Not every dog is suitable for K-9 units. It takes a very specific temperament.
Kitsap County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Hedstrom, whose K-9 partner is a German shepherd named Titan, said a dog needs a good “prey drive,” meaning they’re willing to put in the effort to hunt their prey — usually fleeing suspects — until they find them. He said they also need to be social.
BPD and KCSO K-9 units both do regular demonstrations at fairs or in schools.
“We want a dog that can recognize that, say, ‘Hey, these 30 or 60 kids, there’s nothing threatening about them,’ but they (can) flip that switch that it’s time for work, it’s all business,” said KCSO Deputy Aaron Baker, whose partner is a German shepherd named Heiko.
Bremerton Police Officer Bryan Hall, whose partner is a German shepherd named Ando, said the Bremerton Police Department usually looks for purebred dogs, such as German shepherds or Belgian malinois, from breeders so they have access to medical history or see if the dog is part of a line of police dogs.
Another important personality aspect in police dogs is trainability. Both departments use positive reinforcement training for their dogs, not compulsion, or force.
“I don’t want to teach my dog that he needs to sit or he’s going to get a correction,” Baker said. “I’m going to teach my dog that he wants to sit, and once he sits, I give him a piece of food as a treat, or play tug-of-war with him.”
K-9 units from all around the Puget Sound get together regularly to train, specifically for obedience, protection and scent work.
Baker said each dog-handler tracking team logs 400 hours of training in those areas when they’re first partnered in order to be accredited by the Washington State Police Canine Association. After the team starts working the streets, they have to re-certify every year.
Working with other teams to train is critically important. Training sessions can include working with bite-protection sleeves and jackets, as well as laying down a trail for a dog to follow to find and detain a decoy, sometimes called a quarry. Having other people there gives the dogs someone to protect their trainer from, or for the dogs to track.
Training is as safe as they can make it. The dogs view the bite sleeves and jackets as “toys,” according to Hall. A decoy can easily slip out of a sleeve without the dog relinquishing his bite in case the dog isn’t listening to the handler’s commands. Inside the sleeve, a decoy will feel some pressure from the bite, but if used correctly, there’s no pain or injury.
Scent work training is an interesting endeavor. On Tuesday, Nov. 15, some groups trained with their dogs at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds. There, people took turns being the quarry, walking around the fairgrounds out of sight of the tracking dog, ultimately waiting somewhere for the dog to catch up. Dogs tracked their quarry across streets, around buildings and through puddles, undeterred by darkness or rain.
What’s also important? That both dog and handler like each other.
“Ultimately, the goal is to build a bond that’s so strong that either one of us would lay down our life to protect our partner,” Baker said.
He added that dogs are not machines to be replaced on a whim. A K-9 dog may have an off day, so “it’s important that I will love that dog more than anything so that I will invest the time and be patient, like with our kids.”
“No one’s perfect,” Baker said. “Our kids aren’t perfect. Our dogs aren’t perfect. But if you love that dog like you love one of your kids, you’re going to put that effort into training and get the best possible team to increase your success.”
Not all police officers or sheriff’s deputies are cut out to be a K-9 handler, either.
Hall said BPD looks for an officer with at least three years of experience, is in good standing, has a stable family life, a home with a fenced yard, a good use-of-force background, maturity and the ability to make responsible, good decisions on the street.
“And a person who loves dogs and is willing to put in the time and energy, and is able to take time to care for a working police dog,” Hall said.
Hedstrom added that a K-9 handler really needs to have a “good, hard work ethic.”
“It takes someone that shows they have that hard work ethic,” Hedstrom said. “They’re going to show, go out and answer calls, they’re willing to go out there and do what it takes to become a handler. Do the grunt work. Get jumped on, get bit, do all that and show everybody, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get to that point.’ ”
He said there are some people who pursue a K-9 career as a sort of notch in their resumé belt.
“A good K-9 handler is going to be dedicated, absolutely dedicated to what he does,” Hedstrom said. “We’re not doing it to say, ‘Oh, we’re a K-9,’ we’re doing it because we have the passion, the willingness, the want to do it.”
To learn more about K-9 units, visit www.wspca.com. Donations can be made to local K-9 units by visiting the law enforcement offices. Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office in Silverdale is located at 3951 Randall Way NW. Bremerton Police Department is located at 1025 Burwell St.