Durham County

Newest Durham County sheriff’s recruits have floppy ears. How the K9 unit is changing

The newest K9s in the Durham County Sheriff’s Office show police dogs now come in all shapes and sizes.

Two Springer Spaniels and an English Labrador are among the five latest four-legged deputies in the K9 unit. Though floppy-eared and from breeds not usually associated with police work, they went through the same intensive training as their traditional-looking counterparts, including Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinoises.

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead held a special “swearing-in ceremony” Wednesday for the county’s eight K9s.

“Our dogs are all certified and specially trained in bomb detection, explosive detection and drugs,” Birkhead said. “And certainly we use them for Silver Alerts, Amber Alerts and searching for lost individuals. They expand our capabilities far beyond any human capacity that we could imagine. We’ve got some great, great handlers.”

The unit expanded from five to eight dogs, a move Birkhead said will increase the capabilities of the Sheriff’s Office.

“The mission of the Durham County Sheriff K9 Unit is to provide additional specialized response to crime detection and intervention, and if needed apprehension,” he said. “Our K9s were hand-selected for their sociability, high energy and willingness to work.”

‘My partner 24 hours a day’

In recent years, airports have also started using non-traditional breeds for security. Dogs like retrievers and pointers whose ears droop are perceived as more friendly than dogs whose ears stand erect, the Transportation Security Administration has said.

The Springer Spaniels are assigned to the Durham County jail, where Birkhead said they will detect contraband and don’t need to be intimidating.

“We’ve never had K9s assigned to our Detention Center,” Birkhead said. “We’ve had to do all the searches before, and with human error sometimes things slip through. Having the K9s there will increase the safety of everyone there.”

Seven of the K9s recently completed 10 weeks of specialized training and passed their certification.

Cpl. Jamie Potts said becoming a K9 handler has been a long-term goal he’s proud to have achieved.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Potts, an 11-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office. “I’ve wanted to do K9 for years and finally got the opportunity.”

Potts and his partner Ronnie, a Belgian Malinois, were matched in July, he said.

Their bond was apparent during the ceremony as Ronnie sat obediently by Potts’ side. After Birkhead finished speaking, Ronnie relaxed and Potts gave him a treat and a rope-ball toy.

“It’s very important for him to trust me and I trust him,” Potts said. “So he’s my partner 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If I’m on the streets, he’s with me. And he has my back like I have his.

“Ronnie interacts well with people. I am so impressed by his abilities. He can do apprehensions and also narcotics works.”

Four K9s have been assigned to the Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division. One each will join the Anti-Crime & Narcotics Unit and the Civil Unit.

The K9s already have been on duty. They helped recover stolen firearms, about $25,000 in cash and large quantities of narcotics, Birkhead said.

“When I was a chief in other agencies, we had K9s,” said Birkhead, who was elected last year. “The Sheriff’s Office could not operate without them. I have to say that they weren’t like the ones I have now. They have worked tirelessly to get this program together, and to be able to expand it, speaks to their dedication.”

Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.