Behind The Badge: K9 Heros
[su_heading size=”30″]K9 Officers And Their Well-trained Humans[/su_heading]
Story and photographs by Troy Taysom
[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”4″]W[/su_dropcap]hen Odysseus returned from his 20-year absence, as told in Homer’s The Odyssey, he went unrecognized by his fellow Ithacans.
Odysseus gazed upon his faithful dog Argos, the only one in the city to recognize him. The dog
had waited faithfully for the return of his master. Old and sick, Argos laid listless, and upon seeing his master, was finally able to die in peace, having fulfilled his commitment to remain faithful.
Dogs have been part of the human experience since the beginning of time. At one time, wolves and humans even hunted in partnership – the wolf as the tracker, the human as the killer – and both shared the spoils. Domestication followed, and with that came the realization that a dog can be a loyal friend. Today, dogs are employed in various roles, including protectors and fellow officers in our law enforcement agencies.
Police use multiple breeds of dogs in their work. They choose them based on the animals’
ability to accomplish specific missions. Beagles, for example, are often used in airports as agriculture or bomb dogs; Labrador retrievers are great as bomb and cadaver dogs; bloodhounds are renowned as human trackers and German shepherds and Belgian Malinois (mal-in-nwah) are most often used as narcotics, patrol and bomb dogs.
Attributes such as high energy, aggressiveness and a willingness to do anything for a reward are essential for traits in these dogs. They all love to play, but when it comes time to apprehend a suspect or protect an officer, playtime is over. The loyalty they have for their human partners knows no limits, and many have given their lives protecting them.
Tagging along with several K9 officers from different departments around Utah, I was fortunate enough to watch Trigger and Loki in action. Trigger is a pure-bred, American Kennel Club-papered Malinois, and Loki is a German shepherd-Malinois mix. Both dogs came from the Czech Republic, where they received their initial bite training. Interestingly, all of the commands the K9 officers used were in Czech. I asked Officer Scott Nielsen, Loki’s partner, if this was done so that suspects couldn’t confuse the dog with contradictory commands. Scott said, “That’s a benefit, but we mostly do it because that is the language the dogs were originally taught, so we try to keep it consistent.”
Both Trigger and Loki are dual-purpose dogs, having been trained in narcotics and patrol. Each discipline requires hundreds of hours of initial training and hundreds of hours each year in reinforcement training. Their work does not leave room for error, and these partnerships train accordingly.
K9 disciplines and training
Each discipline, or area of expertise, requires unique and demanding training. Narcotics, agriculture, patrol and bomb specialties are the most common disciplines found within security or law enforcement agencies. Other disciplines include tracking, search, rescue and recovery to name a few.
A dog must be able to repeatedly find and hit on six different narcotics: marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine, cocaine and psilocybin mushrooms, magic mushrooms. The dogs must be able to find these drugs anywhere they are hidden, including areas where they can’t reach, such as a high shelf or deeply buried. These dogs are also trained to differentiate and ignore prescription drugs, as well as find money that has the scent of narcotics, but ignore money that doesn’t.
When the dog performs the task correctly, they are rewarded with a bite toy. This toy means everything to them, so much so that dogs that are not “toy motivated” may not make the cut as a police dog. The toy is the reward and is only given if and when they signal correctly. If the officer conducts a search and no drugs are found, the dog does not get the toy. Even if the dog hits on the scent of drugs no longer there, no toy is given.
I asked Officer Nielsen if this was demoralizing for the dog or if it could hurt the dog’s effectiveness. “If we have a particularly bad day and Loki keeps striking out, then I’ll get out my scent-training kit and we’ll train to keep him excited and focused,” he replied.
Bomb and patrol training
Explosive devices have become a real threat, especially since the Boston marathon bombings a few years ago. Bomb dogs are trained to detect 24 base chemicals and over 2,400 combinations of chemicals used to make bombs. For security reasons I will not list the base chemicals, but suffice it to say that many are common items found in most homes. Agencies look for high-drive dogs to be bomb specialists, and they don’t do nearly as much obedience training as patrol dogs do. They want a dog that will be independent and aggressive about searching for items without human restrictions.
