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Lucifer’s lessons: Richards students learn about canine policing

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He checks in at 67 pounds, with four muscular legs and a mouthful of sharp teeth.

Oh, and his name is Lucifer. So criminals might want to think twice about doing any wrong in Oak Lawn.

That is, of course, unless they want to meet Lucifer, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois and a member of the Oak Lawn Police Department.

Lucifer and his handler/partner, police officer Steve McNeela, recently visited a forensics class at Richards High School. In the theater, McNeela taught the students the finer points of working every day with a canine partner. McNeela fielded numerous questions from students.

Meanwhile, until he was given a chance to show off his considerable tracking skills, Lucifer lay on the stage, yawned, closed his eyes and took a catnap. Or is that a dognap?

Either way, his partner “was bored,” McNeela said with a smile.

The students were not. Once the ball got rolling, they peppered McNeela with questions about his line of work.

Lucifer is with McNeela 24/7, living with him and his wife in their home when he and McNeela are not out fighting crime.

“He’s good at home. We don’t have any kids yet but he’s a great dog with the neighborhood kids,” McNeela said.

Lucifer has six years in the business and McNeela hopes to get another two to four before the dog is retired. When he hangs it up, he’ll still live with McNeela and his wife. But for now, Lucifer still gets excited every time he sees McNeela put on his police uniform.

“He knows that means we’re going to work,” McNeela said.

Lucifer, who hails from the Czech Republic, is part of a growing trend. Police departments are starting to use this breed more often than in past years because German shepherds, long associated with police work, tend to have more hip problems. Judging by the way Lucifer leaped up to and down from the stage, his hips are in tiptop shape.

Lucifer is trained to find illegal drugs. He’s able to sniff out meth, heroine, cocaine, PCP, LSD, mushrooms and marijuana.

“He was trained that he’d get a toy to play with when he finds the drugs, so to him it’s play time,” McNeela said. “He thinks, ‘If I find it, I get to play.’ ”

Students laughed at that revelation. One asked how the dog could find drugs that were hidden well or even sealed in plastic.

“His nose is 1,000 times stronger than ours,” McNeela said.

Lucifer is not invincible.

“He still hates thunderstorms,” said McNeela, who added that Lucifer wears a bulletproof vest now and then, just like his human partner.

Lucifer can also track people down by following their scent. Although he may not be as good at that as, say, a bloodhound, he does hold his own, McNeela said.

Usually, the human-canine team is called in when there’s a suspicious stop of a vehicle and officers want to search the car for drugs.

“He’s very useful,” McNeela said.

If, for example, McNeela were to be threatened by someone, Lucifer would have his back.

“He’s definitely my buddy,” the 11-year officer said.

Lucifer has a strong tolerance for pain, McNeela said.

“I can say that he’s never called in sick,” he said, noting that “kennel cough,” a cold of sorts for dogs, will result in “his nose not working right.”

His nose was working just fine when Lucifer was put through the paces, finding drug samples McNeela had hidden throughout the theater. The dog scratched excitedly at the bottom of a barrel where McNeela had placed a heroin sample. Lucifer’s reward? A chance to play with one of his chew toys.

If he were to ingest some drugs, McNeela is quick to give him a dose of hydrogen peroxide “to make him throw up.”

Richards seniors John Sutko, 17, and Emily Sosnowski, 17, both of Oak Lawn; and Shannon Gardner, 18, of Worth, came away impressed.

“It was very interesting. My dad’s best friend is a cop so I knew some of this. I took the class because forensics seemed fun and it is interesting to know about things like this,” Sosnowski said.

“I have little dogs at home. This is an amazing dog,” she said.

Sutko, whose parents work in law enforcement, said, “It never fails to amaze you about what these dogs can do.”

Gardner, who has a uncle who’s a canine officer in Chicago, also was impressed after watching Lucifer in action, saying, “They can be very helpful to the police.”

Given Lucifer’s tremendous sense of smell, it’s hard for McNeela to sneak out of the house without his partner being aware.

“If I have cologne on,” he said, “his ears are pointing down because that means I’m going out without him.”



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