It’s impossible to ignore the muffled sound of barking that echoes across a parking lot in Goleta as a handful of excited dogs sits patiently in police vehicles.
Nearby, on the steps of a vacant commercial building, a dozen police officers are drinking coffee and sharing the latest beat stories while waiting to take their dogs inside for a day of K-9 simulation training. Both the handlers and dogs are eager to get started.
Santa Barbara police Officer David Hedges was readying his partner, a 100-pound German shepherd named Brag, to conduct a search for a bag of marijuana hidden somewhere inside the building.
Brag was excited, instinctively knowing that he was about to train. He paced back-and-forth over his handler’s feet, wagging his tail with his ears pulled back as his tongue rolled along the sides of his mouth.
“K-9s are trained in narcotics detection through game play by breathing the odor of the narcotic through their noses,” Hedges explained. “When he finds the drug he’s rewarded with a toy.
“They find the drugs because they want to play,” he said of the dogs. “It’s just a big game to them.”
Narcotics training includes the four most common drugs found on the streets: cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin. The dogs sniff around with their powerful noses and, after locating the drugs, passively alert their handlers by sitting down and looking at the officers for a reward, which comes in the form of a rubber Kong dog toy.
Hedges, 47, has worked at SBPD for 23 years as a field officer and SWAT team leader. He patrols Santa Barbara with Brag, who at 9 years old shows no sign of slowing down.
“Brag has been my only partner for seven years,” said Hedges. “He’s a remarkable dog who just loves to work, which is amazing because the average life span for a German shepherd is about 8 to 10 years.”
Brag will most likely retire from police service at the end of 2013. When he does, Hedges plans to transfer to a different division.
“The truth is, after working with this dog, he and I have been such a good match that I can’t imagine getting another dog like him,” he said. “And even if they ask me to stay on, the odds are that I’d move on and let another officer get a shot at working in the department. Brag’s been a pretty remarkable dog. Everyone agrees on that.”
Hedges and fellow K-9 Officer Tyler Larson, 49, are examples of how critical it is to have a depth of experience when the officers are called to duty.
“When we show up we’re like the incident commander of that call, and we take control of it and tell people what we want and use our dog for a search,” said Larson, a 25-year SBPD veteran. “And that’s one of the reasons why a canine officer has quite a bit of experience.”
At the training, San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s Deputy Brian Love donned a padded, bite-resistant overall suit and slid a protective bite sleeve onto his arm in preparation for a session with Hedges and Brag.
Love, at 32 a six-year department veteran, recently was recruited into the K-9 program and is a candidate to receive a dog next year. He trains once a week with veteran K-9 units from SBPD, the Santa Maria Police Department and the California Highway Patrol. On one recent training day, his role was to act as the suspect or “agitator.”
“The agency likes candidates to typically become an agitator to see what it’s like to be on the other side of the dog,” Love said. “We do various scenarios, from bite scenarios where the dog will actually bite the suspect, or no-bite scenarios where the dog will find the individual but will give up prior to a bite.”
For the safety of the public, K-9 dogs are expected to train with their handlers to build physical agility, stamina and strength, ensuring obedience that is the foundation of communication between handler and K-9 while on the job. Calls include tracking, evidence recovery and felony apprehension.
The physical demands of human officers and K-9 partners while on patrol can be extremely challenging, from climbing trees, jumping over fences, crawling through tunnels, searching wooded and field areas to chasing a suspect through abandoned buildings.
“Anything can happen out there in the field so in training we try to cover all that with the dogs before they go out on patrol,” said Hedges. “If you’ve never sent your dog, say, into a crawl space under a house in training, then you should not send your dog out on a real call that requires them to take on that task. It’s not fair to the dog because he’s never done that and you can’t explain it to him.”
Training scenarios include anything imaginable, including on the beach, at the harbor, on boats, planes and helicopters, and in water or pools.
“In training, we try to do every obscure type of training imaginable,” said Larson. “We do it on slick floors and in a completely darked-out room so that everything we do is not the first time. We train every week because we want them to be very proficient when we go out on the streets. If we don’t train every week, they’re not going to be as good.”
Every year the K-9s are expected to take a test administered by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). If the dogs don’t pass, they won’t be certified to work on the streets.
Outside of the Goleta building in an adjacent parking lot, Larson waited to conduct a series of cross-training control exercises in which dogs are taught enforcement techniques and simulate various scenarios. Among the options are locating, chasing, enforcing direct apprehension or detaining suspects using a method known as the bite-and-hold in which the dog finds a suspect and then bites to hold him until officers can make the arrest.
Larson proudly stood beside his 7-year-old K-9 partner, Hondo, whose four legs trembled in anticipation as he barked frantically while watching his intended target: SBPD Reserve Officer Ted Bowman, a 21-year veteran who has trained canines for 23 years.
Hondo lunged forward on command, charging at the aggressor and leaping several feet in the air. He bared his sharp teeth before clamping down on the victim’s bite-padded arm. The dog twisted his head back-and-forth, growling and using his weight to pull the aggressor to the pavement. On command, he released Bowman’s arm and returned to Larson’s side.
“We look for a dog that loves to play fetch,” Bowman said. “A dog that will hunt for a ball endlessly and not give up. When we have that type of temperament in a dog that loves to search, we can usually mold that into what we need to do to find suspects or narcotics, or anything else.”
All voice commands issued to the dogs are spoken in German and dogs are trained to respond only to their partner’s voice.
“There may be instances where another officer is calling out to his dog in German but Hondo will ignore him,” Hedges explained.
Because the K-9s spend most of their time working in the community, it’s important that the dogs also learn to tolerate and socialize with civilians.
“Above everything else, we look for a dog with a great temperament,” said Bowman. “A dog that would be good around people, good around family, but also has a civil side that isn’t afraid to engage somebody if they have to.”
It’s important that the dogs obey their commander and stay under control at all times, especially if the dog is in a dangerous situation in which it might be seriously injured.
K-9 dogs are carefully screened and hand-picked at the age of 13 months to 2 years old from specialty vendors. The average cost for one canine runs from $7,000 to $15,000, depending on the dog’s training, ability and length of experience.
Bowman said he feels a real connection with the dogs, whose normal term of service is five to six years on the streets. He’s also responsible for selecting the dogs from across the country and as far away as Europe, although Brag was raised from a puppy here in Santa Barbara County.
“I just love them, and when you hear about the spectacular things that they do, it just makes it so worthwhile,” he said.
The K-9 officers are on-call 24 hours a day and the Santa Barbara SWAT squad utilizes both Brag and Hondo as part of the team. As a result, Larson and Hedges have their car, equipment and dogs at home for rapid response.
Hondo has a separate kennel in the yard and fits right in with the family, which includes Larson’s wife; their two sons, Travis, 17, and Kyle, 14; and another family dog.
Kyle Larson was a first-time participant in a recent training search, hiding in a cupboard covered up by filing cabinets until the dogs found him and detained him in a bite-and-hold.
“At work, he’s a completely different dog,” the elder Larson said. “But when he’s at home, he’s a pet and he likes to lay on the couch, and he’ll even cuddle with you and everything. We play tug of war and sometimes I wrestle with him. He’s a really, really smart dog and he’s like my best friend.”
Click here for a video of the officers in training.