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An inside look at the Richmond Police K9 Unit

on September 23, 2011

His toenails clack on the tiled floors as he darts from door to door. He takes an audible sniff under each crack and the sound reverberates down the dark hallway. At one of the last doors in the hall, he stops in his tracks, hair bristling. He’s found what he’s looking for.

The dog takes one last breath, just to be sure, before he lets out a series of deliberate barks. The door opens suddenly, releasing a flood of light. The animal recoils and bounds forward with a growl, teeth snapping, and tears into a decoy.

Officer Joe Avila emerges from the shadows, praising his dog, Canine Bosco. “Good dog,” Avila says. Bosco growls louder and holds on tighter. After a few seconds, Avila pulls Bosco off the decoy, clips the leash into place and moves out of the way for the next dog.

Avila and Bosco are part of a monthly training program for the Richmond Police Department K9 unit and a few other local officers. Dan Miller, veteran dog trainer and owner of Master K-9 in Riverside County, leads the exercises, concluding the training with critiques of each dog.

Before the training begins, the handlers joke about their dogs in the universal language of pet owners. (“It looked like there had been a snow storm,” one officer said shaking his head over a destroyed dog bed as the others chuckled and nodded in understanding.)

These dogs, though, are far different from the average household pet.

The cops live with their dogs, but the animals stay outside in kennels. If the dogs are friendly, they may be allowed to interact with the handler’s family or represent the unit at public events. But the handlers monitor all interaction and the dogs know when it’s time to get back to work.

The Richmond police dogs are cross-trained in drug detection and searching. The best practice sessions are littered with distractions so the dog can handle commotion when later working on the field, Miller said. The dusty, abandoned warehouse Miller had chosen for this particular session has a variety of sights, sounds and smells – the whistle of passing trains, the stale scent of a hardware store, the dark shadows of recessed corners – making it an ideal location for teaching the dogs to focus on their handlers.

Obedience is the basis of training for any working dog. Ideally, handlers practice maneuvers with their dogs every day.  For this month’s training session, Miller runs through drills with the group in one of the warehouse’s large open rooms. His voice booms off the walls as he asks them to line-up, walk forward, make sharp turns and respond to off leash commands.

Aside from the occasional mistake or anticipation of an order, the dogs respond like a small army. Their movements are precise; their bodies ready to react to the next direction.

Officers rely on body language for a lot of communication between their dogs. However, they also use foreign verbal commands — most of the Richmond Police dogs “speak” Dutch.

Miller works with dogs from Czechoslovakia, France, Germany and Holland. Trainers and handlers learn basic commands in the dog’s home language to speed up the training process.

“They don’t have to go to French school,” Miller joked. “Even though some of them whine, ‘Now I have to go to France.’”

Program Coordinator and Richmond Police Sgt. Mitch Peixoto said handlers have to be almost as well trained as their canine counterparts.

“When I got [my first dog] I thought I had Rin Tin Tin,” he said. “This was a great dog, he’d already won trophies, he’d done a lot of work. I thought I’d be the best handler ever, but it took me two to three years to catch up to him.”

Like many other breeds of working or hunting dogs, police canines are specially bred to have an impeccable sense of smell. The noses have two chambers, Miller said, with the back chamber containing all the nerves that trigger associations in the brain.

Although trainers and handlers commonly say dogs sniff for the “fear scent,” Miller has a different way to identify it.

“Ever leave your gym bag in the car for two or three days?” he said with a smile. “That’s the odor they’re looking for … adrenaline and sweat.”

Dogs can search buildings much more quickly than humans. An officer at the training session said he was called to the same warehouse during a real search and that it would have taken at least 10 to 15 officers to safely examine the premises.

“A dog is probably going to take 20-30 minutes,” Miller said. “And we’re freeing up a bunch of officers.”

The unit’s eldest dog, 10-year-old Arrow, is a seasoned sniffer. Just moments after Officer William Cantrell, his handler, gives the cue to search — a soft trill of the tongue — Arrow locates the hidden “suspect.” After Arrow has a “bite,” meaning that the dog gives a sustained bite to someone wearing a special protective suit, Cantrell calls Arrow back into the hall and instructs him to lay down with nothing more than two commands.

“Nice,” onlookers say, nodding their heads in appreciation.

There are two bite decoys for the day. In addition to the person hiding for the search exercise, a young man helps show the dogs when it is appropriate to attack suspects. Officers ask their dogs to watch while they pat down the decoy. If the volunteer cooperates, the dog is supposed to remain still. If he displays aggressive behavior, however, the dogs are allowed to move to action.

Bite suits weigh more than 20 pounds and are made out of a nylon blend. The stitching is loose to prevent damage to the dog’s teeth and the more modern design mocks street clothes for a more realistic experience.

“The tooth will go inside the material, but it will expand out,” Miller said, demonstrating with his hand clenched like a dog’s jaw on the decoy’s arm.

Both volunteers have visible sweat on their brow after just the first few rounds of dogs. In addition to the bulk of the stifling suit, the dogs themselves weigh around 60 pounds and have an incredible bite force.

Police canines rarely need to attack suspects, but Miller said they are primarily taught to bite properly for self-defense.

Still, it’s not all work and no play. Officer Cantrell and Canine Arrow along with Officer Aaron Mandell and his Canine Rasp competed in an annual police dog competition in mid-August, bringing home first place trophies in addition to the Chief’s Trophy for most overall points.

Cops are drawn to K9 work because of the love for the animal. Some handlers have interacted with working and competitive dogs before, but others are simply attracted to spending their days beside a loyal friend.

“The unique thing is learning about your dog — learning what he’s good at and what he’s not so good at,” Sgt. Peixoto said. “You’ve got to become a team with your dog.”


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