NEWARK, N.J. (PIX11) — The Port Authority is responsible for more than two dozen facilities in New York and New Jersey, from airports like JFK and LaGuardia; to bridges and tunnels like the GWB or Holland; to the shipping terminals of Newark and Elizabeth; to landmarks like the World Trade Center. All of those locations need protection from potential hazards, and the Port Authority Police Department’s more than 2,300 officers are part of that protection.
Now joining their ranks are five more officers — four-legged ones.
The Port Authority gave PIX11 News exclusive access to the new class of K-9 trainees: five 17-month-old German shepherds imported from Eastern Europe and their human handlers. The dogs train for 14 weeks and are currently halfway through the training that typically leads to a decade-long career on the force.
Their training is a reminder of how important the job is that the dogs and their handlers do, as well as how dangerous it potentially is.
Officer Kurt Engelhardt is a master trainer at the Port Authority Police Department’s K-9 academy. He put the new recruits through a series of scenarios in Terminal B at Newark Liberty Airport on Thursday.
The first was at an empty ticket counter. There, Engelhardt, a 22-year PAPD veteran, held a metal box with puncture holes across its sides. Inside the container was further proof that the training is for real.
“This is an actual explosive,” Engelhardt said, as he hid the box under one of the desks of the ticket counter. The explosive material had no fuse, and the metal box that it was in prevents it from having contact with ignition materials and protects it from being consumed by the dogs.
Instead, their task was to find it.
Three of the five dogs in the group are being trained to find explosives, in real world conditions. Even though the dogs had never been in an airport terminal, with its noise and bustle, each one of the explosives dogs found the boxed target, and then sat down.
As Engelhardt explained, that gesture is a vital connection between the human officer and the canine officer.
“[It] lets the handler know that there’s something there,” Engelhardt said. The dog “sits, and that’s how the game is played.”
To each dog, it is a game, albeit a consequential one. Each time they find their target, they’re rewarded with their favorite ball to chew on, after they sit down to indicate that they’ve found what they’re looking for.
Officer Kirk Kouzis was training along with his assigned dog, Stewy. Both are undergoing the 14 weeks of training.
Kouzis had been a firearms instructor at the Port Authority Police Academy for the last six years and is acquiring new skills as a K-9 specialist.
Stewy, on the other hand, has a much steeper learning curve.
“From a dog that didn’t know how to sit” six weeks ago, Kouzis said, to fine-tuning the animal “to the way he recognizes odors,” the 16-year veteran officer said.
The keen sense of smell was also on display when the other two of the five dogs in the current class went to work. They’re being trained to smell narcotics.
Consistently, they found what they were seeking, even though there were all kinds of distractions and smells in the terminals.
“They learn very quickly to sit on that odor [that they’re trained to detect] and not on any other odor,” said Engelhardt, the master trainer. “We teach them not to sit on anything else. We’ll put food out sometimes [as a distraction],” he continued. “They only sit on that odor [for which they’re trained]. And that’s what you want to build to.”
The dogs in the class have names that are dedicated to Port Authority officers who lost their lives on 9/11.
Stewy is named after Officer Walwyn Stuart; Mag is named after Ofcr. David Lemagne; Mimmo is named in Ofcr. Dominick Pezzulo’s honor; Amo is named to honor Ofcr. Christopher Amoroso; and Bruce is named after Ofcr. Bruce Reynolds.
Engelhardt, who also served in the NYPD for three years prior to joining the PAPD in 2001, lost colleagues from both departments on 9/11. He said that the naming has a very deep meaning, and that each of the human K-9 officers are trained in the histories of the men and women after whom their dogs are named.
“We want that officer to know that officer and everything they stood for,” Engelhardt said. “They’re continuing the service that these officers worked on 9/11.”
The officers, both two-legged and four-legged, are set to graduate the last week of November.