From day one, Pa. K9 has been top dog

By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller

SOMERSET, Pa. The first day back from drug detective training, Arny, the canine member of the Somerset Borough Police Department, showed everybody exactly what he had learned.

"We were called out for a building search and when we got permission to go in, he found marijuana," said his handler, Officer Brian Harbart. "It was about $400 worth, which is no diamond mine, but it was pretty neat that he would go through that training and the first day back have that happen."

Arny, a 2 1/2-year-old German shepherd, came to the department in November 2005. Since then, he has been successful in numerous drug busts, searches for fugitives and evidence, and in discouraging suspects from resisting arrest.

"In patrol and in drug control, the dog has really proven to be of value," police Chief Randy Cox said.

In the 1980s, the late Officer Cliff Pile purchased and trained a German shepherd at his own expense. Interest in having another dog was rekindled several years ago when teams from other departments demonstrated at a community event. After seeing them, local businessman Mark Miller approached Mayor Bill Meyer and offered to find funding to train and maintain a K9 team.

"Mark is a shaker and a mover in the community," Cox said. "So he went to a number of sources and was able to put a K9 team on the streets at no cost to the borough taxpayer."

Support came from a Human Services Development Fund grant administered through the Single County Authority, Somerset County, Somerset Hospital and Twin Lakes Treatment Center.

"After getting the funding, the next step in having a successful K9 program is to find a dog handler," Cox said. "There's more to it than riding around with a dog for eight hours, so it takes someone who is really committed. The dog has to live with the handler and his family."

Harbart, who joined the department in 1999, was assigned to the detail.

Arny was born in the Czech Republic, where some of the world's best law enforcement dogs are bred. His delivery was arranged through Bill Sombo, operator of Strategic K9 Law Enforcement Training Inc., in North Huntingdon. Sombo, a master trainer, also is part of a K9 team with the North Huntingdon police.

Harbart and Arny spent two months bonding, then started narcotics detection training in February 2006. In March they officially were sworn in as a team, and two months later they trained together to run patrols. Arny is nationally certified in both duties and, like all law-enforcement dogs, maintains his sharpness with constant practice and more training.

Somerset has a permanent population of less than 8,000, but the borough's daily count swells to 41,000 because the town is the county seat, the Pennsylvania Turnpike comes through, and there are two state prisons nearby. The location and traffic make Somerset and surrounding areas vulnerable to the illegal drug trade.

"We have a significant heroin problem," Cox said. "The drugs, particularly heroin, are at the root of so many of our incidents. We may not be responding as drug calls or making all the arrests on drugs, but a lot of burglaries, robberies and domestic calls very often can be traced back to substance abuse."

Although Cox has no statistics, he said anecdotal evidence points to a decrease in local drug-related incidents since the dog joined the department.

"Arny has an incredible nose, and that's not only for drugs," he said.

Last fall the team was called to assist in an incident when a woman fled after a sheriff's deputy tried to serve an arrest warrant. She stopped after a low-speed chase, jumped out of her car and threw away a knife as she ran through a field.

The suspect was apprehended, but investigators could not find the knife in the 4-foot-tall weeds. It was needed as evidence because she had brandished it at a police officer. Where metal detectors failed, Arny succeeded. Within five minutes after Harbart brought him to the scene, the dog located the knife, even though there was pouring rain.

Arny's presence on patrol also helps to keep peace in the borough. In one call, a notoriously rowdy man surrendered without incident when Arny arrived.

"The man was giving everybody pretty much of a hard time," Harbart said. "Then when I pulled in and put the windows down, the man said, 'I don't want any trouble with that dog.'"

In a pursuit incident, Arny ran past an officer who was on the chase, grabbed the suspect and brought him right down "like a ton of bricks."

Arny responds to commands in the Czech language, which Harbart, his family and some fellow officers have learned. That makes it more difficult for outsiders to know what Arny has been commanded to do.

Harbart isn't worried that anyone else will learn the words.

"The dog would never listen to anyone else but me, my wife and our sons," he said. "Someone else could tell him whatever they want, and he would just look at them like, 'Who are you?'"

Besides, he added, Arny has an "alpha aggressive" personality. That means he's nobody to mess with, even when he's off the job.

"So if someone ever learns Czech and tries something out with Arny, don't come crying to me about whatever happens," Harbart said. 

Copyright 2007 Tribune Review Publishing Company

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