Pitt’s K-9 officers stay sharp with airport training

Sgt. Nanz and K-9 Officer Sam search Petersen Center


K-9 Officer Sam searched each corner of the room, sticking his nose along walls, under chairs and near trashcans and vending machines until he came across a box in a wall containing a fire extinguisher.

His handler, Sgt. David Nanz, immediately sensed that Sam had homed in on a scent when he sat, an action drilled into him until it became instinct.

Nanz confirmed the odor — a chemical often used in makeshift bombs — and gave Sam his pay, his favorite chew toy.

“When he recognizes that smell of an explosive and he knows, he sits, he knows he’s going to get his ball,” Nanz, a Pitt police officer and K-9 handler, said of his partner, Sam. “And he knows that dad’s coming over and it’s playtime. Even though we play it differently, but it’s playtime.”

Each month on alternate Tuesdays, Sam, a 4-year-old German shorthaired pointer, and K-9 Officer Filo, a 9-year-old Labrador and Shepherd mix, head out to the Pittsburgh International Airport for training.

Nanz is one of two Pitt Police K-9 handlers, along with Sgt. Corey Rodgers who handles Filo. Together, the two dogs are trained to sniff out common chemicals used in makeshift bombs.

At the airport, the dogs train alongside K-9 officers from the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Handlers run them through a series of searches to make sure the dogs, and their handlers, can accurately detect odors commonly found in bombs. In these drills, the odors are put in designated “hides,” spread out around the search area.

During these practice runs, handlers are not told where the hides are. Instead, the K-9s sniff around corners, under chairs, trashcans or anywhere their handler directs them to investigate, searching for odors in their “scent cones,” which they use to determine the concentration and location of odors.

When the dog’s behavior changes near a potential hide, or they abruptly sit down, that’s the signal to the handler that there may be something suspicious nearby. The locations of hides are changed in every training drill to keep the dogs on their toes.

If the K-9 accurately determines where a hide is, they’re praised by their handlers and its own favorite on-the job chew toy — tennis balls, plastic pipes, water hoses, etc. — to reinforce the positive behavior.

“What they’re searching for in their mind is that toy — the toy and the praise and the happiness of the handler,” Nanz said. “Because when he finds something, it’s boom, he gets that toy. And I’m praising him and patting him and I’m congratulating him like we just scored a touchdown.”

K-9s also have their own search styles. Some, like Sam, are more independent and don’t require as much input from a handler, while others, like Filo use a more detailed, slow methodical method. But speed, Nanz said, isn’t the largest concern.

“Accuracy is what you’re looking for,” Nanz said.

However, the searches are typically no longer than 30 to 40 minutes. The search times vary for these trainings as there are many influences on odors and can affect a dog’s scent cone. Wind can blow an odor around and the weather can make tracking difficult. The dogs also need to take water breaks.

In a real-world scenario, if a dog suspects an odor is an explosive, the dog will sit. Handlers are not trained to inspect the location of the potential explosive, so a bomb squad from the city of Pittsburgh will be called in.

“We have nobody trained in the University as bomb techs,” Nanz said. “We have a handful of officers that are trained as liaisons for the bomb squad. So, when they show up on a call like that, they can go to the truck and help them get their video equipment out, help the bomb tech suit up.”

Pitt’s K-9 officers are trained for a single-purpose, either to find narcotics, explosives or lost people. Dual-purpose K-9 officers, Nanz said, are typically German shepherds or Belgian malinois that can find odors from narcotics and explosives and attack/apprehend people.

There are 17 different odors of explosives K-9s are trained to detect, not including separate more volatile odors only handled by FBI agents, Nanz said. Those odors are usually peroxide-based.

The most common ingredient makeshift bombs use is black powder, Nanz said, because of its convenience.

“It’s the easiest to go buy,” Nanz said. “Because you can go to a Dick’s Sporting Goods store right now and get a can of black powder and you’re on your way to making a pipe bomb.”

Single purpose K-9s typically serve 10 to 14 years, Nanz said. Dual purpose dogs could retire around 7 to 8 years due to the strain of their work.

Pitt’s K-9s go through a yearly certification process in Ohio, Rodgers said, to make sure the dog is healthy and accurate. Most calls for searches come from campus, but the dogs are also part of Region 13. The region includes 13 counties in Pennsylvania that all chip in to help with firefighting, law enforcement and other first responders. Since Pitt’s K-9s are part of Region 13, they and their handlers are on call 24/7.

The University didn’t always have a K-9 program. The program was founded in summer 2006, Nanz said. During the prior basketball season, a student left a bag in the lobby of the Petersen Events Center during a nationally televised game.

Someone notified the Pitt police department of the bag. About 15 minutes before the game began, the University was grappling with whether or not to evacuate the center and call the bomb squad. The student who left the bag came back for it before a decision was made to evacuate the building.

“So, at the time, the University decided, well wait a second, we can’t have that,” Nanz said. “We can’t be evacuating buildings because a student leaves a bag unattended in the commons area of the Cathedral of Learning. … We just can’t stop the normal day of operations here, especially in a college environment, kids are leaving bags all the time.”

Nanz was one of several officers who said they were interested in joining a K-9 handler training program. He passed the initial test to determine if he’d be a good fit for the job. Nanz said he’s always wanted to be a K-9 handler.

“I love animals,” Nanz said. “And they’re the best partner to have, because they pretty much will do almost anything you ask them to do. And they’ll work until they’re completely, utterly exhausted. And the bond that you build with that dog, it’s (something) I just can’t explain.”

Nanz has been a handler since the program began in 2006 and has worked with two partners. His first partner, K-9 Officer Riggs, a black Labrador Retriever, retired in 2016 after a hip injury. Riggs had to be put down in September 2018 after he struggled with cancer, Nanz said.

Nanz has been working with his current partner, Sam, for three years. And after a series of bomb threats in 2012, Pitt added a second K-9 officer.

Once a K-9 retires, the handler takes care them at home, as Nanz did with Riggs.

“After working with one for that long, very long time, I couldn’t see how any handler ever could say to their chief: ‘You know what? I just don’t want that dog,’ ” Nanz said. “And if a handler would do that, then I would never ever respect them as a handler again.”

Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.