Police department gets real-life McGruff
When a person is missing, he can find them. With a keen sense of smell and a powerful nose, Bear, a 14-month-old scent-discriminant bloodhound, joined the Mt. Lebanon Police Department in August.
“If there’s something that needs found—he’s the expert,” said Ofc. Dan McBride, Bear’s partner on the force. “That’s what he’s trained in…. He’s the best at what he does.”
Bear is the fourth K-9 officer to join the Mt. Lebanon Police Department since 1999. First came Jerd, a Czech-born German shepherd, followed by Sundi, a Hungarian-born German shepherd. Most recently the department was served by Snieper, a Belgian Malinois, born in Holland, who died of natural causes in October 2021.
Snieper, alongside his partner, Ofc. Ben Himan, served as a patrol dog, and was trained in narcotics detection, article searches, tracking and criminal apprehension.
The department made the switch to a bloodhound based on community need. Mt. Lebanon has more than a dozen schools and preschools in our dense community, with lots of young kids who have the potential to get lost. We also have a number of senior care facilities in the community, and in the last few years, some fragile seniors have been reported missing for a time. Given that history, officers saw a greater need for a K-9 trained in tracking.
“It’s more appropriate for our uses,” Deputy Chief Jason Haberman said. “We believe a tracking K-9 will be more useful than a patrol dog.”
“He’s going to be a great asset to our department,” McBride said. Bear was born in Kentucky and spent the first year of his life at Tin Star K-9 in Winnebago, Illinois, training with retired law enforcement. Onboarding him cost roughly $21,000, which included $12,000 for him and his training and $9,000 for a specialized kennel. All the costs were covered by donations.
McBride has always loved animals. In the last several months, he rescued a kitten from a sewer while on the job, and even saved a bird that had flown away. With experience raising wild raccoons, possums, birds and squirrels, it’s no wonder he was selected to serve as Mt. Lebanon’s newest K-9 officer.
In August McBride ventured to Winnebago for two weeks training with Bear. They learned how to work together and trained day and night in both urban and rural environments.
“He’s a great fit for the program,” Haberman said of Bear. “He and Dan get along great.”
When he’s not on duty, Bear lives with McBride and his family, which includes two other dogs and three kids.
Bear is named in memory of Mt. Lebanon Police Officer Jerrod Withrow, who died of colon cancer in 2021, while a member of the department. Withrow’s nickname was Bear, and the name was selected by Withrow’s parents, Gail and Randy Withrow, who were the lead donors in raising the money for the K-9 .
“Every time that Bear goes on a call, it’s a little memory of him living on,” McBride said.
Bear’s main job will be tracking, but that doesn’t just mean searching for a missing person. He can also respond to situations such as domestic disputes, where a person fled the scene on foot, or when a person dealing with mental health issues wanders away. McBride can think of many calls over the last several years that the department or neighboring departments have responded to where Bear would have been an asset.
Because he’s not trained to bite like many of the German shepherd dogs and Malinois K-9s, Bear can be used on a larger variety of calls.
“He’s trained to find people and lick them, basically,” McBride said. “He’ll get praise and treats. That’s his drive to find that person. All his training is praise and treats. Plus, it’s in his blood. Once they smell something, they want to find it.”
During his first few weeks on the job, Bear spent time adapting to Mt. Lebanon, which felt like a big city to him after living on a farm. He had to get used to all of the noises from construction vehicles and riding in a car to patrol at night.
McBride has lots of big plans for Bear. He will do school visits and appear at community events. He also will provide scent collection kits to people in the community whose relatives are prone to running away or getting lost.
On a typical call, Bear could be given a garment that a missing person left behind. But if that garment has been handled by others in the house, Bear would need to eliminate those scents before heading out to track, which menas he would have to smell every person in the house before beginning tracking. Having an individual’s scent pre-saved will allow him to do his job quicker.“It’s essentially getting ahead of the ball,” McBride said.
TOP LEVEL Out of 660 firefighters worldwide who have received the Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, six are members of the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department. Lt. Joe Gavita recently joined that group of esteemed firefighters.
According to the Center for Public Safety Excellence, earning the designation involves “broad professional accomplishments and … lifelong career excellence and achievement.” All of this is verified through a peer-review panel and interview process.
“It showed me how far I’ve come. It solidified all the hard work that I’ve done,” Gavita said of the certification, which must be renewed every three years.
The individual accreditation helps fire officers identify their strengths and weaknesses and chart out a plan for growth.
“They look at what you’ve done to help the community,” Gavita said.
Stacking on the credentials, Gavita also received the Fire Instructor 2 Certification through the Office of State Fire Commissioner. He has always had an interest in teaching and is excited to share his knowledge.
“I’ve been doing this for 19 years. It’s nice that I can start passing along some of what I’ve learned to others,” he said.
TRICK OR TREAT SAFETY Trick or Treat in Mt. Lebanon is on October 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. If your kiddos are headed out trick-or-treating, the Mt. Lebanon Police Department has some helpful tips to keep them safe.
If you can, go out with them. Make it a family affair. Make sure youngsters don’t run out in the middle of the street. Cars are still on the road. Dress your kids in bright colors so drivers can see them. Make sure their costumes—especially if they include masks—don’t obstruct their view.
Be safe and have fun!
LOOK UP LEBO Leaves are falling and the weather is starting to chill. Be careful when you’re driving. Fallen leaves can make for slick roads. Leave extra space between cars and make sure to go slow enough to stop.
FIRE PREVENTION October is Fire Prevention Month, with the week of October 9-15 specifically dedicated to raising awareness for fire prevention. This is the National Fire Protection Association’s 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week, where the theme is, “Fire won’t wait. Plan your escape.”
The Mt. Lebanon Fire Department wants to take this opportunity to remind you of its safety and fire prevention programs.
Looking for ways to make your home safer? Fire safety experts will visit your home and help you make adjustments. They’ll provide smoke detector checks and offer fire safety consultations to help keep your family safe. Make an appointment online.
For more, visit their website, mtlfd.org.
VOLUNTEERS Now is the perfect time to join the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department as a volunteer. Classes for volunteer firefighters start soon and you will want to sign up early.