The George Mason University Police Department is going to the dogs.
The police department’s newest recruit, Lucy, is a trained bomb-sniffing dog. Though the brown-and-white English springer spaniel stands less than two feet off the ground, she represents a major step in campus security for the university.
Lucy has been on the job since the end of March, patrolling with her handler, Master Police Officer John Arnold, at each of George Mason’s three campuses - its main campus just outside the city of Fairfax, and at its two other campuses in Prince William and Arlington counties.
Lucy’s introduction follows on the heels of two bomb scares at George Mason in the span of one week earlier in March. University police investigated a bomb threat at the Fairfax campus on March 6 and another at the Prince William campus on March 13, though both proved unfounded.
Yet the decision to bring on a K-9 officer was not reactionary. Lucy was not on duty during the recent investigations, but the two-year-old dog was already busy training for her new post at the university.
The police department planned to get a bomb-sniffing dog as the result of a security assessment of the Patriot Center conducted last summer, according to Police Chief Eric Heath. With concerts, sports games and other major events held almost every week at the on-campus arena, university police opted to bring a dog on staff, following the lead of many universities with similar venues.
George Mason applied for Lucy through Northern Virginia Emergency Response System (NVERS), a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate regional approaches to emergency response across law enforcement agencies, government organizations and medical services.
NVERS had received a federal grant to get service dogs for local organizations. A dog with Lucy’s background and training can cost upwards of $10,000. Four other police departments also received K-9 officers through NVERS: the Herndon Police Department, the Leesburg Police Department, the Manassas Park Police Department and the Virginia State Police.
Lucy came to the United States from a breeder in England, then went through six months of intensive training in explosive and ammunition detection in Alabama. Then, in February, she was brought to Virginia for five weeks of additional training in Loudoun County with Arnold.
Using a nose honed for hunting, the springer spaniel can detect many types of explosives, firearms and ammunition, whether it is hidden away in lockers, car trunks or containers, or even buried under the ground.
Though springer spaniels, with their small stature, are not the typical vision of a police dog, they are a perfect fit for this type of work, Arnold said.
“They’re hunting dogs, and they’re small but strong,” Arnold said. “Only Lucy’s not hunting prey, she’s hunting explosives.”
Lucy has been trained to search cars and buildings thoroughly, sniffing anywhere a whiff of explosives or ammunition might leak out from a hiding place. For cars, that includes the car hood, door edges and tire wells; for buildings, that includes each door, cabinet and locker.
She is taught to give a “passive alert,” which means she simply sits still if she senses anything, as opposed to barking or pointing.
“She can’t bark, because in the event there was a bomb or something there, it could be sensitive to noise or other activation,” Arnold said.
Lucy has her own special police vest, and when she wears that, she knows she is on the job. Pinned on the vest is Lucy’s own badge, to let others know that she means business.
“Everybody loves Lucy,” Arnold said. “Everyone wants to run up to Lucy and pet her. And you can - she loves attention. But please, ask permission first.”