Officer Drew Astbury and K-9 Joda of the Trenton Police Department sniff a vehicle for explosives at the new Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office K-9 Training Facility in Ewing.

Dogs trained to sniff out narcotics or explosives or to help out police officers on patrol can be crucial to the ability of local and state police to do their jobs effectively. But when K-9 officers in law enforcement agencies throughout the county wanted to train their dogs, they used to have to travel all over the state. It was expensive and time consuming.

That all changed now with the June 29 opening of the new Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office K-9 Training Facility in Ewing. The facility is free to canine handlers in all police agencies in Mercer County and the N.J. Transit Police.

“It may not seem like big thing to people, but it really is,” says Angelo Onofri, Mercer County’s prosecutor, of the training center. “A majority of our police departments have dogs, and they need to be trained.”

Onofri says he got his first inkling of the value of such a facility a few years ago, when he saw a demonstration of the agility field—an area with assorted ramps, tunnels and other obstacles use to train a dog—at the N.J. State Police Canine Academy’s after he taught a class there on the use of force by police.

The move to look into providing the facility came when Joe Angarone, a detective sergeant with the prosecutor’s office, mentioned to Onofri that canines and their handlers had to go all over the state for agility practice. Onofri deputized Angarone and tasked him with finding a place for a training complex in Mercer County and determine what equipment was needed.

Angarone estimates that law enforcement agencies in Mercer County have about 20 to 25 trained K-9 dogs and about four certified trainers. Training in narcotics and explosives detection takes 13 weeks, and cross-training as a patrol dog requires an extra 15 weeks.

Robbinsville has dogs trained to find narcotics; Trenton and Ewing, narcotics and explosives; Princeton, Lawrence and West Windsor, explosives; and the Mercer County sheriff’s office, explosives. They also have bloodhounds—a breed of dog known for its keen sense of smell and ability to track people.

Angarone and Onofri cite many pluses for the new facility. Angarone says that not having to travel for training means that law enforcement agencies save both time and money that would have had to be paid for travel expenses or overtime. “Your resources stay in the county and they don’t have to leave for training,” he says.

He adds that since all the equipment was purchased by the prosecutor’s office and paid for using $30,000 in funds seized from drug dealers, it hasn’t cost local municipalities any money.

Onofri says all of the training equipment state of the art, and the facility it is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. “Everybody’s schedule is different,” he said. “If you work a midnight shift, you can go out there at midnight or 3 a.m.”

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Onofri says a countywide K-9 training facility will mean more cohesiveness among the county’s K-9 handlers and their dogs.

“You get opportunities to get all canine handlers of the county to come and train together and for their dogs to get used to working with each other, because you are training as a team instead of as individuals,” he says. “The dogs get very excited and tire quickly, so if they are conducting any kind of search, you usually need to have more than one dog. It is important for the dogs and their handlers to get used to each other and their capabilities.”

It is critical that dogs be trained to meet the standards set by the United States Police Canine Association, because these standards are upheld in courts, Angarone says.

He describes situations where this can be important: “People sue if they get bitten by a dog during an arrest, or people (or their lawyers) try to say that the dog isn’t trained well enough to smell narcotics so a search warrant shouldn’t have been given because of the dog,” he says.

The new training grounds are located in a fenced-in area off Scotch Road that was formerly used by West End Soccer. The outdoor facility includes a standard agility course—with catwalk, hurdles and A-frame (which simulate jumping over walls and fences), a broad jump and a low crawl. There’s also a scent pit filled with p-rock (small pebbles) where the odor of narcotics or explosives is hidden, and six boxes where “suspects” hide so the dogs can sniff them out.

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The new K-9 Training Facility, Angarone says, is for both scent dogs and patrol dogs, which he explains are “dogs that bite when necessary.”

Patrol dogs are used for crowd control—dispersing an unruly crowd by barking and moving people along—and for tracking suspects. In cases where there is a home burglary and the suspects won’t come out, a dog can be sent in to help flush them out. Or patrol dogs can track down suspects who have left the scene of a crime before police arrive.

