HAMPTON, Iowa — It's just after 7 on a recent Thursday night when Franklin County Sheriff's Deputy Adam Blau lets K-9 unit Sarge out of the back seat of his patrol car.
Eagerly waging his tail, the 2-year-old golden retriever races into the Franklin County Sheriff's Department in Hampton. Blau leads him into an office area where he hid a street drug a few minutes earlier.
"Seek dope, seek dope," says Blau as Sarge searches the office.
Within seconds Sarge locates the drug in a desk and sits quietly looking at the location.
"Good boy!" says Blau, throwing a ball to Sarge. The two then go into a hallway and play fetch for a little while before repeating the task in a meeting room. Sarge once again quickly finds the drugs in a closet and is rewarded by playing fetch with the ball.
"Finding drugs for him is play," Blau told the Globe Gazette (http://bit.ly/1nLqoqv). "For him it's not really work. Everything is play. In his mind he has to find his ball. The only time he gets that ball is when he finds the drug."
Blau said they practice finding drugs at the beginning of most shifts. He said he hides different drugs each time and tries to find new hiding places to keep Sarge sharp. Sometimes he doesn't hide anything as another way of keeping Sarge sharp.
A log of the training and how well Sarge does is kept in case Sarge's abilities are questioned during criminal proceedings, Blau said.
Blau said Sarge has done well since joining the Sheriff's Department in late November 2013. He replaced Blau's former K-9 partner, Blue, who retired last fall and died in December. Blue, a short-haired Weimaraner, was trained in drug sniffing, tracking and article recovery. They worked together 8 years.
Sarge is trained in only drug sniffing and is not aggressive, unlike Blue.
"He's just too nice," Blau said. "That's the way I wanted him. I didn't want to have to worry about taking him into schools to see kids."
Blau, who's been with the Sheriff's Department for 14 years, said the department has always seen the value of a K-9 unit but didn't add one until Blau insisted on it.
"I bugged the sheriff and bugged the sheriff until he said yes," Blau said. "We knew it was important to have one, and we just decided it was a good time to do it."
It's been a helpful resource for Franklin County and surrounding law enforcement agencies. Sarge has even had his first drug bust.
Sarge was called in on his day off on Jan. 5 after Todd Hambly, 34, Swaledale, allegedly led multiple law enforcement agencies on a chase through Cerro Gordo and Franklin counties. It ended in Franklin County where law enforcement suspected Hambly had drugs in his vehicle but couldn't find any.
"We could have searched for days and never found the drugs in that car," Blau said. "He (Sarge) searched for 30 seconds. I thought it was snow until it didn't melt in my hand. We would have never ever found that if it wouldn't have been for him."
Being on call 24/7, most cases involve Sarge being called in to circle a vehicle to see if he indicates drugs are present. If he does, officers then have probable cause to search a vehicle further.
Sarge has also been called in for drug checks at Hampton-Dumont High School and Ellsworth Community College, Iowa Falls. No drugs have been found in Sarge's other cases.
Most shifts have been pretty quiet this winter, Blau said. On this particular night, Blau loads Sarge in the back of his patrol car by 7:30 p.m. The seat has been removed and instead includes a water dish and fan for hot summer days. Blau said he will soon get an SUV, which will include a crate for Sarge in the back.
The two head west on Highway 3 and then turn south at Coulter to serve an arrest warrant. Another deputy meets Blau there since Sarge takes up the space where arrested suspects would normally ride. Sarge quietly lays in the back while Blau goes inside the home.
The man, however, isn't home, so Blau and Sarge continue to drive around Franklin County waiting for traffic stops or calls to come in. Once in a while they'll stop in empty parking lots so Sarge can go to the bathroom and stretch his legs.
At 3 a.m. their shift ends and they go home to Blau's house where Sarge lives in a heated and air- conditioned 10-by-10 foot kennel, which also includes a 10-by-10-foot outside running area that Sarge has access to anytime. Blau said Sarge can't live inside his family's house because he would be constantly searching and make a mess.
Once home, Sarge has what Blau calls a "baby fit" for about an hour when he barks and wants to keep riding around in the patrol car. However, eventually he settles in and will spend most of the day in his kennel relaxing since he's busy during his work shift, Blau said. On multiple days off Blau will let Sarge out and play with him.
Once the next shift rolls around, the routine is largely repeated. Sarge and Blau also attend regular training and do presentations for different groups.
The presentations are an important aspect, especially since 80 percent of the cost of Sarge was paid for through public donations, Blau said.
"That's been wonderful," he said about the donations.
Blau said the Sheriff's Department is always accepting donations to its K-9 unit fund for ongoing costs, such as veterinarian visits and dog toys.
Information from: Globe Gazette, http://www.globegazette.com/