UMPD uses furry, 70-pound bomb detectors

Minneapolis police search the Wisconsin Badgers team bus after a football game Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Anthony Kwan

Minneapolis police search the Wisconsin Badgers team bus after a football game Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Kaitlin Walker

Five hours before the Gopher game against Wisconsin on Saturday, Officer Jason Printz and his partner Neko walked through TCF Bank Stadium to check for explosives.

Neko is a 3-year-old, 70-pound German shepherd. He is one of the two police dogs that make up the University of Minnesota police canine unit, who secure the stadium before every game. Eighty-three  University police officers also patrol the stadium during the game.

On Saturday, before the game, Printz and Neko checked a storage area as event staff milled about.

âÄúIs he behaving today?âÄù One of the staff jokingly asked Printz as he passed by. âÄúThatâÄôs a first.âÄù

Neko sat quietly at PrintzâÄôs side, looking up expectantly and waiting for his command. Printz directed the dog to the areas that needed to be checked and Neko followed his hand, sniffing diligently.

When he was done, Printz praised Neko and gave him a pat on the head. The dogs can usually only work for about 20 minutes before they need a break for water and fresh air, said Sgt. Ryan Rivers, who was part of the canine unit before his dog, Raven, retired.

Besides sweeps of the building before the game, Neko also checks any supply trucks that come in to the stadium and performs a TSA check for players headed to the airport after the game, checking luggage, the bus and the players.

15 weeks of training

Neko came from a breeder in Ohio, but most police dogs are bred overseas before being sold to breeders in the United States, who then sell the dogs to police departments.

Finding a good police dog can be tough and only about 40 percent of the dogs who start training are able to complete it, Rivers said.

âÄúThey have to be friendly to the public but aggressive enough for apprehension,âÄù Rivers said. âÄúItâÄôs a hard component to get.âÄù

Police dogs are usually dual-purpose, trained in apprehension and then either narcotics or explosives. Most dogs trained for the University police specialize in explosives.

Neko began training with Printz when he was just a year old. During the 12-week apprehension training course, Neko learned âÄústreet-related stuff,âÄù like tracking, building searches and obedience, Printz said. He then moved on to a three-week explosives course, where he learned to detect compounds from the four different classes of explosives.

âÄúItâÄôs amazing how smart they are and to see how much they can do,âÄù Printz said.

All training is done using toy rewards. The dogs arenâÄôt allowed to play with toys unless they are on duty, so they know the difference between home and work, Printz said. NekoâÄôs favorite toy is a simple tennis ball.

Officers also train their dogs anywhere from three to eight hours a week. University police train Wednesdays and sometimes join Minneapolis police for their training on Thursdays.

Printz, who has been an officer for 13 years, chose to train a dog for the canine unit after Rivers retired his dog.

âÄúWhen I started, I didnâÄôt have any aspirations to be a sergeant or lieutenant,âÄù Printz said. âÄúI needed a change from the everyday police work.âÄù

A self-proclaimed animal lover, Printz said he had always been interested in training a dog and spent a lot of time talking to Rivers about it before making his decision.

âÄúItâÄôs a different type of police work,âÄù Printz said.

As part of the canine unit, Printz does not respond to normal calls and is only dispatched if there are no other squads available.

âÄúThey like to keep the canines free,âÄù Printz said.

Printz mostly responds to calls to homes and buildings that have been burglarized and need to be checked, or is assigned to searches when police believe a suspect is in the area. While most University police offers are confined to part of the city, Printz and Neko can go anywhere they are needed.

During the search, handlers rely on a cover officer, because they are confined to watching the dog and are not able to have their weapon out and ready in case of an attack. Printz said he has run into problems where cover officers are afraid of the dog and will lag behind.

âÄúItâÄôs something that I didnâÄôt understand until I started training [Neko],âÄù Printz said. âÄúThe dog knows the difference between the officers and the bad guys.âÄù

Each dog has his or her own unique personality, Lt. David Wilske said. RiversâÄô dog, Raven, was sweet and affectionate.

âÄúRaven, I would walk right up to her and grab her. She loved to play,âÄù Wilske said. âÄúBut this one, heâÄôs a little more aggressive. TheyâÄôre trained to protect his or her handler. ThatâÄôs his partner.âÄù

Printz described Neko as a âÄúJekyl and Hyde.âÄù He said he can be happy and playful one minute but can snap if he wants to be left alone.

âÄúMy wife always says âÄòNekoâÄôs in a mood,âÄôâÄù Printz said. âÄúBut around me heâÄôs always the same.âÄù

âÄúPart of the familyâÄù

Like most dogs in a canine unit, Neko lives with his handler. Printz said he gets along well with his two kids, a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old, and his familyâÄôs other 14-pound dog.

Neko stays in his kennel in PrintzâÄôs insulated garage most of the time when heâÄôs off duty. When he is in the house, Printz said he is constantly at his feet. If Printz leaves the room, Neko follows.

Between training, work and home, the two are together almost 24 hours a day, Printz said.

âÄúIn reality I spend more time with him than I do with my wife and kids,âÄù Printz said.

Printz said he and Neko bonded quickly, although they did have some âÄúgrowing painsâÄù while Neko learned who was in charge. He said that through training he came to trust himself and the dog. Officers rely on their dogs to tell them an area is safe. A dog that doesnâÄôt want to work can make the difference between life and death.

âÄúI have full confidence in him that he will work 100 percent of the time,âÄù Printz said.

Most police dogs can work for about five to seven years, although Printz said heâÄôs seen dogs work for up to 12 years.

Retiring can be hard for dogs like Neko, who love to work. And retiring can be hard on the officer who has developed a relationship with his or her canine partner.

Printz said he isnâÄôt sure if he will train another dog after Neko because âÄúyou donâÄôt know what type of dog youâÄôll get.âÄù

If a dog doesnâÄôt get along with family and other pets, Printz said they end up living in their kennels after they retire.

âÄúThat would bother me as a dog lover,âÄù Printz said.

But when Neko retires, Printz said he will become a family pet and get full run of the house, including the furniture.

âÄúHeâÄôs part of the family,âÄù Printz said. âÄúHeâÄôs been with us for so long, I donâÄôt know what it would be like without him around.âÄù