Canine cop Gemma graduates from training

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home Police Officer Sasha McDonald’s canine partner has graduated and joined her in patrolling the streets.

Gemma, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, graduated on April 3 after completing 200 hours of training in five weeks. She successfully passed her tests and earned her certification through the Oregon Police Canine Association.

She joined McDonald on patrol on April 9.

Gemma is certified to detect heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, McDonald said.

On April 7, she was certified for narcotics detection in California, McDonald said. Multiple certifications help demonstrate a dog’s reliability when an officer testifies in court.

Gemma is available to assist other agencies, McDonald said. In Linn County, the Sheriff’s Office has a drug detection dog, and Lebanon Police Department’s new dog should be ready to go in the fall.

The two are patrolling Sweet Home in a white 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe donated by Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, McDonald said. “Hopefully, we’ll get at least two, three years out of it.”

The vehicle is unmarked at this point, McDonald said, but it is scheduled to receive its Sweet Home Police Department graphics soon.

Gemma is another tool for police officers, McDonald said. She pitched the idea to Police Chief Jeff Lynn last year with the idea that the dog would be funded through fund-raising events and donations.

The annual cost is $6,000, McDonald said. That’s in addition to future vehicle replacement.

The Oregon State Police purchased Gemma but didn’t like some of her qualities and rehomed her to a corrections deputy, McDonald said.

She is an extremely active dog with a lot of energy, which makes her a challenging pet, but will make her a good drug-sniffing dog. The deputy gave the dog to McDonald last year. McDonald had hoped to begin a canine program when she was hired at SHPD.

McDonald had another dog that “didn’t work out because he didn’t have the toy drive at all.”

The dogs are tested for their drive, McDonald said. A favorite toy is hidden in a field, and their level of drive is indicated by how focused they are in hunting for it. Gemma has a strong drive.

“I wanted to do a canine program because I couldn’t help citizens with the drug problem here in Sweet Home,” McDonald previously told The New Era.

Officers constantly pick up needles found by citizens, and property crimes, the most common in Sweet Home, are driven by drug addicts feeding their habits.

Gemma rides along with McDonald every shift, and she knows when it’s time to go to work.

“She gets excited,” McDonald said. “She sees my uniform, and she’s ready to go. I try to stay out on the road. We like to run traffic, assist as a cover unit on other calls and try to utilize her when I can.”

Gemma will need her training regularly reinforced, McDonald said.

“I try to get her out once a shift if I can.”

If McDonald doesn’t have the chance to use Gemma, McDonald will do a mini training session with Gemma to give her the chance to play and practice, McDonald said. McDonald will ask someone else to hide targets for the dog to find.

On patrol, officers must have reasonable suspicion to search inside a vehicle without consent, McDonald said. She must observe something like a spoon with apparent drug residue, a pipe or a needle, for example.

With that reasonable suspicion, she can use Gemma to search a vehicle, she said. In the case of individuals on probation for drug-related charges, a condition of probation is that they cannot refuse a search; which allows McDonald to search the vehicle.

In other cases, if a driver refuses a search, McDonald can still use the dog around the exterior of a vehicle, she said. At that point, she needs another officer to assist her while she conducts the search.

The dog may be used in any public place, such as parking lots, McDonald said, and at times, McDonald is planning to do blanket walks through public areas with Gemma.

That won’t start until she goes back to day shift in a couple of weeks, McDonald said. She also plans to set up a walkthrough at Sweet Home High School in partnership with a four-odor dog that can also detect marijuana, which is not allowed for minors or at the high school.

Gemma has a public relations role too, and McDonald and Gemma have enjoyed interacting with the public.

“I’ll stop by the gas station,” McDonald said. “Putting fuel in my car, the little kids stare at you.”

McDonald will get the dog out, play with them and let them pet her.

Doing a consent search of an apartment a few days back, Gemma turned up nothing, McDonald said. She let the children interact with Gemma afterward.

McDonald said the dog will be available for demonstrations in a couple of weeks. Groups interested in a demonstration should contact her at the Police Department at (541) 367-5181.

City officials are planning a dog festival, the Cascade Canine Jamboree, at the Events Center, 4000 Long St., on a yet-to-be-determined date.

It will serve as a fund-raising tool for the canine program as well as provide resources to encourage responsible pet ownership.

It essentially will be a fun day for people and their dogs, McDonald said. It will include vendors, a silent auction, training opportunities, play and photos with Gemma.

Safe Haven is expected to participate, and Linn County Animal Control is planning to be there to license dogs.

Organizers are expecting an attendance of at least 1,000, McDonald said.