The newest member of the Michigan State University Police Department arrived on campus Wednesday after months of training that included a stint inside an Alabama state prison.
Her first task: playing tug-of-war with her fellow officers.
Cora, an 18-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, is the 34th MSU police K-9 officer since the unit was founded in 1984. The 62-pound lab is one of two labs purchased since MSU became
Cora brings MSU’s K-9 total to 10, the most ever active at one time, said Sgt. Dan Munford, who oversees the unit.
MSUPD was the first local department to have a K-9 officer, and its K-9 unit is the largest among local police departments. Because of mutual aid agreements, the department's K-9 officers track suspects to search vehicles and schools across the region, answering hundreds of calls for assistance in recent years.
And they have resources other departments don't, like Cora, whose specialized training in detecting body-worn explosives raised her price tag to $49,000. A normal K-9 officer costs about $10,000.
“We’re lucky to have the tools we have at a time when other departments are running short,” Munford said.
MSU’s K-9 unit was spearheaded in the 1980s by retired Cpt. Dale Metz, who saw the potential of canines first hand during his time in the U.S. Army.
“Wanting to see how you could train dogs to do a number of different things that got me interested,” Metz said.
If police needed a K-9 in the 1970s or early 1980s, it would usually take more than an hour for a Michigan State Police dog to arrive, Metz recalled. But once other departments saw MSU’s first K-9 in action, they were quick to want their own.
"We made so many calls in Lansing that first year, the next year we trained 3 dogs for them,” Metz said. “Once those dogs hit the street, Lansing’s chief wanted six more.”
The Lansing Police Department, by contrast, has five dogs currently active and will have a sixth by the end of the month, said Sgt. Sean Mills, the K-9 unit supervisor. The Ingham County Sheriff’s Department has four dogs currently, said Detective Sgt. Greg Harris.
All three departments have mutual aid agreements with other area police agencies, ensuring K-9s are available to assist as needed. Last year, MSU had 350 calls for K-9 help, more than 200 of which were for other departments, Munford said.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Cora and three other MSU K-9 officers traveled to the MSU observatory for bi-weekly training.
Sifting through the trunk of his patrol car, Sgt. Munford grabbed a pair of keys and a folding knife. He ventured onto into a nearby field, placed the items in the deep grass, and circled around in an effort to throw off the K9s.
Justus, a five-year veteran of the department, sprinted into the field the moment his handler, Officer Shaun Porter, gave the signal. Within 10 seconds, The German shepherd was sitting on the ground, ears perked, signaling he’d found one of the items.
K-9 officers and their human partners are always together, whether at work or at home. Assignments are made based on a dog's traits: whether they play well with children or if they can coexist with other pets.
Justus "knows when work starts,” Porter said. “He sees me put on my work clothes or grab a certain water bottle, and he knows it’s time to go to work.”
If an officer goes on leave for medical reasons, as Munford did recently, the K-9 partner is also out of commission. Zilla, Munford’s third dog, is one of two female dogs and the lone Dutch shepherd in the department.
“They’re part of your family as well as being your eyes and ears at work,” Munford said. “It’s a pretty solid bond.”
Ensuring the dogs are properly socialized is key, he added, particularly since MSU’s dogs are often surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of people on football game days and during graduation ceremonies.
Inside the observatory, Cora and Officer Adam Atkinson were testing the detection skills the K-9 spent months honing. After spending five weeks in Alabama getting to know the department’s newest K-9, Atkinson wanted to see how Cora would fare in a real-world environment.
Cora is one of four K-9 officers in the state trained as vapor wake dogs, Munford said. Vapor wake dogs are capable of identifying the smell of explosives and tracking potential bombers through dense crowds of people. The relatively new training grew out of research conducted at Auburn University with a goal of training dogs to identify and track people wearing explosives under their clothes.
The dogs spent up to half a year inside state prisons in Alabama as part of their training, where they are socialized and are taught the basics of detection.
Cora didn’t come cheap. A typical patrol K-9 costs about $10,000. Cora cost $49,000, said Cpt. Doug Monette, MSU police’s Public Information Officer.
It's worth it to keep the university's large venues such as Spartan Stadium safe, Munford said.
MSUPD typically gets six to eight years of work from each K-9, Munford said.
Atkinson said he’d recommended departments get “as many K-9s as possible,” as a community relations tool.
Unlike some service animals, MSU’s K-9s welcome attention from the public, though police prefer if people ask before petting them.