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It's a Police Dog's Life


Posted on September 21

Terrence Duffy / 521 Productions.com

It takes more than four legs and a game face to make it as a K9 cop. These beautiful beasts have brawn and brains, speed and keen senses. They never complain, they work long hours and head straight into dangerous situations unarmed. Meet Sacramento's finest and bravest.

Surrender or risk injury. K9 unit about to be released.

The suspect&emdash;a two-legged cop&emdash;waits behind a door at the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department headquarters, where he is participating in a training exercise. A police dog named Grek is released with the command Go get him, boy! On paws of lightning, the 3-year-old German shepherd speeds down a hallway and disappears around the corner. There is sniffing and a few loud thumps. Suddenly he's back, sliding around the corner&emdash;bam!&emdash;into the wall. The dog, his nose to the floor at the closed door, makes not so much as a whimper. Next, he jumps upright, his mighty body covering the full door frame, scratching and sniffing wildly, dragging in the human scent. He backs off, barely sits, bursting with energy. Then he barks: a loud bark, a purposeful bark, a mailman's-here bark&emdash;but more so. A bark with meaning.

Grek glances at his partner, Sgt. Raylene Cully, making eye contact.

She nods.

He barks again, jumps up on the door again and sits back again.

He does this three times.

On Cully's command, Grek returns to his partner, and the suspect&emdash;despite the fact that he's done this many times before&emdash;emerges cautiously.

Lassie schmassie.

• Grek may be a dog, but he also is an officer, assigned to the sheriff's Canine Enforcement Detail. The department has 23 K9 teams, each made up of a human officer and a canine partner. Some of the dogs are used for detecting bombs and narcotics, but it's the patrol dogs, say officers, that work the hardest and have the most dangerous jobs. Patrol dogs work just about every high-end call&emdash;in other words, dangerous situations and complicated pursuits, when two legs and a gun just aren't enough.

They are arguably Sacramento's bravest. And you won't find too many police officers who have served with these animals who will argue with that.

• On his next training run, Grek looks back and spots me standing perhaps a little too close to his partner. Maybe it's my proximity, maybe it's the reporter's notebook I'm clutching, but he gives me a look that says, You there&emdash;I don't know you. Staring me down, next thing I know he's coming at me.

Cully, the department's only female K9 handler, commands Grek to a halt; another officer puts his leg in between the beast and myself.

The other officers eye their colleague and chuckle, impressed.

You actually were gonna sacrifice your leg? one jokes.

• Police dogs cost up to $5,000 to purchase (they're bred in Europe), another five grand to train and, like their human counterparts, undergo rigorous testing (temperament as well as battery) before being assigned to a patrol.

All that training pays off in saved lives. Recently, a diabetic man who had been drinking wandered off into a field and went missing for a day. A police dog eventually found him, nearly comatose. Doctors told us that if the man had been out there much longer, he would have died for sure, says Sgt. Mike Butler. The man, to his knowledge, never asked to meet or bothered to thank the dog who saved his life.

That's not unusual, he adds. Rarely are the dogs thanked or even inquired about after a successful search-and-rescue mission.

K9s find and rescue their fair share of Timmys-in-the-well. They also help convict the guilty, recovering evidence hidden in walls of houses or thrown from windows of moving cars.

• On to the next exercise: Deputy Rick Kemp, holding a package that smells like marijuana, disappears. He returns, empty-handed, and barks (not literally) out an order for his K9 partner, Clint.

Clint is a Belgian malinois, a breed just a bit sleeker and faster than the German shepherd. Belgians, because they are slightly smaller and don't have the same injury-prone genetic makeup, can work an average of two years longer than a shepherd&emdash;until age 10 or 12.

K9 departments across the nation have come under fire for using Belgians, which have been bred with pit bulls and, according to some, have violent tendencies that are hard to control in the heat of a chase.

Kemp motions to me to follow and, sure enough, before we've even made it to the back of the building, Clint has found the pungent package tucked behind a wall and is scraping wildly at the plaster for it.

In the Line of Duty

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department has used K9 units since 1979. The dogs proved so effective that, in 1996, the number of units was more than doubled. In those years, two dogs have died in the line of duty. Billy, a 6-year-old German shepherd, was shot while pursuing an armed suspect, a parolee named Terry Dorsey. At his trial, Dorsey testified that he had to shoot the dog: The animal refused to release his grip despite Dorsey's violent punching and kicking.

Jurors wept openly during testimony about Billy's service record of more than 100 felony apprehensions. Billy's death was the catalyst for state legislation making it a felony to kill a K9 service dog.

In 2003, a police dog named Nero was ejected from a police car during a high-speed chase. By the time his partner, Deputy Todd Gooler, got out of the car and found the dog lying in the grass, Nero was dead.

