Explosives-hunting K-9 chronicles summer with dad

· 7 min read

Explosives-hunting K-9 chronicles summer with dad

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Katie Black | University Communication
Layla, one of two bomb-sniffing dogs in the University Police Department, had a summer unlike all other Huskers. Paired with K-9 Officer Russ Johnson Jr., Layla is a Labrador-Belgian malinois mix.

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Editor’s note: With her permission, Nebraska Today is publishing journal entries in which Layla — Croatian Sensation, Twitterati member and explosives-sniffing extraordinaire — chronicled her summer adventures alongside handler Russ Johnson, a K-9 officer with the University Police Department.

May 3-4

It’s spring commencement again! We get to Pinnacle Bank Arena a couple of hours before a bunch of people who are covered in black blankets and wearing square hats with tiny ropes dangling in their faces. Dad makes me pose in front of an N150 banner. I’m having a good fur day, so I don’t mind.


Dad and I scout every level of the big, shiny building. I’ve been here before, many times. Lots of space to roam! Dad’s hidden toys with dangerous scents on them to help keep me on my nose, though.

May 5

Marathon time! Dad says we have to get to the course “wicked early.” We’re looking for our friend Mark Geist. Mark wants to pet 200 dogs while running the half-marathon today. He’s raising money for a camp that supports children who were treated badly.

We can’t find Mark. Where is he??? Here?! No. There?! No. Dad seems down.

“I was bummed out that I couldn’t find him,” Johnson said.

But we have a job to do. We patrol the course. So many people! So much walking. Shouldn’t we get a medal, too? Probably. We stop at the intersection of 10th and T streets. Mark has to come this way, right? Solid plan, Dad.

Oh! Other people want to pet me, too! Hello, people! They look tired and smell sweaty, so Dad lets them.

“You hit that point (running) where you’re just like, ‘I’m done. I can’t go any farther,’” Johnson said. “It's really tricky right there, because you can see the stadium, and you're like, 'All right, cool! I'm done! I just turn up T Street!' And then you're like, 'Oh, no...'

“It turned out to be a little boost for everybody who was running through.”

We’re still waiting for Mark, though. Waiting. Wait — who’s that?

“There was a break in the crowd, and then I see Mark just stumbling and rumbling down (the street),” Johnson said. “He’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness! Can I pet her?!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, go ahead!’”

Mark says I’m No. 200!

“I go, ‘That’s awesome, Mark!’ He was pretty out of it: ‘How do you know my name?’ And then he goes, ‘Oh. Oh! Ohhh!!!’ He looked like he was just out of gas, and then he just lights up when sees Layla and lights up even more when he realizes that he knows me.”


“Layla was literally the very last dog on the course,” Geist told Runner’s World. “It took everything I could to not break down into tears.”

May 15

More running! This time Dad’s carrying a flame stick to help kick off Special Olympics Nebraska.

“Last year we weren't here (for it),” Johnson said. “One of the other officers had brought her dog in and run it. So I said, 'Well, if her dog can do it, then my dog can do it.’”

You know it, Dad!

May 16-17

Haymarket Park! Lots of people running around a field, throwing and catching balls! When’s it my turn???

“She likes interacting with crowds,” Johnson said. “She likes anything that's moving, so that's kind of a struggle for her — especially (because) anything that's close to the size of her toy, she's going to want.”

The Huskers are playing a team with a yellow “M” on its helmets. Two out of three times, the Huskers run around the bases more than the other team does, so I must be good luck. And I track down a foul ball during every game!

“If we're behind home plate, she'll sit there, and you can watch her head move with every pitch,” Johnson said. “It's almost torture for her sometimes. I'm a baseball nerd, of course. In my free time, I'm the guy who shows up with a scorebook. But she's like, ‘There's no ball. There's nothing for me to do. This is boring.’”

There’s no ball. There’s nothing for me to do. This is boring.

Hold on! I smell something. One of the odors that Dad’s trained me to identify. I find it! It’s my squishy ball! I lie down in front of Dad and spit it toward his feet. He taps it back. Chomp-chomp-chomp. I spit it out again. Tap. Chomp. Spit. Tap. Chomp. Spit. It’s not the same as chasing down a long toss on City Campus, but it’ll do for now.


June 24

Dad’s looking a little sad. We’re at the station. Chief Yardley is talking.

“It was a little shocking, I guess,” Johnson said. “But he’s been here for 18 years. I could imagine he’s about ready to hang up the boots and be done.

“I’ve had the luxury of essentially being asked to start the K-9 unit here. So having someone who had that trust in me to do this — it’s kind of bittersweet to see him go.”

July 26

We’re going to the dog park! Dad’s girlfriend is coming, too! I can tell Dad loves her. I know I do.

Dad’s carrying a small white pouch. He tries latching it onto my collar a couple of times, but he stops when she looks back and wonders what he’s up to.

We keep playing. I’m panting, a lot. It’s hot outside! Even I’m ready to head home now. But Dad says we should take one more lap around the park. We’re almost finished with the lap when Dad calls me over again. He finally clips the pouch onto my collar.

“And then, you know, ‘What’s that on Layla’s collar?’ Layla comes up to her. She feels the pouch. I go down to a knee just to act like I’m trying to figure out, ‘What is this fandangled thing on there?’

“She sees it. I see her eyes go wide.”

Welcome to the family, Mom!


August 8

A skinny guy visits the station and interviews Dad for about 45 minutes. Then Dad introduces me. I show off how obedient I am. The skinny guy seems impressed! Then he leaves. Wonder what that was about.

Mid-August

Football season’s almost here! The players are training for it. We are, too.

For the first time since the end of last season, we’re visiting Memorial Stadium. Searching it takes so much longer than the Devaney Center or even Pinnacle Bank Arena. Time to get in game shape!

“Really, nothing compares to Memorial Stadium on game day,” Johnson said.

I’m smelling dangerous scents all over the stadium. When I find one, I don’t always get a toy. Sometimes it’s a belly rub and nice words from Dad. But when that KONG toy or squishy ball comes bouncing my way? Oh! It’s even better than I remember!

“It's about a week or two before the first games that we’ll introduce the dogs to the stadium, because they love to cheat,” Johnson said. “They have an impeccable memory when it best suits them.

“I don't want her to get in the habit of, ‘Dad hides stuff here, here and here, so that's where I’m going to go.’ If we can minimize how much we’re in the area while still making her familiar with it, we can better go about attacking it.”

It’s been a long day. I jump into the back of the cruiser. I’m tired. But Dad seems tired, too. So I poke my head through to the front, nudge his arm, lick his ear and rest my head on his shoulder.

Officer Russ Johnson Jr. and Layla are one of two K-9 teams working at Nebraska.

“Coming into all this, I thought, ‘I want (to get) gangbangers, bad guys, guns, drugs and money.’ But working with her has definitely been the greatest thing I’ve done in my career so far.”