The two newest members of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office are getting ready to hit the streets later this summer.
The ECSO now has two K-9s nearly ready for duty, thanks to a $9,000 donation from the Georgia-Pacific Savannah River Mill that put it over the top for the money needed to add the two dogs.
Cpl. Jamie Thompson and Deputy Jason Fondren, both veteran K9 handlers, have been training with Tess and Gero, both Belgian malinois, since the beginning of May. The new K9s are expected to be ready for service in August.
“To get our job done, we don’t have to have the dogs,” said Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie. “But it is another tool in what we have to do to fulfill those obligations.”
For instance, deputies can search a building and “we could walk around that building all day long and not find somebody,” the sheriff added.
“That dog can go in,” he said, with a snap of his fingers, “and go right to them.”
If there is a search of a car for drugs, a small amount tucked under a seat might elude a deputy’s observation, McDuffie pointed out. But it won’t remain undiscovered if the K9 is called in.
Having the dogs also will reduce the number of deputies needed to perform searches on cars for drugs or other contraband.
“They can go in and do things these guys can’t do,” McDuffie said. “We can free up a lot of people. We won’t have to have three or four people on a traffic stop. It really helps a lot, as far as manpower hours, to have them.”
The ECSO started its K-9 program 10 years ago, but it has been without working dogs for several months. In the past, the sheriff’s office has used former military working dogs that had been retired from duty. The dogs were free to the county, but as McDuffie explained, the sheriff’s office only get a few years of work out of those dogs before being forced to retire from police duty.
“For the last two or three years, we’ve been on and off with them and without them. We’ve had them when they didn’t have medical issues,” the sheriff said. “The age was getting to be too much that we had to retire them out, and the medical issues they were having. They’re like us — when they start getting old and gray, they start having medical issues.”
A.J. retired in December 2013 after nearly four years on the force. The dog came to the ECSO after eight years in the military, including three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tess and Gero are each about a year old, so their service life with the ECSO could last several years, Thompson said.
“We can train them ourselves and have them in a service a lot longer,” McDuffie said. “Every time you do training on a new dog, you have to have these guys trained with them, because they have to know who their handler is. So you have them tied up for that amount of time, every time we change dogs. This time, we’ll be able to train them and spend a lot more time out on the street.”
Training the K9s takes about 10 to 11 weeks, and the dogs will be trained for patrol duties and narcotics. The ECSO has a bloodhound it obtained from Chatham County for tracking missing people.
During the training period, the handler teaches the dog “the odors of narcotics, to be able to listen to commands, direct the dog to what you want him to do,” said Thompson, who was the handler for the late K9 Conan.
The sheriff’s office launched a public campaign to raise the money for new dogs, and contributions totaled more than $21,000. The sheriff recalled how one man stopped him on the street and handed him a $20 bill to go toward the K9 unit. The money raised goes toward the cost of the dogs, plus their kennels and protective vests.
“We’re very privileged to have the resources to help the sheriff’s office serve and protect our community,” said Monty Brown, vice president of manufacturing at Georgia-Pacific’s Savannah River Mill. “We’re proud to be able to do that. We’re very appreciative. We felt it was a great opportunity to provide back to the community.”