Gooler sought grief counseling, which the department provides to an officer whenever a partner&emdash;human or canine&emdash;is killed in the line of duty. The guilt he experienced, Gooler says, was overwhelming. His voice catches with emotion. You're responsible for you and your partner to get through these situations safely. You rely on your partner to protect you and vice versa. I felt like I didn't do my job, he says. I felt like I'd let my partner down.

A Bond Like No Other

The K9 unit is perhaps the most desirable assignment for which a human officer can hope. No one makes it onto the unit right out of police academy; you have to work your way up. To get a K9 partner, officers must prove they can handle the responsibility. K9s respond to all especially dangerous or complicated calls. You might say these dogs and their handlers are the closers&emdash;the big guns of local law enforcement.

The dogs are also the department's public figures. They attract attention wherever they go; everyone wants to get a glimpse of&emdash;even pet&emdash;the K9s. K9s interact with the community, says Kemp. And the dogs love this part of the job. They especially love the school appearances, Kemp insists. They love the kids.

Human K9 officers respect the dogs as full partners in fighting crime. These animals are brains and brawn, says Kemp. They don't lie. You can trust these dogs. When a situation gets precarious, they smell it and sense it long before you can.

The ultimate proof of trust between canine and cop? The dog resides with his human partner. They live with us at home, Kemp says, adding that his police dogs, Cezar and Clint, get along famously with his family's two pets: a cat and a cocker spaniel that is related by blood to Oprah Winfrey's dogs. And that fancy thing won't let Cezar or Clint get away with much, believe me, Kemp laughs.

Off duty, the dogs play with other animals, romp with small children and go to Pet Day at area grammar schools and day care centers.

There's a misconception about these dogs, that they're ferocious and dangerous, probably based on what people see on TV and in the movies, says Deputy Todd Henry, a K9 officer.

Usually the biting and barking they do, in training for example, is in play and not in aggression, says Henry. It's part of a game to them. When commanded to, they'll let go because they're just playing. Still, Henry adds, K9 officers are fully aware that the dogs are animals, not humans, and there is always the possibility of danger.
 

Kemp points out that some human officers have been removed from the K9 unit because of heavy-handedness: allowing a dog to be too aggressive with suspects or being too aggressive themselves with an animal, though he says he has no firsthand knowledge of the latter.

Handlers have to know their dogs and limit exposure or overstimulation if there's even the chance it will put anyone at risk off the job, says Henry, adding the department is careful to select officers who don't just love and work well with dogs but know how to control them, too.

The result, say those lucky enough to serve in a K9 detail, is a bond unlike any other, on and off the job.

We spend all day working with these dogs, and they come home with us at night, says Cully. There's something about that kind of bond. These aren't just dogs to us. And they aren't just pets. They're our partners. We know them like we'd know any patrol partner, she says&emdash;the way you know a partner who's got your back, who'd do anything to protect you if he so much as senses for a nanosecond you might be in danger.

Interacting With the Public

Describing K9 training, Kemp lights up like, well . . . like a kid with a new puppy at Christmas. To hear him tell it, it's the most rewarding and challenging work a police officer can do&emdash;and also the most disappointing. When Kemp trains a K9, he admits he's often sadly disappointed. You'll get this dog that seems perfect, just a really powerful, smart animal that'll sail through one part of the test but fail the standoff, he says. You're like, aw, damn!

You'd think it'd be simple; you'd think the biggest, meanest dogs would be shoo-ins. You'd be wrong, says Kemp. K9 detail selection makes the Stanford University medical school admissions process look like a cakewalk in comparison: Yes, you want big, powerful dogs, but they need to be smart and agile. They must be alpha dogs, but they also must be social creatures. You want a dog that's ball-crazy, but not crazy-crazy, explains Kemp, a dog that will chase that ball again and again and, when looking for it, not quit until he finds it. But the dog needs to be controllable, have a good attitude about working with people.

The selection process actually begins in the kennels in Indiana, where dogs from Germany and Eastern Europe are selected. All are male. They are not neutered but are not bred while they serve, says Henry, unless the dog's health requires it&emdash;such as in the case of a dog at risk for testicular cancer. The department had such a dog, says Butler. But he didn't perform any differently, Butler points out.

Between the age of 14 and 20 months, the dogs live in their handlers' homes and undergo about 90 days of training and testing. These dogs are quick learners, and often it can be done in half that time, says Kemp, who likes to brag that his current dog, Clint, completed his training in only 27 days&emdash;and performed flawlessly on his California Police Canine Certification Test.

During training, dogs are tested for their ability to jump, run and even climb ladders, and for their reaction to changes in chase situations: sticky floors, say, or reflected light. Dogs must demonstrate quick adjustment to any change and be willing to enter into areas they don't care for or aren't comfortable with. Kemp knows the clues to watch for: a dog, for example, that lies down or leans against the wall, loses interest in chasing a ball or doesn't respond right away to a loud noise he hasn't heard before.

