Chapel Hill K-9 officers live and learn with their brave companions

By Cailyn Derickson

He followed behind his dog. The intense rain made it difficult to see. His dark blue uniform didn’t protect him from wind, but he bundled tight and kept marching. They had done this what seemed to be a hundred times before. Not even the incoming hurricane would hinder their routine.

But suddenly, his energetic black Labrador retriever stopped, sniffed and sat.

UNC-Chapel Hill police officer Matthew Dodson knew what that meant.

His dog, Kash, had found an explosive chemical.

“I’m thinking, ‘Are we going to have to postpone this football game?’” Dodson said. “I didn’t know if it was real or not.”

Dodson trusted his dog, trained to identify 30 different chemicals most commonly found in explosive devices. He spoke into the walkie-talkie attached to his left shoulder.

“We’ve got a possible device,” he said.

The hurricane wouldn’t interfere with their routine. But an explosive device would.

Then, UNC-Chapel Hill police Sgt. Keith Ellington assured Dodson it wasn’t real. It was just a training aid.

All clear. The game could go on.

UNC-Chapel Hill police K-9 officers, Kash and Molly, specialize in explosives detection.

Four-year-old Kash  works with Dodson and 8-year-old Molly works with Ellington. Both dogs are black Labrador retrievers. They are the backbone of safety for any high traffic event in Chapel Hill. Whether it’s football, basketball or a controversial speaker — the dogs are there.

They sweep Kenan Memorial Stadium and the Smith Center for explosive chemicals five hours before the start of each game. The dogs haven’t found an explosive device on campus before, but the training aid Kash found last October was a close one.

When the officers sweep the stadium, they use training aids — a small pouch of non-hazardous, non-explosive chemicals — to test their dogs. Dodson said the incident was a miscommunication.

“We always know where the aid is because we’re clearing it for an actual event,” Dodson said. “But on that particular game day because of the rain, (Ellington) had to move his training aid from where he usually keeps it, and he didn’t have time to tell me.”

Although it wasn’t an explosive device, Ellington said the moment was still tense.

“It’s a lot of weight on you when you’re at the stadium and your dog alerts,” Ellington said. “You have to make that call. This football game is going to be postponed or it’s going to be delayed because we’re making the call to shut it down until we can get somebody over here to see exactly what’s in this box or particular package.”

But the officers go through hours of training with their dog to prepare for situations like that. Dodson and Kash trained for 275 hours over a six-week period.

From preparation to protection

“I struggled with it,” Dodson said. “It was hard. This job, in general, has always come pretty easy to me. Now, I have this other living being I have to learn and watch and work with.”

Prior to their training, Dodson and Kash were complete strangers. Dodson knew nothing about trusting a K-9 and Kash, still a puppy, only knew how to sit. Now, Kash roams without a leash and Dodson knows his dog won’t stray.

In order to become a K-9 handler, an officer must meet certain credentials. One credential focuses on an officer’s years of service. If the officer meets the credentials, they can apply to become a handler. A panel will then interview the officer to decide if the officer is eligible for a dog.

Both Dodson and Ellington knew they wanted to become K-9 handlers when they joined the UNC-Chapel Hill police. Both officers said they enjoy working with animals. Ellington has nine hunting dogs and three inside dogs at home. Dodson has two other dogs at home. Being a K-9 handler gave them the opportunity to incorporate their love of dogs into their careers.

But the road to get there was a long one.

“I put in for the first dog back in 2003, and I didn’t get it,” Dodson said. “Then, I went on to be a detective, and I was a detective for 11 years. When this opportunity came up, based on how the dogs work, I knew it was now or never.”

The purpose of the training is to establish a relationship between the handler and the dog. Ellington said that relationship is similar to the relationship between a parent and child.

Caring for a canine companion

“You take care of them at home,” he said. “You feed them. You bathe them, just like a kid. It’s like always having a baby. I’ve got four kids, so to me, (Molly) makes five.”

Kash was born in Blaine, Washington. Dodson adopted Kash from a kennel in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, in 2015.

Molly is different. Rather than coming from a breeder, she came straight from Afghanistan, where she worked with active-duty Marines. She is credited for finding live explosive devices during her two tours abroad.

“She likely saved lives before she ever got to campus,” Randy Young, a UNC-Chapel Hill police spokesperson, said.

Ellington said Molly can be aggressive toward other dogs. He suspects she got into a fight with another dog while she was deployed, causing her act more aggressive.

Molly would bark and growl at Kash when he first joined the UNC-Chapel Hill police team. But the dogs have since learned to work together.

“There was a time when it was really hard for us to take a picture together,” Dodson said. “But now it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s Molly. That’s Kash. Whatever. Let’s do what we got to do.’”

Ellington said Molly is more aggressive when she is protecting Ellington’s four kids.

“My kids were in the bedroom watching TV,” Ellington said. “My mom and dad came up. I live right beside them and when they came in (the bedroom), luckily, I had the cage door shut. But she got to growling. She would run over and try to stay between the kids and my parents.”

Dodson said Kash is similar to Molly in that aspect.

“If we come in late at night from working a game or something, he makes his rounds in the house,” Dodson said. “He comes in. He goes in my son’s room. He checks on him, makes sure he’s in the bed. Then, he goes into my daughter’s room, checks on her. Then, he goes to my bedroom, where he sleeps on the floor in his bed.”

Although Molly and Kash are the only K-9 officers with the UNC-Chapel Hill police, they aren’t the only dogs Dodson and Ellington received from the department.

Both Dodson and Ellington took home a chocolate Labrador retriever puppy last month from UNC-Chapel Hill police Capt. Thomas Twiddy — something Molly hasn’t gotten used to yet.

“I’m in the process of introducing the puppy,” Ellington said. “(Molly) didn’t want any part of it. I don’t know if she felt it was pulling the attention from her or if she didn’t like me holding another dog that looked like her. But she’s gotten a lot better.”

The puppies won’t be trained as K-9 officers. Dodson and Ellington plan to keep the dogs as indoor pets.

Retiring to a bright future

Molly, who will turn 9 in May, is nearing retirement. Ellington said the department will look to replace her early next year.

After her service, Molly will stay with Ellington and instead of searching for explosive devices on patrol, she will get to relax at home.

“These dogs really open up a lot of opportunity for you to be able to participate and see stuff you wouldn’t normally see as a normal officer,” Ellington said. “She’s with me all the time. It’s just like having a kid.”

Edited by Jack Smith