In 1888, the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of east London. In an effort to apprehend the killer, British police employed the acute olfactory senses of bloodhounds to track down and detain the villain. Though Jack the Ripper was never found, this initial use of canines in law enforcement marked a new beginning for the age-old covenant between man and man’s best friend.
Since April 2017, the University of Nebraska Lincoln Police Department has utilized the keen senses of three certified police dogs. One of these dogs, a German shepherd mix from Croatia, has been successful as a K-9 and rising social media icon. With over 4,000 people following the Twitter account run by her handler Russell Johnson, K-9 Layla has captured the hearts of many.
“[Layla’s] got a whole lot of personality, all the time,” Johnson said. “It just surprises me how much she learns and retains.”
Layla’s skills and personality go much further than heartwarming photos of her in a Husker hoodie on Twitter. According to Johnson, Layla is a single-purpose police dog, trained solely to detect explosives at large events like football games and graduation ceremonies.
Layla and her fellow K-9, Justice, were trained through the Grand Island Police Academy to memorize up to 19 odors that would indicate a possible explosive device. Scents such as chemical vapors, TNT or water gel are imprinted in the dog’s mental arsenal of suspicious odors. If the dog detects any combination of these, they alert the handler through an array of signals the officer then interprets.
“During the training, you are either looking for an alert or an indication,” Johnson said. “Because there is such a combination of odors, you have to be able to read your dog to know what they are trying to indicate.”
Johnson said the amount of trust that is necessary to read the dog’s signals not only produces a successful professional bond but an emotional one as well.
“At the end of the day, the success of your job is reliant with the success of the dog,” he said. “You spend more time with that dog than you do with your coworkers, and because of that, it is a very unique bond that you have with these dogs.”
Regardless of the companionship shared between officer and service dog, UNLPD aims to maintain an efficient and professional environment to keep the dog sharp and ready to ensure security on campus.
“It’s constant training. You can’t just skip a day,” K-9 officer Anderson Delgado said. “You have to train them constantly so they don’t forget the true reason they are there.”
Although Layla goes home with Johnson, a level of distance must be upheld between the two to ensure the dog associates the feeling of fun and play with being at work.
“Their paycheck is play, and if they receive that at home, why would they want to go to work for a paycheck that they already get staying home?” Johnson said.
According to Delgado, a typical day for a police dog involves getting up early, going to work with the handler and getting fed. Then, depending on the officer’s shifts, the dog will undergo a series of training scenarios and drills to keep a sharp sense of preparedness.
The dogs and their handlers are also required to be recertified annually to ensure top performance and efficiency. As for the future of UNLPD’s K-9 program, both officers have high hopes.
“The demand for these dogs is definitely increasing,” Delgado said. “With the various threats we’ve seen all over our country, and with all the events that we host, it just adds another layer of protection.”
Both officers also stressed the importance of letting the dogs do their job. If Layla or Justice are at a game, the officers said they are there to do much more than look cute in a kevlar vest. Delgado emphasized that attendees should not approach the dogs, nor should they ask to pet them — no matter how friendly they seem.
“They’re less of a pet and more of a tool that we use to provide safety,” Delgado said. “Their reward is when they do their job, and we need to make sure that they are on top of their game for that.”