Dec 17, 2012

K9 Units Have a Nose for Training

(L-R) Sergeant Chris Gwaldo, Officer Art Nelson, Officer Shaun Mierl. Gwaldo and Mierl accompany Nelson and his dog Jaeger on a locating drill near Brown Elementary in North Austin. Photo by Alex Dropkin. 

By Alex Dropkin
For Reporting Texas

While Officer Derrick Bowman drove around Austin during his overnight shift, the sound of impatient whining came from the back of his police cruiser. It was Cash, his large black dog and patrol partner, wanting some action.

Make that more action. Earlier in the night, Cash and Bowman had participated in a training session designed to keep the Austin Police Department’s K9 unit sharp while waiting to be called to assist other officers. As a special division of the force, the unit does not take dispatch calls.

“Our dogs are primarily a locating tool,” Bowman said. “Very, very, very rarely will we actually use our dogs as a use of force. That’s the absolute last option and it hardly ever happens. But they’re irreplaceable when it comes to finding somebody.”

That’s not by accident. Regularly scheduled training for real-life scenarios is essential for Austin’s K9 unit. Each of the nine patrol officers has his own dog — mostly Belgian Malinois – that stay with their respective officers at all times, at work and at home.

To keep the dogs in peak mental and physical condition, the unit participates in drills every Thursday night, primarily at the APD academy in southeast Austin but also at other sites in the city. The officers also must complete 16 hours of training a month to remain certified with the National Narcotics Detector Dog Association, but most of them train with their dogs up to 25 hours a month.

In an age of police forces’ using high definition cameras, night vision goggles and thermal imaging to find suspects, Austin’s K9 patrol unit relies on the best-trained noses nature can produce.

“Their sense of smell is absolutely amazing,” said Bowman, the unit’s newest officer and a member of the Austin police force for five years. “We use scent in the wind to search for people, so I mean these guys can smell a suspect from a long ways away.”

Rhonda Dees, the NNDDA business secretary, added: “We don’t look at the world through our noses like a dog does, and I don’t think there’s any machine that anybody could ever be able to develop that would be as useful as a dog’s nose if trained correctly.”

The dogs showed off their prowess during pursuit drills — chasing a vehicle on the academy’s driving track and tracking a passenger who flees on foot. With APD’s helicopter unit circling overhead, which assists with the training every few months and coordinates with the teams in real-life situations, the dogs located fake suspects hiding in the woods surrounding the academy.

“I don’t call it dog training; I call it dog tricking,” jokes veteran officer Shaun Mierl, one of the unit’s two certified trainers. He helps officers train their dogs once they get into the unit and assists with weekly reinforcement.

The drills are rotated and tweaked from week to week so the dogs don’t get comfortable or recognize any patterns. When it was his turn, the towering, almost skeletal Bowman got Cash — named after the deceased music icon fond of wearing black — from the back of his cruiser and walked to a field where another officer in a padded suit was waiting.

Cash made tight circles around his handler, ready for the signal to attack the pretend culprit. When the officer began running, Cash dashed in pursuit and latched on with a powerful bite to an outstretched arm, using his whole body to stop the man.

“At the end of everything that I asked him to do, we give him a reward, and the reward is that he gets to play with a big chew toy,” Bowman said about Cash. “There are different ways of training a dog; we do it so it benefits him to listen to us. They want to do what we say because it means they get to have fun at the end.”

A few off-duty patrol officers, some who want to eventually work in the K9 unit, get in the bite suits and act as suspected arsonists or burglars.

“The first couple of times it’s pretty scary,” said Brandon Solis, an APD patrol officer. “You’re facing an 80-pound dog that’s pretty much sent to hurt you. After a couple times, you get used to it.”

‘Alpha-Most’ Dogs

The dogs are purchased from a special kennel in San Antonio, who receives them from a European breeder, and cost an average of $10,000 each. Each is rigorously examined to ensure they are aggressive, attentive and in perfect health.

“We do our tests on them to make sure that they’re not going to back down. You challenge them to see if they’re going to back down or not,” Bowman said. “We make sure that these are the ‘alpha-most’ dogs that you can get.”

The dogs must be at least 15 months old before they can begin six months of training. They stay with the unit until retirement, which for a K9 dog means becoming a house pet for his officer.

Thursday nights are the only chance the K9 unit gets to spend time together each week. While drills go on in the distance, officers stand around and chat. There had been little real police work for Bowman and Cash this night. Earlier, a suspected carjacker had ditched a stolen vehicle at a dead end and fled on foot. The police officers on site requested the K9 unit’s assistance.

But by the time Bowman and two other K9 officers had sped to scene, the suspect has exited his hiding place—a Planet K gift store—and thrown punches at an officer standing near the store’s entrance. In the ensuing fray, the police officer broke his leg.

“If we had gotten there 30 seconds earlier it would’ve been the perfect situation,” Bowman said. “Sometimes you’re there in time and sometimes you’re not. You never know.” He said that suspects often voluntarily surrender in the presence of a police dog, while they usually feel more capable of fighting another human.

Some nights are completely quiet, Bowman said, while others are nonstop, with officers going from call to call. “There’s a lot more freedom,” he said, explaining why he made the switch to the K9 unit. “We work citywide; we don’t have to stick to a certain part of the city. We go wherever we need to go. That freedom is a lot of fun.

“And I get to work with dogs.”