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

A scorpion, bearded dragon and Byrd: One UNC-CH student’s journey to vet-hood

Courtney Byrd poses for a portrait in front of a collage of animals. Byrd dreams of being a vet one day and has found outlets at UNC-Chapel Hill to fulfill her love of animals. Photo by Mimi Tomei.

By Mimi Tomei

Orion skirts across the palms of Courtney Byrd’s hands.

Byrd has held snakes around her neck and seen an octopus feeding off the shadowy coastline of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands at twilight. But still, Orion, a black forest scorpion, makes Byrd’s hands gently tremble.

Byrd delicately avoids Orion’s two large pincers, which resemble pointy oven mitts, and the venomous stinger at the end of his tail. Orion’s sting is only about as harmful as that of a bee or hornet, but he still doesn’t seem like a cute and cuddly animal used to teach children about wildlife.

Byrd doesn’t treat him much differently than she would any other animal. She approaches him with respect.

“It felt just like holding a hermit crab, (but) the legs were a little bit spikier and sharper,” Byrd said.

A WISE place for peace

Orion is one of the animals 19-year-old Byrd works with in Carolina Wildlife Information and Science Education, or WISE, a group that creates wildlife education programs to bring to local schools and community organizations.

When all her activities and classes stress her out, Byrd finds solace in WISE and its animals. WISE’s home — a small, dark room in Wilson Hall — contains shelves and tables holding various animal enclosures and a mini fridge filled with fruits and vegetables – and mice and worms.

“Yesterday, I was sitting in the library doing chemistry. I actually like (organic chemistry) so far, but I was like, ‘this kind of sucks. I don’t want to do this,’” Byrd said. “So I just went to the WISE lab and sat on the floor, and it was kind of peaceful, just being around the animals.”

She was surrounded by Ruth the box turtle and Murphy the bearded dragon, who live in large enclosures on the floor. Other residents of the lab include snakes, toads and even a tarantula named Scout.

Finding her place

Byrd is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill studying biology. She has loved animals her entire life and hopes to turn this passion into a career as a vet.

Her road to vet-hood isn’t an easy one. Getting into vet school after college is difficult, since there are only around 40 doctorate vet programs nationwide. UNC-CH lacks both an undergraduate vet program and dedicated pre-vet advisers. The biology major at UNC-CH is intense and involves many chemistry classes, which Byrd finds challenging.

But Byrd has found her niche at UNC-CH.

In addition to Byrd and her roommate Emily, two yet-unnamed hermit crabs reside in Teague Residence Hall. The creatures inhabit a large glass aquarium, where they live comfortably, alongside a small, plastic palm tree and with various places for them to hide and dig in several layers of pebbles and sand.

The crabs have access to fresh and salt water. Situated inside their home are sponges, strategically placed so the crabs can get a drink without drowning in their water bowls. They have special hermit crab food, which Byrd supplements with bits of produce she sometimes brings them from the dining hall salad bar.

“Last night, we had a fire drill at like 11 p.m., and one of my first thoughts was, ‘get the hermit crabs,’” Byrd said. “I think if there really was a fire, I’d get them first, as opposed to my laptop and everything.”

‘It’s not just cute animals’

Byrd participates in the UNC-CH Pre-Veterinary Club, which brings veterinary guest speakers to campus and helps students navigate the vet school application process by sharing resources and opportunities. The club is a small but supportive community, according to Vice President Simone McCluney.

While home for winter break, Byrd found a drawing she made as a child of her wearing a lab coat and treating a dog, surrounded by bottles of medicine and syringes.

As a college student, Byrd has found herself in this environment often as she has shadowed vets in both Chapel Hill and Wilmington. Although she hopes to become an exotic animal vet, Byrd draws inspiration from the companion animal vets she worked with, particularly Dr. Charles Miller at Triangle Veterinary Medicine in Chapel Hill. She’s observed many procedures with Miller.

With gauze in her medical glove-clad hands, Byrd has held a stomach in place during a gastropexy, a type of surgery that involves stitching the stomach inside an animal’s abdomen. Byrd even got to cut the stitches at the end of a spaying procedure.

“I felt like a surgeon,” Byrd said.

The experience of shadowing, in addition to cleaning animal habitats at the Duke Lemur Center and working with lab mice and toads at the UNC School of Medicine, has taught Byrd that being a vet is more than just playing with animals.

“I liked it when I was little because of cute animals, but now I’m realizing that it’s not just cute animals,” Byrd said.  “It’s also medicine and a lot of science and chemistry involved, and surgery, which is bloody and gross.

“Obviously, it’s a lot of time commitment, since it takes up so much of your life, which I’m definitely starting to realize,but I’m definitely still interested — even after all that.”

Nothing new

Molly Sprecher, a photojournalism major at UNC-CH and one of Byrd’s suitemates, created a photo story on Byrd. Sprecher witnessed the relationships Byrd created with many of her animals as she followed Byrd around to all of her activities.

“There were a lot of moments where I had a hard time getting a good photo because she wanted to play with the animals and was constantly telling me all the things she knew about them,” Sprecher said.

Byrd’s ability to emotionally connect to animals isn’t new though.

When she was in third grade at Parsley Elementary School in Wilmington, Byrd bought a stuffed polar bear. She got the stuffed animal­ as a memento, hoping to preserve in her memory what her favorite animal looked like in case it went extinct in her lifetime.

“I wanted to have something to remember them by, to show my kids, ‘This is what bears used to look like that lived when I lived.’”

Edited by Ana Irizarry