The state Department of Corrections’ Drug Interdiction Unit celebrated the graduation of five new K-9 handlers on Thursday at the unit’s headquarters at Rockview.
Maj. Scott Bowman, chief of security, called it an “amazing accomplishment.”
The handlers spent 13 weeks in training, said Capt. Daniel McMahon, coordinator of DIU.
Anthony Roper, Tammie Vannatta, Joe Burger, Trisha Hoover and Jeff McCusker bring the unit’s total number of handlers up to 25.
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“They worked hard,” McMahon said, adding that being a K-9 handler is a “physical, demanding job.”
The K-9 unit is the “tip of the spear,” Bowman said.
The dogs are able to sniff out both organic and synthetic drugs, he said.
The DIU has been such a success, Bowman said, it’s been requested for help by other agencies.
It’s an “elite” unit, he added.
A requirement of becoming a K-9 handler is to be a corrections officer at one of the state’s facilities, Bowman said.
McCusker received the Top Dog award for the class.
Lt. John Hustosky, assistant DIU coordinator, said there’s usually a team that rises to the top during training. That team this time around was McCusker and Dan, a 2-year-old Lab.
McCusker said 13 weeks ago, he and his classmates started training knowing that it would be a challenge.
That was an understatement, he said.
It was a “rewarding” and “eye-opening” experience, McCusker said.
McCusker thanked Hustosky, saying that the graduates wouldn’t have made it through the program without him.
With the graduation came tours of the new K-9 kennel, which will open in a few weeks, and demonstrations by a veteran drug detection dog.
Sgt. Melissa Weakland and Kira, an 8-year-old Belgian malinois, have been together for six and a half years.
She loves going to work, Weakland said.
Kira showed off her skills — first finding a bag of marijuana in Bowman’s pocket (which Weakland had given to him earlier in the day so he would have the scent on him) and then finding some in the undercarriage of a unit SUV.
Usually the handlers will take the dog around a person or car twice, and then they’re trained to sit and stare at the source of the odor when they find it, Weakland said.