Drea followed Verona police officer Matt Kile step by step and jumped in a black squad car, ready for a night patrol around Verona.

Last week was the first patrol for the German Shepard, part of the first K-9 unit in the Verona Police Department. She and handler completed a six-week training in Pennsylvania on Aug. 4.

Drea’s primary duties include detecting drugs such as meth, marijuana, heroin and cocaine, as well as tracking suspects of crimes and missing people. Compared to 5 million scent receptors humans have, the 250 million receptors dogs have make them more capable of recognizing and locating scents.

Kile said especially at night, when it’s hard for officers to rely on their own senses, the dogs can guide them to track things by using their noses.

Lt. Mark Horstmann, who developed the VPD K-9 program, said the goal is to get drugs off the street and keep people safe.

A $19,500 grant from Epic covered the initial training, purchase of the dog and squad equipment, making it possible for the department to have its own dog.

While the outside of Drea’s car looks similar to regular squad cars, the inside is entirely customized for her. The air conditioner maintains the temperature at a certain level to make her stay cool, with a metal cage for Drea to ride in, taking up the back seat and the trunk for equipment.

Unlike other nearby cities that run their K-9 programs from fundraisers and taxes, Horstmann said Verona runs it at no cost to the public, as all Drea’s living expenses (food and veterinary services) are donated by local businesses Madison’s Pet World and Verona’s True Veterinary Care.

In the past, the department has to borrow police dogs from other departments when tracking drugs and suspects, but they had to wait for the dogs to get to Verona, and sometimes they were unavailable.

For now, Drea works with Kile on a rotating basis – eight hours per day for six night shifts, and three days off. Although the department might still need to borrow dogs from other agencies occasionally, Drea provides more flexibility.

She’ll also provide another way for the department to interact with the community at events, K-9 presentations and demonstrations.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Kile said. “She’s social, but she knows when it’s time to work.

Challenging but rewarding

Kile recalled the first time he met Drea, when she walked on her own pace and didn’t obey his orders.

Six weeks later, Drea had built the bond with him and acted more like an intimate friend, walking by his side at the same pace and hugging him while they’re taking a rest.

“It was a very challenging training, but it’s well-worth it,” Kile said.

Before the two met, the 2-year-old dog had already been trained to detect narcotics and track humans for six weeks. The training she went through with Kile allowed them to learn how to work with each other, including the dog’s obedience, how the officer should give commands and how to read the dog’s behavior changes.

The training is just a start, though, as Kile and Drea have to hone their skills by practicing in daily patrol and participating in a monthly 16-hour training organized by regional K-9 units, like the Dane County Sheriff’s office and Madison police departments.

“The training never stops,” Horstmann said. “They’re building skills on what they’ve already learned.”

Kile’s patience and positive attitude should help them going through that process, and it’s what impressed Horstmann when he picked the department’s K-9 officer. Having worked in the department for five years, Kile “understands how to be a good handler and realizes it’s gonna be a lot of work to handle a dog and keep training,” Horstmann said.

New environment

Having anticipated the challenges, Kile was committed to doing good in the community with Drea. Working as a police dog handler is what Kile always wanted to do since he was in law enforcement. Now he works and lives with Drea every day.

Despite the fact he has already raised two dogs at home and is familiar with dogs, bringing Drea to his family is an adjustment. Since Drea is new to his home, he hasn’t introduced his own dogs to Drea and would like to wait until she is comfortable with the new environment.

“The dog is part of my life now,” Kile said. “It’s just like one more family member you have to take care of.”

A Holland native, Drea has only been in the United States for 12 weeks. Although everything is new to her, Kile said she has adapted to the new environment “very well.”

During the first week, Kile gradually introduced her to new working places and employees. Kile recalled the first time Drea went to the elevator with him, she was hesitant to get in. But now she has gotten used to it after Kile encouraged her to give it a try.

“The little things we take for granted might be something a dog has never experienced before in their life,” Kile said.

Contact Helu Wang at helu.wang@wcinet.com.