ST. PETERSBURG — Labrador retrievers Macy and Roo would fit in at any dog park, but when it comes to student safety they’re all business.
Beginning next week the two dogs will patrol area schools, sniffing out firearms on campus. After months of training, they can find guns that haven’t been shot in years, tell BB guns and toys from the real thing, and identify a single shell casing in a field of obstacles. They also — strategically — are cuter than some of their canine counterparts.
“They’re well trained but people friendly, and kids just love the dogs and get so excited when they see them,” Pinellas County schools Superintendent Michael Grego said as he smiled at posters that soon will hang in every local school showing Macy and Roo perched atop classroom desks with their tongues out.
“They (students) know the purpose of the dogs but they don’t get worried — unless they’ve got something to hide.”
Grego, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and a host of other dignitaries showed off the dogs’ skills at a news conference Wednesday to announce the new Firearms Detection K-9 teams, which might be the only one of its kind in the nation. The dogs were bought and trained with about $24,000 from a Justice Assistance Grant secured last year by the St. Petersburg Police Department.
The idea to pursue a K-9 unit dedicated to finding and deterring guns on school grounds came up in early 2013, following the success of the police department’s Gun Bounty initiative to get illegal guns off the streets, said Assistant Chief Melanie Bevan. And in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the guns should help ease parent’s worries about their children’s safety “one sniff at a time,” she said.
The K-9 teams are truly a collaborative effort, Grego said. Chocolate lab Macy will work with St. Petersburg police K-9 Officer Chris Ladd, the trainer for the program, and yellow lab Roo is paired with 10-year Pinellas County Schools police Officer Dave Harrison. The dogs will survey every campus at least twice each academic year in addition to responding to rumors and threats. They also can stand guard at events such as high school football games.
“I’ve been absolutely shocked by how amazing their noses are and how small the odor can be for them to pick up and react to it,” Harrison said. “Kids seem to get a little more rambunctious every year, but our schools are just mirrors of our society. What’s happening in our neighborhoods will end up in our schools.”
Unlike standard K-9 teams trained to perform a variety of functions, the dogs are taught to look solely for guns and shell casings, which helps them focus on “having one purpose in life — finding guns to the best of their ability,” Harrison said.
The dogs locate guns based on “post-blast residue” left after weapons are fired, Harrison said. Although police dogs long have been used to detect and track not only guns but also drugs, bombs and people, at first police weren’t sure if they could find a gun that hadn’t been fired in a while. While training continues, Ladd said, the dogs have been able to find guns that haven’t been shot or used in at least three years.
“There have been very few instances where we’ve found guns on campus, but they’re becoming more prevalent in our society and every so often a student makes a wrong decision,” Grego said. “This is a really proactive and visual way to show that there’s no reason why there should be one gun on campus.”