At West Campus: Who let the dogs in?

During a recent meeting of the West Campus Pioneer Council someone asked: "What are all those dogs and police cars doing in the parking lot?"

Every few weeks shiny black and brown Labrador Retrievers and golden and black German Shepherds pace the expansive parking lots, causing some buzz around campus.

As it happens, besides being a center for cutting-edge science research and art conservation, West Campus offers optimal conditions for training working police dogs.

For the past year, staff from the State Police Canine Unit, in partnership with the Yale and New Haven Police Departments, has used the West Campus grounds and some vacant buildings for in-service training sessions involving about 20 bomb-sniffing dogs — including Yale's own canine detector, Eli.

"It is hard to find places to train these types of dogs," says Lieutenant Michael Patten of the Yale Police Department. "We are often offered a lot of warehouse space, which is not really optimal. West Campus has many unoccupied areas with furniture which makes for a ‘realistic building' training exercise."

Not long after the West Campus property was purchased, Yale police officer and bomb technician Charlie Hebron, Eli's handler, inquired about using the space for training. Connections were made, permissions granted, and now lucky passersby can see these dogs in the parking area getting ready to work.

Like most working police dogs (bomb sniffers, and patrol or narcotics dogs), Eli was initially bred to be a guide dog for the visually impaired. But, like his counterparts, during the training he was deemed unworthy of that task (Eli, for example, loves to chase squirrels). Guide groups offer these trained and well-behaved dogs to police units to become working dogs.

Eli, a black Labrador Retriever originally called Tommy, was bought from Guiding Eyes for the Blind out of New York City. After graduating from a 17-week, intensive training program, during which time he met his handler, Eli joined the Yale Police Department as its first bomb-sniffing dog. Hebron, a retired Marine, and Eli train together six days a week, taking Sundays off. After work hours, Eli lives with Hebron and his family.

The training sessions at West Campus involve planting real — but not live — chemical substances used to make bombs. Eli and the other K9s are then tasked with finding these materials. Typically bomb-sniffing dogs are trained to just sit when they discover something. "Unlike drug dogs who will bark and tear a package apart, you don't want your dog to touch the potentially explosive package," explains Patten.

During training the dogs get some playtime, but when the handlers clip on the pouches where they carry treats, the dogs are ready to go to work. "The training is all food driven," says Hebron. "These dogs are very smart and will remember training spaces if used often, so the beauty of West Campus is the diversity of space. We are able to go back there and find new spaces to train, keeping the dogs ‘on their paws.'"

Asked about Eli's success rate in real situations, Hebron says. "He's found nothing, and that is a good thing."

West Campus has its share of wildlife — although luckily, not many squirrels, says Hebron, who notes that the campus' many turkeys hold no attraction for Eli.

— By Lisa Maloney, West Campus