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Feb 06

Honoring our Four Legged Officers

Posted on February 6, 2017 at 11:41 AM by Jamie Bastas

As many of you may have already read or heard, 2017 has not been a good start for the NNPD’s K9 Unit. First, a mature bloodhound named Duke passed away while in transit to the veterinarian after showing some signs of illness that arose suddenly. Just a little over a week later, German Shepherd Hammer died while undergoing a rather routine dental procedure under sedation. Hammer was only 5 and had plenty of working years yet ahead, and this unexpected loss was particularly tough on the handler, MPO Hatton.

Anyone who has ever experienced the love and loyalty of owning a dog understands the sense of losing a family member that accompanies a pet dying. But, police K9’s are not pets; while they are often an integral part of their handler’s family and function as the “family pet” on their off time, during work they are the police officer’s partner, always ready to jump into action in tracking a fleeing felon, finding a missing child, uncovering tossed evidence, defending officers from attack, even sniffing out illegal drugs or explosives.

The use of police dogs has not been without controversy over the history of policing. In some cities, police responded to unrest in the Civil Rights era by turning loose attack dogs that inflicted serious injury to protestors. Similar measures were used in some communities as a response to labor union pickets. These kinds of tactics haven’t been taught or used by most police agencies for years, but the stories about them live on in some families, making the entire image of a police dog troublesome.

Today, police K9’s are a vital and effective use of the dog’s most valuable asset: their nose. While in the olden days, a dog’s bite may have been what led to their police career, today it is that incredibly sensitive and complex nose that allows dogs to discern between scents with amazing discrimination, far beyond anything human and almost impossible to replicate with artificial technology. There are working dogs that are trained to pick up the scent of cadavers….even under water! There are dogs that are being trained to monitor subtle scents that might immediately precede medical seizures or otherwise early identify an emerging disease within a human’s body. Arson dogs are experts at identifying the sources of fire when an accelerant has been used. I’ve even heard recently of dogs trained to identify the source of sewer pipe leaks to help fix broken pipes that result in contamination.

My first direct experience with a police K9 on a regular basis was early in my career when I was matched with a K9 handler as my training officer upon being hired by an agency. I was already a veteran police officer by then, and the training was only for about a month. Given my familiarity with both that agency’s procedures and the geographic area, we spent most of the time training the dog together. I played the part of the “rabbit”; we would go off in a sparsely populated area and I would hike for 20 or more minutes to find a good hiding spot, and then radio the handler that I was in place. The dog ALWAYS found me, and I also was well trained enough to know to be perfectly still when he alerted on me so as to not in any way demonstrate a threat; I wanted to go home in one piece every night!

Despite being partnered up with the handler for several weeks, the dog never got used to me sitting in the patrol car with his partner. Clearly I was an intruder. I never considered independently removing the dog from the patrol car or otherwise approaching the animal absent the handler; police K9’s are fiercely loyal to the handlers….period.

Police K9’s can be single or dual purpose dogs. A single purpose dog may be trained simply to sniff out drugs and related contraband, or explosive materials and firearms. NNPD has a couple of single purpose dogs; they are good at what they do. One “single purpose” is the basic patrol K9, which are taught both tracking of people, and handler protection. The majority of our K9’s are patrol K9’s. Increasingly, we are trying to ensure that our patrol K9’s become dual-purpose dogs, however. This means that once they’ve mastered the patrol K9 functions of tracking and handler protection, we train them in detection such as drugs or explosives. As a dual purpose, we can regularly deploy them in patrol, but also press them into the specialty purpose of the detection they’re trained on. Dual purpose requires a greater level of ongoing training, however, which is why we maintain a blend of uses and breeds.

The Bloodhounds are almost always exclusively used for tracking. They’re not used for handler protection (unless you consider licking someone to death a protective behavior!), and I can’t recall ever hearing of one used for drugs or explosives. But, Bloodhounds have a unique nose even within the dog world, and their forte is tracking people.

You may have seen breeds usually not associated with police work engaged in doing police K9 work. While Bloodhounds, Shepherds, and Malinois dominate the patrol dog world, other dog breeds are put to work at airports and postal facilities sniffing out contraband or threatening materials. These dogs don’t need to have any aggressive response capability for handler protection, they are solely chosen for their noses. Their alerting is done quite passively, versus the overt and aggressive alerting by a patrol dog.
At the NNPD, we believe our police K9 program provides us tools to help keep the community safer, to act more efficiently with the limited resources we have (two officers and a K9 can do a building search for a burglar far quicker than several other additional human officers, for example), and to provide a quick response capability when endangered people disappear and require tracking. NNPD K9’s are pressed into service for VIP visits, to do drug search warrants, to recover guns, to minimize the disruption of bomb threats, and a host of other responsibilities.

About two years ago, the human occupied portion of our existing K9 facility was condemned due to failing building conditions, requiring us to rent temporary trailer space adjacent to the kennels. The Newport News Police Foundation has been fund raising to help us build a new K9 training and kenneling facility near the Midtown Community Center. While Duke and Hammer will not get to enjoy the new facility once it is built, I can’t think of a better memorial to them than for folks to make a charitable contribution to the Foundation towards the K9 facility.
K9 Duke for blog K9 Hammer for blog