Dozens of law enforcement officers and their canine partners from all over Arizona made the pilgrimage to Payson for the 13th annual Canine Survival Seminar.
"This year we have more than 80 teams from 30 different agencies in town for this seminar," Payson Police Sgt. Rod Mamero said. "That's the most we have ever had here."
The seminar, sponsored by the Arizona Law Enforcement Canine Association (ALECA) is organized by Mamero, who started the canine program at the Payson Police Department.
Mamero's German shepherd, Brigg, was the first police dog in Rim country. Now, there are four dogs actively on-duty in the area.
The seminar is the only one of its kind in the state and is specifically geared to prepare canine officers for real-life situations they will face on the street.
"They go on more high-risk calls," Mamero said. "You don't go on the loud music complaints or abandoned vehicle calls. Police dog teams go on high-risk, highly volatile situations."
Police dogs can be trained to search buildings and apprehend criminals, protect their human patrol partner or to locate drugs or explosives. A dog may also be cross-trained to sniff out narcotics and apprehend criminals. The most common breeds used for this work are German shepherds and Belgian malinois, but Labrador retrievers like, Zelma, Gila County Deputy Dennis Newman's dog, can make great narcotics dogs.
Bloodhounds are the primary tracking dog because the folds in their skin and their saliva produce a scent cone that allows them to follow a scent for hundreds of miles.
The seminar includes a presentation by a guest speaker and two nights of practice scenarios at different locations around town.
This year's speaker was a canine officer from the Royal Canadian National Police.
Joel Mackown told the audience about the time he and his dog were shot near Edmonton during a domestic violence call.
"I have 100 pieces of birdshot in my body," Mackown said. "Doctors were able to get about 20 pieces out, but had to leave the rest in me."
A fellow officer following behind Mackown was able to negotiate with the suspect and get medical help to Mackown and his dog, who also survived the attack.
"He said the reason he shot me is because I had the dog," Mackown said. "Handlers are more of a target."
Mamero said an important part of survival is learning about the experiences of other canine officers.
"The scenarios we put them through on Wednesday and Thursday night are based on real-life situations either the instructor or another agency has encountered," Mamero said.
"With the instructors we have -- between them there is easily 100 years of experience. In the scenarios they set up, they pull on incidents they were involved in or ones they have read about."
The Chandler Police Department set up a scenario at Payson Auto in which they have the police dog subdue a suspect under difficult conditions.
"They have a fog machine going and a strobe light as well as a loud siren," Mamero said. "The conditions were patterned after what happened at Columbine High School. It tests whether the dog will be distracted from the task -- so far, about half of them get in there and turn around and leave without getting the suspect."
The training is not just about keeping the officer safe, but also keeping the dog safe. ALECA and other agencies raised money last year for a memorial in Phoenix to fallen canine officers.
Shari Norton, founder of The K-9 Connection in Phoenix, has been raising money for vests for canine officers.
"We started raising money in 1999 to buy vests for the dogs that are bullet and stab resistant," Norton said. "We have been able to buy 110 vests for police dogs."
Norton and her organization do a variety of fund-raisers for the vests including a dog wash which raised $15,000.
"Our goal in this training is to learn from each other and be better equipped to face very dangerous situations," Mamero said. "It's about keeping the officer and the dog alive to protect and serve another day."
To donate money for police dog vests, call The K-9 Connection at (602) 740-8090 or send an email to K9C@ AZDOGS.COM.