DANVILLE, Va. — On a call from the Danville Police Department, Ryan Furguson — a deputy from the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office — arrived at a crime scene on the morning of April 20, 2018.
First he talked to the manager of Astoria Hotel in Danville, who had stepped outside and saw a silver Chevrolet Impala on fire as a bullet whizzed over her head and hit the wall behind her.
She said she saw the shooter standing behind a nearby tractor-trailer and then running into the woods.
That’s when Furguson got his canine partner, Majic — the only certified explosives detection dog within a two-hour radius. After a few passes along the edge of the woods, Majic led Furguson to a tree in the thick brush and sat down — his signal he found something. Furguson followed and found Majic sitting next to a spent 22-caliber shell casing.
Deeper in the woods, Majic located the rest of the spent casings. Danville police used these to identify and locate the suspect, Colby Stefan Deshazo, who was later indicted by a grand jury and eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges including manufacture/possess a bomb/explosive device, attempt to commit arson by bomb or explosive device and discharge a firearm at an occupied building.
Exploits like these are common for members of Pittsylvania County’s K-9 Unit, which is comprised of six canines, Sgt. Mike Zelc and deputies Stephen Hariston, Matt Reynolds, Adam Reynolds and Furguson.
The unit has a mix of shepherds and bloodhounds, which are generally used for two different purposes. Bloodhounds are used for trailing, which involves tracking the scent of a singular person as far and long as they can until they find them. The shepherds are used for tracking, which involves following the freshest scents available when there is no indicated target
Leading their handlers, bloodhounds Ruger and Zwei have tracked and found lost people with dementia, suspects and people on the verge of killing themselves. Shepherds Flex, Majic and Jequel have found illegal drugs, tracked and helped identify people fleeing from a scene and indicated explosive devices.
Many suspects they come across are more scared of the dogs than they are of the guns the police have.
For both breeds, the dog’s tracking ability varies with the time of year and weather.
“Rain enhances odor,” Matt Reynolds said. “Sunlight destroys odor.”
The dogs live with their handlers. One of the most important jobs is to make sure that work is more fun than home.
“If you don’t work them properly they’ll become a house dog,” Matt Reynolds said.
Furguson and Reynolds said their dogs recognize when they put on their uniform that it’s time to go to work.
When they go out chasing criminals, searching for missing people or checking for drugs, the dogs view it all as a game with a reward system.
To reward them when they find a target or indicate the presence of a substance, the handlers get down on the dog’s level, pet and play with them and offer praise in a sweet voice. The most important reward, however, is the dog’s favorite toy, which they only get when they find the target.
“Their toys are their paychecks,” Furguson said.
While the dogs don’t work for a paycheck, the costs associated with purchasing, maintaining and training them come close to one. The cheapest of the dogs was purchased as an untrained puppy for $800, while Majic cost $18,000 fully trained.
The officers could interchange and work with each other’s dogs, but the chemistry and results wouldn’t be nearly as good. The bond between the handler and the dog is one of the most important elements of their job.
Much of that bond is developed during training, which basically involves running through practice scenarios of things that would actually happen in the field.
For the bloodhounds, that means providing them with a scent from a person who is hiding nearby, and for the shepherds, it involves sniffing out residue from drugs or explosives.
Many of the other officers work with the K-9 unit during these training sessions, serving as the missing people or fugitives who need to be found.
“They’re constantly training to keep those skill sets up,” Pittsylvania County Sheriff Mike Taylor said.
With all of the different scenarios, the goal is to throw the dog as many curve-balls as possible, Adam Reynolds said.
“We’re trying to show them things they’ve never seen before,” Furguson said.
The unit takes at least two days per month to conduct extensive training sessions with their dogs, but they also introduce other scenarios here and there.
During training, the unit is extra intentional in rewarding the dogs, primarily with affection and toys.
“[Training] is getting the dog to realize the fun, the game,” Zelc said.
To become a K-9 officer, one must have two years of experience in the department and be in good standing. Adam Reynolds said most deputies who join the team enjoy tracking and traffic stops.
“When you track someone, it’s one of the most dangerous things you’ll do,” he said.
With one of the more diverse, larger units in the area, the handlers and their partners frequently take calls in the surrounding counties.
The certifications, which must be renewed annually, are important for court. The dog having these certifications and a good track record in training is a testament to their reliability.
Zelc, who handles Zwei and El — a 21 week old bloodhound in training — has been working with K-9 units for 13 years and often travels around the world with his wife to conduct training for other units.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.