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Scout helps with Stafford K-9 training space

By KATIE THISDELL

For Vader, working is all about playing.

If the 9 1/2-year-old Dutch shepherd tracks a scent and lays down on top of the found object and barks with his excitement, he gets his favorite rubber ball.

And if he runs through all the obstacles on the Sheriff Office’s K-9 training course, then he gets to play fetch.

“It’s all fun, fun, fun,” Deputy Alex Smith said this week at the course on Enon Road with the brindle-colored dog at his feet.

For quite some time, though, the county’s three police dogs couldn’t train there. Weather had damaged the wooden obstacles—stairs, ramps and walls—and they had become a safety hazard for the dogs.

Smith, who became a handler a year and a half ago, was looking into ways to fix it up. That’s where Shane Stevenson steps into the story.

The 18-year-old Boy Scout was inquiring about possible projects to earn his Eagle Scout award, and first contacted the Stafford SPCA about building a course. Then he learned the Sheriff’s Office had a similar need.

Typically soft-spoken, Shane said he was a bit overwhelmed at first. But he learned how to better communicate with people, how police dogs are trained and about woodworking.

Shane said that the woodworking, surprisingly, was one of the easier parts, and he enjoyed learning how to put things together with his hands.

“He’s done more carpentry on this project than I’ve done in my whole life,” said Shane’s dad, Rob Stevenson.

Stevenson said Shane and his other two children give him and wife, Sharon, “nowhere near the number of headaches I gave my mom.”

Shane plans to attend a community college for two years after graduating in the spring from Colonial Forge High School and then transfer to another university. He doesn’t know yet what he wants to study.

The Eagle project seemed like a natural fit for Shane. The Stevenson family has two dogs, and relatives have been K-9 officers.

Rob, a former Marine, said that he was constantly thanked for his service to the country. “This would be a good way to thank the Sheriff’s Office,” Rob told his son.

Shane agreed.

The Lowe’s on State Route 610 provided a discount on supplies, bringing the total cost for the project down to $817. The Sheriff’s Office kicked in some money. Shane, family members, deputies, friends and troop members gave 258 man hours to the project.

They demolished the old obstacles in July, and Shane worked with Alan Thompson in Bentonville to build the seven new pieces, including a stand that holds an old police-car door for the dogs to practice jumping through. Shane and his helpers painted and set up the new course in August.

Each piece is sturdy, but light enough to move around if deputies decide to alter the course route.

Deputy Smith, who has worked in Stafford for 15 years, said he and Vader spend all their time together, so they’re in tune with each other’s behaviors and needs. Smith gives commands in Dutch—that way the bad guys don’t know how to get a dog off them—as Vader runs up the ramp, over a short wall, along a balance beam and finally through the car door window.

The department calls on its dogs for help in tracking evidence or searching for explosives about 15 times a month, on average. Repetition is key in their training so they aren’t surprised by new environments. They need to be used to running up ramps, jumping over fences and even leaping in and out of car windows. The three K-9 deputies in Stafford’s Sheriff’s Office use the course about once a month. Training is ongoing.

Vader also loves to practice with the “bite arm,” a protective sleeve that officers will wear when teaching the dogs how to apprehend a possible criminal. Shane even briefly considered trying the arm on, but decided against it.

“Everything is based around play,” Smith said. “They always love to do the work.”

Shane had his final board of review this week for his Eagle honor.

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