A few miles down a winding gravel road in Scottsville sits a brown building with the words Advance Canine Academy in block letters above the door. Behind that building are four vehicles sporting dusty windows and flat tires. They serve as part of the training ground for these future K-9 officers.
Gene England tosses a marijuana-scented tennis ball is tossed into the car and one of the dogs-in-training races in after it, searching high-and-low to find which crevice or under which seat the ball went.
When the dog emerges, England implores a handful of students to remember what they saw.
“Jumping, spinning, barking, licking, biting – every bit of that stuff – you’ll find more drugs off those indications than you’ll ever find off this one [scratching],” said England. “As of Day 1 when you write in your journal, you’ve gotta write how your dog behaved out here today, you log it.”
Law enforcement and government officials say drug trafficking is becoming more common in these parts, even though Kentucky is a long way from the Texas border with Mexico.
“We just recently had one of our dogs down in Ohio County hit eight pounds of crystal meth and a pound and a half of heroin. We’ve never encountered heroin in all my years in Kentucky until recently,” said England.
For over four decades, England has been training dogs. Law enforcement dogs in particular. His rural property in Allen County has plenty of space for the dogs and their handlers to learn the ropes.
Most of the dogs that England trains aren’t from here. There mainly from Germany, Slovakia and Hungary brought to this country specifically for police work.
“Same thing that makes a thoroughbred horse a racehorse,” he said. “Same thing that makes a quarter horse a cattle horse. The dog has to have the characteristics conducive to doing this kind of work.”
“Occasionally you’ll get a giant schnauzer Bouvier, but most of the one’s we use here are going to be German Shepherds, Malinois, Dutch Shepherds or a cross-of,” said England.
He says they may be different breeds, but they all have one thing in common.
“We don’t use mean, vicious dogs. They’ve gotta be very very sociable. That’s the first criteria, very, very sociable,” said England. “ These dogs live in the families so they have to be sociable. They’ve gotta have certain drives: strong hunt-drive, strong prey- drive and a desire to play with a toy. They’re not hunting drugs, they don’t know what a drug is. They just know that their toy smells like certain prescribed drugs and they’re just hunting for the toy.”
As much as the training classes at the Advance Canine Academy are geared toward the dogs, they’re also about training the officer who will become their handlers. England says from day 1, he makes it clear that he’s in charge.
“Take your aviator glasses, your weapons and your badges and put them back in your car,” said England. “Because you’re not a policeman in here, you’re students. The first thing they’ve gotta learn: don’t bring your police officer attitude in here.”
England says he works with police chiefs and sheriffs to select officer who will be ready to be a K-9 handler.
“I like to have 3-5 years of police experience already. They’ve gotta already know how to be a police officer. A K9 is a new tool and a new weapon that’s going to be used in their duties,” said England. “They’ve got to have a good solid, stable arrest record. I don’t want an officer who uses a lot of excessive force. I want an officer who uses his brain, not his brawn. So I don’t want one that’s noted for going out there and snagging and jerking people around, ‘cause he’s going to misuse that tool.”
The dogs go through three months of pre-training before the officers show up. Then, the officers are with the dogs for 4-8 weeks of training. Throughout the class, just as the dogs receive reinforcement, so too do the officers.
England, a former All-America football player, has a looming physical presence and a personality to match. He’s well versed in not only dog breeding and training, but also law enforcement techniques – giving him a close relationship with the officer he trains.
“They’re not gonna have respect for just a civilian that’s just talking to them in a civilian manner. I’m gonna talk to them in a language that they understand,” said England. “I’ve been doing it 42 years, so it comes pretty naturally.”
At times, the training doesn’t look much different from an average dog owner, playing fetch with a tennis ball. But the exercises are meant to determine how aggressively a dog will go after his toy and much relentlessness he shows in stopping at nothing to get it. The officers in the class rate the dogs on desire to find his toy, knowing that may one day translate into finding a large stash of drugs, a suspect or an explosive.
“It ain’t no vacation,” said England. “They’ll come up here and they’ll do it real and they’ll be under stress and if they don’t do it my way, it’ll be the highway. Because I don’t want to be responsible for their death.”
England, tapping the table top with the knuckles of his right hand, says to date he’s never lost a police officer in the line of duty, but a couple of police dogs have fallen in the line of duty. Most were killed protecting their handler.
“I don’t like overly aggressive dogs. But I want a dog that when I say ‘perform’ they’ve gotta go from zero to 50,” said England. “They can’t just stand there and think ‘well, should I or should I not..’” No. We put them through stages of suspicion, threat, danger, pain – they’ve got to understand all of them.”
His goal is to prepare these K-9 officers and their handlers for all situations – much the way he seems to be after 42 years in the business.