odor; I get my toy.”

However, training differs between narcotics dogs and weapons dogs. While their regiment is the same, Keeling said the weapons dog is taken to an entirely separate facility so as not to contaminate either training area.

“We don’t want the weapons dog to even sniff narcotics,” Keeling said. “We use separate rooms and completely separate buildings for that particular dog.”

The organization covers the whole cost of training, caring and housing the dogs in their training centers. According to a press release, the program saves taxpayers about $20,000 due to donating the dogs to police departments.

But for Keeling, the Sector K9 program isn’t about saving money: it’s about saving a life.

“A lot of these dogs are literally hours away from being put down and never having a chance at life,” Keeling said. “Those are the dogs we want. We want the dogs that are super-driven, kind of crazy, and we channel all that craziness, that energy, to finding narcotics.”

Keeling said most of the dogs he sees donated into the program are bred with some amount of pitbull.

“The stigma with pitbulls is extremely negative,” he said. “If you notice all the shelter dogs in this program, they are pitbull-mixed dogs. We’re trying to change the stigma on that, and I think we’re making a positive impact as we do this and do more of it.”

Ferris ISD Police Chief Josh Newman said he appreciates the good the Sector K9 program does for humans and dogs alike and he looks forward to seeing K9 Heat go to work.

“This amazes me that some of these dogs are one day away from euthanization,” Neman said. “Next thing you know, you put them through a training program, bond them with a police officer, constable or deputy sheriff. From then on, that officer probably has the best partner they’ve ever had in police work.”

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