The Howell County Sheriff's Department announced this week Deputy First Class Travis Weaver and his K9 partner Ares have completed their training and are ready to work.
The certification, acquired through the Boone County Sheriff’s Office K9 Training Center Basic Handler Course, means Weaver and Ares are ready to detect narcotics, track suspects, and take part in search and rescue efforts with the department.
Lt. Matt Roberts, who helped secure the grant to replace Otis, said Weaver and Ares are one of three deputy-K9 teams at the department. The others are Matt Foster and Sagan, and Michael Pauly and Mark.
Roberts explained that Otis was retired in July because the dog had been trained to sniff out and alert to the presence of marijuana, and when marijuana was legalized for adult recreational use earlier this year, that skill became obsolete.
The other two K9 officers with the department, Foster's dog Sagan and Pauly's dog Mark, had been trained recently enough there wasn't an issue with alerting to the presence of marijuana.
Weaver will continue to be Otis' handler and the dog will still do narcotics searches and be employed to find drugs in schools. Otis will also still take part in searches for evidence and missing and wanted people. Speaking with the Quill about his new K9, Weaver said Otis had become somewhat of a "couch dog" in his retirement.
Weaver, who was hired as a deputy in 2020, was partnered with Otis, who was already trained.
It was a disappointment to the deputy when Otis was retired after about a year of being his partner. Weaver said he wasn't sure at that point if he would be assigned another K9, but the grant to replace Otis made that possible.
The state-funded grant, specifically earmarked for the replacement of K9 officers like Otis, paid for the lodging, meals and travel expenses during the eight-week course that held in Columbia at the Boone County Sheriff’s Office K9 Training Center.
Weaver and Ares completed the Basic Handler Course in late July and are certified with the North American Police Work Dog Association and the Missouri Police Canine Association.
Weaver commented that the career of a K9 officer lasts about nine years, but Otis retired about 4 years early at age 5. Shortly before the training course, Weaver made a trip to Shallow Creek Kennels in Pennsylvania, a 16-hour drive one way, in order to meet canine partner candidates and choose the best fit.
The kennel specializes in providing law enforcement with dogs that are hand-picked from European breeders to maximize success in training. Weaver said that he and Ares had an instant bond, and out of about 16 dogs, Ares was the only one to approach him.
Since Otis was already trained, Ares is the first dog Weaver went through the eight-week training program with, and he described it as somewhat challenging but well worth the end result.
Some of those challenges included adjusting to a high-energy dog that is still pretty much a puppy. Otis was three years old and had some time to mellow out a bit when he became Weaver's partner. At first Weaver had some doubts Ares would settle down, but now describes him as his best friend.
"He was wild, a whole lot of dog," Weaver said, describing those first days. The two had about a week to get to know one another before leaving for training.
The days were about 12 hours long, starting at about 6 a.m. each morning in an attempt to escape high daytime temperatures, with weekends home. The first couple of weeks were learning basic obedience commands and narcotics detection, followed by about four weeks of subject tracking and apprehension.
The master trainer who guided them is only one of about two in Missouri and less than 50 in the nation, Weaver said.
"It was hard being away from home, but it allowed me to bond with my dog," he commented.
Other law enforcement K9 teams in his graduating class included two handler-K9 pairs from Audrain County, and one pair each from Linn County, Calloway County and Boone County.
In contrast to Otis' relatively posh life, Ares will have to stick to a more regimented routine with less play-type engagement at home, but it's all part of being a working law enforcement canine, Weaver explained.
The idea is to keep the dog focused on what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, meaning Ares must be allowed to become bored while not on the job in order not to "kill the drive to work," as Weaver put it. This will condition the canine to be eager for its work shift.
"Dad has his uniform on, it's time for some real fun," Weaver said describing the K9 mindset.
And being a K9 handler has the added perk of being provided companionship during patrols, as Ares is Weaver's ride-along partner. Weaver said there was truth to the common joke that K9 handlers spend more time with their dogs than their human families.
The deputy said he has always been an animal lover, aspiring at one point to become a veterinarian, before realizing he didn't enjoy school enough to stay dedicated to the many years of training it would have required.
But he still made his goal of becoming a K9 handler, getting there within three years of joining the sheriff's department and two years earlier than planned. He says the job is the "perfect happy medium" between becoming a veterinarian and a law enforcement officer, and he loves it.
He also credits Howell County Sheriff Brent Campbell with getting the K9 program in Howell County up and running, pointing out the program is a rare asset in this corner of rural Missouri, where resources can be scarce.
The first official dispatch Weaver and Ares had together was to assist Texas County law enforcement with a search for a suspect the last week of July, and the man was apprehended without direct involvement from the pair, but Weaver said he was proud to help.
And he is confident he and Ares will continue to be an asset to Howell County and other law enforcement agencies as they report for duty, and with the bonus of having a work buddy.
"He's literally my best friend,” he said.