MANITOWOC, Wis. (WFRV) – 200 Wisconsin K-9s and their handlers are in Manitowoc this week for the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Canine Handler Association‘s annual conference.

“The whole purpose is just to challenge the dogs,” Manitowoc Police Department K9 Handler Jason Koenig said.

He and his eight-year-old German Shepherd Nico are tackling the various exercises set up for the police pairs, testing their abilities in areas that are outside their normal working conditions, like water and tight spaces.

The variety of skills tested in high-quality exercises makes it a highly sought-after event to attend, with K-9s coming to the event from all 72 counties in the state, according to Oconto Co. Sheriff and WLECHA president Todd Skarban.

“(Months ago) our online registration opened at 10 o’clock and it closed at 10:09,” Skarban said. “In nine minutes we had over 200 dog handlers signed up for this training conference.”

Skarban said that having as many law enforcement agencies from around the state helps to make sure that all agencies are on the same page and able to serve their communities to the highest level.

“We ultimately create alignment throughout the whole state by having our people train together,” he said. “We’re all training the same, we’re all using the same techniques and we’re all doing it the best possible way to improve our craft.”

K-9s and handlers of all experience levels are able to come together to share their knowledge and help all partners improve.

“We can tailor it so if it’s a younger dog, we can make it a little bit easier, and if it’s a more seasoned dog, we can make it a little bit more difficult,” Skarban said.

Trainers and researchers leading the event are even brought in from out of state, one of the trainers this year is even from Canada.

A team of scientists from Florida International University is attending the conference as they study the ability of dogs to distinguish the difference between marijuana and hemp.

“We have a series of boxes, some have marijuana and some have hemp, and it shows that the dogs can differentiate between a legal product and an illegal product,” Dr. Kenneth Furton said. “In some cases, some of the dogs can already differentiate, so they’ll alert to marijuana and they won’t alert to hemp. If they show an interest or they alert to hemp, they can be differentiated off of it very quickly.”

The dogs learn to differentiate the scents if they have not already by being run through a row of boxes, and have to pick out which box contains marijuana instead of hemp. If they choose correctly by alerting their handler to the box filled with marijuana, the box releases their toy that they are rewarded with for good behavior.

“We want to make it crystal clear that hemp is not something we want them to alert to, we only want them to alert to marijuana,” Next Level K-9 Texas founder Steven Antommarchi said. “These boxes here do a great job of individualizing that odor and just paying the dog for that odor.”

Antommarchi said is important for K-9s to be able to determine whether to alert their handler or not for an illegal substance because that is how a probable cause search is initiated. Hemp is now legal in Wisconsin, so this is a way that both human and canine partners are adjusting to the new duties required of them.

Sometimes the drills that the K-9 units are run through are simple reminders of good technique. One of those is a dangerous traffic stop scenario with a “decoy” wearing a padded suit that disobeys officers’ commands.

Skarban said they will run through that drill 60 times each day. Decoy and Waukesha Police Department Officer Dan Riess says it gets very hot.

“Very. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m losing a few pounds today,” he said.

He does it because he hopes to be on the other side of the field one day, as a handler.

“I’m hopefully working towards getting my own dog when the position opens up.”