GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — In between sedans, vans and ambulances, drug-sniffing dogs Axel, Colt and Rocky bobbed and weaved, the dust kicking up behind them.
When they got a hit, they perked up and scratched in the direction of the scent. A second later, a rolled-up towel — Axel and Rocky’s chew toy of choice — was tossed in the air above their heads for them to lunge for.
“That’s all they’re looking for is their toy,” said Galloway K-9 Patrolman Brent Lopez, the handler for Colt, a German shepherd who prefers a burlap toy. “It’s all like fun for them.”
On Wednesday, the K-9s ran through routine training behind Purdy Collision off the White Horse Pike. Their Galloway and Ventnor police handlers typically take them to car lots and empty buildings to simulate scenarios akin to those they will encounter on the job, looking for methamphetamine, marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin and ecstasy.
This training session was different. Their handlers were getting them ready for the National Detector Dogs Trial & Certification event and competition, set to run May 5 to 8. Axel and another dog, Joker, will represent Ventnor in the upcoming Narcotics Detection Dog competition in Albany, New York. Rocky and Colt will compete for Galloway. And Stockton University, which held the event last year, will send its K-9, Hemi, the reigning champion among explosive-sniffing dogs.
Among two rows of cars, the handlers planted small amounts of heroin and methamphetamine in two vehicles. The drugs are left to sit for about a half hour so the scent sets in with the heat. Then, they take turns moving their partners around five cars on a leash, the dogs sniffing manically, backpedaling, whipping around corners.
“Good boy” is given out liberally.
Lopez, 32, has been with the Galloway Township Police Department for five years and has handled Colt for three.
“He comes home with me; he’s like my best friend at home,” Lopez said. “As soon as I put my uniform on, he’s sitting by the front door just circling, waiting to get out and go.”
The dogs all passed through regional qualifiers in Middletown, Middlesex County, in March, setting them up to face drug-detection K-9s from around the country next month. Come May, the dogs will be judged on two levels: drug detection in buildings and cars, each worth up to 100 points. Arson and cadaver dogs also compete in their own categories.
“The judges are evaluating on the search pattern of the dog, the consistency of the search, the handlers’ movements, the find,” said K-9 Sgt. Scott Winneberger, Rocky’s handler.
Winneberger, 39, is also a trainer for other K-9 officers in the region. He joined the Galloway Police Department in 2004, and its K-9 department in 2006. Winneberger has had two other dogs. He and Rocky, 6, a German shepherd from the Czech Republic, joined forces in 2013.
“My first dog was Blaze. He was a great dog. My second dog was Lycos. … He had a short career,” said Winneberger. “And Rocky, right now, is by far the best I’ve had.”
K-9 Lt. David Gaeckle, 36, was the first officer to complete training in Ventnor’s reinstated K-9 unit in 2014, when he was assigned Axel, 6, a German shepherd-Belgian malinois mix who was smaller than his counterparts, with a brown coat and a playful demeanor.
“He’s definitely very playful with me, but very protective of me,” Gaeckle said.
Axel got a laugh from the officers after finding the planted narcotics and double tapping his paw on the vehicle, almost emphasizing his final answer.
“His dog doesn’t necessarily scratch as aggressively as the other ones,” said Lopez. “But you can see how happy his body changes.”
Lt. Tracy Stuart, 47, has been with the Stockton police since 2007 and has been paired with Hemi, a Labrador, since 2011. They’ve been in training in the run-up to the competition, like her Galloway and Ventnor peers. Whether they can recreate Hemi’s great performance last year or not, Stuart said, the victory was a career highlight.
“I do feel confident in that a lot of hard work goes into it,” she said. “It’s really about making sure we’re the best that we can be as a team.”
Team is the right word for it. Stuart said the two are extremely close.
“The bonding really starts right out the gate, when you get them,” Stuart said. “When they’re at work, they’re working dogs. But when they come home, they know. It’s time to frolic and play and just be a dog.”