A K9 Handler's Story: A nose for trouble - and teamwork

Published in the ORLANDO SENTINEL

On the first night of class, Jerome Sands sits in the conference room of a Daytona Beach motel, waiting patiently with the others. One woman nervously taps her foot; another man rubs his palms together. The uncomfortable silence is punctuated only by the hum of an air conditioner pumping icy cold air into the small, apricot-colored room. The 30-year-old police officer has traveled here from the Bahamas to learn how to handle his new partner—a bomb-sniffing dog.   He's outwardly calm but still feels the pressure. 

He has three weeks to learn the ropes and pass the final exam. If he doesn't, he'll go home without the dog, and the Nassau police department will have spent more than $10,000 for nothing.

Bill HeiserThe eight students snap to attention when Bill Heiser strolls through the door, his muscular form visible beneath a dark blue T-shirt. Crisp-looking navy fatigues—legs lined with roomy pockets—tucked into black combat boots. The phones at Heiser’s Southern Coast K9 training school in Daytona Beach, Florida, ring constantly with inquiries about purchasing dogs for sniffing out drugs and explosives.

Heiser once sold 20 drug-sniffing dogs for every bomb dog; since Sept. 11, it's been the other way around.

After two hours of lectures on the intricacies of bomb-making, the students pile into vans and SUVs, and head for an abandoned warehouse. They anxiously file inside the cavernous building where fluorescent lights buzz loudly overhead. One by one the leashed dogs bound into the room. Each student is handed a leash. Jerome, who has no previous experience with dogs, is paired with Darko. The dog is a Belgian Malinois, a European breed that resembles a German shepherd surviving on Slim-Fast. The trainers are confident that even if Jerome struggles, Darko can lead him through any miscues and stumbles.

In another context, the warehouse scene would be comical: 50 to 75 pound dogs yanking on their leashes, pulling the students around as if water-skiing across the concrete floor. The mere sight of a tennis ball sends the dogs leaping into the air and dashing around the room.

Darko jumps 6 feet, a leap that brings him eyeball to eyeball with his new handler.

The hyperactive pack appears desperately in need of sedatives. The students look shocked.

"Now," Heiser tells the students, "you are going to sleep, eat and breathe with your dog."

A 4-legged roommate. 

Jerome Sands with K9 DarkoIf Jerome thinks Heiser is exaggerating, he soon learns otherwise. For the next three weeks, no matter what Jerome does, Darko is right there. He's sprawled next to Jerome on the hotel bed; sticking his black snout into Jerome's takeout coffee cup; trying to steal a piece of Kentucky Fried chicken from Jerome's hand. A casual observer would think the dog a nuisance rather than the highly skilled worker that he is. But Heiser—who has been training dogs for nearly 15 years— is extremely picky when selecting dogs. On average, only one out of every 40 dogs he tests will succeed.

The ideal dog, Heiser says, will jump through a wall for a tennis ball. It will chew tennis balls till they pop and won't stop playing fetch even when its master is beyond ready to quit. Most people probably would find Heiser's ideal dog frustrating to live with; they might even unload it at the nearest pound. "Every one of my dogs has that drive," Heiser says. "Crazy-crazy," he calls it.

During 15 weeks of training, the dogs learn to associate the smells of explosives with two coveted rewards—a tennis ball and an over-the-top, thigh-slapping, dog-rubbing reaction from Heiser that goes something like this: "WOO-HOO! That's a good boy! WOO-HOO! Atta boy-eeee!"

A canine nose contains 20 to 40 times more receptor cells than a human nose. With the right training, dogs can sniff out even the tiniest amount of explosive, whether it's on a person's hands or clothing, hidden behind walls or planted under a car.

By the time Heiser finishes training the dogs, they can sniff out 16 types of explosives, pinpointing a bomb's location to within a foot.

Heiser relies mostly on German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Some Labrador retrievers make the cut, but so do other, less likely dogs, including border collies and mutts.
Heiser won't rule out any breed. "Dogs are individuals," he says. "They all have individual personalities."

Week 1.

Less than 24 hours after pairing with their dogs, the students are back at the warehouse. All but one are garbed in pocketed fatigues just like Heiser's, purchased at G.I. Jeff's in Daytona. Heiser's eight students are police officers, employees of private security firms and everyday people interested in starting their own bomb-detecting business.

Jerome and his other roommate Frank Burrows are here, they explain, because the Federal Aviation Administration is leaning on the Nassau airport to heighten security.

For the Bahamian police, it's a hefty investment. Heiser charges $7,000 for the dog and training. Then there's the cost of sending Jerome and Frank to Florida for three weeks.

"The easy part for us is training the dog," Heiser says. "The hard part is training the people how to use the dog.

When you get somebody in here who doesn't know much about handling dogs, it's like giving a 22-gear truck to someone who just got a drivers license. When they start out, all they do is grind the gears."

Night after night, Heiser patiently shows the handlers how to guide a dog to all four corners of a room. He tells them to get the dog's nose on all the "seams"—anywhere there's a break in the wall—from air vents to electrical outlets. And he continually finds new challenges for his charges.

One night, he hides explosives in an empty football stadium. The next, he plants TNT under the bumper of a car in a packed parking lot. After that, he hides a bomb in a school locker. Sometimes he spreads beat-up red, pink, green  and brown suitcases on the floor of the empty warehouse and challenges the dogs and handlers to find the booby-trapped bag.

