After weeks of training at Rockview state prison, Pa. parole agents are now K-9 handlers

For the first time, three Pennsylvania parole agents are trained K-9 handlers, but their job requires more than being able to walk a dog on a leash.

Because of a partnership with Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole, three parole agents will now be able to detect narcotics and people faster than ever before, starting with this inaugural class.

“If you’re doing it well, it looks easy,” said Maj. Daniel McMahon, coordinator of the state’s Drug Interdiction Unit.

Pittsburgh’s Brian Rosswog, Harrisburg’s Justin Parson and Altoona’s William Stidfole completed K-9 handler training and participated in a graduation ceremony Thursday morning at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

Going into training, the agents were unsure of what to expect, but under the instruction of Sgt. John Wallace and Sgt. Anthony Spagnoletti, they learned quickly that being a K-9 handler is anything but easy.

Spending 14 weeks in training at Rockview, the agents studied, learned and practiced their handling techniques. While not training during the day, the agents studied in their hotel rooms in order to prepare for exams.

Sgt. Jeffrey Boyd and his K-9 partner Ozzy demonstrate a luggage sweep for drugs on Thursday. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“It was a lot,” Parson said, reflecting on training. “I expected to fail a lot because for the first time in seven years, I’ve had to learn something new.”

From those failures, Parson said he and his fellow agents were able to learn and grow as officers. While there were some days he wanted to “put the leash down,” Parson said it is an honor to have been trained as a K-9 handler with his partner Razor, because he brings a more dynamic skill set to his field.

Being able to ensure the safety of community members is at the core of this partnership. The K-9s and their handlers are trained to search cars, buildings and can be used in the street and open land areas. K-9s can also smell substances through air detection training in addition to human detection in case of a missing person.

Working together, DOC and parole agents can now search for illegal substances at a quicker pace. Specifically in halfway houses, Parson said, parole agents will be able to make sure programs that are built to reintegrate people into society will be safe and clean.

Sgt. J Fortson and his K-9 Cannon demonstrate a car sweep for drugs on Thursday. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

A procedure that used to take hours has been shortened significantly as a result of K-9 detection training. K-9s represents the “best tool for searches ever,” Rosswog said.

Not every alert is for drugs, so K-9 trainers and their partners were trained to detect humans, a first for the DOC. Sometimes, people will hide from parole agents because illegal substances were discovered in their home or vehicle. With K-9s, the agents will spend less time trying to search for the person by hand.

Each dog is assigned its own handler. The dog lives in a kennel at their handler’s home. While K-9s receive more intense training than a domestic pet, the bond between an agent and his K-9 partner is just the same.

Rosswog said his relationship with his partner Bo is like family and represents one of the best K-9s the program has to offer. He and Bo’s skills will be utilized in the eastern region of Pennsylvania. They also received the Top Dog award, an award given to the strongest partnership in the graduating class.

Because the agents work in different parts of the state, their skills will be utilized based on their region. Stidfole and his partner Barron will serve throughout the central regions of the state, including Centre County, and Parson will cover the western side. McMahon said both departments and the agents are excited about the merger and are eager to expand with additional training.

Although the agents passed their trainings, Wallace and Spagnoletti said this is only the beginning.

Rosswog, Parson and Stidfole joined a much larger group of Pennsylvania K-9 handlers who will continue to teach them throughout their work because “OK” isn’t good enough, Wallace said.

All three agents said they were appreciative to have had the opportunity to enhance their profession and are looking forward to continue learning and bonding with their K-9 partners.

“Welcome to the best job you will ever have in your life,” Wallace said.