Meet Kent schools’ newest resource officer: a gun-sniffing yellow lab

Two police officers and a yellow lab on a leash pose for a picture indoors
Kent Police Chief Nick Shearer, Officer Dominic Poe and Matouš meet with the Kent Board of Education Oct. 18. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

Matouš is a 2-year-old yellow lab, happy looking as they all are, and clearly enamored with his new owner, Dominic Poe.

Matouš is also a highly trained tracker, weapons detector and therapy dog. And Poe is a Kent police officer assigned to the school district as a school resource officer. 

The pair will work together to help keep students safe under a new project envisioned by Kent City Schools Superintendent George Joseph and brought to life in partnership with the Kent Police Department.

“I was looking at an alternative to arming teachers,” Joseph said. “I just didn’t think that was the best idea because there’s more to that, and I understand our governor was trying to accommodate requests from across the state of Ohio. But for us, that’s just not an option, especially since we have weapon-free campuses and schools.”

Thinking about a combination therapy-firearms detection dog, Joseph said he asked Kent Police Chief Nick Shearer if he had any connections that would aid in locating such a creature.

“Lo and behold, I found out that not only did we have connections, but our officer, Dominic Poe, was a former dog handler and had the training already, and had been a handler for 12 years. It was a match that was just waiting to happen,” Joseph said.

Highly trained police dogs can cost over $15,000, so Joseph’s next questions were about money and breed. Joseph was concerned that most police dogs are German Shepherds, which did not match his vision of a therapy dog.

Turns out three kinds of labs are also used, with the top-rated breeds being yellow, chocolate and black labs, in that order, and priced accordingly. Matouš made the move from a specialized breeding facility in Croatia to Von der haus Gill German Shepherds, Inc, a K-9 training and breeding facility in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

There, he was being trained for another purpose, but the intended recipients could not follow through, so their loss was Kent’s gain… and at the right price.

Matouš joined Poe for $5,500: a price cut made possible because of Poe’s proven experience and the lower level of training the dog would need. Police dogs are trained to handle just about anything, but Poe could be a slightly better version of the dog he already was.

The red tape so endemic to bureaucracies, and especially government bureaucracies, simply melted away. Joseph said it took three and half weeks from his initial conversations with Shearer to gaining possession of Matouš.

Kent police used federal forfeiture funds to foot Matouš’s bill, but there was a language barrier. The dog came to America only knowing his native German, so Poe had to learn those commands and train Matouš to understand them in English.

That meant more training. No problem: Joseph obtained a $2,875 Kent Rotary Foundation grant to fund the training and kennel fees.

“There’s pretty intense training sessions for these animals,” Kent Rotary President Dave Myers said. “The dog goes away, stays in a dorm for a number of weeks, meals, and all that kind of stuff to get a dog that well trained. That’s really what our part of it was helping to cover: those training costs.”

Downplaying the grant, but his pride still evident, Myers said the Kent Rotary Club has partnered with area schools for many years, “and this is just one more thing we do to try to give back.”

Poe admitted he had initial concerns.

“Labs are not known for their obedience and some other things,” he said. “I called my chief the second day of training, and I was like, ‘Can you give me like a year to certify him because this is a mess?’ He didn’t run away, but it wasn’t that pretty cool-looking stuff like my shepherd was doing.”

The magic happened in two and a half weeks.

“He really fits the bill. He’s been phenomenal,” Poe said. “He is the most chill dog, the nicest dog I think I’ve ever seen, but I get his detection out and he goes bananas. He loves to work, he loves to search.”

As he makes his rounds at Roosevelt High School and Stanton Middle School, Poe said he hears nothing but good things from staff and students alike.

“I think it’s no secret that a lot of people just don’t like the uniform,” Poe said. “I had a lot of people that just didn’t come up and talk to me that much, or didn’t want to or were nervous about it. The same people that didn’t do that are in my office every single day. I have a group of kids, who, on their lunch period or in between classes, they are in my office every single day.”

The students hang out with Poe and Matouš as Poe writes his reports. Other kids see the pair in the hallways and can’t resist a quick pet.

“We’ve had kids that are having rough days, they come down, and they just ask to sit with him and he lays down and he just takes it in, and it’s just amazing,” Poe smiled.

Work is work, though. Poe says Matouš is ready.

“He loves to do it. Hopefully, if there is something, we find it, but cross our fingers, nothing comes in, we don’t find it,” Poe said.

Poe keeps Matouš’s skills sharp with continuing training a few hours twice a month, and also trains him at the schools.

“I’m not gonna put loaded guns out, but when we’re at [off-site] training, we do that. But one of the scents that we use is just the powder that’s in the bullets. So I can have a ziplock container with gunpowder in it, or I can get some off the wall ammo, or I can throw my magazine in a locker where I’m right there, and I can train with him at any point during the day,” Poe said.

Matouš can sniff out any kind of weapon, alerting not to the metal but to the gunpowder and oils that are used on firearms, Joseph clarified. Students do not need to be confined to classrooms while Matouš is on weapon-sniffing duty.

“This dog spends his entire day at our campus. It’s constant. He can alert on any kind of weapon or gunpowder that’s in the area even if he’s being the therapy dog. I don’t know of any other school district that has this combination with their SRO in a school,” Joseph said.

Poe glanced down at Matouš, quietly sitting next to his master.

“I don’t plan on doing tracking like we used to with the patrol dogs, like out looking for suspects of crimes and things like that,” he said. “This is going to be if a kid wanders away from school, or if we have a special ed student leave the building, or one of our nursing home patients or something like that, because this is what he’s going to do if he finds somebody.”

Kent school board president Rebekah Wright-Kulis said she had visited Roosevelt High School, and could confirm one thing: though Matouš has been on duty only a month, he’s already got a fan club. If the reception he got Oct. 18 as he was introduced to school board members is any indication, that club is only growing.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.