Students at St. Teresa School in Belleville got the first chance to meet the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department's new bomb-sniffing dog, Nitro, during a presentation Tuesday on safety.
Two classes of prekindergarten students and two classes of kindergartners met Nitro and learned about "stranger danger," as well as how to be safe at school and at home.
Almost in unison, students roared "awesome" when the dog entered the gym. Many took pictures with Nitro, played with him or got to pet him.
"Neat," said student Aidan Alvarez.
Aidan said he learned "that it's important not to talk to strangers. And if someone asks you to help them find their dog, and you don't know them, don't do it."
Sheriff Richard Watson said the German shepherd cost $8,000 and will be highly visible in the community -- at schools, MetroLink and other public places. Watson said there is only one other bomb-sniffing dog in Illinois south of Springfield, which means the Sheriff's Department could get assistance calls from 40 or so counties in the region. The other bomb-sniffing dog in the region is owned by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Nitro's handler is Deputy Matt Dobbler.
"He was trained in northern Iowa and is trained just to sniff out explosives," Dobbler said. "One of the sheriff's key points is public safety and safety of the children. We will be at schools and courthouses and many other places."
Dobbler said the dog's abilities have amazed him.
"This dog has an IPO rating of 3, which means he is very smart. I can tell you that he can almost get a soda pop out of the refrigerator. He's unbelievable," Dobbler said.
Nitro weighs 74 pounds and is 4 years old.
Prekindergarten teacher Nikki Mueller said it's good for the children to see a police officer at school.
"We want the children to know that police officers are members of our community, and they're here to help us," Mueller said. "Sometimes kids think police officers are scary. It's important that children know who the trusted adults are, and that they can go to them if they have a problem."
Student Jeremy Grime, 6, said he learned that "if a stranger asks you a question, don't answer. And if a stranger tells you his dog is missing and asks you to please help him find it, run home and tell your mom and dad."
Student Brooke Boide, 6, said, "Strangers can hurt you."
Deputy Darren Fults talked with the children about safety.
"We want to reinforce what is good behavior if a stranger approaches and what is not," Fults said afterward. "For example, if they're approached by someone in a vehicle, we want them to remember what the vehicle looks like, where they are, and what the person looks like. These are some of the questions that the police and parents ask, so the police can hopefully catch the person."
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.