The newest officer on the Ohio State University Police force doesn’t carry a gun. She doesn’t need handcuffs or a bulletproof vest. Her only gear is a bowl, a leash and her nose.
Rita the K-9 is a German Shepherd and the newest member of University Police. As an officer, she’s tasked with one job and one job only: finding bombs.
“Rita has one responsibility and that is to find explosive odor. That’s her single purpose,” said Joanna Shaul, University Police officer and Rita’s handler. “She just has one job and we just want her to be the best possible that she can be.”
Although Rita only has one job, it’s an important job, and it’s important she does it right, Shaul said.
“When you do that and that’s your job, you can’t have a bad day. You can’t miss. If a narcotics dog misses a bag of marijuana — well, that’s a bummer, it shouldn’t have happened, but no big deal. But if one of these dogs misses a bomb — well, that’s really bad,” Shaul said.
Rita came to OSU from Europe through a grant from Ohio Homeland Security, OSU spokeswoman Alison Hinkle said. OHS paid the full $12,767 for Rita and existing federal grants through OHS cover her training, veterinary bills and other equipment.
Rita came to America with all the basic skills and innate abilities she needed, Shaul said. Once she landed in the U.S., she received a month of training before Shaul began training with her.
Even now, Shaul said they are constantly training Rita, who’s about 3 or 4 years old.
“Every day of the week, we’re always training. We’re always doing something,” Shaul said.
Through her training, Rita has come to associate explosive odors with toys, Shaul said. So when Rita’s searching for an actual bomb, she just thinks she’s playing a game.
“When I’m asking her to find a bomb, she doesn’t know what a bomb is, frankly,” Shaul said. “In her mind, we’re playing hunt.”
In the case Rita is called out to a bomb threat situation, Rita and Shaul make sure all the first responders on scene are safe. They check the area, starting from the outside, to make sure everyone present is safe, including the bomb squad, and that there are no other secondary devices.
Because Rita was given to the university through OHS, any agency in Ohio can request to use her, Shaul said.
Rita has already been called out to bomb-threat scenes, but as of yet, she hasn’t found any real bombs.
“Not in real life. In training, she finds them every day,” Shaul said. “It’s interesting. Narcotics dogs — they want that big find. Pounds and pounds. That’s their thing. Bomb dog handlers are just as happy to go an 8-year career and not find one thing.”
University Police currently has two other K-9s on the force: Daran and Andor.
“The K-9 team is a very important added resource and tool for the protection of students on campus,” University Police Chief Paul Denton said.
While Denton considers Rita a valuable asset to the force, he said she’s also a buddy.
“I keep treats in my desk drawer and a toy so I get a daily visit from her. We have fun,” Denton said.
Shaul said she and Rita are a team and that, in a way, she relies more on Rita than she does on her human coworkers.
“I can’t do what (Rita) does. She obviously can’t do what I do but it’s absolutely a team,” Shaul said. “I have to put her in a position to be successful and then she has to do her part. I can’t smell explosives. I can put her in the position, but it’s up to her to tell me if those explosives are there.”
Rita pushes Shaul to be a better officer every day, Shaul said.
“I know that she has this ability on this day, and then a couple days later I’ll realize she’s got more abilities than she used to have. So I kind of have to step up what I’m doing,” Shaul said. “Every time I think, ‘Oh, I don’t know if she’ll be able to do this, she’s the new dog,’ she always proves me wrong.”
Shaul said Rita will stay in service as long as she’s healthy. And hopefully, that will be 6 more years, she said.
“We (K-9 handlers) all love dogs, that’s why we take these positions. We think they’re great creatures and have amazing abilities,” Shaul said. “We love to share that with people.”