By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer
SOUTH PYMATUNING TOWNSHIP —
What may be less well known is that every year more than 300 of them are trained locally in the Shenango Valley area.
K9 dogs and handlers that learned their detection skills in an abandoned section of the former Sharon Transformer Division of Westinghouse Electric Corp., Sharon, and other nearby venues, have put them to use from coast to coast in the United States. They’ve also served in war zones around the world.
The teams’ training is the business of Shallow Creek Kennels, 6572 Seneca Road, South Pymatuning Township.
Sharpsville native John Brannan owns the enterprise he founded in 2004 after retiring from Coral Springs Police Department in Florida. During his law enforcement career in Broward County, he specialized in training dogs and their handlers for police work.
Now, his international business serves the U.S. military and federal and state law enforcement agencies as well as police departments from Anchorage to Colorado Springs and New York City to Phoenix.
"We train dogs for use by police and other law enforcement agencies and the military," he said. "They can patrol for narcotics or explosives and they can find people - maybe a child or an older person who is missing - or criminal suspects."
Dogs’ acute sense of smell and the size and characteristics of certain breeds make them good candidates for the highly specialized and sometimes deadly dangerous work.
Dogs of several breeds are preferred for the training, including German and Dutch shepherds, Belgian malinois, cq German short-haired pointers and Labrador retrievers. Most are imported from Europe for training here after a rigorous selection process that aims to find good candidates.
Dogs come from breeders in Slovakia, Germany and Belgium.
“They go through a process for trainability, and they go to a veterinarian for a work up to make sure they are healthy,” Brannan said. “Then we ship them to our facility to start their training.”
Brannan says his staff of four trainers use dogs’ curiosity and playfulness to teach them to find substances including illegal drugs and explosives.
Dog owners familiar with their pets’ fondness for playing fetch would recognize the foundation of the training that turns curious and playful young dogs into disciplined K9 partners of professional handlers.
“It’s a big game of hide and seek for the dogs,” Brannan said. “We impregnate toys with scents and the dogs get to know them. The trainers hide them in buildings or in the field, in lockers or vehicles and the like, and the dog uses his senses – his nose – to find it. We play tug of war with the dog and the toy and then we start the game all over again. The dogs just love to do it.”
The vacant section of the old Westinghouse plant between Hull and Clark streets in Sharon provides about 1 million square feet of space for the game. Dogs and handlers also train in empty buildings in Brookfield and fields and wrecking yards in the region to prepare the teams for work in all kinds of environments.
Some of those are war zones.
Brannan said his U.S. military customers prefer that he not be specific about exactly where Shallow Creek-trained dogs have served with military handlers, but they have been used “all over the globe to search for explosives and enemy combatants.”
For two months, new dogs are trained locally by Shallow Creek staffers. Then their handlers arrive for two months of work together.
Once trained, a typical dog has a K9 service career of about eight years.
The cost for training a dog and a handler “starts at $13,000,” Brannan said, adding that “the cost of a ‘green dog’ starts at $7,000.”
Large clients like Chicago or New York police departments, the federal Department of Homeland Security or a military branch use their own staff to train “green dogs” that are supplied by Shallow Creek.
Last year, one of those dogs began working with his handler, Deputy Bob Lanshcak cq in the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department.
Apif cq is the only dog working regularly with a local agency. He was selected and sold by Shallow Creek for training in Pittsburgh under a federal grant that funds a range of security programs for 13 western Pennsylvania counties.
Most of the work the dogs do is work is routine, Brannan said, searching buildings and vehicles for illegal drugs, sniffing for explosives at airports or helping to find missing persons.
They are also trained to help subdue suspected criminals who refuse police orders to surrender.
“Case law regulates when a dog can be released to attack a person,” Brannan said. “That decision is determined by the severity of the crisis at issue. Basically, if the offender or suspect flees or fights and is a danger to others, it’s a serious offense, and the dog can be deployed as a last resort to apprehend him.”
Once released, a dog will grab an offender and hold on until ordered to release. While that happens regularly, Brannan said, the offender very often gives up.
“A lot of times, just the presence of the dog or hearing the dog bark is enough,” he said. “The suspect will give up and surrender to be taken into custody. That is always better for everyone concerned.”