These dogs also search for firearms because gunpowder, in all of its forms, is one of the scents a bomb dog is trained to recognize. While finding bombs is their main job, they most often find firearms.
The patrol discipline includes building searches, tracking people, suspect apprehension, obedience, searching for articles, and handler protection. This is a completely separate form of training and requires its own certification and criteria.
The initial cost of getting a dog is steep. Each dog costs between $8,000 and $12,000, plus every K9-patrol vehicle must be equipped with a kennel, door poppers and a “hot-pop.” The hot-pop kit protects the dogs; once the interior of the vehicle reaches 98 degrees Fahrenheit, the lights and sirens are activated, the windows roll down and a big fan turns on.
The training for these law enforcement agencies – at least the ones I interviewed – is free through the Utah POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) program, and it is a rigorous, eight-week-long course for each discipline, with a tough final exam. Just making it through the course is not enough.
What it takes to be a handler
Officer Nielsen said it best: “We’re the firemen of the police department.” Everybody loves firemen and everybody loves K9s. In fact, the community donates much of the money required to operate a K9 unit.
Being a police officer is a commitment; being a K9 handler is life changer. As a K9 handler you take your partner home with you, and the dog becomes part of your family. All of the officers I met shared how much they and their families loved their dogs.
K9 officers also spend time off the clock conducting demonstrations for schools, churches and other civic groups. When used correctly, these units are a wonderful community-outreach tool. Who doesn’t love a dog? When I was a kid, police dogs were unapproachable and officers wouldn’t allow people to pet them. Times have changed. Not only can you pet a police dog now, but the officers encourage it. The dogs are socialized from a young age and are excellent with people, especially children-. All of the K9 handlers I met – Officers Brough, Nielsen, Lopez, Dutson and Arnoldsen – were kind and exemplary representatives of their respective departments, and were happy to share some great stories of when their partners made the day:
Can I check your bags for you? Officer Nielsen was doing a good deed and driving two young ladies down on their luck to the bus station. Once they arrived, the girls asked if they could see and pet the K9. Nielsen let Loki out of his kennel and the ladies petted and played with him while Nielsen unloaded the luggage. Loki was enjoying the extra attention until one of the suitcases was placed on the ground. Loki immediately sat down and starred at the case. Nielsen gave him the command to search and Loki went to the suitcase, bit it and then sat down again.
Officer Nielsen told the ladies that Loki was a narcotics dog and that he had indicated that there were drugs inside the suitcase. Sure enough, one of the girls had a pound of marijuana, along with all the necessary paraphernalia. If the girls had never asked to pet the dog, they would never have been caught. These dogs are always working, even when they appear to be playing.
Hide and seek: Bomb dog Zippy, Officer Art Lopez’s Belgian shepherd, has found firearms when patrol officers couldn’t.
“Zippy and I were called to search a car suspected in a drive-by shooting,” he recalled. “The officers had been searching the car for more than an hour, to no avail. Zippy found the gun in less than 2 minutes. It was a .38 Special revolver and had been hidden at the bottom of the car’s engine compartment. There’s no way the patrol guys would have found that gun, and without it they couldn’t have made an arrest.” Good dog!
You must have met my dog before …: “We had a series of burglaries where firearms had been stolen,” Nielsen recollected. “The suspect was a known felon, with a distinctive tattoo on his neck. A few days later I made a traffic stop and immediately recognized the passenger as the suspect we were looking for, and who also happened to have a parole warrant. The suspect kept reaching down between the seat and the door. After telling him three times to stop reaching down and to keep his hands where I could see them, I drew my gun and ordered him out of the car. He exited and immediately started fighting with me, then took off running. I warned him that I was going to release my dog, but he kept running anyway. I released Loki who, within a matter of seconds, apprehended the suspect by the ribs and then the calf. Nine months later, Loki and I ran into the same guy at a different call. This time, remembering who I was, he immediately surrendered.”
The next time you see a K9 officer and their partner, thank them for their service and ask about their dog. I promise that they will be happy to tell you all about them, and may let you and your kids pet them and take pictures. It will be an experience you’ll never forget. ASJ