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Meet Diego: K-9 cop specifically trained to ‘sniff out’ narcotics

For Lt. D. H. Barksdale, a K-9 handler at the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, his dog, Diego, is more than just a work dog — he’s a friend and member of the Barksdale family. “Diego is my buddy. He’s my partner. He is a family pet,” Barksdale said. Barksdale has had the 5-year-old Dutch Shepherd since 2011, and man’s best friend already was trained when the sheriff’s office purchased him.

Diego was 2 when he became Barksdale’s partner, and the pair bonded almost immediately.

“When they called the sheriff’s office and said ‘we’ve got a dog for you,’ we went down there, and Diego and I, we met for the first time. He licked my hand, and we bonded,” Barksdale recalled. 

The hefty K-9 lives in a kennel in Barksdale’s backyard and is one of six other dogs that Barksdale and his wife, Denise, call their own.

“We treat all of our dogs like children. They are a part of the family,” Barksdale added.

Diego interacts very well with the other dogs. However, when he first brought him home, Barksdale said his wife was afraid of him because he was such a large dog. She has since warmed up to him “a little” and feeds him treats every now and then.

Barksdale said he spends the majority of his time with his K-9 partner.

“When it’s time to go to work, from the time I put him in my car, from the time I get off of work, Diego is always with me. There are times when we leave the dog in the car to go into hospitals or come into the sheriff’s office,” he said.

Even when he is working an accident or in court, Barksdale will check on Diego every so often to make sure he is doing well.

Diego is a single-purpose K-9 used specifically to “sniff out” narcotics.

He is certified in four drug odors, including marijuana, heroin, cocaine and meth. 

Since Barksdale has had previous experience as a K-9 handler, the lieutenant only had to undergo two weeks of initial training with Diego for certification rather than the usual one to three months.

Certification lasts for up to 12 months, and law enforcement officers and their dogs must get tested for certification again at the end of those 12 months. 

Officers are tested on whether they are able to read their dogs. Officers also are required to perform 16 hours of training each month with their dog that involves building searches, aerial searches and vehicle searches.

Barksdale and Diego are certified through the Police K-9 Association of Virginia.

 Barksdale usually trains Diego in Halifax County, but he has trained in Pittsylvania and Franklin counties.

They train at the police station, impoundment lots to practice searching cars, vacant buildings to practice building searches and the county landfill to practice aerial searches.

 Barksdale has been involved in dog handling since 2005 when Jeff Oakes, the sheriff at that time, promoted him to the position.

“It was a new challenge, and I love dogs. I have a love for dogs. I have owned several dogs in the past and thought it would be a nice experience,” Barksdale said.

 His first dog was a female German shepherd named Sadie who was previously a border patrol K-9 in El Paso before she was purchased by the sheriff’s office. Toward the end of her career, Sadie had some nerve complications, which made it difficult for her to stand. Barksdale had to make the hard choice to have her put down.

 Now that Barksdale has Diego, the two are inseparable. 

He told of how his K-9 partner recently participated in a successful drug bust after finding a jar of marijuana in a car.

“Diego alerted to a jar of marijuana in the trunk of a car one Saturday night. The individual who was stopped had the jar inside a duffle bag. It was all compacted, and he hit on the car. I was really surprised because the wind was blowing. Sometimes when the wind is blowing, it’s hard for the dog to pick up the odor because the wind blows in all different directions. But when he got his nose on it, he went up in the air and started showing me all the signs I needed to know that there was something strange about this vehicle,” Barksdale said. 

“When he alerts to the odor of narcotics he sits down. Some dogs they point their nose in the direction the odor is coming from, and some will put their nose on the spot where they smelled it. He sat down and was looking straight at the car, and I knew then that it was a positive alert, and I rewarded him with his toy.”

Recently they also performed a search at the Blue Ridge Regional Jail for drugs and assisted a Halifax police officer in a traffic stop.

“The week before last, Blue Ridge Regional Jail called because they wanted a K-9 to search the jail because sometimes people try to smuggle illegal drugs in the jail. So, Diego and I, we went over there and searched the entire jail. It took us an hour and a half. He got a little tired, but he held his own. There was nothing found,” Barksdale said.

Every once in a while, Barksdale and Diego are called to assist other jurisdictions.

“Knowing your dog” is what Barksdale views as the most important responsibility of a K-9 handler.

“You have to know your dog. If you know your dog, the responsibility will be at minimum level. For a person who doesn’t know their dog, there are going to be some issues,” Barksdale said.

 What he likes the most about having Diego is watching him hunt, watching how he acts when he’s found the drugs and watching him get rewarded.

“The reward part is the fun part because they know it’s a game, they’re playing, they get the toy, they run, they want you to throw the toy, so they go get it and bring it back to you. All high-preying dogs like that,” Barksdale said.

Listening to Diego bark every time the siren comes on in the car is what he likes the least about man’s best friend.

“He will be barking himself to death because he knows it is time to get it on. If he hears that siren go off, he is ready to rock and roll,” Barksdale said.

Factors that may affect the dog’s ability to search include food, rain, wind and loud sounds and large groups of people.

A good working dog is trained to search no matter what and ignore these distractions. Sometimes dogs can be distracted by the smells of food and lose focus. 

The wind also can be a hindrance because the odor of the drugs blows in the direction of the wind making it harder for the dog to pick up the smell.  

Loud sound and large crowds can distract the dog enticing it to look at the crowd and take its attention off the task at hand. 

The rain also can interfere because it can sometimes block the scent of the drugs, Barksdale explained.

Diego is not an aggressive dog when it comes to searching, according to his handler.

“A lot of dogs when they start searching, they will use up all their energy right there at one time because they’re so excited because they know it’s time to play, but Diego reserves his energy for the long haul, and that’s what I kind of like about him. 

“Now Sadie, she was like ‘let’s do it,’ and she was wide open, and at the end of the training session, she’d be tired, but she still would work. 

“Diego, he goes on for the longest time,” Barksdale said.

Working with a dog has been a very positive experience for Barksdale, and he said he has learned many things he didn’t know when working with a dog. 

But one thing is a certainty, Diego is truly this (police)man’s best friend.