Two retired Metro-North train cars and a platform, nine former city buses and a post-blast debris pile that can simulate a search for explosives in rubble are some of the features of the largest K-9 training facility for law enforcement in the U.S., launching this spring in upstate New York.
The canines vigilantly watching over transit spots like Penn Station and Grand Central are some of the most elite in the world. The MTA police uses dogs like German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois that have been bred over generations to be highly intelligent and are widely engaged in law-enforcement pursuits.
The canines have a very powerful sense of smell — using their nose, they can detect many different types of explosives, the smokeless power used in a bullet and any residue, and even cash.
“Let’s say you’re cooking chili,” said tactical commander Lt. John Kerwick during a tour of the Stormville facility by amNewYork. “They can smell far, far away. They can smell the salt, the pepper. They can smell it all individually.”
The new facility has different types of rooms to train in, ranging from a train waiting room to a hotel room and dorm room, as well as two classrooms. In one hallway, dogs can search through suitcases to find contraband like explosives. In another area, there is platform-style grating to get dogs accustomed to walking on it.
The department looked at canine facilities across the U.S., such as military bases, to amass the best ideas and incorporate them in one building, officials said.
“The threat’s completely changed,” Kerwick said. “We’re preparing for anything.”
Having the train cars and buses on site saves the MTA money, since they don’t have to bring the dogs somewhere else, officials said.
There are also kennels on the site to isolate a sick dog so other dogs don’t fall ill, and to care for canines when their handlers go on vacation, according to Sgt. Bill Finucane.
“In this building, everything is geared for the dogs,” he said. “The dogs environmentally are getting exposed before they go down to Grand Central, Penn Station, so we know the dogs can handle it.”
When the dogs finish training, which is three months for explosives and four months for mass transit tactical training, they will work in the department’s 14-county territory in two states.
The canines handle about 3,000 calls a year for unattended packages, and can find missing persons ranging from a child to a suspect. The dog is trained to recognize suspicious behavior and can alert its handler if it spots a person acting strangely.
“They are the best readers of body language that I know,” Kerwick said.
The current MTA canine unit has about 50 pairs of dogs and police officers, and was created after 9/11. The Metro-North police had canines in the past, before they merged with the LIRR’s law enforcement.
“We’ve grown to be the largest mass transit K-9 unit in the U.S. since then,” Kerwick added.
For years, the canine unit was homeless, and trained with other law-enforcement agencies. The dogs and officers had to travel to different MTA spaces for a variety of training scenarios.
After looking at several hundred potential internal spaces, and about fifty outside facilities, the MTA purchased the 72-acre property in Dutchess County for about $1 million. It’s not rare to see a black bear on the rugged space, on which the previous owner built a dance studio for his daughters that’s now used for training, the beginnings of a Christmas tree farm, and even a private petting zoo that’s no longer there.
The MTA started to build the facility, which cost about $10.3 million, in 2012. It is set to fully open in the spring, likely in May. In the meantime, the officers and dogs have worked in the rustic setting, even in makeshift classrooms without heat.
To find the type of canines that can meet the agency’s specifications, including being at ease with working in a high-pressure, noisy and crowded transit environment, the MTA often has to go outside the U.S. to Czechoslovakia. Each dog costs about $8,000.
Because the type of dog the MTA needs to work in transit is so specific, the department can test 30 dogs and only one will make the cut, officials said.
The dogs love play more than anything else, and are rewarded by play with toys, rather than extra food. During training, when they find a person they are tracking, they are rewarded with play afterward, as well as the friendly tone of the officer’s voice.
Other law-enforcement agencies use the space for training as well, such as the NYPD’s Transit Bureau and local law-enforcement agencies in cities like White Plains and Yonkers.
“The bomb-sniffing dog is the barrier between the terrorists and the public,” Kerwick said.