Officers and their K9 partners from eight Ohio police departments got a rare treat last week by training at a vacant Hilliard warehouse.
The owners of Ares Sportswear, 3600 Parkway Lane, recently moved their business to another location in Hilliard and allowed the departments to use the property July 16 for training exercises.
"It's an opportunity we don't usually get," said Hilliard officer Mike Deaton, alluding to the large size of the office and warehouse that provided the K9s with varied scenarios of searching both wide-open expanses and nooks and crannies for drugs and, in some instances, hidden criminals.
"There are all kinds of different smells in here ... and places to search," Deaton said.
Police K9s and handlers are required to train 16 hours each month, Hilliard officer Jim Large said.
Large and his former partner, Brix, were the Hilliard Division of Police's first K9 unit. Brix retired in 2011 and Large was matched with his second partner, Oz.
At the same time, Hilliard police added two new K9 units: officer Doug Lightfoot with Eros and officer David Burck with Erko.
All three dogs are Belgian Malinois.
Joining Hilliard police July 16 were officers and K9s from the Athens, the Ohio State University and West Jefferson police departments, the Westerville Division of Police, the Athens and Champaign county sheriff's offices and the Hocking County Major Crime Unit.
The K9 units searched for drugs hidden in high cabinets and apprehended "bad guys" -- fellow police officers in protective clothing.
Officers and K9s also performed explosive ordnance detection training.
While all police dogs are trained in suspect apprehension, they typically search for either explosives or narcotics, but not both.
Some are trained as "active" search dogs, clawing and barking upon making a hit; others are "passive" and intently stare at a concealed location.
After completing an exercise, the dogs were rewarded with a toy or treat.
"The toy is their reward; it's like a million-dollar paycheck to them," Deaton said.
West Jefferson officer Brandon Smith, a Hilliard resident, and his dog, Arc, were among the participants.
The 37-year-old detective said he used his personal time to observe the Madison County Sheriff's Office K9 unit so he could convince his chief, Terry Ward, to approve a K9 for West Jefferson.
"In battling crime, we need any kind of upper hand we can get," Smith said. "Having a K9 gives the police, and the community, an extra edge."
U.S. Route 40 passes through the center of West Jefferson, and drug trafficking is not uncommon, Smith said.
"We've seen quite an increase in drug activity," he said.
In the past, he said, when a K9 unit was needed, West Jefferson relied on the Madison County Sheriff's Office, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and, in some instances, Hilliard police.
"We got a great response from the community," said Smith, enough to fund the purchase of Arc.
"I'm learning more every day, things I didn't know existed. It's been the best experience of my life," said Smith, who was one of three new handlers at the training session.
Mike Pennington, president of Storm Dog Tactical, was present to oversee the training.
Pennington, a retired Franklin County Sheriff's Office SWAT team member and K9 handler, founded Storm Dog Tactical. He imports dogs from Germany and trains them for law-enforcement agencies.
Police dogs have a service life about eight years.
They each cost about $13,000, but after accounting for training, including an officer's salary and benefits while attending the six-week training school with a dog, the cost of putting a K9 on the street is about $40,000, Pennington said.