Bela circled around five vehicles with her handler, Detective Joe Angarone of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. Two of them had drugs hidden somewhere in the exterior of the vehicle; it was the Belgian Malinois’s job to find them. She sniffed and sniffed until she found a packet stashed away in the crease of a door.
“One more,” thought Anagarone, and after barely a cursory sniff of the fourth vehicle, Bela darted, pulling Angarone to the fifth car and indicating a hide in the front headlight quarter panel. Then, the judges called time.
It wasn’t a warrant search or a vehicle stop—it was a competition. Bela and Anagarone competed in the 2016 United States Police Canine Association National Scent Trial June 13-15 in Philadelphia, and the pair placed seventh overall out of 38 teams with a score on 196 out of 200 possible points. In addition to the car search, they also did a room search, where Bela was tasked with finding hides in both high and low cabinets in a rectangular room. She reached the upper-level cabinets by keeping her back legs on the floor and putting her front legs onto the countertop. At one point, she also jumped up onto the countertop, too.
All told, Bela finished searching the cars in 3:44 and the room in 5:19. In addition to the seventh-place overall finish, Hamilton resident Angarone and Bela also earned a fourth-place finish in room searches, netting a near-perfect score of 199 out of 200.
Their impressive showing did not surprise Ron Buchanan, a Lawrence Township officer who trains with Angarone—and who helped him acquire Bela.
“They’re both a good team,” he said. “When you work a dog, if you are nervous, it all runs down the lead. You tend to not be as successful. Joe is very carefree, but he takes his job seriously. He knows he doesn’t have his dog’s nose, so he trusts her. And the dog does the same back.”
Angarone got Bela from Fontaine d’Or Malinois in Ontario, Canada when she was just 3 months old. Buchanan told Angarone about her after visiting and picking up his own dog. Angarone previously had a black lab named Rome for six years, but after Rome had to be put down, he was ready for another companion.
“Just the energy that she has is incredible,” Angarone said. “Malinois will go and go and go. The labs will go, but not like the Malinois. The drive in a Malinois is incredible. It’s natural to them.”
Most police dogs start training at about a year and a half, but Anagarone and Buchanan started training Bela at 12-weeks old. She was able to search and find items almost from the get-go.
“Picking dogs, a lot of people say puppies are a crapshoot,” Buchanan said. “But sometimes you can see it, and Bela was very special from day one. You could see the drive that dog had and how much she wanted to work.”
Bela is currently a single-purpose narcotics dog. She went through training and was certified by the Mercer County Sheriff’s K-9 Academy at 11 months old. They participate in an in-service training session once a month, and Angarone works with Bela on his own whenever he can. At work, they do vehicle and home searches, and according to the prosecutor’s office, Bela has been responsible for the seizure of more than $2 million in cash and over $3 million in narcotics.
She loves training, and aside from working, Anagarone felt the scent trial competition was the perfect outlet for that.
“I thought she was a good fit,” he said. “I thought we would have a good chance of coming out well, and that’s why I wanted to do it. Plus, with all the training that I do with her, I felt like she was capable of winning.”
Angarone had always wanted to compete in the scent trials, but this year was the first time it was held close enough for him to go. He considered traveling to Jackson, Mississippi, for last year’s contest, but he ultimately decided against it. When he saw that the national trials were set for Philadelphia, he was sold.
The pair first had to compete in a regional trial in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in March. They placed second out of 42 teams. At both the regional and national competitions, each dog’s goal was to find two hides in five cars and two hides in three rooms. If the dog indicates in a room where nothing is hidden, points are taken off. If the dog misses two hides, the team is disqualified.
Spectators and judges watched the searches, but Angarone said the waiting was the hardest part.
“There’s almost 40 dogs competing,” he said. “You’re waiting around a long time. You have to wait until your number is called. You figure five cars, it’s going to take at least 10 minutes before they call your dog. You’re waiting and waiting and waiting, so you have a lot of build up and stress. When you get over there to the area, there’s at least five judges and spectators watching you. It’s stressful. You want to do well.”
He’s looking forward to next year’s trials, which may be held in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Angarone, a Hamilton native, has been with the prosecutor’s office for 18 years. He previously worked with a sheriff’s department in Vermont—he graduated from Southern Vermont College—for three years. His parents, Ron and Eileen, owned Ron’s Sunday Lunch in Trenton and the Quaker Bridge Plaza Eatery in Hamilton.
Angarone’s interest in becoming a police officer goes back to his youth.
“I was with the Hamilton Township Police Explorers when I was growing up, and it always seemed like an interesting field,” he said. “It seemed fun. I always wanted to work in narcotics and with a K9. It always seemed like it was an interesting and exciting field. The dog always seemed fun because they’re like an arm of the cop. They have such good noses.”
It’s satisfying, he said, when Bela and other dogs are able to find drugs stashed away after a whole team of officers searched and came up empty.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “I consider her a really good dog. I don’t really have to doubt that there’s something in a room or in a car if she doesn’t indicate. They’re not 100 percent. They have bad days like humans have bad days. I would never say any dog is 100 percent correct all the time, because that’s definitely not true. But she’s good. And I trust her.”