Why an Oakland County high school hired an explosive-sniffing K-9

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

While most of us see the world through our eyes, Lucy — the star member of the explosives-detection K-9 team at Avondale High School — navigates the world through her nose.

The yellow Labrador retriever's full-time job at the Oakland County high school is to detect guns and munitions brought onto school grounds or inside the school and to look lovable and charming doing it.

On Wednesday, the school's staff and Lucy's handler Lisa Zang showed off the retriever's skills inside the high school's auxiliary gym. Two sticks of dynamite were hidden inside one of eight metal buckets on a spinning scent wheel.

Zang gave the wheel a spin and asked Lucy to begin her search among the seven empty buckets and one with the hidden munitions.

Lucy moved to each bucket, dunking her head deep inside, giving it a long sniff and moving on until she found her target in the fourth bucket. And then down she sat, her signal to her human that she found the munitions.

"She doesn't do anything visually, it's all through her nose," says Zang, Lucy's trainer from Rochester Hills-based Elite Detection K9. "It can be pitch black in here and it's still her nose that does the work."

Avondale High School is the first school in Michigan to add a full-time explosives-detection K-9 team to its security staff, according to the district and the training company.

Lucy's workday is divided into three parts: before, during and after school. She stands at the school's main entrance and exit while its 1,100 students and staff walk by, acting as a warm and fuzzy metal detector and security guard.

If she finds her target, she signals her handler. So far this school year, that hasn't happened.

Greg Guidice, Elite Detection K9 president and CEO, said the program is intended to reduce school violence by deterring students from bringing weapons to school.

"The reality is it's a small percentage that a school will experience an active shooter but when it happens it's tragic," Guidice said. "Providing a trained dog is a proactive solution to a student wanting to create a nefarious act."

Elite Detection K9 handler Lisa Zang plays with her yellow Labrador retriever Lucy at Avondale High School in Oakland County on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

Lucy is there to detect and warn officials of the invisible threat of hidden firearms or explosives, Guidice says. Lucy is trained in the nine major categories of explosives from black powder in a bullet to dynamite to C-4 to TNT. The company has a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives license to use live explosives during her training which is conducted after school hours.

On Wednesday, Ric Hetu, Elite Detection K9 master trainer, spoke to a group of students eating lunch near Lucy's demonstration for the media.

"What is Lucy looking for when she is searching your backpack?" Hetu asked the students. "Maybe a handgun, some kind of explosive, maybe it's as simple as a firecracker."

Once kids are in class, Lucy makes the rounds down hallways, along lockers and sticks her head into locker rooms and bathrooms. She does not need to search every person near her, officials say, because her sense of smell is extremely sensitive.

Lucy is also available for pats and hugs for students who need emotional support during the day. Students know they can reach out and pat Lucy or book an appointment for a longer therapy time.

Having a trained dog at the school keeps students safe so they can focus on learning, says James Schwarz, superintendent of the Avondale School District.

The decision to have a dog on staff at the school stems from a partnership between Elite Detection K9 and the high school which started nearly two years ago, Schwarz said, during which the nonprofit brought puppies it was raising for training to the high school for socialization with students. 

Then the company, which is located near the school, started using the high school after school hours to train its dogs on explosives and ammunition. Elite Detection K9 is funded by Leader Dogs for the Blind. It is an independent nonprofit with its own board.

"The idea grew into we would want to have a dog of our own," Schwarz said. "A preventative, proactive measure that would be an arm of our security as well."

Schwarz said the high school has not had a past incident of a firearm or ammunition found in school and so far Lucy has not detected any contraband around campus.

"The students know the dog is an expert in sensing explosive material. It acts as a preventative," Schwarz said. "It provides peace of mind. That is where the community has embraced it."

Two sticks of inactive dynamite is hidden in one of eight buckets before an explosives-detection demonstration at Avondale High School in Oakland County on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

The district has a one-year contract for Lucy and pays around $35,000 for her services. The actual cost of training a dog for a year is around $80,000, Guidice said.

Lucy must continue with four hours of training on live ammunition every week which it does at the school.

Superintendents from other Oakland County districts have asked Schwarz about Lucy, the program and its success.

"From our experience, it's been a win-win," he said. "From the social-emotional and physical security aspect of it, you can't replicate it any other way unless you are using metal detectors and wands."

jchambers@detroitnews.com