K-9 Cops: Natural Or Learned, Skills Of Dogs Save Lives

LIVING

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Whether a 5-pound Yorkie or a 100-pound Lab, dogs offer a sense of security for their owners. A simple bark can alert owners to a trespasser.

Police dogs, specially trained to do the most sophisticated tasks, protect and serve daily, just as their two-legged partners do.

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An officer wearing protective gear pretends he is a criminal hiding inside a truck at the sanitary district's garage. A Belgian Malinois, wastes no time in tracking him down. While she looks like many other dogs, this canine is a trained crime fighter. Canine officers from all over the state attended the Canine Officer's Survival Seminar last week and underwent a variety of common scenarios they and their four-legged partners could experience in the field.

By harnessing the natural skills and senses that dogs have, handlers can put them to work doing everything from bomb detection to catching a fleeing suspect. Sometimes even the threat of calling the canine unit can make the most resistant suspect surrender.

"I've pointed a gun at a suspect and they've said, ‘shoot me' -- bring out the dog and they surrender," Payson Police Sgt. Rod Mamero said. Mamero was a dog handler for years and now is a trainer in the department.

The Payson police department currently has one service dog and officer Les Barr is the handler.

"The Gila County Sheriff's Office has a handler that works two dogs in the area," Mamero said. "One is a patrol/narcotics dog and the other is an explosives detection dog."

Sgt. Bret Rau is in charge of the Service Dog Unit of the Tucson Police Department and agrees that a police dog is a powerful deterrent.

"When a canine is used to apprehend someone involved in a crime and the canine arrives on scene, the suspect will surrender because often they've been bit in the past when apprehended and don't want to be bitten again," Rau said.

Last week, more than 60 canine units came to Payson for the Annual Canine Officers Survival Seminar, hosted by the Payson Police Department and the Gila and Maricopa County Sheriff's Offices.

For officers and their dogs, it was a chance to hone their skills and prepare themselves for a variety of situations. For civilians, it was an opportunity to watch the impressive teamwork of handler and canine and see some very intelligent animals.

According to Mamero, German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common breeds employed for police work. These breeds are talented in apprehending suspects as well as detecting narcotics and explosives.

Golden Retrievers are most commonly used for narcotics and explosive detection.

As for small breeds, they can also be effective public safety servants.

"Beagles are great dogs for narcotics and explosives," Mamero said. "They work airports and can fit through the luggage x-ray machines and on the conveyer belts."

Narcotics and explosives detection dogs are trained to alert the handler either passively or actively. In a passive alert, the dog will simply sit in front of the place where the scent is detected, while in an active alert, the dog will bark, claw and make a commotion when something is found.

Hounds have a talent for smelling suspects or missing persons out.

"Hounds have skin folds and when they put their heads down their saliva and skin folds create a moist scent cone," Mamero said.

Pat Beltz owns a company called Workdogs International in Banning, Calif. Beltz was a police officer for 20 years and a canine officer for 10. After retiring from the department, Beltz opened his kennel on 10 acres and trains dogs for a variety of security purposes.

"After 9/11, there was a big demand for bomb dogs," Beltz said. "We've doubled our bomb dog teams and have a trainer who specializes in bomb detection."

When these trained canines are out in the field, they are all about work. When they go home with their handlers, they are the family pet. The officer and their family often have a deep bond with their dog.

Mamero recently lost his good friend and Payson's first police dog, 11-year-old Brigg.

"Brigg retired after he fell through a ceiling on duty," Mamero said.

Mamero said that when police dogs are killed in the line of duty, they often get funeral services similar to that of a fallen human officer.

"Officers come from all over to attend," Mamero said. "They have bagpipes and all the stuff that's in an officer funeral."

Officer Jesse Plath, of the Phoenix Police Department, brought his wife and young daughter to the canine training to watch family pet, Nemo, work.

Nemo, a young German Shepherd, jumps and pulls at his lead, anxious to get to work.

The street maintenance office near Green Valley Park was used for the drug detection scenario and several pounds of marijuana, cocaine and heroin were hidden in various spots throughout the building. While humans may not smell the plethora of narcotics, dogs are overwhelmed immediately.

When given a command, Nemo, heads toward the stashes and claws. At one point he jumped up on a table, got on his hind legs and stretched up to a high vent that held four pounds of marijuana.

According to Plath, when Nemo goes home, he plays with the family's pet dogs and then crashes for a long nap.

Although difficult to quantify statistically, police dogs, according to Mamero, definitely save lives.

"In interviews, suspects state that would have shot the officer if the dog hadn't been there," he said.

In cases of bomb detection or armed suspects fleeing toward a residential area, lives of innocent civilians are saved by the deployment of dogs.

The innate gifts that dogs possess as well as the skills training can provide, help us all to rest a little easier. The next time your mutt barks at a javelina, waking you from a sound slumber, remember that his protective nature may one day save your life.

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