Even when it's just pretend, hearing gunshots echo through a school and seeing children play dead in a hallway makes your heart race and your stomach sick. Now, a former Navy SEAL says he has the solution to stopping school shootings: He's training dogs to find them and take them down.
"That's what I've been trained to do, is to deal with these situations," Joshua Morton told the News4 I-Team.
After five tours overseas, Morton returned home and put his skills as a K-9 handler into action. He began training police dogs to detect drugs or explosives, teaching them what he calls the Morton Method. Then he started seeing images of what weapons of war were doing here at home.
"I did not expect to see what I saw overseas, to see it in schools. But, unfortunately, it's happening," Morton said. "I've been trying to find this solution for a very long time."
He says that solution started with finding the right dog — one he could train to run toward the sound of gunfire. He demonstrated the dog's ability for the I-Team at a training facility outside his home in Chariton, Iowa. His friend, Jimmy, acts as the gunman, and repeatedly fires an assault rifle with blank rounds. His gunshots cue the dog that it's time to work. Morton acts as the dog's handler, a critical role.
"We're not just releasing the dog and the dog's just randomly searching the building. It's a combo. It's a team," Morton said.
He says he makes the training as real as possible. His friends pose as students and run away from the gunfire. The dog is not distracted. It uses its senses of sound, smell and sight to find the right room and Jimmy holding the gun. Sometimes Jimmy wears a protective suit. Sometimes the dog wears a muzzle instead.
It definitely isn't Jimmy the dog is after. During the demonstration, the dog aggressively attacks Jimmy once he finds him. Minutes later, without the gun, Jimmy approaches and the dog jumps up to say hello, tail wagging.
"They're trained to deal with that specific situation," Morton said.
The next day, Morton arranges to demonstrate the dog's capability at Chariton High School, this time with parents and students from the town watching and participating.
"Everybody says it's not going to happen here. That's what everybody says and then it happens there," said Nicci Chandler, a mother of five and substitute teacher who participated in the demonstration.
"It's amazing just to zone everything out and go for their targets," Chandler said.
She brought two of her children to see the dog in action and was impressed as he ran right by them. The dog also ignored Jimmy's protective suit, deliberately left lying on the floor in the hallway, to ensure that's not what the K-9 focused on.
The dog ran through multiple doorways, guided by Morton, then, off leash, located Jimmy — all within 20 seconds of the gunfire starting. Morton would like to see one of his dogs embedded in every school in the country.
"I think it would be a great thing to have, no question," Chandler said. "So, if it does happen you're ready."
Matt Seitz works as a sheriff's deputy in Houston County, Minnesota. He helped Morton develop the active shooter K-9 idea.
"The school that we're in is not vulnerable," said Seitz, adding that he doesn't worry about the dog attacking responding officers because by the time they arrive, an active shooting situation is usually over.
Plus, active shooters are often students or former students. Seitz says the students knowing a K-9 is there and trained to attack is a deterrent.
"Right now, in the United States the status quo outcome is, when there is an active shooter event, kids die," Seitz said. "And we're not status quo."
But defeating that status quo comes with a hefty price tag: $125,000 per year for a dog and trained handler. Seitz says it's impossible to put a value on safety.
"We're not depending on just a locked door, we have a thinking person with you know, the thinking dog," he said.
Morton says most dogs are not capable of grasping that level of thinking and training. When he found one that was, he started creating new ones specifically for this mission.
"Cloning allows me to be consistent," Morton said. "Now, I know that I can tell a client, 'Hey, I'll have this dog ready in nine months."
He currently has five cloned puppies in training. He gets them at 8 weeks old and says most can complete the training by the time they're a year old. He says besides the intellect, the dogs have a suitable demeanor. They aren't particularly interested in people, but they are friendly enough to spend their day around students.
Morton told the I-Team the disposition and personality of the Active Shooter K-9 is just as critical as the intellect. He says the dogs are friendly enough to say hello to strangers and then quickly move on without fixating on them.
"I think that that's something that's genetic, a dog that's just neutral to people,” Morton said.
He first tried breeding the dogs but quickly realized many of the litters did not result in dogs with the same demeanor, creating puppies that were not suitable to be Active Shooter K-9s.
"Not to say they're not great dogs, they make great pets," Morton said. "But that's just not my clientele. I'm not a company that sells pets."
Once he found the perfect specimen, he began using a company in Texas to inject that dog's DNA into the eggs of female dogs. The puppies are then carried and born like normal dogs.
"It’s way more effective, way more efficient," Morton said.
Because the training and performance of these dogs is highly specialized, and they will be working around children, Morton needs to be able to guarantee their consistency and stability.
Morton says the first clone is slated to start work at a school in Minnesota in January. He's already heard from about 10 others expressing interest once they see how that first one goes.
"Some of the logistics of who handles the dog, where the dog stays during the day and then just student safety alongside the dog are still some just question marks," said Chariton High Assistant Principal Tim Milledge.
Milledge wonders how most schools would afford a dog and handler but says he sees the value. If they take a gunman's attention off of students and teachers just for a few seconds, it might be the time they need to escape an active shooter.
"We want to keep our kids safe, so it's pretty impressive what the dogs are able to do," Milledge said.
Morton says the dogs cannot do it alone. He already has a waiting list of willing handlers who know what it's like to face an automatic weapon: veterans.
"You can't expect your gym teacher to do this," Morton said. "What we're trying to look for is people with some kind of experience dealing with an active shooter type scenario."
In Parkland, Florida a school resource officer is criminally charged for failing to enter the building to stop an active shooter. Morton says his dogs won't have that fear.
"I am sending the dog as a canary," Morton said. "It's a hard pill to swallow but I'm sorry, it's reality. I would rather it be him than a child or somebody else."