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Shepherd at work

NEPD K9, handler work, train hard

This is the third in an occasional series about dogs and the roles they play in today’s society.

By Tatiana Ambrosio

Staff Writer

Jax, a Dutch Shepherd, has a specialized job: He is an officer of the Northeast Police Department.

Jax, now 5, joined the department a little over two years ago. He came from and was originally trained in Buena Vista, Colorado, but once marijuana was legalized in Colorado, Jax needed a new home. He was offered to the NEPD for free.

At that point, officer Nate Johnson hadn’t planned on being a K9 officer.

“It’s funny; in the academy everyone wants to be a K9 handler,” Johnson said. “… It seemed cool, but I wasn’t like everyone else like, ‘I gotta do this!’ … Now that I have Jax, it is all I want to do.”

Chief James Edland spoke highly of Johnson and Jax and the partnership they have created.

Prior to being a K9 officer, Johnson was focused on DWI’s, and he has trained to be a drug recognition expert.

“There’s less DRE’s in the state of Texas than there are chiefs,” Johnson said.

Johnson estimated there are about 400 DREs in Texas, and five of them are employed by NEPD, and one is a DRE instructor.

Johnson first met Jax the day he picked him up from Colorado to bring him to Texas, and he said it took a couple of months of bonding before Jax started his job with NEPD.

During his transition, because he had been so bonded with his previous officer, Johnson said, Jax was a little uneasy and lost a bit of weight.

Today, when Johnson is on duty, Jax is on duty with him. When Johnson is at home, Jax is at his side. When Johnson runs to the store, Jax does not hang out with his family or play with their other family dog because Jax isn’t a family pet, even though, Johnson said, Jax is great with his children.

“With police K9’s, you don’t want them to be a house pet. You have to make work more fun than home,” Johnson said.

Jax is a single-purpose narcotics dog.

Steven Antommarchi owns Next Level K9 Texas, a company that trains eight area police departments’ K9 units, including Jax.

“Nate and Jax are definitely an awesome team to watch. They’re definitely, on the [drug] detection side, one of the best teams in our group,” Antommarchi said.

Their training happens once a week for five to eight hours so that the animals can sharpen their skills.

“It’s a skillset the dog learns, so we maintain that skillset and we build on it … so that when they get deployed on the street, the chances of having a high level of success are pretty high. [Jax] really is an upper echelon [drug] detection dog,” Antommarchi said.

With his keen nose, Jax is not only taking drugs off of the streets in Krugerville and Cross Roads for NEPD, but he is also often called on to assist other departments, including Pilot Point, Aubrey, Little Elm and Celina.

Jax helps get drugs like methamphetamines, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana out of circulation along U.S. 380 and U.S. 377.

“We’re finding dealers,” Johnson said. “At least three or four times a month, he hits, and we find something and that’s just counting big loads. … That’s like actually drugs that somebody goes to jail for,” Johnson said.

He went on to explain Jax finds user-level amounts or paraphernalia four or five times a week.

Police dogs are allowed to sniff the vehicle if it’s within the business of the traffic stop, and police departments use algorithms that have shown when the most drug trafficking is done.

Typically, police officers won’t deploy their dog unless there are at least two officers on scene.

If the dog alerts to the outside of the vehicle, the officer has probable cause to search the vehicle, Johnson said.

If that does happen, Jax only goes into the vehicle after Johnson searches it first. The officer will check not only for drugs but also for items that may injure the dog when it enters the vehicle.

Jax and Johnson sometimes work during their time off. They will come in early if they get a call. If it’s a day off, they will still head in to help on a stop.

Tracking is another part of what Jax does for the department. He tracks suspects who have fled from a scene or people who are lost. He can detect subtle nuances, such as increased adrenaline in someone’s sweat on the grass they ran through.

Jax trains at the state park to learn to differentiate people’s smells from areas that may have other people using the area. When he tracks with Johnson, his handler carries a travel pack with water and other necessities.

If Johnson is in danger on a call, he has the ability to pop open Jax’s door on the police cruiser. Jax would then run to his officer’s defense.

However, Johnson said, when he pulls up on the scene and people see K9 on the side of his vehicle, “Suddenly everyone is like ‘Oh yeah, we’re not going to play around anymore, [Jax is] here.’”


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