On patrol with Mohegan Sun's bomb-sniffing dogs
Mohegan — For K-9s Topper and Harley, searching for explosives is a lot like a game of hide-and-seek.
When they see the arena at Mohegan Sun, they know the game is about to begin. And, if last Monday’s walk-along with them was any indication, they couldn’t be more excited about it.
During each sweep of the 10,000-seat, multi-story arena, the two K-9 handlers on duty typically hide packages — luggage, boxes, you name it — filled with traces of explosive material. They then swap floors, grab their dogs and commence the hunt.
Mostly the handlers just let the dogs work, although sometimes they tap certain areas — say, a drawer — to invoke a “detail search.”
Depending on the airflow in the room, a dog might initially walk past one of the packages. Just as quickly, though, he or she will change course, methodically sniffing back to where it’s located.
If a container is benign, the K-9 carries on as usual. If it’s holding explosives, however, the dog will simply sit next to the package — to behave any other way could cause panic or risk setting something off.
After he explained the process last Monday, Sgt. Kevin Creamer looked to his K-9 Harley, a 2½-year-old Labrador retriever who was lying on the floor of a police department office.
“But we don’t want to ever find anything really, though, right?” he asked her. She looked up with what seemed to be a smile, rope toy dangling from her mouth.
‘Let’s do it right’
Creamer and Harley, academy graduates as of this past December, are the Mohegan Tribal Police Department’s newest team. That means the force now has four explosive detection K-9 teams.
Chief Jeffrey Hotsky said his department is an anomaly in that it has so many teams but no accompanying bomb squad. It’s one of the largest — if not the largest — bomb-sniffing K-9 units in the state, aside from the one operated by state police.
According to Hotsky, two of the teams typically work 4 p.m. to midnight, while the other two cover the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. Sometimes just one team is assigned to a particular shift. Other times the handlers and their dogs are called in early to check out suspicious or abandoned packages.
Hotsky said Mohegan Sun used to sweep the arena before shows only when a performer requested it. Back then, officials had to call up and wait for a state police team to do the work.
“Eventually it came to, ‘You know what? We need to do all the shows,’” he said. “‘Let’s do it right, because if something happens, it won’t be because of the performer, it will be because that’s an area you can get a lot of people into.’”
Hotsky said the K-9s will become even more important this summer, when the casino’s $80 million, 240,000-square-foot exposition center project is completed. He noted that the dogs also are also available to respond to other municipalities, should the need arise.
In addition to Creamer and Harley, Officer Joseph Morelli is paired with 3-year-old Topper, Sgt. Henry Butler is with 3-year-old Felix and Sgt. Steve Rief works with 6-year-old Felix. All of the dogs are Labrador retrievers.
Last Monday was quiet in terms of concerts and calls for service, but there’s no such thing as an uneventful night for a K-9 team.
The evening began with a mini-sweep of the arena concourse, in which Hotsky hid a couple of packages and both Topper and Harley set out to find them.
According to Morelli, the dogs are trained to seek out materials that are in explosives and likely not in anything else. With each successful find, the dog is rewarded with a bit of his or her food allotment for the day.
Last Monday, Topper and Harley sniffed everything: the floor, the walls, the recycling bin. They found both explosive-tinged cases within minutes.
From there, Morelli and Creamer led the dogs on a behind-the-scenes walk-through of the arena’s several floors, including the upper-level suites and a lower-level area featuring pool tables and other arcade games.
On occasion, Harley pulled so hard she choked a little. That especially was true in the game room, where she apparently wanted to get in on the action.
“She always has to be first,” Creamer remarked with a smile.
The officers walked the Labradors along the casino floor, too, sometimes stopping to chat with patrons as they petted the dogs.
“I don’t know if you noticed when we were talking to people in the hotel lobby,” Creamer said later, “but we’ve got the dogs conditioned so that if I walk up to somebody with luggage, the dog is searching the luggage while the person is petting him.”
“It’s that constant repetition,” he continued. “We want them to stay curious. We want them to be on.”
Though most police K-9s have a playful side, it’s especially notable with these ones: Unlike patrol dogs, they don’t need to be able to attack on command.
In fact, all four Labs are left behind during most calls for service. Sometimes, when the nearest police office is occupied, the dogs get to hang out off-leash. If the office is empty, the dogs are remanded to a cage, or a “box,” as the command goes.
“A big part of it is visibility,” Morelli said of the K-9 program. “A lot of times when people plan to do bad things, they come and they look (beforehand). What we want them to see is a guy with a dog standing there. This way they know, hey, it’s not going to be easy.”
“Hopefully we never actually have a real situation here,” he continued. “But we’re trying to stay on top of things.”
Creamer, who has nearly 30 years as a cop under his belt, had never been a handler until now. He said he grew up with dogs — he has an 11-year-old German shepherd at home — and decided it was time for a change of pace. He signed on knowing it was a minimum commitment of five years.
“It’s been great,” Creamer said. “Going through the training just opens your eyes to how smart these dogs truly are, how amazing they are and how uncoordinated you are (at first). … I have a whole new light of how I look at dogs now.”
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