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K-9 Simon joins city police force

K-9 Simon sat quietly as Mayor John Berlin recited his ceremonial oath of office Thursday, but his tail was wagging as Ptl. Michael Garber pinned on his new badge as the city’s first-ever police dog.

The pair graduated from a 300-hour training course at Shallow Creek Kennel last Friday and went to work in Salem on Saturday.

“The first day within four hours on the road he had a drug search and arrest. I don’t think Salem could ask for much more than that,” Chief J.T. Panezott said.

The department’s quest to add a K-9 unit to the crime-fighting squad became reality as the 16-month-old Belgian Malinois joined fellow officers over the weekend, with his handler Garber making the introductions. Garber voiced Simon’s promise to uphold the laws of the state of Ohio and the city of Salem and signed his paperwork during the swearing-in, although they did have a written oath for Simon to sign with his pawprint.

“I can’t thank the community enough. I just ask everybody to be patient while we get acclimated to working. We’ll get around to visiting members of the community as quickly as we can,” Garber said.

Simon’s progression from puppy to police officer began with his birth in Holland, then his selection by Shallow Creek Kennels in Pennsylvania who brought him to the United States for training as a police service dog. Garber visited the facility for some pre-training and to see the dogs work this spring and picked Simon out based on how he was hunting for the narcotics and how social he was. They made a connection from the moment they met.

Garber said he was given the opportunity to take Simon for a walk.

The dog wanted to be around him and jumped on him and then laid on his legs. For Garber, that was it decision made. During the training course, he said Simon did great.

“He was already trained. The six weeks was for me to learn about my dog and how to handle him and read what he was doing,” he said.

Simon is trained for passive alert, which means he doesn’t scratch or dig when he sniffs out something. The biggest advantage to that is he doesn’t make any noise, plus it takes any liability off of the department.

Upon graduation, Garber and Simon earned certification through the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy as a dual purpose K-9 team for narcotics and patrol. That means Simon is certified for locating the odor of narcotics and for performing any patrol facet, such as building searches, tracking and article searches. They also received national certification from the North American Police Work Dog Association for patrol and narcotics, which is an even higher standard.

The training will continue throughout their partnership, with Garber explaining the chief has given the green light for training above the federal standard of 16 hours per month. Right now he’s trying to familiarize his fellow officers with Simon so they can see how he works and build up their confidence in the dog by seeing him successfully complete his tasks.

According to Panezott, Simon has already demonstrated his ability to sniff out drugs. Since that first day, he’s had at least two more incidents when he indicated the odor of drugs, including a vehicle search Wednesday night with charges pending related to narcotics.

If drugs are there, Panezott said the dog will find them, whether in large or small amounts. The dog’s shifts will vary, but he and Garber can be called out if necessary. They’re testing out shifts now for the dog to work, but Panezott did make a guarantee that “he will be randomly checking vehicles in the park, any areas, anywhere we have reported drug activity.”

Garber asked that people remember that when they see him out with the dog, they shouldn’t come running up to him. They need to be cognizant that the dog is trained in handler protection. He understands that people want to meet him but when Simon is out with Garber, he’s working and he’s in his work mode.

Panezott said getting the K-9 unit up and running was definitely a community project, referring to all the funds raised for the department’s K-9 fund which is managed through the Salem Community Foundation. Fundraising efforts started in December to pay for the dog, the training for the handler, the equipment necessary to house the dog at the handler’s house and the specially-equipped police vehicle to transport the K-9 unit. Garber’s salary is paid through the department’s budget.

Simon is now part of the community and part of Garber’s family. He resides with Garber and Garber’s live-in partner, Kayla Donlon, who commented it’s a change, but it’s exciting at the same time.

So far, so good, the chief said, noting he’s worked around K-9s for many years, but he’s never had one under his command. He said it’s going to be a learning experience for everybody, but he likes it. Garber said the other officers have come up with questions and really good points and they want to be involved in this. He wants them to get to know the dog.

Berlin said he’s impressed and noted how Simon has already made an impact in the community. He’s proud of him and Garber, his handler. He also gave thanks to the community, which greatly contributed to the K-9 unit, and thanked future contributions to keep the unit going. The need for funding will be ongoing and the fund through the SCF has been set up as a permanent fund.

“The community thought it was important enough to have this dog. Please know we will be out working drugs a lot,” Panezott said, adding “for those who that applies to, please take that as a warning.”

mgreier@salemnews.net