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Meet Shawn and Nitro: What it’s like being South Simcoe Police’s only K9 unit

The K9 unit searches for missing people and criminals. Today marks one month since Bradford’s Christian Robinson went missing

Running through a snowy forest in Innisfil on a cold February day, South Simcoe Police Const. Shawn Gwilliam was looking for a missing boy.

Leading the way was police dog Nitro.

The pair searched for well over an hour, with Nitro using his keen sense of smell to give them direction. Time was of the essence.

“There were some health concerns and safety concerns because of the weather,” Gwilliam said. “We ended up going over something like 10 fences.”

Becoming more frantic as they got closer, Nitro eventually led Gwilliam straight to the boy, who was found safe.

“(It was) rewarding, surprising. You’re in the middle of the woods, it was cold out. It makes all the hard work super worth it,” he said.

The search this past winter showcased Gwilliam and Nitro in their element as the South Simcoe Police Service’s only K9 team.

Their job is to find people — good guys and bad guys.

In Bradford West Gwillimbury and area, several people have gone missing in the last few months.

Today marks one month since Bradford’s Christian Robinson, 46, went missing, and investigators are urging members of the public to come forward with any information.

He was last seen leaving his house June 12 around 3:30 p.m. in the 6th Line and Simcoe Road area.

In June, Bradford’s Denise Cummings, 52, went missing before eventually returning home.

Yuefen Ying, 56, of China, who speaks little to no English, went missing from her son’s home in Bradford in May before being found safe.

A 36-hour search for Innisfil’s Kenneth Armstrong, 75, by several police and search and rescue organizations in May ended after he was located by a resident in a wooded area.

Innisfil’s Opal Dunbar-Adams, 42, also went missing in May before being found.

While Gwilliam is hesitant to open up too much about his cases, he has been working with Nitro for the past two years to search for all kinds of people and objects.

While looking for missing people, Nitro uses his trusty nose to quickly narrow the search area.

“We search with our eyes. He searches with his nose,” Gwilliam said.

When he gets close to the person or object for which he is searching, “he displays a change in behaviour (and) he would become a lot more frantic.”

This is where the pair’s close relationship comes in handy so Gwilliam can read Nitro’s body language.

Just two years into their relationship, Gwilliam said he and Nitro know each other very well.

“The trainers say, ‘Trust your dog,’” he said. “I know when he’s having a good day and a bad day and, even though he can’t tell (me), I bet he knows when I’m having a good or bad day.”

But sometimes they are not searching for regular missing people, rather criminals or stolen property or evidence.

In late June, for example, Gwilliam and Nitro were called to a house where an armed man was hiding in the attic.

At 55 pounds, Nitro was small enough to slip into the attic and bark at the man.

“We used the dog as a deterrent. They gave up,” said Gwilliam. “Just his presence and his intimidation as a deterrent was good.”

Another aspect of Nitro’s job is as an ambassador for the South Simcoe Police Service.

He and Gwilliam visit schools and other organizations to answer questions, and there is even a special colouring book with pictures of Nitro for kids.

Nitro, a 22-month-old German shepherd from Slovakia, came to South Simcoe Police through a dog breeder connection with the York Regional Police.

Gwilliam and Nitro spent time bonding before they trained together in tracking people, area, building and article searches, apprehension, obedience, and handler protection, he said.

Gwilliam works all of his shifts with Nitro, who also lives at home with him.

“It’s a big commitment,” he said.

Although they live together, Nitro is kept in an outdoor kennel separate from Gwilliam and his pet dog so as not to interfere with his training and readiness to work.

If Nitro runs around at home playing, he could be too tired to do a search if they are called into action, Gwilliam said.

“He’s not treated like a pet. He’s not food trained — he’s reward trained. He doesn’t get treats. He doesn’t get a bone to chew on,” he said.

But Gwilliam does take care of Nitro — he trains with him every day, feeds and brushes him, and clips his nails. Nitro gets Dentastix donated by Pet Value in Bradford to chew on for his oral health, and ice cubes on hot days.

Nitro also gets toy rewards after doing something positive for work, Gwilliam said.

“Everyone thinks we’re so mean to these dogs. He’s taken care of pretty good,” he said.

While he is “pretty chill” at home, Nitro loves being at work, Gwilliam said.

“He seems a lot more content. He’s happy; he’s super easygoing,” he said. “It’s all a game to him. They want to do one of their special tasks … and they get a reward. His ball is the greatest thing in the world. It’s one of his favourite things.”

Nitro is the South Simcoe Police Service’s fifth police dog. The first one, now deceased, started with the service in 1997.

Once the dogs retire, they become family pets for the officers they worked with, and they no longer have to live under the same rules.

But, for now, he is hard at work as a police dog.

“Throughout the day, if there’s anything he can assist on, we obviously jump on that. It’s a juggling act,” Gwilliam said. “It’s my job to keep him safe. (And) that’s his job to make it safer for me, possibly another victim that’s there (and) members of the community. You just hope the situation works out properly.”