Canine Uto: Durango police’s search and sniff professional

Police departments around the world use the dog’s superior sense of smell as a locating tool. A few years ago, the Durango Police Department authorized implementation of its own working-dog program. The goal was to obtain a trained police canine that would assist patrol officers and detectives with their duties.

The city’s budget was tight at the time. The police department lacked funding necessary to buy a dog and to train a handler. After considering several financial alternatives, we decided to ask the community to donate the money required to start a K-9 unit.

The response was immediate and overwhelming. In just a few months, contributions from businesses and individuals totaled more than $15,000.

That outpouring of generosity allowed the startup of our current K-9 program. We purchased a friendly German shepherd named Uto. He was imported from Slovakia and trained for 16 weeks in North Carolina. For the last 10 of those weeks, he was paired with his handler. Together, they began bonding and learning to work as a team.

Uto is trained as a dual-purpose canine. That means he can perform patrol functions and narcotics detection work.

Patrol functions include searching for and locating people who are lost or hiding from police. Uto also can find discarded or hidden evidence at a crime scene.

For narcotics detection, he can locate and alert his handler to the presence of the odors of several illegal substances.

To keep their skills sharp, the team participates in weekly maintenance training for a minimum of 16 hours each month. This regular practice keeps the team performing at peak levels, including a 95 percent accuracy rate in narcotics detection.

Uto and his handler also recertify in patrol and narcotics-detection skills every six months. In the spring, they certify with the Colorado Police K-9 Association and in the fall with the National Police K-9 Association.

Uto began working for the residents of Durango on Christmas Eve 2010. That night, he was used twice. The first time was to help with the safe capture and return of an escaped suicidal patient from Mercy Regional Medical Center. Later, he made his first narcotics find by alerting to the presence of drug odor coming from a vehicle. Based on Uto’s alert, officers searched the truck and located methamphetamine.

Since then, Uto has been deployed more than 600 times. He has conducted about 270 narcotics sniffs, resulting in more than 50 finds of paraphernalia or illegal drugs. The sniffs were conducted during traffic stops, Durango School District 9-R school sweeps, parolee home visits and while assisting the regional drug task force.

Uto also has located 31 people during more than 100 tracks, outdoor area searches and building searches.

Even during scheduled days off, the K-9 team is available to the police department and any other law-enforcement agency that requests K-9 assistance. To that end, as of mid-March, Uto and his handler had responded to 43 call-outs and 63 requests to assist other agencies.

The community service Uto provides, which is perhaps the most visible, is participation in educational and public relations events. He has appeared at dozens of school and civic functions, and there is no cost for a demonstration. Requests can be made through the K-9 Unit Supervisor, Sgt. Jeremiah Lee. His phone number is 375-4777, ext. 8157.

Lt. Ray Shupe is assistant operations division commander with the Durango Police Department.

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