In narcotics training, Angarone says, trainers have a dog focus on a towelplaced in a garbage can filled with marijuana (one of the most odoriferous illegal drugs), which the dog perceives as a toy. In the beginning, the trainer teases the dog with the towel, then throws it. After a dog brings it back, they play a little tug of war.

Then the game gets a little harder. A trainer tosses the towel someplace the dog can’t see and has to use its nose to find. That’s when the dogs begin to put their pot-sniffing skills to use. “They associate the smell with their toy, and it is a game to find their toy,” Angarone says.

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Sgt. Matt Solovay and K-9 Harris from Princeton PD on the agility course.

Choosing dogs to become K-9s is not straightforward. Even though certain breeds work better than others, dogs still need to be tested to see if they have what it takes to become good patrol dogs. Angarone says dogs that come from overseas, for example, may be afraid of things they haven’t seen before. Or, dogs may be afraid of slippery floors, dark rooms or different types of noises.

“If a dog doesn’t respond to gunshots or does respond by running away, that dog would not be a candidate for patrol school,” he says.

Angarone went to elementary school in Trenton, then moved to Hamilton (where he currently lives) for middle school and graduated from Steinert High School. Angarone’s parents were in the restaurant business for 40 years, first in Trenton and then at the QP Eatery in Hamilton, but Angarone, who had an uncle in law enforcement, always wanted to be policeman.

He studied criminal justice at Southern Vermont College in Bennington, got a master’s from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and then went to the Police Academy in Sea Girt. He started as a detective with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office in 1998. Angarone was assigned to the narcotics unit for 11 years, four of those for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which still gives him calls. He also hears from local police departments for assistance if they do not have canines.

His former chief, Al Paglione, was the first canine handler at his office, which is the only prosecutor’s office in the state that has a K-9 unit. When Paglione was promoted to a higher rank, an opening was posted for another dog handler and Angarone got the job.

Angarone has been certified as a trainer through the state police. He had one pet dog growing up, and also a trained black lab before Bela, his current police dog. When the lab died, he trained his pet yellow lab but, he says, “he wasn’t up to my standards; his drive wasn’t high enough.”

In addition to his assignment as canine handler, he is also a sergeant of detectives, supervising four units: domestic violence, economic crime, insurance fraud and forfeiture.

Angarone heard about Bela—a female Belgian Malinois at a breeder called Fontaine d’or Malinois in Ontario, Canada—from another trainer. He was told that she was a good dog with high drive, which is a dog that is highly active both mentally and physically and requires a lot of exercise and mental stimulation.

Angarone purchased Bela after getting approval from the prosecutor and started working with her immediately. At the time, she was three months old, and training usually starts somewhere between 11 and 16 months. Because of her early start, Bela was out on the road by the age that many dogs are just getting started.

Angarone says that with Bela—who is trained to find the scent of narcotics—he has “done searches in occupied houses, abandoned buildings, buses, tractor trailers, airplanes, open areas and cars.” Now 5, she has been responsible for the seizure of more than $2 million in currency and more than $3 million in narcotics.

He and Bela do about 225 searches a year, at all times of the day and night. These searches may be “a sniff of a residence” in a narcotics investigation after search warrants have been served and people detained. Or it may follow a call from an officer who has stopped a car and suspects narcotics but does not have probable cause. If the dog smells the scent of a narcotics odor, it gives them more reason to apply for a search warrant.

Angarone says the dogs have become an essential part of police modern police work. “Since its inception, the importance of the relationship between law enforcement and their canine partners has been demonstrated time and time again,” he said.

“They are like an arm of law enforcement; they hear and smell stuff that we can’t; and their noses are much better than ours,” he added. “Canines are fearless, logical and possess special skills that their human counterparts don’t possess. They enhance the mission of law enforcement by providing their unique capabilities to the tasks of policing.”