Animal House: First Duval Public School Police K9 Maverick

Animal House: First Duval Public School Police K9 Maverick
Left to right - Duval School Police (DCSP) Officer Joe Baker & K9 Maverick; DCPS Chief Greg Burton; Lt. Steve Gazdick & Corporal Nick Converso of St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office; Duval County Public School Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene; Clay County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Maertz, DCSP Lt. Amber Gazdick.

K9 Maverick, the first Duval County School Police (DCSP) K9 and Northeast Florida’s first Firearms Detection K9, was sworn in by DCSP Chief Greg Burton on Wednesday, May 31, at Cline Auditorium. The new Duval County School Police Honor Guard presented the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.

The two-year-old Belgian Malinois received his DCSP badge, paw-printed certificate, employee number, and identification. Chief Burton administered the oath of service to K9 Maverick and Officer Baker before a packed auditorium of Duval, Clay, and St. Johns county police, families, dignitaries, and school representatives.

Maverick then demonstrated his firearms detection skills by searching for an unloaded firearm, used only for training purposes, that someone previously hid. At Baker’s command, K9 Maverick raced across the space in a grid pattern, moving so fast that he was almost a blur as everyone silently watched.

Within seconds, Maverick abruptly sat and snapped his head back toward Officer Baker; he found the firearm. Officer Baker’s high-pitched, congratulatory yell startled everyone but thrilled K9 Maverick. Maverick froze, excited and pleased with himself, until Officer Baker tossed him his favorite green ball as a reward.

Chief Burton and St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick honored Duval County School Superintendent Dr. Greene for her many years supporting law enforcement that “enhanced protection for Duval County public schools and made it possible for police to do their best to keep children safe.” They described the canine unit as one more step to protect and enhance security for schools, along with camera systems, metal detection, and fencing. Dr. Greene received the newly created DCSP Flag, designed by Administrative Sergeant Amy Thomas.

Chief Burton commended DCPS Lt. Amber Gazdick for her dedication and work to make the canine unit a reality for Duval County schools. Lt. Gazdick is DCSP Lieutenant of General Services responsible for six units, including canines. Lt. Gazdick is from a family of police officers and was the youngest graduate in her police academy class. She was the first woman in the Duval County School Police Department.

Officer Alison Connolly and trainee K9 LEO
Officer Alison Connolly and trainee K9 LEO

Lt. Gazdick announced that the second member of the unit, K9 Officer LEO (Law Enforcement Officer), would soon join Maverick. K9 LEO, eleven months old, is training for narcotics detection with School Safety Officer Alison Connolly. K9 LEO is a poodle and Chesapeake Bay Retriever donated by Meagan Foglesong. Foglesong, the owner of Smart Paws Resort & Training, was described by Lt. Gazdick as a great supporter of the DCSP canine unit.

Officer Baker said that plans for the unit are to add more K9s and conduct their own in-house training. By 2024, Officer Baker will complete the required training courses.

Chief Baker said the unit’s formation and training required for the canines and handlers attracted and united a uniquely skilled, dedicated group of police and supporters. He noted that it was also made possible by the long-term relationships and collaboration between the sheriff’s offices and canine units of Duval, Clay, and St. John’s Counties.

 “We’re all one family, one team in Northeast Florida — not separate counties,” Lt. Gazdick said.

When the call went out to officers for the first K9 handler for the new unit, Chief Burton said that Officer Joe Baker responded, and many offered support. St. John’s County Sheriff Robert Hardwick championed the project, as did Lieutenant Nicole Burrell of their canine unit. Lt. Gazdick said that Lt. Burrell helped obtain K9 LEO, set up training and budget, and performed many critical tasks.

“Sheriff Robert Hardwick allowed us to utilize his deputies and resources. He was passionate and always supportive of us and everything our department is doing,” Lt. Gazdick said. “So many offered their support and skills on and off-duty.”

