Tewksbury Police Department's Newest K-9 Is Proving His Worth
Nose to ground, Geox has a good track record.
To look at Geox or watch him scamper around, he looks like any other German Shepherd. But as a K-9 on a police call out, bad guys need to watch out, Geox is trained to spring into action when commanded by his handler, Tewksbury patrolman Al Piccolo.
Geox is the third dog to be trained as a K-9 for the department. Chief Timothy Sheehan had the first dog, who has since passed away. When Sgt. Timothy Kelly's K-9 partner, the second dog of the department, retired in 2011, Piccolo got the call in July of that year.
Growing up in Tewksbury, Piccolo has been a police officer for 15 years. He lives with his wife Kim and their children, Anna, almost 17 and Bobby, 14. They also have a black lab whose name is Lance.
Piccolo explained that it was Kenneth Ballinger, Assistant Deputy Superintendent of the Plymouth County Sheriff's office and K-9 trainer that found Geox at the D. Logan House Kennels in Virginia where they breed police dogs.
Geox originally came from Holland and is a purebred German Shepherd, he said. The order was for a dog who could be trained for both patrol certification, finding criminals, missing persons and building searches, and for narcotics certification.
"Kenny went down to Virginia with his knowledge and expertise, and he thought Geox was a good fit for us," Piccolo said.
The next step was for to see if Piccolo and Geox could bond. It only took a month before they began the daily trek to Plymouth for their 16 weeks of training.
"it wasn't the typical classroom setting, and it wasn't only in one location," he said. Some days they were in Bridgewater or other surrounding towns for them to experience different terrain and environments.
On their first day, he could already see results in those dogs and handlers that were further along in the training. Using the method of "food reward training," and scent pads, the dogs learn to track by distinguishing odors and ground disturbances, he explained.
The food is eventually replaced by a man in a biting suit, but the dogs are always rewarded with food, Piccolo said.
The dogs also learn that different harnesses and how the leash is attached to the harness can indicate a different type of search. Piccolo referred to this as "muscle memory."
It only took Geox 12 weeks to be certified, but the partners have on-going training to keep up the certification.
On the road by the third week of last December, Geox and Piccolo are also part of the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC), a response team that covers towns in Essex and Middlesex counties. They receive a lot of call outs, sometimes at 3am.
Geox has already found a suicidal female near a Motel 6 and chased kids who were breaking into cars. Whenever Piccolo goes into a situation, he always warns the perpetrator to come out or they will get bitten. The warning protects them from legal action. The commands are given in German and there is no command to release a bite. Piccolo said once Geox locks on a bite, he would literally have to pull the dog off of someone.
Although he doesn't want to see anyone bitten, Piccolo said it is gratifying to see Geox get excited when he is on track. "It is rewarding like having a child bring home a good report card," he said. Every time Geox finds something or someone, he is always rewarded with food. This includes training exercises at home in the front yard.
Geox is not seen as aggressive and has been accepted as a member of the family. Anna said she doesn't play with him because she knows he has a job to do. Bobby, however, likes to help with the home training.
"I go into the woods, and Geox finds me," he said.
Piccolo takes Geox to work, and has only leaves him at home when he goes out for an errand. Kim said that hasn't been a problem, and like any other dog, Geox spends a lot of time napping.
"This is a huge commitment for the family, and it was a family decision," said Piccolo. As far as the early morning calls?
"Al never just worked 9 to 5," said Kim.
(Correspondent Kerry Gibson contributed to this article.)