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This spring, Missoula County Sheriff's Deputies Justin Uriarte and Ross Jessop headed to North Carolina for six weeks of training at Southern Police Canine Inc., the company the sheriff's office used to acquire their new K-9 unit dogs.

Thursday, the department formally introduced Santxo (pronounced Sancho) and Loki. The new officers, each around 18 months old, are a mix of German shepherd and Belgian Malinois, and are originally from Hungary. Sheriff’s department special teams Lt. Jeremy Meeder, who oversees the K-9 units, said the mix of breeds has become popular because it combines the intelligence of the former with the endurance of the latter.

The department hasn't had a K-9 unit in 15 years. To select Uriarte and Jessop from the deputies who applied, Meeder said they brought in K-9 handlers from the U.S. Forest Service who worked with the officers to see how they handled the dogs. Meeder also conducted home visits, talking with the deputies' families about what having a K-9 living with them might mean and the responsibilities it would entail.

Just after returning from North Carolina, the department had to put their new K-9 officers to work when a pair of men robbed a gas station and carjacked a family, kidnapping them and leading police on a chase through Missoula. Santxo and Uriarte were brought to where the men eventually left the vehicle.

“He was able to track them off the road and right back to the spot where they were picked up by another vehicle,” Meeder said.

In addition to being certified for patrol duty, which includes locating dangerous suspects and finding missing people, the Missoula sheriff’s dogs also trained in finding drugs.

“Their noses are what we use 90 percent of the time,” Meeder said. “They are trained on five different drug scents: marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy.”

He said the department waited to train the dogs on locating meth until they returned to town so they would be taught to recognize and search for the chemicals most commonly found in the strains of the drug around Missoula.

The dogs are required to go through an annual re-certification, and the K-9 teams have weekly training sessions at a sheriff’s department facility next to the Missoula County Detention Facility.

Santxo and Loki also can conduct what Meeder calls an “article search,” finding items that might have been dropped or thrown by a suspect when they are running from officers. Meeder demonstrated on Thursday, taking an imitation training pistol and pitching it out into the grass field before pushing it down into the lawn and out of sight. Jessop issued a command to his dog Loki in Dutch, the language the department is using for its K-9 units, and Loki ran across the lawn, circled in on the pistol and sat, rewarded when Jessop threw him a rubber toy.

“They are trained to find and recover metal, plastic and paper. He’s looking for an anomaly, something that doesn’t belong,” Meeder said. “Everything that dog does is for that silly toy. That’s all he cares about in this world.”

In addition to working on local drug and tracking cases, Meeder said Mineral, Granite and Sanders counties have also enlisted the help of Missoula’s K-9 units, as have probation officers and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Uriarte said one of his goals as an officer always had been to be a K-9 handler.

“It was part of when I decided to be a cop, going all the way back to when I was 14,” he said. “I’m a dog person. I have a hunting dog and a rescue dog.”

He said the department has long discussed bringing back the K-9 units. Now that they are back, Uriarte said people are interested every time they bring the animals out in public, and Santxo and Loki don’t mind being around groups of people.

“When they see you walking around with the dog, you draw a crowd. All the kids want to come up and pet them and so do a lot of the adults,” he said.

His and Jessop’s patrol vehicles also received special upgrades to accommodate Santxo and Loki. In addition to putting a kennel inside, Meeder said they are outfitted with heat sensors. Each officer carries a small pager on their belt with a readout of the interior temperature of their vehicle.

“The cars can be programmed to a threshold where if it gets there, the windows automatically roll down and fans turn on,” Meeder said. “They will also receive an alert notification and can also press a button to open the doors remotely to let the dog out.”

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.