ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere on the grass lay a discharged 9mm handgun.
In the future, a gun just like it could be used in a school shooting and tossed into a bush or stored in a locker or tucked in a backpack on the floor of a classroom.
Nose to the ground, a yellow lab named Roo loped across the grass at the St. Petersburg Police Department's K-9 Compound. The mayor of St. Petersburg and top brass in the police department watched discerningly.
More than 10 weeks of training had come down to a few exercises to demonstrate what could be the first program in the nation to sniff out guns in schools.
St. Petersburg Police Department canine unit trainer Chris Ladd had hidden several BB guns, as well as the 9 mm. The test was meant demonstrate if Roo could sniff out the one with blast residue, as BB guns use air to propel their projectiles. Ladd folded his arms. Roo ran past the gun, then back. The crowd offered words of encouragement, and the dog ran another lap.
Last year, the police department won a justice assistance grant of $24,000 to train two canine teams. Since December, Pinellas County Schools police officer Dave Harrison and Ladd have worked with Roo and a chocolate lab named Macy, teaching them how to smell for firearms.
Much like a dog can sense drugs, Ladd said they trained the dogs, both 2, to recognize the scent of chemicals left behind after a gun fires, a combination of primer fuel and gunpowder propellant. They began by making the dog aware of the smell on guns and bullet casings. Ladd said they then associated a reward with the smell. For Roo and Macy: taped-up white rags.
What's so great about a rag?
"Well," Ladd said, "it's really just because they're cheap and reusable."
The dogs can sniff out guns and bullet casings ranging from 22 caliber up to rounds large enough to kill elephants, Ladd said. The oldest gun they've detected was fired three years ago. Soon, they'll smell lockers and classrooms of each county school twice a year.
On Wednesday, they got the chance to prove their mettle.
Roo seemed to linger in one spot on the grass. Its face tightened before the lab frantically motioned its head toward its owner. Then he sat down. Roo found the right gun.
Harrison tossed the towel. The dog chewed it and rolled on the grass.
Weston Phippen can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321