Practical paws

GREENFIELD — Reno is the type of dog animal shelter workers feared would never be adopted.

The pup is rambunctious by anyone’s standards. He’s lively and playful, and if there is a ball nearby, he will stop at nothing to grab it.

Those characteristics don’t always make for a good family pet; they do, however, make for a great police dog, K-9 trainer Julie Case said.

Reno is the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department’s newest jail officer.

Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy, has been trained to serve as Reno’s handler, and the pair will regularly patrol the Hancock County Jail to search for drugs and weapons.

The dog and the cost associated with his training were donated to the department by Case and her team at Ultimate Canine, a dog training facility in Westfield.

Case’s company partners with animal shelters across the state. When workers at a facility find a dog with the drive and determination Reno has, they contact Ultimate Canine. Case then takes the animal and over the course of a few weeks trains the dog to harness its energy into searching.

When Case found Reno, he was a rescue dog staying at a shelter near Terre Haute. His rowdy nature stood out to workers there, who worried about finding the right home for the 15-month-old mutt, Case said.

“To us, he’s a diamond in the rough,” Case said.

Reno is trained to sniff out narcotics, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana, as well as all types of guns and bullets, Burkhart said.

For Reno, searching for the items is like playing a game. He associates the scents with his favorite tennis ball. When he finds them, he’ll sit, wait for Burkhart to toss the ball to him and then revel in the joy of a job well done.

Ultimate Canine specializes in training police K-9s and service dogs. The company donates one of each every year to police departments, hospital groups or other organization in need, and picked the sheriff’s department to receive the 2015 K-9 officer, Case said.

When Case contacted the department, saying she had found a dog she wanted to donate, Sheriff Mike Shepherd welcomed the additional officer with excitement. Including Reno, the sheriff’s department has five dogs, but it never hurts to have more, he said.

In the past, the department had discussed getting a K-9 to help patrol the jail, Shepherd said. But paying for the dog always felt more like a luxury than a necessity, he said. Burkhart estimated Reno would have cost the sheriff’s department $4,500 if it had to pay for him.

Having Reno on staff at the jail means there’s an extra pair of eyes and ears, as well as a nose that can sniff out items jail officers might not be able to see, said Lt. Keith Oliver, the jail’s deputy commander. If officers are suspicious of an inmate’s behavior or have reason to believe contraband has been smuggled into the jail, Reno can come in and search the area, he said.

The department utilizes two types of K-9 officers with differing specialties, Shepherd said. Three of the sheriff’s K-9s are “utility” dogs, which tend to be more aggressive and are trained to apprehend suspects; Reno makes for the department’s second dog trained in vehicle and area searches.

Once Reno gets settled in the jail, Burkhart plans to have him trained to search for people, such as lost children or adults with mental illnesses. The dog’s friendly demeanor means he can be taken into schools for special programs, Burkhart said.

He always had an interest in being a K-9 handler but never thought he’d go through the training 27 years into his career, Burkhart said.

The department’s leadership decided his proximity to the jail coupled with his flexibility to respond to calls created the perfect scenario.

Burkhart and Reno bonded quickly. At the end of the work day, Reno goes home with Burkhart; during the day, he cozies up on a pillow under Burkhart’s desk.

If Burkhart is gone from his office for too long during the day, Reno starts to get a little rambunctious again, Shepherd said. Burkhart will often come back to find Reno perched on the desk, papers strewn, staring out the window.

“He doesn’t like it when Dad leaves,” Shepherd said with a laugh.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or