New York State Trooper Tom Smoulcey holds back Jake, a straining 3-year-old German shepherd on a black leash. He pauses before giving his command: “Find the bomb.”
Jake gets to work, gamboling around, pressing his nose to an assortment of suitcases strewn about the basement of the Cooperstown New York State Police K-9 Unit training facility.
Jake’s breathing quickens and his head snaps back, trying to recapture the scent of the stick of dynamite he’s been told to track. When he finds what he’s looking for about a minute later, he lies down – the passive sign that he’s found the explosive.
Now, it’s time to play: the dog’s reward for a job well done.
Jake and Smoulcey are one of the 66 state police K-9 teams that combine man and man’s best friend. Though Smoulcey and his canine have been together for nearly 10 months, Jake fills the role of partner, not pet.
The state troopers say that the dogs work to please their handlers.
“The dogs want to work for you,” said Smoulcey, who is based in the troopers’ barracks in Marcy. “That dog would give his life to protect me.”
Ape, an FBI K-9, was killed March 14 while working with law enforcement to apprehend Kurt Myers, who shot six men, killing four of them, the day before. Police then killed Myers.
For some, joining the ranks of K-9 handlers is a long process.
Smoulcey said he wanted to be a part of the K-9 unit since he became a state trooper 13 years ago. Others, who are self-described dog people, said becoming part of the unit is one of the best accomplishments they’ve achieved.
“I get to work with dogs all day,” said Trooper Jason Brewer, who runs the training facility. “We have the best job in the state police.”
Before training can begin, the troopers and potential K-9s go through a screening process: Physical fitness tests and interviews for the humans, playfulness and sociability grades for their furry counterparts.
For 20 weeks, “green” handlers and the dogs they are paired with go through a basic training program, covering obedience, tracking and detection, among other topics. The pair stays in the same room – the trooper on a twin bed, the dog in a crate.
“We can train the dogs in half the time,” said Trooper Matt Johnstone, a handler and trainer at the Cooperstown facility. “We need 20 weeks because we’re training the handlers.”
Depending on the dog’s designation – bomb or drug – they are trained to pick up on different scents. But the troopers said the dog is not actively looking for a bomb or stashed drugs. They’re searching for their toy.
Page 2 of 2 - “When they smell that scent, they smell the ball,” said Sgt. John LaPlante, a state police public information officer. “That’s all they’re looking for.”
Sure enough, when Jake catches the right scent and finds the stick of dynamite in a brown suitcase, Smoulcey cups a red rubber ball, bound to a red rope, in his hand. He hides it from Jake’s prying eyes with his free hand, throwing it to the waiting dog.
“That’s really what he wanted,” Smoulcey said, grabbing hold of the rope and tugging back.
Sometimes, it’s hard to draw the line between pet and partner, especially with play as the positive reinforcement for the dog’s work.
Jake is Smoulcey’s constant companion and has become his family’s dog. The dog goes home with him after work, but Smoulcey only lets his three young sons play with the dog outside. He won’t often go and play fetch in the yard with his partner.
“I want him to know that play comes after he’s done his work,” he said.