NEWBERRY — Officer Percy, a German Short-haired Pointer acquired about a year ago, and his handler Corporal Jacob Huffstetler of the Newberry Police Department have been able to provide a valuable service to the Newberry Police Department in the way of drug enforcement and tracking.
“He’s done nothing but excel. We’ve been thoroughly impressed with him,” Huffstetler said of Percy, who is certified in tracking humans, articles and narcotics such as marijuana, cocaine, heroine, methamphetamine and derivatives including crack cocaine and Ecstasy.
Percy was bred and trained at Shallow Creek Kennels in Sharpsville, Pa., a company that sells exclusively to police agencies and the military.
“They sell Delta dogs,” Huffstetler said. “Percy actually grew up with some dogs that have gone on to ranger regiments and special forces and stuff like that.”
While Shallow Creek has a long history of producing quality working dogs, Percy’s origins are a bit out of the ordinary as they import almost exclusively from Western Europe.
“They had two dogs there that were doing really well in the field and their handlers wanted to breed them and so they actually tried their hand at breeding a set,” Huffstetler said. “It’s pretty rare to have a dog of any quality bred in the United States but I guess if one was going to come from here it’s reasonable that it would come from Shallow Creek.”
And as one might imagine “a dog of any quality” comes with a sizable price tag. An initial investment of $10,000 was made for Percy which included the associated training.
Chief Roy McClurkin wanted to recognize local businessman Bob Shirey for providing funding to secure the purchase of Percy.
“We are so thankful that he thought enough of the police department and community to do this,” McClurkin said.
When the decision was made to purchase a canine, the department went through a lengthy selection process to determine which officer would serve as its handler.
This included an inspection of the officer’s home, where the dog would actually be living, as well as a psychological evaluation to assess if the officer’s temperament would be a good fit for dog handling.
“The bond is definitely extreme. I care a lot for the dog and the dog cares for me,” Huffstetler said. “There’s actually a theory in dog handling that basically you share your emotions with the dog because it travels down the line.”
Huffstetler said if an officer is having an off-day or is particularly tense, the dog can sense it and their performance can actually be hindered. He said this is a concept called line tension.
After about four months it was determined that, of the three volunteers, Huffstetler was the man for the job.
He was then sent to Shallow Creek where he stayed on site and trained with Percy every day for an entire month. Percy had already been in training for six weeks prior to his arrival.
“It was tough because of the terrain and going out tracking all day long, running around holding on to these dogs. I mean they’re powerful, they’ll wear you out, whip you into shape too. No matter what the weather elements were, we were out there,” he said.
Huffstetler also said that they continue to do training on nearly a daily basis.
“You think of them like a knife. You can sharpen them and hone them to a razor point but they dull very easily and you have to keep training them to keep them sharp,” he said. “We either track or we have drugs that we get from the DEA that I’ll hide in cars and basically we train just like we operate.”
And although these dogs undergo an intense level of training, outcomes can still vary and Huffstetler said the department feels lucky to have received such a hardworking dog.
“You can end up with a dog that’s not so sharp, a dog that doesn’t care to work every day,” Huffstetler said.
The duo’s skills have been on full display this year as they have been able to successfully track individuals in four incidents which led to apprehensions, a good track record for any canine, and especially for a first year.
Just a few weeks back the two were called onto the scene of a break in at the Brothers Fast Stop on 1st Street.
“I immediately asked to make sure we had a good perimeter set up,” Huffstetler said. “Just dealing with people running from us all the time we know their avenues of escape in different places in town and especially around this area there are a lot.”
Huffstetler started Percy tracking the scent of several cigar boxes which had been stolen and then discarded once their contents had been removed which led them to an apartment complex.
“An apartment complex is a tough place to track because you have a lot of contamination. You have a lot of foot traffic and and that whole area, day and night, there’s foot traffic,” he said. “I saw a good change of behavior on him and he went behind a set of buildings and came to this one apartment and walked right up to their front door where a guy actually opened the door.”
Huffstetler thought this was odd as it was nearing 6 a.m. The man asked what was going on and Huffstetler informed the man they were tracking burglary suspects and the door was promptly shut.
“What really gave validity to Percy’s track was one of the other officers recognized the vehicle parked in front of the apartment,” Huffstetler said.
The officer knew that this particular vehicle was associated with a suspect wanted in a separate armed robbery incident.
“At that moment the Lieutenant was like, ‘Hey let’s everybody square that (apartment) off and make sure nobody comes in or out,’” Huffstetler said.
Through further investigation officers were able to link several of the suspects to a series of car break-ins near Newberry College as well as the mugging of a college student which occurred just off campus on Oct. 18.
“It shows our investment in the community as to keeping the community safe when we have the tools that we need to actually keep the community safe,” McClurkin said. “Having Percy, who is able to go out and track and locate suspects for us and then actually making arrests and being able to clear cases because of arrests in other incidents, is a valuable tool for this department.”
Lt. Kevin Goodman worked the scene.
“I think this is a huge win for the city as a whole, and particularly the college,” he said.
Ironically, because Percy is so proficient at tracking, much of the need for him to do so has been eliminated.
“People used to run from us all the time, we don’t have nearly as many people run from us now,” he said. “The whole deterrent factor of Percy has just been a huge help for the department.”
Another major benefit which has stemmed from having Percy is he is an outlet through which the police department can engage children and the community as a whole in positive ways.
“They see him in the schools, they see him in the parks, we go and talk to the kids and they get to pet him,” Huffstetler said. “The true benefit is actually building these long term relationships with the young people in the neighborhoods where we need to be.”
Reach Carson Lambert at 803-276-0625, ext. 1868, or on Twitter @TheNBOnews.