LAND O’ LAKES – The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is upping its game when it comes to K9 police dog training and treatment.

The agency broke ground Nov. 15 at the future site of the Helen A. Rich K9 Training and Research Complex. The training center will be adjacent to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Aviation Hanger, which is part of the Pasco County Jail complex, off U.S. 41, south of State Road 52.

The training center is part of a larger, ongoing endeavor that will become the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactics, or FIRST.

Included at the K9 complex will be a veterinary science center, a K9 indoor training facility, an obstacle course and a rubble pile for search-and-rescue training.

“The Helen A. Rich K9 Complex will set the standard for both the United States and abroad for advanced training techniques in airport security, explosive and drug detection and search and recovery by building upon the oxytocin-rich relationship that humans and their K9s have shared for thousands of years,” said Heather Walsh-Haney, an anthropologist specializing in the forensic investigation of skeletal remains. Walsh-Haney is program leader for the Department of Justice Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, in Fort Myers, and spoke at last Thursday’s press conference, along with University of Florida forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield.

The K9 complex is being named after Helen A. Rich. The Odessa resident is heir to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune as well as being an author, businesswoman and founder of On the Wings of Angels Rescue, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving, training and relocating dogs.

Rich was at the press conference last week and addressed the 80-90 people in attendance, saying that five driving forces in her life are family, horses, dogs, military and law enforcement. “This hits two out of the big five — no-brainer.”

In addition to offering high-level training to police dogs and their handlers, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and Walsh-Haney touched on how the K9 complex will provide other state-of-the-art services.

“We will be actively caring for the wellbeing and the physical and emotional aspects of what K9s and their handlers go through,” Walsh-Haney said, describing her experiences participating in search-and-rescue efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. “It’s all too common that we haven’t properly cared for the K9s that work in these types of environments as well as their handlers. So with the Helen A. Rich K9 Complex, this is going to fill that deficiency by providing state-of-the-art veterinary services, innovative K9 training, customized nutritional programs, specialized behavioral programs for our K9s.”

The K9 complex groundbreaking follows a golden-shovel ceremony Sept. 19 at the same Land O’ Lakes location for the entirety of the multi-site FIRST complex. The central facility, the Thomas Varnadoe Forensics Education and Research Center, will also be in Land O’ Lakes, with other buildings planned at two other sites.

A digital image used as a backdrop for last week’s press conference stated that the K9 complex is projected to open by the fall of 2019.

Education is central to the entire FIRST complex’s mission, and not just for forensics experts and law enforcement, Nocco said. The sheriff’s office is working with students enrolled at Pasco County high schools and Pasco eSchool.

“In the next two years we’ll have a dual enrollment program,” Nocco said. “In that dual enrollment program we want them to be involved and they’re going to learn. They’re going to be a part of this, so we’re building up the next generation of leaders. When you talk about legacy, legacies are built through the generations and that’s what this whole facility is going to be out there.”