KCSD police department gets a new member

SPENCER McCOY/THE EXPRESS Keystone Central’s new drug-sniffing canine Dutchess rests between her handler Scott VanGorder, left, and Erin Gregor, from whom the dog was purchased.

MILL HALL — The small chocolate labrador came bounding down the aisle of the auditorium, intently sniffing the backpacks and purses lined against the wall. Then, as if she had hit a brick wall, the dog stopped abruptly, planted her nose firmly on the third backpack and panted excitedly while the audience gasped and chuckled.

Dutchess, the newest member of the Keystone Central School District police force, had just found the “drugs.”

Described by KCSD Superintendent Kelly Hastings as “the neatest thing that we’ve been able to do in this school district,” Dutchess found every single hidden “drug” during a training demonstration at Central Mountain High School on Wednesday.

Scott VanGorder, KCSD police officer and Dutchess’s handler, said he trains her to find drugs by dousing her favorite chew toy, a rolled-up white towel, with the scent of whatever drug they are looking for. Then, he pretends to throw her towel across the room so she scrambles to find it by following the scent.

“It’s a game for her,” he said.

After Dutchess finds the “drug,” VanGorder tosses her the towel to chew on as a reward.

Though Dutchess has only been training for five weeks, “she goes right to the source every time,” VanGorder said.

On Jan. 14, Officer Brandon Coleman and a team of other KCSD officers proposed a community-funded K-9 Program for the district, which would hire a drug-sniffing canine for the purposes of drug interdiction, prevention and education.

They raised $10,000 over the next seven months by giving presentations and asking for donations.

“We even had a hoagie sale,” Coleman said.

Woolrich, Inc., Susquehanna Trailways, Dr. Richard Powers, Texas Restaurant, H&R Block, the Skibba family, Adam Mayes, Mill Hall Kiwanis and PennDOT all donated to the cause.

On Aug. 23, the officers received approval for the program from the school board.

When VanGorder and his team of officers were searching for a dog to do the job, they heard about Erin Gregor, a dog trainer and handler from Stroudsburg.

Gregor had a labrador she had been wanting to train as a service dog, to assist people with disabilities, but felt she could not adequately train the dog after becoming injured in a car accident.

To boot, the dog was just the right combination of energetic and driven to work as a police dog.

VanGorder watched a video of Dutchess training and immediately decided she was the one.

“We couldn’t get there fast enough to get the dog,” he said. “I wanted that dog so bad it was just crazy.”

On Oct. 7, the school board instated Dutchess as a KCSD police officer.

She receives food and veterinary care from Calico Creek Feed and Pet and Dr. Sherry Cokefair, a Calico Creek veterinarian.

VanGorder said someone once asked him if Dutchess was addicted to drugs because she was so good at finding them. He chuckled and said he had never known a drug addict to be so disciplined in sniffing out drugs.

“She is very, very driven,” he said.

Right now, Dutchess is able to identify and sniff out marijuana. VanGorder will also train her to find cocaine, heroin, meth, Xanax, Oxycodone, morphine and other opioids and opiates.

VanGorder said Dutchess should be finished with her training right before Christmas. Then, she must be independently certified by National Tactical Police Dog Association standards, which will probably happen by January.

This certification, done by someone other than VanGorder, is “to show that she’s reliable in the detection of drugs,” he said.

Right now, Dutchess is training at CMHS 40 hours a week, sniffing the lockers and common space for her toy training aids. VanGorder says he will never put a training aid in a student’s locker, only an empty one. He also never searches students’ personal items during training.

But sometimes, VanGorder said, Dutchess finds the real thing.

When that happens, police are required to investigate and inspect the space for drugs.

Dutchess has a space in VanGorder’s office to hang out when she’s not training.

VanGorder said Dutchess’s presence can be therapeutic for many students having a rough time adjusting to or behaving in school.

“I can hold her or keep her in her kennel and let (students) approach her,” he said.

He will also bring Dutchess to Central Mountain Middle School, Bucktail High School and some elementary schools, mostly for educational purposes.

“I’m in support of it,” said Sheriff Kerry Stover.

He said he hopes having students from elementary through high school see Dutchess almost every day discourages them from bringing drugs to school.

“It has to help,” Stover said.

Though Dutchess is only known throughout CMHS by word of mouth, VanGorder would like to hold an assembly for her soon.

“We are almost at the point where we can say, ‘This is Dutchess, hear her roar,'” he said.