By Lenis Rodrigues and Claire Elamrousi, Media Relations Staff
This morning, the newest class of Port Authority Police recruits joined the department after 14 weeks of training. No, not the two-legged, uniformed kind, but a canine corps of four German Shepherds who will assist in searching for explosives on agency property as part of the Port Authority’s counter-terrorism efforts.
The graduation ceremony, which took place at Building 1 at Newark Liberty International Airport, included the dogs’ handlers – Officers Spencer Newman, Tim Brennan and Paul Hugerich — as well as veteran handler Augusto Marin.
“Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we have adapted and transformed into a counter-terrorism police department,” Port Authority Police Superintendent Edward Cetnar told the more 50 attendees at today’s ceremony. “The utilization of explosive detection K9s is a key aspect of our commitment to the highest degree of public safety to the people traveling through our facilities. The addition of these K-9 teams further enhances those efforts.”
The canines are trained by the PAPD from scratch, taught to detect 16 different odors and to undergo field training. The handlers are trained to notice the change in their dog’s behavior when they come across a potential explosive device or material. In addition to odor training, the dogs are taught basic obedience, leash handling and agility skills. They offer different cues to their handler when they detect explosives, such as laying down flat, sitting down or raising a paw.
Sgt. Thomas Hering, a 21-year veteran of the K-9 unit who oversees the program, said a recurring challenge is matching a new handler with a canine trainee, developing them into an effective team over the 14-week period. “During that time, one of the crucial tasks is for the handler and the canine to form a trusting bond, which will aid in keeping the traveling public safe while using the agency’s facilities,” he said.
Training isn’t always easy for the dogs, or their handlers. One challenge is aircraft searches. The canines are trained to duck down and search under seats, but German Shepherds are large and the economy class seats are not. So, dogs often jump on the seats instead of searching underneath them. The air on a plane also can give misleading hints, since the scent can be blown in the opposite direction.
During their training sessions, the pups’ skills were honed to be more accurate than machine explosives detectors. The dogs are successful more than 90 percent of the time, surpassing the estimated 65-percent find rate of machines.
After completing an explosive detection drill with his K-9, veteran PAPD Officer Rodney Arroyo, who has been working with the K-9 unit for 14 years and is preparing to be a trainer of the other handlers, described it as “like raising a child. I feel like a proud father.”
The department has one of the largest K-9 groups in the region, with 42 dogs. They serve Port Authority facilities, but are also available to local police agencies that request K-9 backup, and to train new handlers and dogs from outside agencies.
For the handlers, it’s a labor of love. All of the K-9 handlers have had their own dogs in the past, many starting in childhood. The dog lives at home with the handler during their service years and upon the K-9 retirement, they usually continue to live together. Officer Newman said that when it comes to training the dogs and their handlers “it’s all about the bond you build with them.”