The students are making progress, but it's going slowly. They are, says Heiser, still grinding the gears. They all commit rookie mistakes: Tripping over the dog's leash or their own feet; walking so tentatively that the dog—trained to sit down when it smells explosive materials—sits because the handler is moving too slowly. Greenhorns sometimes snap their fingers or rap knuckles on walls, trying to get the dog to check every corner and crevice. But rapping and snapping could be trouble if a bomb is set to detonate at the slightest sound. Jerome taps on tables and can't get in sync with Darko. Frank, who has the most dog experience, seems to get it. He trots around the room, letting Carlos, a Belgian Malinois, the dog do the work. He quickly discovers that when Carlos smells explosives, the dog's breathing changes.

The clues are subtle, but Frank is learning to "read" his dog.

For the other students, progress comes in halting steps.

Week 2

It is Jerome Sands' 10th wedding anniversary, and here he is, in a hotel room with a dog. "Man, that's not right," he says jokingly. Jerome is tired of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and greasy hamburgers. Right now, he craves some home cooking—peas and rice, some curry or boiled fish. He misses his wife and three children. He's weary of sharing a homogenized hotel room with Burrows and two large dogs.

To Jerome's relief, he and Darko have bonded.

"The first night I wondered if we were going to click," he confides. "But now we seem to be working fine. It's not as hard as I expected."

There's one aspect of dog-handling, though, that Jerome finds difficult. Day after day, exuberant praise rings through the air as students reward their dogs. Handlers are expected to act the part of a clown when lavishing their dogs with high-pitched "Atta-boys" and "WOO-HOOs," to assure the dog that he's done a good job. Quiet and reserved, Jerome finds it difficult to let loose.

"Good boy," he praises Darko in a low, conversational voice.

"Gotta work on the praise," Heiser notes to himself, as he watches Jerome.

Week 3

The countdown to the Bahamians' final exams is on.

Already, two students have passed their finals and earned bomb-dog certification. The rest still have work to do.
Heiser puts them through their paces. They search more lockers. They search more suitcases. Then Heiser lines the students up in chairs and plants explosives on the students, so the dogs—particularly the airport security dogs—can get accustomed to searching people.

Three nights later, it's test time.

At the testing spot at the high-school football stadium, all the students have the jitters.

Frank goes first. He and Carlos head to the stadium's press box, where Heiser has hidden black powder. They scan the room quickly before Carlos zeroes in on the odor—coming from an air-conditioning vent.

They pass.

Now it's Jerome and Darko's turn. The two exit the elevator and begin searching the room. At first, Darko doesn't hit on anything. Then he sits next to the water fountain—there's no bomb there now, but the dog is smart. That's the spot where Heiser set the explosives down 15 minutes earlier, and Darko has picked up a trace of scent. Score points for Jerome and Darko.

Dog and handler circle the room again, looking for the real explosive. They stop at a Coke machine; Darko sits down. It's a mistake. Jerome walked in front of Darko and hesitated so the dog sat down.

They circle the room once more. "It's here somewhere," Sands mumbles in frustration. Finally, Darko sits in another corner. It's another miss—there are no explosive nearby.

The team overlooked the black powder planted in the vent.

Jerome is shaken. He heads to the van, where he sits alone in the dark, pondering what has just happened.

Earlier in the day, he'd gotten Darko's shipping and health papers. Now he's afraid he might lose it all. "Don't worry," Heiser tells him as they huddle at the van.

Phase two of the final exam begins. The group packs up the dogs, and the caravan of vans and SUVs heads to the Volusia County Sheriff's compound to search cars for explosives.

But first, inside a conference room at the sheriff's department, Jerome and Darko must try another test.

This time, Heiser can't watch. He's too nervous.

He knows that if Sands fails this indoor test, he cannot let him pass the course. Heiser leaves the room and lets two other trainers judge.

Jerome sweeps the room, hitting the corners perfectly. Walking by a desk, he taps the tabletop. Heiser, standing outside in the hall, winces at the sound. He's sure that Darko will sit because of the tapping. Darko doesn't. He moves past the desk, and the team finds the explosive, hidden in a photocopy machine. Heiser is relieved. As the dogs grow accustomed to the handlers, he explains, they get used to the handlers' mistakes—and the dogs override them. In this case, Darko overlooked Jerome's error and did his job. Jerome, given the good news, breathes easier.

But there's still one more test.

The group treks to the Volusia County Sheriff's compound. Heiser calls the teams into the parking lot one at a time and asks the handlers to search a trio of vehicles. Each handler, hesitant to let the dog take the lead, tries to search the lot thoroughly, working every vehicle from left to right. But the dogs prevail. One by one, they drag their handlers to the vehicle that has C-4 plastic explosive hidden beneath the headlight.

Frank and Carlos pass the test; so do Jerome and Darko.
There are smiles of relief. Jerome shakes his head. Heiser grins.

Jerome and Darko have become a team.

Heiser knows that, when Jerome returns home to the Bahamas, he will occasionally grind the gears of his sleek bomb-sniffing machine—but Darko, Heiser assures, will know how to respond.

"If you can teach them to listen to the dog," says Heiser, "they will never lose."


Would you like to train to be a K9 handler? Contact Bill Heiser toll free at 877.903.3647.

Prices were accurate at time of writing.