K-9 Handler Alex Johannes tucked a pound of ammonium nitrate into a canister, sealed the lid and spanned the small conference room. Spotting a small cardboard box in the corner, Johannes concealed the canister and exited the room.
Minutes later, he and his trained bomb-sniffing dog Merle walked back through the door. After 30 seconds of scouring, the three-year-old black lab zeroed in on the box and took a seat. His work here was done.
Johannes and Merle are one of four K-9-officer duos at the Metro Transit Police Department. The officers and K-9s spend their days at busy boarding areas as well as light-rail and Northstar trains proactively searching for potential explosives. The unit also works closely with regional partners and during large events such as Twins and Vikings games.
The good news: the dogs haven’t caught a whiff of anything suspect since Metro Transit’s K-9 unit was created in 2007.
“It’s a huge responsibility so our hope is that he (Merle) would respond just the way he did today,” said Johannes, a former TSA agent who joined Transit Police four years ago.
Like the other K-9 handlers, Johannes said he was drawn to the idea of working with a dog because of the special bond that can be developed. The officers spend their entire days with the animals and keep them at home during their off hours.
Johannes has spent the last 14 months with Merle and said he has grown to see him as another member of his family. It helps that the two share a similar enthusiasm for their work.
“They try to match personalities and we’re a pretty good fit,” Johannes said. “Merle and I are both high drive, high energy.”
Officer Joshua Scharber said he and his K-9 partner Rusty, the newest members of the K-9 unit, have also grown close. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a K9 unit,” Scharber said. “It’s just the bond you create – you can’t find that with a regular officer.”
Like Merle, all of the K-9s regularly test their skills by sniffing for explosive ingredients hidden by their handlers, typically at Metro Transit facilities. Once found, the specially-trained labs are rewarded with a chew toy and affection.
The furry hedgehog and other toys at officers’ disposal seem to offer more than enough motivation.
“When I say ‘Are you ready to go to work,’ he’s already in the car,” said Steve Schoephoerster, the longest tenured member of the K-9 unit.
While the K-9 unit hasn’t uncovered any active threats, they’ve responded to several unattended or suspicious packages. The unit works hand-in-hand with area bomb squads, which are equipped to disable bombs if anything is found.
While the risk is low, K-9 officer Scott Tinucci said the unit plays an important role in deterring activity simply by being out in the field and remaining visible. And if anything ever were to occur, he said, he and his two- and four-legged partners are ready.
“People will say the reward is when you find something, but the real reward is when you do a sweep and you don’t find anything and can say it’s all clear,” said Tinucci, who partners with the unit’s only female, Izzy.
“The bottom line is you hope you never have to use it but all it takes is one find and how many people have you saved?”
Metro Transit’s K-9 Unit
Alex Johannes and Merle (black lab, male) Scott Tinucci and Izzy (yellow lab, female)
Joshua Scharber and Rusty (brown lab, male) Steve Schoephoerster and Cooper (black lab, male)