FRONT ROYAL —Tony Clingerman, a master police officer with the Front Royal Police Department, came to Shallow Creek Kennels in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania in late June to train a dog to detect narcotics.
But as he puts it, at the beginning of the course, he wasn’t training the dog; the dog was training him.
On Tuesday, Clingerman brought Bosco, a 17-month-old German Shepherd born in Slovakia in Eastern Europe, to Front Royal’s National Night Out event. Bosco has been detecting narcotics for the department for around two weeks.
This is the first time that Clingerman has had a narcotics dog and he described the process of training the animal to sniff for drugs in vehicles and open fields as a draining experience.
“It was physically demanding and mentally demanding,” Clingerman said. “I did not realize in 22 years that I’ve been doing it how difficult this job really is. But I have a whole lot more respect for people who do K-9.”
Over the course of about a month, he got Bosco to trust him.
During the course, Clingerman said, he went through obedience training, learning how to communicate with Bosco in order to get the dog to do his best work.
“Tone and body language are very important to a dog — the way I speak to him and the way I present myself,” Clingerman said. “If I’m frustrated, he’ll be frustrated; if I’m happy, he’ll be happy.”
He also learned some of the intricacies of operating a leash for a narcotics dog.
By controlling a leash, Clingerman can tell the dog where to look for potential narcotics. If he leaves too long a lead, Bosco might not smell where Clingerman wants him to go, but if the lead isn’t long enough, Bosco might not catch the scent of the drugs.
“If it’s an open field, I’m probably going to let him go out on a 20-foot lead and let him sniff,” Clingerman said. “If it’s a vehicle like I did here, I’m going to control more of his movement and keep him sniffing on the vehicle.”
He’ll particularly focus on the seams of the vehicle, around the doors, where the odor from drugs will leak out.
“[Bosco] will be able to detect that odor,” Clingerman said. “His response when he sits, which is called a final indication, is a trained response to a trained odor.”
When he finds narcotics, Bosco will sit and point his nose directly at the source of the scent.
“When he goes in a vehicle and he sits or lays down on the seat and his nose is touching that center console or that glove box, that’s where your dope’s at,” Clingerman said. “That’s how good their noses are.”
For Clingerman, the presence of Bosco has meant that he’s constantly worrying about Bosco’s welfare. The father of four children, Clingerman said, “it’s like having another child.”
When Bosco is at Clingerman’s home, he keeps him in an open-air kennel, away from his other two dogs. Clingerman briefly introduced Bosco to onlookers during the National Night Out event on Tuesday but kept him inside his police vehicle for large portions of the evening.
That allowed Bosco to stay cool and to stay away from the other dogs at the event.
“This is his first big crowd,” Clingerman said. “And he did a good job. But he’s a dog, so he’s going to get interested in things and he’s going to bark at other dogs. And I want him to have fun and I want people to pet him, but I also don’t need to put him in a situation where he’s overwhelmed.”
Taking care of Bosco also means knowing when to not have him sniff in a car.
If Bosco smells fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has been largely responsible for recent increases in opioid deaths across the country, the dog could die. Clingerman said that he is working to get an overdose kit for Bosco containing drugs to treat opioid, methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses.
He is also prepared to go to the emergency room to provide care for Bosco.
“If I have to give him the nasal Narcan just to bide me some time to get him up to the Winchester Emergency vet clinic, I will and I’ll run code to get there,” Clingerman said. “He’s a police officer, just like me.”
But more than that, Clingerman hopes to avoid having to use that kit and having to make that drive. He said that he will not have Bosco sniff for drugs if he doesn’t believe it is safe.
That, he said, requires having the gut instincts that come with working in law enforcement for 22 years.
“I have an ability to look at something and get a feeling that something is just not right,” Clingerman said.