A German shepherd sniffs intently among boxes in the basement of the St. Clair County Building, then suddenly sits and stares purposefully at a crevice in the stack.
Nitro, the new canine unit of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, has found sodium chloride -- a key component of some homemade bombs.
Nitro's handler Deputy Matt Dobler planted the sodium chloride as an example of the dog's training during a patrol Tuesday of the St. Clair County Building. While narcotic dogs are sometimes trained to paw at contraband, bomb-detecting dogs do not paw at the material because it may explode.
Dobler described the 87-pound dog as having a very laid back personality, which Nitro showcased as kids and adults petted him and complimented Dobler while the duo searched the courthouse.
"We went to St. Teresa's (Catholic School in Belleville) and in every classroom kids were climbing on top of him, loving on him, but we go outside and he's ready to do his job," Dobler said.
A job that includes regularly patrolling all county-owned buildings, schools who request patrols, Southwestern Illinois College, MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah and MetroLink stops.
While Nitro is primarily trained in detecting bomb-related materials, St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said the German shepherd is also capable of tracking and apprehending suspects along with detecting some drugs.
The canine unit has also begun unscheduled patrols of the county's Grants Department and Health Department at 19 Public Square in Belleville. The unit will randomly patrol all areas of the building but will not patrol inside the Health Department's clinic on the first floor, according to Watson.
"Generally, you do not want dogs in a medical facility unless there is probable cause," Watson said.
Watson said Nitro was purchased about six months ago following concerns prompted by the bombing of the Boston Marathon. The bombing claimed the lives of three people and injured about 260 others in April.
"After this happened in Boston, I realized this is pretty important and we need to have a (bomb-sniffing dog) here because we are in a metropolitan area right next to St. Louis," Watson said.
Nitro receives training every day, including instruction with the U.S. Marshals and military personnel with Scott Air Force Base. The 4-year-old dog meets standards set by the federal Department of Defense for an explosive canine unit.
When not searching, Nitro paces in the front and back of Dobler to ensure no one sneaks up on the deputy.
Some people are nervous about approaching a canine unit, however, Nitro is not trained to be aggressive unless apprehending a suspect or defending Dobler. Nitro is friendly, but the public should not attempt to pet canine units strictly trained to be aggressive.
Watson said Nitro is a big hit on his patrols and receives treats everywhere he goes.
"We wants kids and the public to know we have a dog out there protecting your safety," Watson said. "You can approach the dog and pet it."
As one of only two bomb-sniffing dogs south of Springfield, Watson said Nitro is often called out to assist law enforcement officers.
For example, Nitro assisted police in a shooting investigation on Sunday near Belleville. The Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis continues investigating the shooting death of Darrin Hayes, of the 5900 block of Gateway Industrial Drive.
In December, Nitro found a key piece of evidence that helped solidify charges against two men for shooting at a deputy.
Derrick D. Garner, 24, of Cahokia, and Anthony D. Garner, 23, of Fairview Heights, allegedly fired upon deputies as they fled from officers in a car near the neighborhood of Parkfield Terrace.
While officers were unable to locate a bullet shell from the shooting in the suspects' car, Dobler said Nitro found the casing within 30 seconds.
"In my opinion, Nitro paid for himself with that one example," Dobler said. "He took someone off the streets by being able to proved he was shooting at the deputy."
Derrick Garner faces nine felony charges and Anthony Garner faces a felony charge of obstructing justice related to the arrest. .
Nitro was also one of the bomb-sniffing dogs that canvassed St. Clair Square after a bomb threat at the Fairview Heights mall on Jan. 17. The threat was deemed unfounded after police searched the mall for four hours.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.