When a former Ohio resident graduated from high school, she lacked a predetermined career path. September Spencer said she was driving a school bus when she decided to relocate to Chester County, where her mother had already moved. A friend suggested that she belonged in law enforcement. “He thought it would be a good fit, and I ended up loving it,” she said of the police academy. She explained that it dovetailed well with her longtime interest in helping others.
That training eventually led to the Chester County Sheriff’s Office, where she became the office’s first female K-9 handler earlier this year. Although that development was not one she could have predicted, Spencer said her hiring in 2009 by Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh did occur somewhat auspiciously.
“The Sheriff called me on my birthday to offer me the job,” Spencer recalled. “It was a great birthday present.”
Spencer began her career as a deputy in the civil division, serving court papers to county residents. In the process, she started to feel a tug in a different direction, one rooted in her childhood.
Having grown up with access to a farm owned by her grandparents, Spencer said she developed a love for animals. At the Sheriff’s Office, she found herself enamored of the K-9 Unit, a well-regarded team that marked its 10-year anniversary in 2016.
Established to serve citizens and assist law enforcement in multiple areas, the unit currently has 10 dogs, all of which are trained in tracking as well as in specialties, such as detecting bombs and explosives, drugs, accelerants, and cadavers.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what animals can do, and the opportunity to combine that with my job as a deputy really appealed to me,” Spencer said. “You don’t get that chance anywhere else.”
Spencer applied to join the team in late 2015, initiating a fiercely competitive application process. At the time, Lt. Harry McKinney, who heads the unit, explained that sometimes well-qualified candidates get turned down for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications.
“You need to match the personality of the dog with the handler,” McKinney said. “If you don’t, you could end up in a situation where the handler or the dog is too dominant.”
When she wasn’t selected, Spencer said she resigned herself to the fact that she wouldn’t be joining the unit and then got summoned by the Sheriff about a year later, this past March. “She asked me if I was still interested,” Spencer said. “When I said that I was, she urged me to double-check with my family to make sure everyone was still on board.”
McKinney explained that the responsibilities of a K-9 handler impact every person in the household. The dogs live with their handlers, who can be summoned for duty at a moment’s notice 24/7. He felt that Luke, a drug-sniffing black Labrador retriever, had a temperament that matched Spencer’s. In addition, Luke needed a warm, family environment where he would get lots of attention.
“It was love at first sight,” especially for her 10-year-old daughter, said Spencer of her family’s introduction to Luke. She explained the substantial commitment, but everyone agreed that the benefits outweighed any downsides.
“Most people don’t realize just how much work it is,” Spencer said, “but it’s definitely worth it.”
Spencer and Luke earned certification in May after a 400-hour regimen; however, that just marked the beginning. “Every day you do some sort of obedience training; it’s never-ending.”
In addition, the team does 16 hours of training per month on top of normal maintenance and grooming responsibilities. So far, the team has responded to a handful of calls requesting Luke’s drug-sniffing or tracking expertise and done numerous demonstrations for school and community groups, sometimes as many as three a week.
“Because of Luke’s temperament, he’s very popular at demos,” Spencer said. “Everybody always loves him. He’s just a sweetheart. He enjoys the interaction – as well as the attention.”
Although Spencer is sometimes introduced as the unit’s first female handler, she pointed out that her selection was not gender-driven.
“I earned it the same way any of the males did,” Spencer said.
Welsh agreed. “She attained the position through her skills and abilities,” Welsh said. “The fact that she’s the first female K-9 handler is just an extra source of pride.”