SALISBURY - Imagine walking into a house and smelling a cupcake. The sweet aroma would probably lure you to the kitchen. Now imagine walking into that kitchen but instead of smelling the cupcakes, you smell sugar, flour, and eggs.
You have now put yourself in the mind of K9 Storm, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever.
Storm is the first canine officer for the Salisbury VA Medical Center. She is a narcotics dog who is also capable of human tracking. As illustrated by the cupcake analogy, Storm is exceptional at differentiating scents. Officer Jonathan Smith said if she was given someone’s scarf, she could pick the person out of a lineup because of her ability to distinguish smells.
Storm was recently called in to find a patient who had left his ward without his needed oxygen. Cpl. Travis Nellis is Storm’s canine handler and an officer for the Salisbury VAMC.
Nellis described how the patient had left Building 2, but had forgotten his oxygen. It was 15 degrees outside and the patient was not wearing warm clothing.
“We gave [Storm] a pillowcase he had used to get his scent. She went to the elevator and we checked every floor, then went outside and we later found him in Building 6. That was the first time that she had a ‘live’ track and to be honest, we were amazed at how she found the veteran because there are 1,500 people around here,” Nellis said.
One of the main reasons Storm was brought to the Salisbury VA was for her tracking capability; her ability to find a person in a short amount of time can be crucial depending on the condition of the patient.
Storm started at the Salisbury VA in January, just after turning 2. She came from a trainer in Mocksville, who got her when she was 9 months old.
“Storm is the first police animal for the Salisbury VAMC and there are only nine canine officers in VA nationwide,” Nellis said.
Storm and Nellis train for about an hour each day. They have to complete eight hours of training each month: four in narcotics and four in human tracking. Nellis says they try to double or triple that.
Storm not only trains and works with Nellis, she also goes home with him.
“We have some other animals at my house, but they get along well, although my chickens probably don’t like her,” Nellis joked. “The other dogs and the kids love her.”
Nellis said he has to separate the work and play environment for Storm because she does want love and attention. He explained that Storm works for praise, so if she receives too much of it in her off time it may not mean as much when she goes to work. Nellis maintains a happy balance.
Storm is also mixing in well with the public, making regular rounds around the hospital to visit patients.
“The patients love her, so it’s good for her and them to help break the mundane. She pretty much loves everybody and they love her, so we’re not just the bad guys to some people,” Nellis said.
People at the Salisbury VA know her, and Police Chief Jason Harrington gave his take on how Storm fits in.
“We are an environment of care here at the VA – that’s a big focus in patient-centered care. Policing in a VA system is defined as 95 percent customer service and 5 percent law enforcement. We do a lot more public service - like directions and act as a helping hand. She is definitely an asset as far as community policing and she enhances our environment of care,” Harrington said.
Officer Storm may live the life of a working dog, but Nellis said at the end of the day it’s worth it.
“Her primary search and narcotic skills are good, but when it comes down to it, she’s here to save veteran’s lives -- that’s what she’s here for,” he said.
To learn more about the Salisbury VA and services they offer for veterans, click here.
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