Lawrence Township Expands K-9 Program
School System is the First School District in Our Nation to Have Two Highly Trained K-9 Officers
Writer / Lynda Hedberg Thies
As the fastest growing school district in the state, the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township made the safety of students and the prevention of crime a significant focus by expanding its K-9 program. The District added a second dog to its K-9 program, making it the only school system in the nation with two.
This was largely due to grant writer Pat Gerber’s dogged pursuit of a grant offered by K9s4Cops, a foundation that provides K-9s to law enforcement agencies.
According to Jim Parish, Coordinator of Safety and Security, “The first two school districts to receive dogs were Waco, Texas, and Lawrence Township. Previously, the dogs were given to law enforcement agencies. But K9s4Cops used the two school districts as a trial and Lawrence Township blew it out of the water.”
The school launched its K-9 program more than two years ago, creating a unique partnership between the school district and the police department where the K-9 would be used for the benefit of both the schools and the community.
Gerber was able to secure two dogs from the foundation at no cost to the district, but originally only one dog was available. Axel, a German-shepherd, was available and awarded to the school district. Axel was trained in narcotics detection and assigned to Officer Matt Hickey.
Students, staff and teachers were receptive to both Hickey and Axel, though Axel’s size can be intimidating. But Axel is really just a working teddy bear.
Two and a half years later, the district learned it had its second K-9.
Niko, a 2-year-old Vizsla, German short-haired pointer, arrived in Indianapolis in early November after a year of training at the Houston, Texas, K-9 Academy with Officer Matt Brandenburg, the full-time Lawrence Township police officer selected to be Niko’s handler. Niko was specially trained for gun and explosives detection.
Niko, born in Slovakia, began his training at nearly 8 months old when he boarded a plane with his own passport and traveled to the K-9 Academy.
Officer Brandenburg explained the training process.
“Prior to my travelling to the K-9 Academy, Niko spent over a year being trained in gun and explosives detection learning 18 different odors, up to, and including, black powder, smokeless powder including military-grade substances.”
Brandenburg was quick to point out that Vizslas are a high-energy, gentle-mannered and very loving dog. They are referred to as Velcro dogs because of their loyalty and need for affection.
“I spent five weeks learning to work with Nico and he never leaves my side,” he explained. “After Nico and I returned from the academy, we had a week to integrate him into his new home environment with my family and his new work environments. Niko has quickly won over the hearts of my three children.”
Having such highly skilled and trained dogs would not have been possible without the grants as the school district receives the dogs, training, and six weeks of training for the handler at no cost. Dogs such as Niko can cost $10-20,000 because they have been bred with a hunting instinct so deeply ingrained they must be desensitized to the smell of birds. They are flown to the K-9 Academy where they spend approximately a year learning their new skills. They then are rigorously tested before the handler is brought in. It is a long process but Brandenburg is thrilled with the opportunity to work Niko.
“I have complete confidence in in the dog’s abilities, and I have seen what he can do. I am ready to introduce him to the community.”
No one is happier to see two years’ hard work come to fruition than Gerber.
“I am so proud to have been a part of something that is benefiting not only the students of MSDLT but the community. The dogs are a tremendous preventive way to keep our students, staff, and families safe in our schools and at events. We were awarded two very skilled and talented dogs. We are so appreciative to K9s4Cops and the partnership with the police department. Axel and Niko are valued employees of the district.”