Proliferation of paws for protective causes

Undeterred by rain, two K-9 teams await their turn in front of the judges at the U.S. Police Canine Association’s (USPCA) Region 6 scent certifications, held this week at the Chester County Public Safety Training Center.

On Wednesday, March 16, early-bird motorists on East Lincoln Highway may have been taken aback by the sight of two New York Police Department vehicles pulling into the parking lot of a Chester County eatery – especially when seven armed, uniformed officers exited the vans.

A New York City Police Department officer watches as one of his colleagues seeks scent certification.

A New York City Police Department officer watches as one of his colleagues seeks scent certification in the cadaver category.

But inside the Double D Diner in Coatesville, the response was warm and welcoming, the officers said later, acknowledging that their K-9 patches probably helped dispel the notion of a dragnet. New York Police Sgt. Patrick Treanor said the group was simply seeking breakfast after a couple hours on the road, en route to the U.S. Police Canine Association’s (USPCA) Region 6 scent certifications.

Held for the first time at the Chester County Public Safety Training Center in South Coatesville, the three-day USPCA event began on Monday, March 14. It attracted nearly 80 K-9 teams from the Northeast that demonstrated their proficiencies for uncovering narcotics, detecting explosives and accelerants, and finding cadavers.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh poses with one of her K-9 teams, and Leo, trained in accelerant detection.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh (right) poses with John 'J.D.' DiBuonaventuro, a longtime first-responder deputized with Leo as a K-9 arson investigation team.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh kicked off the program on a somber note with a moment of silence for the police officer fatally gunned down on Sunday, March 13, in Prince George’s County, Md. Then a sobering tone turned to a stressful one for each of 45 K-9 teams trained in drug detection.

The dogs and their handlers took turns facing two tasks: searching three rooms in one of the training buildings where two stashes of drugs had been planted, and sweeping five cars, two of which also contained narcotics. With three judges clutching clipboards and one wielding a stopwatch, the handlers issued a command, most commonly: “Find it!”

Lisa Bryant, wife of Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant, a master K-9 trainer, and Lee Daniels...say they enjoy working as score-keepers for the event.

Lisa Bryant, wife of Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant, a master K-9 trainer, and Lee DiMattia from the Sheriff's Office say they enjoy working as score-keepers for the event.

Philadelphia Police Officer Lawrence Love, a K-9 trainer and National Awards Chairman for Region 6 of the USPCA, explained that the certifications provide more than just a test. It’s an opportunity for officers to practice in a real-world setting and receive valuable feedback from the judges.

Inside one of the training buildings, the narcotics-sniffers furiously scurried around the furniture in three rooms, sometimes standing on their hind legs to smell the upper part of a four-drawer filing cabinet. The handlers intervened when dogs missed a section, redirecting them to a specific area. Some of the animals barked when they made a discovery while others sat down or scratched at the location.

Under the watchful eye of USPCA judge, a German Shepherd attempts to locate some hidden human remains.

Under the watchful eye of USPCA judge, a German Shepherd attempts to locate some hidden human remains.

Outside, two sets of five vehicles had been lined up so that two teams could be tested at different ends of the parking lot. The dogs circled the outside of the vehicles stopping at five locations, including the trunk. If they detected the presence of narcotics, they cued their handlers; otherwise, they moved over to the next vehicle.

On Tuesday, March 15, 25 bomb-sniffing teams tested their talents, which involved searching a book bag as well as the inside rooms and cars. On Wednesday, March 16, one accelerant team and 10 cadaver teams went through their paces, the latter centering on a field that included some bushes and a border of trees.

“Just relax; you can do this,” Chester County Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant assured one narcotics handler, who was visibly intimidated by the judges’ presence.

Courtesy of the rain, a German Shepherd leaves evidence of having searched a couch for narcotics.

Courtesy of the rain, a German Shepherd leaves evidence of having searched a couch for narcotics.

Bryant should know. A master K-9 trainer and national USPCA judge, he joined the Chester County Sheriff’s Office after nearly 30 years of service with the Philadelphia Police Department, where he trained hundreds of dogs. He said he got his first dog in 1998 and has been hooked ever since.

New York Police Officer Benny Colecchia said Bryant was the reason the Manhattan contingent traveled to Chester County. “He’s an excellent trainer who has the respect of a lot of people; plus, he’s a real gentleman,” said Colecchia, whose K-9 partner, Timoshenko, is named for a fallen NYPD officer, Det. Russel Timoshenko.

Like Bryant, Colecchia and his partner specialize in human remains detection, and they both agree that it’s not as unrewarding as it sounds.

A K-9 unit specializing in cadaver detection listens as the USPCA judges explain the certification process.

A K-9 unit specializing in cadaver detection listens as the USPCA judges explain the certification process.

“It’s true that we don’t get called in until all hope of recovery is lost,” said Bryant as he watched other K-9 teams canvass an area where body parts in various stages of decomposition had been hidden. “But when you’re able to help families determine what happened and where their loved one ended up, that’s huge.”

Colecchia agreed. “Closure is so important, and you can tell that families appreciate it,” he said.

Robert Swann, a retired police officer who now devotes his time to K-9 training, served as one of the USPCA judges for the event. “It’s the best job in the world working with these dogs,” he said. “They’re amazing and do so much good.”

The Chester County Public Safety Training Center is awash in dogs during the

The Chester County Public Safety Training Center is awash in dogs during the U.S. Police Canine Association’s (USPCA) Region 6 scent certifications.

Welsh said hiring Bryant strengthened her office’s K-9 program, which started with two teams and now includes six handlers and eight dogs. She said her office was the only agency at the event with at least one canine in every specialty. Hosting the USPCA event marked the 10th anniversary of the establishment of K-9 teams in the Sheriff’s Office, she said.

Bryant said it has been rewarding to work in such a supportive atmosphere, and he credited one of his colleagues and fellow K-9 trainers, Deputy Lt. Harry McKinney, with the idea to host the event.

Both he and McKinney said that unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not require dogs to be certified, but they share Welsh’s belief that a minimum working standard for all K-9 units results in better service to the community. “Pennsylvania should require it,” McKinney said.

Chester County Deputy Lt. Harry McKinney (right), one of the K-9 event organizers, transports former TV reporter Bill Baldini to observe the certifications.

Chester County Deputy Lt. Harry McKinney (right), one of the K-9 event organizers, transports former TV reporter Bill Baldini to observe the certifications.

“You can never get too much training.”

McKinney said 66 out the 77 participating teams, including all of the units from the Sheriff’s Office, received certification this past week. Those that didn't typically sign up for the next set of trials, he said.

George “Beau” Crowding, deputy director of fire services, who stopped to observe the cadaver certification, said it was great to see all of the K-9 teams spread out on Chester County’s training campus. “This really showcases the facility and demonstrates what it's all about: bringing members of law-enforcement together so that they can train together,” he said.

Welsh said she was also pleased with the event. “This was our first, but it will not be our last,” she said. Chester County will host the USPCA Region 6 Police Dog Field Trials in August.

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn 'Bunny' Welsh says the certification event was so successful that the county plans to host others.

She said one of the most poignant moments occurred when she showed the New York officers the 9/11 memorial in the education wing of the Chester County Public Safety Training Center. A steel beam from the World Trade Center that had been forged in Coatesville anchors the dramatic display, which includes artifacts from each of the three crash sites.

Welsh said she watched as the officers observed a moment of silence at the memorial. She said she explained how the beam was draped and transported from New York with an escort of first responders.

“They were really moved, especially when they found out that the beam originated here,” she said. “That connection was very powerful.”

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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