The University Police Department is going to the dogs to enhance security and public safety.
Starting this week, the university’s first two K-9 police units have started patrolling City and East campuses and assisting local law enforcement agencies. The dogs — a 3-year-old Chocolate Labrador-German shorthair mix and an 18-month-old Labrador-German shepherd mix — will be tasked with sniffing out explosives, finding evidence at crime scenes and tracking individuals.
The canines will not be trained or used for drug detection, suspect apprehension and crowd control.
“These are dual-purpose dogs that will always be on leash and used primarily for bomb detection at athletics venues and other university events as well as tracking,” Police Chief Owen Yardley said. “We’ve been working to add K-9 units for many years and we’re excited to have them on board to improve campus safety.”
The dogs are paired with and live alongside Nebraska police officers and first-time K-9 handlers Greg Byelick and Russell Johnson Jr. Byelick is partnered with Justice, the Labrador-German shorthair, while Johnson works with Layla, the Labrador-German shepherd.
Nebraska’s newest law enforcement duos have been attending classes at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island since early March.
“Our training has gone very well and we’ve come a long way in terms of working together efficiently as a team,” Byelick said. “The dogs have had a lot of odors to learn. But, it’s been fascinating to see how quickly they pick up the odors and learn how to alert to a find.”
For Byelick, the opportunity to be a K-9 handler is the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
“I’ve wanted to be a handler since sixth grade when some Air Force K-9 units came to our school for a demonstration,” Byelick said. “That was the first time I was introduced to any type of service dog and I thought they were awesome. When the opportunity came to work with a K-9 here on campus, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Johnson’s desire to become one of the university’s first K-9 officers grew from his work on a local narcotics taskforce.
“I really had very little experience with dogs before, but seeing the K-9s and handlers on the taskforce working as partners was intriguing,” Johnson said. “I was also interested in learning something new and having the opportunity to be proactive in terms of expanding police services on campus.”
Along with assisting on regular campus patrols, the dogs’ explosives sniffing skills will be used for about 200 campus events annually. The dogs will primarily work games at the Huskers’ athletic venues and other major campus events, including high-profile visitors, performance groups and political speakers.
Yardley said steady growth in the list of campus events requiring K-9 sweeps coupled with limitations in availability with explosives sniffing dogs from other law enforcement agencies prompted the university’s acquisition of police dogs.
“We have used dogs from the Nebraska State Patrol and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad,” Yardley said. “We’ve been working with those agencies for several years to cover campus events, but additional resources are necessary as demand increases.
“By acquiring our own K-9 units, we’ll be able to cover campus events. And, they’ll also help increase public safety statewide as we will make them available to local law enforcement agencies as part of our inter-agency cooperation.”
On average, the career span of a dual-purpose K-9 is between seven to 10 years. The dogs, which were identified for police use by the Kasseburg Canine Training Center in New Market, Alabama, will be paired with Byelick and Johnson for their entire University Police careers. To be on patrol, both the dogs and handlers must pass annual certification tests administered at the Grand Island facility.
While on patrol, the dogs will wear special harnesses with patches that identify them as police dogs. Members of the campus community and public are asked not to attempt to pet the K-9s, as they are service animals.
“We’re stoked and ready to be on campus,” Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to getting out there and putting all of our training and hard work into practice, helping to provide a safe environment for faculty, staff, students and the public.”