November 19, 2010 — Zander, the University of Virginia's bomb-sniffing police dog, is retiring at the age of 49 people years.
The 7-year-old German shepherd, which works in the U.Va. Police Department, is showing early signs of arthritis in his hips, a vulnerable spot on shepherds. His partner, Canine Officer Jeff Keaton, who has known Zander since he was 18 months old, doesn't want to see the dog continue to work when he’s in pain.
"I'm with him 24 hours a day," Keaton said. "I see how much he enjoys getting into the car and going to work. He is going to have a hard time watching another dog take over."
Zander will remain with his partner in retirement.
"He's a pussycat, 104 pounds of pure baby," Keaton said. "When we work, I don't have to worry about people or other dogs bothering him. He's very laid back."
While he is "laid back," Zander's job is anything but. He examines major event venues for explosives, responds to bomb threats and seeks evidence in cases involving firearms.
"When we have VIPs visiting the University, we do a detailed search of the area where the VIP will be and search anything that comes into that area, including reporters' equipment," Keaton said. Zander did area sweeps before the 2008 campaign visits to Grounds of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, among others.
The University Police started using explosive detection dogs in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to check venues with a large number of attendees.
"One of the things we would obviously want to check a facility for before an event is explosives," U.Va. Police Chief Michael Gibson said. "One of the most efficient ways to do this is through the use of canine units. We started using the canine units from the Virginia State Police, but it was clear after a short while that we had enough demand that we could easily support starting our own program."
In 2005, Keaton was selected as the canine officer and sent to Richmond for training. He was ready for a challenge when the new position opened. "It sparked my interest," he said. "I had always been a dog lover." But he had to give up being a motorcycle officer. Dogs can't ride Harleys, Keaton said, and "they wouldn't give us a sidecar."
Keaton first trained with Zander and two other dogs. Eventually, the program's master trainer decided Zander was the best fit. "People think the handler selects the dog," he said. "That's not always how it works. The dog often picks the human."
Keaton's training with Zander was rigorous. "The first school was three months long and I lost 20 pounds," he said. "There were a lot of running exercises with the dog five days a week."
Zander is trained to detect a variety of odors from plastic explosives, dynamite and smokeless and black powders. Keaton said he is also trained to recognize the scent of PETN, a difficult-to-detect explosive that was found in bombs recently shipped to Chicago.
The two sweep an area by looking for anything out of place. If there is something specific Keaton wants the dog to search, he points and Zander goes to work with his nose. "He would give a signal if he recognizes an odor," Keaton said. "And then he would work around to the strongest source of the odor and sit."
Several years ago the two responded to an Albemarle County middle school that had received a bomb threat. The dog detected something suspicious on a student's backpack, which the bomb squad subsequently blew up. No explosives were found in the backpack, however, and Keaton was perplexed, not wanting to believe that Zander had made a mistake.
About a week and a half later, the investigating officer told him the student lived on a farm and had set the backpack on a stack of fertilizer bags.
"He hit on the scent of the ammonia nitrate, which can be a bomb ingredient," Keaton said. "It made me feel better because I knew he was right." (The school district replaced the backpack and its contents.)
"Shepherds have a high hunt drive," Keaton said. "They like to work. Zander would rather work than eat. There are a lot of physical and mental demands on the dogs, but they don't like to fail."
While Zander will remain on the job until Finals, Keaton is already training with his next partner, a Belgian Malinois named Muki. Keaton keeps the two dogs separate, with Zander living in the Keaton house and Muki in a shelter the University built on his property.
"Zander and Muki are still feeling each other out," he said.
Keaton said he will keep up a training regimen for Zander because of the dog's work ethic.
"Zander has quite a reputation in the area for his abilities," Gibson said. "He has set the bar pretty high for his replacement. I am going to be very sorry to see him go."
Keaton said when he first started as a canine officer, he was advised not to get attached to the dog.
"There's no way you cannot get attached," he said.