The Macon County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) operates as one unit, as a family. Each department depends on and supports the other. That same respect and admiration does not stop when it comes to MCSO's four-legged officers. The canines who represent MCSO are far more than animals, they are a part of the family, and an important part of the overall operations. MCSO's Citizens Academy got a first hand look at the training and function of each of the department's four canines.
During the 10-week Citizens Academy course, citizens have been afforded the opportunity to get up close and personal with various duties carried out by the Sheriff’s Office including community patrols, DUI enforcement, K-9 demonstrations, and tactical SRT team scenarios.
The educational program is intended to build a closer partnership with the local community and the Sheriff's Office.
In the MCSO's K-9 division are four canines – one bloodhound and three Belgian Malinois. Each of the dogs are specially trained and have the expertise to complete any number of specific tasks for the department ranging from tracking to evidence recovery.
Lt. Steve Stewart and Sgt. Clay Bryson led the presentation of MCSO's K-9 unit.
Stewart has a diverse law enforcement career. He was first sworn in as a Deputy Sheriff under Macon County Sheriff Homer Holbrooks in 1998. Stewart then pursued different aspects of law enforcement working as a patrol officer for Franklin Police Department later returning to the Sheriffs’ Office as a detective. He specialized in domestic violence and sexual assaults. He subsequently worked for the Department of State assigned to International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. As a part of those duties, Stewart spent three and a half years in Iraq advising Iraqi Senior Police Staff. Since returning from his overseas posting, Stewart is now a lieutenant serving as the jail administrator.
Stewart has the lone bloodhound for the department. Clifford is a 21-month-old bloodhound who has been in Stewart's care since he was eight weeks old.
“I got Clifford from a breeder in Seneca, S.C., and began training him the day I got him,” said Stewart.
Clifford received his K-9 certification last December. As a bloodhound, Clifford is bred to be a tracker. “The wrinkles on his forehead allow him to capture a scent and his long ears rub against the ground to stir up the scent,” explained Stewart. “His long snout is also part of his breed's design to be trackers.”
Stewart explained that while other breeds can also be tracking dogs, bloodhounds are often in cases where a scent or trail may not be fresh. “When he picks up a scent, he gets it and goes,” said Stewart. “His focus is on his nose and he loses all sight of everything else until he tracks down that scent.”
Bryson, who began his career with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office in April 2000, has worked in the patrol unit, first as a deputy, then sergeant, having been promoted to his current position as First Sergeant of the Patrol Unit in 2012. Bryson acquired the Sheriff’s Office’s first patrol canine in 2001. He currently oversees all patrol K-9 operations and is currently in the process of obtaining his trainer certification though the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA).
Bryson has had his canine Hoss, a Belgian Malinois for four years. Hoss is the MCSO's only certified full patrol dog, meaning he is trained in responsibilities and aspects of being a police dog. As a full patrol dog, Hoss is trained in narcotics, tracking, aggression control and evidence recovery.
Sgt. Craig Stahl has had his Beligian Malinois Conan since Conan was six weeks old. Conan, who is six years old, is trained to do three of the four duties associated with police dogs. He does not do aggression control. According to Stahl, he believes that Conan minds better than a lot of kids.
Det. David Blanton got his first canine, a nine-year-old Belgian Malinois named Zee, after Zee had spent three years as a prison dog. Zee is considered a single purpose dog, as he specializes in drug work. Blanton explained that even though Zee is the oldest of the department's canines, Zee is just as active as the others and still acts like a pup.
According to Bryson, Malinois are an excellent breed to use for K-9 units because of their “play drive.” “You won't outwork a Malinois, they will outwork you,” said Bryson. “Their breed is notorious for having a go, go, go attitude.”
Whenever possible, the dogs used in the MCSO are purchased from local breeders. Conan and Hoss are considered to be uncle and nephew as they come from the same bloodline. “Their bloodline is proven and we know what we are getting,” said Bryson.
In addition to their drive, Malinois are notorious for being extremely loyal dogs. “I wouldn't think for a minute that my dog wouldn't take a bullet for me,” said Bryson. “I know that he would.”
Bryson explained that some police departments prefer to employ German Shepherds, but the MCSO prefers Malinois because they last longer and outwork German Shepherds. “German Shepherds tend to have more hip problems,” said Bryson when asked why Malinois were the breed of choice.
To ensure the consistency in the quality of breeding, Bryson has purchased two female Malinois puppies on his own with the intention of breeding them with the department’s male canines. Stewart has also found a female bloodhound that he plans to purchase in the future with the intention of breeding her with Clifford.
A K-9 officer's duties are never finished. Even when he clocks out of the office and goes home for the day, he takes his canine with him. As a K-9 officer, he is responsible for the constant care and training of his four-legged partner. In order to keep the dogs fresh and in working condition, the K-9 officers do daily training exercises and once a week meet together to train. “It is important to continuously train the dogs and to work with them daily,” explained Bryson.
Trainings for the dogs are based on breed, tasks the dog is training for, and the dog's personality. Bryson explained that a commonly asked question he hears as a canine handler, is how are animals trained on drug detection. “Despite what some people may think, we do not get the dogs hooked on narcotics to train them on the detection, in fact ingestion would be lethal for the animals,” he said. “We train them on the scent and find a reward technique, whether that be a toy or a treat or whatever, that works best for the specific dog.” According to Bryson, the K-9 unit is used almost daily for various tasks from vehicle searches for drugs, to tracking individuals. Because MCSO's K- 9 unit is so advanced, neighboring counties often call on the canines to assist in their cases.
“We have these animals typically from the time they are puppies,” said Bryson. “We take them home at night to our families. The important thing to understand is that these dogs are more than just a part of the job, they are members of our families.”
To demonstrate the canine's different techniques, Citizens Academy participants were able to watch each dog in action. Conan and Zee were shown sniffing out traces of narcotics strategically hidden on a police vehicles. When the animals sniffed out the narcotics, which were placed in the rear hubcap and under the passenger side door, the canines either barked or stopped, sat, then laid down to alert their handlers.
Hoss' strengths were shown by demonstrating his ability to be a deterrent through criminal aggression control. Sheriff Robbie Holland stepped in the bite suit used to train the canines to show how on command from Bryson, Hoss would take down an uncooperative suspect. Once biting the arm of the bite suit, Bryson ordered Hoss to let go, which he did and immediately returned to Bryson's side.
“The dogs are not trained to be vicious or malicious in helping subdue a suspect,” said Bryson. “Like playing fetch or anything else, we train them for it to be a game. As long as we keep it fun for them, it is amazing what they are able to learn.”
Clifford's expertise in tracking was demonstrated using a volunteer inmate from the Macon County Detention Center. The inmate left his hat in the Town Hall parking lot, and then made a trail through Main Street before stopping near the gazebo. Clifford picked up the volunteer's scent from the hat and then sniffed his way around Main Street before stopping in the volunteer's lap. Stewart explained that Clifford identifies the exact scent he is tracing on a person by jumping on the person. If there are several people in a crowd, Clifford will approach the person with the specific scent and jump on them, Stewart said.
After witnessing a MCSO demonstration earlier this year, the Pine Grove School Community was so impressed with the level of skill and dedication of the K-9 officers, they wanted to honor their efforts.
Pine Grove Community Center president Lyman Lance hosted a ceremony to swear in and certify each of the canine members of the MCSO. In addition to presenting the dogs with a MCSO badge to attach to the animal's collar, both the K-9 officer and the dog signed an Oath of Office to affirm the animals as members of the MCSO.
Next week's Citizens Academy will feature tours and history of the past and present jails in Macon County.