Meet Gator: The UMPD’s newest bomb-sniffing dog

The new hire reflects a national trend of departments that have shifted focus away from biting apprehension dogs.

Officer Cunningham brushes his police dog Gator outside TCF Bank Stadium on June 1, 2017. Gator is a specialized bomb dog that is focused on detecting bombs before events on campus.

Easton Green

Officer Cunningham brushes his police dog Gator outside TCF Bank Stadium on June 1, 2017. Gator is a specialized bomb dog that is focused on detecting bombs before events on campus.

by Bella Dally-Steele

There’s a new dog in town at the University of Minnesota Police Department, a lively Labrador with a superb snout.

The dog, Gator, completed canine training May 25 with his handler, Officer Allan Cunningham. The training comes after recent international bombings and a general drop in demand for apprehension, or “biting” dogs, on campus.

The UMPD — along with other local and national departments — is moving to friendly bomb-sniffing dogs, and Gator is part of the trend.

“I think every department in the country is gearing up to have more bomb dogs than they’ve ever had before,” said Sergeant Charles McCree, supervisor of Minneapolis Police Department’s K-9 Unit.

McCree said police departments have turned to a favor for bomb dogs over apprehension dogs to prevent terrorist attacks.

The UMPD formerly had two apprehension dogs, Rio and Niko, and one bomb dog, Doc. After Niko’s retirement, Sergeant Ryan Rivers chose Cunningham to be the handler of the newest addition to the team, Gator.

Like other bomb dogs, Gator will help clear buildings before large events, as well as track lost items or missing people.

Cunningham said the shift from apprehension dogs to bomb dogs is for both community relations and security reasons. Bomb dogs are explicitly trained to be friendly and tend to have better relationships with the public, he said.

McCree said MPD has 15 apprehension dogs, eight of which are dual-purpose — trained to detect explosives, drugs and other materials. MPD started to add more bomb dogs about five years ago and has continued to prefer a bomb-dog-heavy team, he said.

While UMPD apprehension dogs have also trained to be dual-purpose and detect explosives, single-purpose dogs are in higher demand said UMPD Chief Matthew Clark.

“We recognize that there’s a need for high-level security for the campus and events we hold,” Clark said. “Especially with the Super Bowl coming, we know that having a single-purpose explosive dog is important.”

Preparing bomb dogs is a long process that consists of everything from selecting the best breed to a 12-week-long, five-day-a-week training process.

Bomb dogs are typically Labradors, Cunningham said. The breed has a lower capacity for aggression, which makes them a better fit for explosive detection in public places.

Cunningham’s dog, Gator, was handpicked by the UMPD and flown in from Florida. The new duo trained from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the workweek at MPD’s K-9 Unit, and today, the pair barely leaves each other’s side. Gator lives with Cunningham full-time at his home.

For the dog training, Gator did mock car searches, tracked people and objects by smell and brushed up on basics like sitting on command.

For Cunningham himself, he had to pass an interview with head canine trainer Joe Fuller to determine if he was fit for the job, act as a missing person for a training dog and stand on the receiving end of a dog bite.

Despite the long process and dangers that come with clearing sites of explosives, Cunningham said he was eager to become Gator’s handler.

“I guess [Sergeant Rivers] just saw something in me, he believed I would be well suited for this position,” Cunningham said. “And that’s why I’m here.”