Unleashed: With War Ending, K2 Seeks New Solutions
With that command from handler Lindsey Dixon, a Labrador retriever named Sam begins searching the first of four rooms at the Residence Inn in Southern Pines for explosives as part of a training exercise.
Dixon and Sam work the first room, with Dixon saying, "Check here," and waving her hand to prompt Sam to search particular areas.
The first room is clean, as is the second.
In the third room, Sam passes a closet where the explosives are hidden without indicating their presence.
"When you come in, you don't go once around a room," said Andrew Sterner, another handler at the K2 Canine Training Center near Derby, the largest commercial training center in the country.
Sterner said a number of factors could have affected Sam's performance on the first pass.
"For example, he may have been breathing out instead of in," Sterner said. "You have to go back through and hit some areas the dog may have overlooked."
Sam sits after sniffing the closest a second time.
Dixon tugs on his leash, but Sam refuses to budge.
"That cements the find," said Sterner, who is observing. "Then you praise the dog."
Almost on cue, Dixon tells Sam, "Good boy," pats him on the side and tosses his chew toy in front of him.
They then move to the fourth room, even though nothing is there.
"The dogs have to -continue to work so they don't think the 'find' means they're done," Sterner said.
K2 Solutions, a defense contractor in Southern Pines that also has commercial and private clients, is in the midst of diversifying its canine training capabilities as the military draws down its presence in the Middle East.
The company was founded a decade ago by Lane Kjellsen in a room above his garage. Those humble beginnings and the company's growth are often cited by Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, as a shining example of the type of homegrown businesses that can result from the new Moore Forward initiative.
Moore Forward is designed to attract entrepreneurs in the wellness, technology and military industries.
K2 is best known for canine and handler training for the detection of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) under a contract with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Now, K2 is branching into explosives detection for law enforcement and governmental agencies in this country, as well as weapons detection in the wake of the shootings last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"With the recent tragedies, we know we have a product that can help mitigate these threats," said Randy Rhynes, vice president of canine operations at K2. "Whatever the threat, we have found that we can train canines to detect almost anything, and our canines have been proven time and time again as efficient and effective tools for risk-based security."
Bobby Lane, a dog team leader at K2, said the company is close to finalizing a contract with an undisclosed school district in North Carolina to -provide dogs that can detect guns.
"The superintendent and sheriff in that county are on board and excited about it," Lane said. "We have a contract, but the school board must approve it. Once that happens, they will become a model for this program, and then we will take it to Capitol Hill to garner support from congressmen and senators."
Once the program is implemented, dogs will be used to scan students as they enter or leave the county's middle and high schools.
"The people don't even know the dog has indicated," Lane said. "We don't want them to trail the person. We want them to trail the material."
After school starts, the canines will search the lockers and other areas for guns.
"We want to make sure no weapons are stashed anywhere," Lane said. "A school administrator will be present at all times because our handlers can't approach students or enter lockers."
Lane added that elementary school students will be educated about the program so they understand why dogs are present when they reach middle school.
Six canines are currently being trained, with most of the work being done at an area community college.
Lane said the person-borne weapons training program was initiated "just weeks after Sandy Hook."
"To my knowledge, we're the only ones doing it," he said. "These dogs are capable of scanning a high volume of people in a short period of time in a nonintrusive manner and in a way that doesn't impede the normal flow of pedestrian traffic in and out of a place. We have documented evidence that they can scan up to 200 people a minute."
K2 is also ramping up its explosives training -program.
Last August, the company completed a 14-week course for the University of Maryland police department in which four canines and their handlers were trained to search for explosives. The first six weeks were spent in Derby, the last eight on campus in College Park, Md.
The project is a joint venture between the university, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Johns Hopkins University.
"The dogs can clear a sports complex or other university venue in a fraction of the time that traditional canines need because they are off leash," Kjellsen said. "This off-leash product is unique, so we're exploring more ways that it can be utilized."
Lane said the University of Maryland canine and handler teams have been "constantly evaluated" since August by DHS and Johns Hopkins.
"We welcome these outside evaluations because they validate our programs," he said.
Kjellsen said the federal budget deadlock has essentially frozen the issuance of new military contracts, prompting K2 to explore new potential revenue streams.
"The impasse is a huge concern moving forward," he said. "But it's not all gloom and doom by any stretch because huge opportunities remain in the commercial and private sectors, and we're trying to capitalize on them.
"We know these dogs have more depth and can search for other things."
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or tnatt@the pilot.com.
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