K-9 keeps campus safe

With an increase in safety concerns in the United States, some universities are turning to explosives detection dogs to keep their campuses safe.

At UW Oshkosh, students may see a furry face around as K-9 Officer Skylar, the only explosives detection dog in Winnebago County, patrols the campus.

UWO joined two other Wisconsin universities last fall, UW Madison and UW-Whitewater, by bringing a bomb-sniffing canine to Oshkosh.

Skylar’s handler, University Police Sgt. Benjamin Kohlman, worked two years to bring Skylar to UWO. Skylar’s $30,000 cost, as well as care and training, was funded by donations and fundraising efforts.

“Last September I went down to New Mexico to train Skylar. We put in 240 hours of training,” Kohlman said. “She’s trained on 35 different types of explosives odors.”

In a dog, the nerves that connect the nose to the brain, known as the olfactory receptors, are 40 times greater than a human’s, leading to a much better sense of smell. This heightened sense of smell is used to train explosives detection dogs through a process called scent work.

During scent work training, items are scented and placed in boxes. When the canine alerts on the desired scent, the handler gives the dog a reward such as a toy or treat. This has a Pavlovian response in dogs, who learn to only alert on the desired scents, in this case explosives odors.

When Skylar alerts, she sits down and focuses on the source of the odor. Kohlman, a new handler, also had to go through training to work with Skylar and be able to pick up on her cues.

“We used boxes for the initial training, but as you progress through training, we switched to just finding the odors,” Kohlman said. “Every day we were at a new location so that the dogs didn’t get used to one particular thing repeating itself.”

Kohlman said he and Skylar have trained at a variety of locations including old paint factories, in vehicles and in the mountains in an open-air-type setting.

“It was always something different and always hidden in different places,” he said.

Skylar is trained in explosives detection, tracking and search and rescue. At the UWO campus, Skylar does sweeps before football games, basketball games and political events. Skylar can also be called on to do sweeps throughout Winnebago County.

Hannah Preissner

Kohlman said when Skylar is off-duty, she is a typical dog who loves fetching and enjoys social interaction.

“If she can meet students in a day and get pet, it’s really mentally stimulating for her becausehe is such a fit and active dog, so sometimes it’s her brain that needs exercise more than her body,” he said.

Students are allowed to approach and pet K-9 Officer Skylar as long as they ask her handler for permission. However, if Skylar is wearing her special vest, it indicates she is working, and students are asked not to approach her.

Kohlman said Officer Skylar brings additional security to the UWO campus as the UP wants to be proactive rather than reactive to any potential threats.

“We haven’t had issues on campus yet, but at the same time, you can’t rule out those risks and they exist and that’s why we have a dog like this,” he said. “We would rather be safe than sorry.”

Skylar spends about 40 hours a week on the UWO campus, and Kohlman says her presence has increased morale among students.

“The campus community, they really seem to enjoy it. A lot of the campus community has dogs at home and they miss them, so being able to see Skylar and pet Skylar, it really calms them down and gives a high point to their day,” he said. “People are much more likely to approach me with issues or problems they have because they have her as an icebreaker.”

Anyone interested in getting Skylar involved around campus or in helping with donations and fundraising for Skylar’s continued care should contact the UP, Kohlman added. The UP also gives away a stuffed K-9 Skylar replica with a $20 donation to the K-9 fund.

Kohlman said Skylar amazes him every day with her skills and abilities.

“To do the kind of work that she does, to clear a stadium or building, it would take us many, many police officers to go through every nook and cranny,” he said. “Whereas, if she gets in the area of something, she is going to be able to smell it out and let us know it’s there.”