EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
Something about the two men Investigator J.M. Talamantez pulled over for speeding just didn’t feel right. As an interdiction officer for the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office, Talamantez knew the signs of illegal activity, but instinct isn’t a legal reason to search. When he asked for permission, the vehicle’s occupants refused.
Earlier this year, his only option would have been to issue the driver a speeding ticket and send the two on their way. In this particular case, however, that would have meant missing $250,000 worth of meth that was hidden in the car along with thousands of dollars and a gun.
The addition in April of a K-9 unit gave Talamantez a better option. He requested the assistance of Deputy Kyle Ciolfi and his specially trained partner K9 Ron to sniff out any possible trouble — literally.
When it comes to detecting smells, canines, in general, have super sniffers. But dogs such as K9 Ron are in another league.
“Imagine a hamburger loaded down with everything on it — the cheese, bacon — I mean anything you can think of,” said Ciolfi when asked about K9 Ron’s hypersensitive nose.
While humans just smell the whole hamburger, K9 Ron breaks apart the smell of each ingredient, right down to the seasoning. That acute sense of smell is a valuable asset for law enforcement officers on the trail of illegal drugs or a missing person.
A specialized K-9 unit isn’t something smaller departments such as BCSO can often afford on their own, but Sheriff Calvin Boyd saw the need and found a way. The sheriff’s office landed a grant through K9s4Cops, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in College Station that provides funding for smaller departments to purchase specially trained dogs.
K9 Ron’s journey to Burnet County began in Czechoslovakia, where the then-puppy went through rigorous training. From there, he was sent to Pacesetter K9 in Liberty Hill, a training facility that further prepares dogs for law enforcement work as well as home and personal protection.
Before the sheriff’s office could get a Pacesetter K9 dog, Boyd had to find the right deputy for the job.
“I think people have this idea that, you know, being a K-9 officer is just a great thing,” Boyd said. “You get a dog and it’s fun, but it’s a lot of work. And you’re really never off-duty.”
After the human selection process, the sheriff sent Ciolfi to Pacesetter K9 to find the right four-pawed partner. The training facility has a number of trained dogs available, but they are not randomly assigned.
“You have to have a bond,” Ciolfi said of the search process.
He spent time at the Liberty Hill facility until he discovered an initial connection with K9 Ron.
Then, the real work on building a partnership began.
The two trained together for three weeks under the guidance of professional Pacesetter K9 instructors before they became official patrol partners. Ciolfi needed to learn how K9 Ron worked and responded to certain stimuli, particularly narcotic odors — and he had to learn to speak basic Czech, since that was K9 Ron’s first language.
The sign that a dog is “on odor” isn’t always as dramatic as shown on TV. The dog doesn’t always sit, bark, or point. Only after hours of training and spending time together does the human partner figure out the canine’s “tells,” or how it indicates it’s found something.
“It’s very subtle behavior when he’s on odor or when he goes off odor,” Ciolfi said. “Most people will never notice or see it.”
K9 Ron and Ciolfi operate seamlessly as a team. The two maintain a regular training schedule, working daily to improve their skills. One day a week, the two work alongside the Austin Police Department’s K-9 units.
“It takes a lot of dedication to do this,” Sheriff Boyd said.
The partners live together and are on call for BCSO and other area agencies with tracking or detecting needs. Ciolfi and K9 Ron must be ready to respond 24/7. As for vacations, if Ciolfi takes one, he has to find someone qualified to care for his partner.
It’s a lot of trouble, but worth every bit of it, according to Ciolfi.
“This is just a dream job since I was a child,” he said.
The unit is a wish come true for the sheriff’s office, too. The addition of a K-9 unit has made it possible for BCSO to take on a larger role in drug interdiction in the county. K9 Ron can detect meth, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy.
“There’s a lot of narcotics going up and down the highways here,” Boyd said. “A canine is a great asset to help us stop some of it.”
When Ciolfi and K9 Ron showed up to assist Talamantez during his traffic stop May 20, the dog alerted just after beginning an outside inspection of the vehicle. That gave deputies cause to search. Along with the meth, they uncovered $11,000 in cash and a loaded handgun — a trifecta of drugs, cash, and weapon.
“It’s exciting to be able to interdict such a large amount of garbage that was basically going to our streets,” Ciolfi said.
And that is just the beginning of Burnet law enforcement efforts to keep drugs off the streets, he added.
“We’re going to get a bigger (bust),” the deputy said with a grin.
This story belongs to a series The Picayune Magazine recently did on working dogs of the Highland Lakes. Look for a story on trained therapy dogs on DailyTrib.com later this week. Sign up for The Daily newsletter, emailed five days a week, under the red “Sign Up For Our Newsletter” bar on the right-hand side of the page.
Keep your paws off working dogs
It’s hard to resist a dog in uniform. When you see one of those big, lovable K-9 officers or a service dog decked out in its brightly colored harness, you just want to give them a hug or a scratch behind the ear.
Curb that urge. These animals are not pets; they are working dogs with important jobs. Distracting them could put you, them, or their handler in harm’s way.
Some points of etiquette to keep in mind are:
- Never approach or touch a working dog for any reason without first asking permission from the handler.
- Never try to give a working dog a treat.
- Keep other animals away from the working dog.
- Do not assume a dog is off-duty if it’s resting or napping.
- Inform the handler if a service animal approaches you.
- Always treat the owner/handler and the animal with dignity and respect.