 St. John’s County Patrol Lt. Steve Gazdick is a former canine handler who maintains his apprehension canine training certificate. His wife, Lt. Amber Gazdick, laughingly said that she actually “volun-told” him they needed his help. He teaches basic training to handlers and dog obedience on his own time and travels with her to test potential canines for the unit.

“My dream was always to be a police canine handler, and Steve has been incredibly supportive,” Lt. Gazdick said. “When I had the opportunity to start this unit, it was a dream come true.

Corporal Nick Converso, a canine trainer and handler with St. John’s County Canine Unit, helped locate dogs, explained training needs, and offered constant assistance. He helped to create policies for the new unit, obtained necessary equipment, and maintained contacts with the local canine community that benefitted everyone.

Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook fully supported the new canine unit and was thanked at the ceremony. Officer Baker and K9 Maverick began training with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office K9 unit on March 20, 2023. They completed their National Police Canine Association K9 Firearms Detection Certification on May 24, 2023.

“Maverick immediately showed incredible abilities. He had tremendous ball drive and non-stop motivation. He learned quickly and rapidly progressed through training. He found a firearm even when thrown into a large field of tall grass,” Officer Baker said. “He’s sweet with no aggression, never barks but whines when excited. He jumps straight into swamps and loves water — unless it’s a bath. His favorite food is salmon.”

 K9 Unit Sergeant Mark Maertz of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office has a son named Deputy Mark Maertz, who is a canine handler and imprinting trainer for their unit. Deputy Maertz trained Officer Baker and Maverick.

Officer Baker explained “imprinting” canine detection training to the audience. Kong dog toys were used to teach Maverick to imprint on specific odors because he loves them. The Kong toy was cut up, and a particular scent was placed inside. Then the scented toy was hidden, and Maverick learned to find it. This method taught him to detect — or imprint — on that specific scent at the same time he located his toy. 

Gradually, as Maverick became faster, more skilled, and more accurate at locating the scented toy, only an object with the specific scent (firearm) the trainer wanted him to detect was hidden. Once Maverick successfully detects an odor, he sits and receives his toy plus loud verbal praise from Officer Baker as his only reward: no food treats.

Officer Joe Baker and K9 Maverick
Officer Joe Baker and K9 Maverick

Baker also explained that Maverick finds objects using an “ air-scenting technique.”

“When Maverick works, he air-scents by lifting his nose and intensely sniffing the air. He moves fast to detect odors. He slows his breathing during the search. It’s so physically exhausting, he tires quickly, and his tongue hangs far out,” Baker said. “When we smell spaghetti sauce, we notice the tomato aroma. Maverick’s sense of smell is so sensitive he identifies every ingredient in an odor. He detects firearms, fired and unfired, live and spent ammunition, gun oil, black powder, smokeless powder, and pyradex explosive material.”

Officer Baker and K9 Maverick are on call 24/7 to investigate threats and work events or conduct random school searches. Baker said Maverick had already found many guns in student cars parked in school parking lots.

Maverick lives with Officer Baker, his wife Lisa, and daughters: Savannah, 16; Payton, 12 and Addy, 2. They have two female pet dogs, a French Bulldog, Nani, and Boxer, Kona.

Lt. Gazdick thanked Sergeant Kristopher Bennett, her right hand at DCSP, who helped secure Maverick’s donation from his friend, Marcus McCullugh of Limitless K9. McCullugh is a former U.S. Navy Seal who trains service and personal protection canines.

 Lt. Gazdick thanked Marina Malan of Leica’s Saving Paws Shepherd Rescue for offering potential canines to the unit and specializing in shepherd rescue. Also appreciated were Chimney Lakes Animal Hospital staff and Joshua Huitt, DVM, the unit’s designated veterinarian clinic.

“They are fantastic with our dogs. We appreciate their excellent care and compassion for these police K9s and cannot recommend them more highly,” Lt. Gazdick said.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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