MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Before 60,000 or more screaming fans fill the seats at Mountaineer Field to cheer the football team, to a trio of noses works hard to make sure Milan Puskar Stadium is safe for all.
Ginger, a 7-year-old field golden retriever; Nina, a 2-year-old field golden Retriever; and Allie, a 6-year-old chocolate Lab, are explosive detection dogs with the WVU Police K-9 unit.
The unit also has Riley, an 18-month German short-haired pointer, a narcotics dog.
Before every home game at Mountaineer Field, the dogs spend 18 hours, starting at 6 a.m. the day before, sweeping the stadium for explosives, Lt. Josh Cook said.
Cook said a dog will work for about 15-20 minutes and then have a short rest while one of the others takes over.
WVU Police Chief W.P. Chedester said the K-9 unit means a lot to the department. The unit was started in the early 2000s and went so well, it expanded.
Now the department is asked to help other agencies and handles “all the big events” in Morgantown, Chedester said.
Cook said the canines and their handlers sweep before any event at the stadium or coliseum and the unit, the largest explosive K-9 unit in the state, has been asked to help with everything from political rallies to concerts.
During a recent sweep of the WVU Coliseum before a woman’s basketball game, Nina, sniffing along the wall between sections, around trash cans and anywhere Cook pointed, suddenly sat. That’s her signal that something isn’t right.
Cook unhooked a tennis ball kept on his belt and tossed it to her. She’d found something hidden where a fire extinguisher is kept.
“It’s just a game to her,” Cook said.
The unit has never found a bomb, but Cook always makes sure the dogs find something. He said he hides firecrackers or a cotton ball that’s sat in a container with an explosive, such as C4, before every sweep.
Detection dogs can smell 44 times better than humans, Cook said.
The dogs are able to detect about 19,000 different combinations of explosives, Cook said.
He said every few months the K-9 units train with the FBI, who bring more volatile explosives than the department would normally have access to. There is also daily training for the dogs to practice what they know, including learning to ignore certain scents, like the nitrates in rubber gloves, Cook said.
The dogs are constantly being trained because detection is a perishable skill, Cook said. Even on vacation he makes sure to train Nina and Ginger, his two dogs, for about 30 minutes to an hour each day.
“It takes a special breed of officer to want to be a handler because of the responsibility you have of taking care of the K-9 24/7,” Chedester said. “You also get called out after your shift and work extra hours because of large events.”
Police dogs live with their handlers and Cook said it takes the support of family to be a K-9 officer.
Cook said his family is behind him 100 percent. In fact, his son Ben named Nina and held her on the ride back from Adirondiac Golden Retrievers in upstate New York, where she and Ginger are from.
Despite the long hours, the travel across the state to help and the 24/7 commitment to the furry officer, Cook said the job is extremely rewarding and worth it.
He said he doesn’t see himself as anything but a K-9 officer — a goal he’s had his entire career.
“I always wanted to be a K-9 officer,” Cook said. “I enjoy it.”