The deal breaker is the stakeout test: The dog is commanded to stay at a stakeout point near a tree. As a trainer gradually approaches, he observes how the dog reacts. Is he overly tolerant of someone coming into his space? Does he stand proud? Look around?

I'll work myself over until I'm right on top of the dog, Kemp explains. That dog has its personal space, and I'll get right up on him. A weaker dog will wind around the tree. A strong, confident dog will let me know I'm getting too close, hold his ground, let me know I'm being watched.

We don't want mean dogs, Kemp insists. We want social, calm, confident dogs.

Good thing, because come Christmastime, for Shriners Hospitals fundraisers and other charity events, the dogs will allow their handlers to attach velvet antlers to their finely structured heads for photo ops with small children. On Nov. 4, they'll strut their stuff for the public at the annual K9 trial, a charity event held in Crocker Park.

These dogs are out and about, interacting with the public, as often as they are patrolling dangerous streets late at night; it's important that they be controllable at all times. A good police dog will sit, heel and release upon command. The minute a situation is controlled, a dog is called off, says Kemp.

Dangerous&emdash;and Controversial

The dogs go through rigorous training not only to ensure handlers have control of them but because of the dangers the dogs face in their duties. In 1998, a Sacramento County Sheriff's Department dog named Agbar was on duty when his human partner stopped a suspicious-looking man on the street and ordered him to put his hands behind his back. When the man&emdash;6 feet 4 and 260 pounds&emdash;physically resisted, Agbar jumped from the patrol car and lunged at him. The man put his hands around the dog's neck and threw him 10 feet in the air. Still, Agbar returned and bit the suspect repeatedly, then jumped on the man's back while his partner handcuffed him. In the suspect's possession: a loaded handgun, mask, pillowcases and mace. Doctors later noted the suspect had dog bites everywhere but his feet. Agbar, awarded the Bronze Star for valor, retired in 2001 and died in 2005.

Similarly, in 1999, K9s Frenchy and Bruno were awarded Bronze Stars for their roles in the arrest of a suspect who had led officers in a high-speed pursuit, recklessly careening a motor home through the streets of Orangevale before rolling it down an embankment of the American River in historic Folsom. The suspect was apprehended by the dogs, who nearly drowned when the man held their heads underwater. Although they couldn't breathe, they refused to release their grip.

Dogs that die in the line of duty are memorialized with full-dress police funerals and laid to rest at Sierra Hills Pet Cemetery in Sacramento. K9s fortunate enough to retire from the force often spend their final years living with their handlers. Sometimes, a handler gets a new dog and the two [dogs] don't get along, or the handler will be transferred to another department and won't be able to spend time with the dog, explains Henry. Citizens can adopt former police dogs, but they must undergo a rigorous application process. Quite frankly, Kemp admits, it's not recommended. These aren't pets, he says. They are highly trained dogs. You need to know these dogs to own and take care of them.

The use of K9 units is controversial. After all, human officers choose to risk their lives for public safety's sake; the animals do not. It is hard, Henry readily agrees. We are putting these dogs in a position where they are in harm's way. They could be killed. And yes, hard as it is to do, we view the human life as more important than the animal's life; we have to evaluate the risk to public safety versus the risk to the dog's safety.

We love these dogs, he says. I'm not comfortable exposing my partner to danger, and this dog is my partner. It's hard to send a dog into a dangerous situation. But sometimes it's the only way. We will attempt every other alternative, but in a crisis situation, sometimes it's the only alternative.

A handler can lose control. In August, an elderly Sacramento woman was hospitalized when a police dog attacked her during an apartment-building search for a parolee. When the woman stepped out of her apartment to see what was going on, the dog bit her, crushing her forearm. The dog refused to release its grip despite commands, baton strikes and finally, the use of mace.

Because of pending litigation, the sheriff's department would not comment on the event. The department is quick to point out that there has never been a fatal incident in the United States as the result of the use of a trained canine. When a dog bites an innocent party, the human handler&emdash;not the dog&emdash;should be held responsible, K9 advocates argue.

Local Heroes

One of the best things about working with these dogs, argues Henry, is their love of their jobs. Seriously. These dogs are so motivated. They love to go to work. The sirens and the lights'll start up . . . a Code 3 [emergency] call will come in, and they get amped. They pace for a half an hour before a shift. When they go out on body searches, if they don't find what they're looking for, they get anxious. We have to drag them back in.

It's inspiring, he says.

That dog will save the day and be over there just eating his food, he explains.

Nonpartisan, not just fierce but fiercely loyal, hardworking despite the crappy hours, no pay and on-the-job risks . . . they are true-blue working-class heroes.

We really take these dogs for granted, says Henry.                                                                      

The Sacramento Sheriff K9 Association and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department will hold a police dog trial at Sacramento's Crocker Park on Saturday, Nov. 4. For more information, visit ssdk9.com.