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Loudoun's K-9 Deputies

The members of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office's K-9 unit wear thick, protective clothing when the dogs charge them, but the dogs' teeth still leave purple and green bruises up their arms.

It's regular training for the K-9 unit's German shepherds and handlers. Every week, the four members of the K-9 unit take turns strapping on a green, red and white outfit so puffy they look like little multi-colored Michelin men. They jog around a small field as each dog watches alertly until the signal comes: then the dog charges, bites and hangs on.

"Everyone gets their chance in the hot box," said Deputy First Class Brian Sayre as one of his colleagues stepped, soaked with sweat, out of the protective clothing.

The exercise is all about aggression control Ñ asking the dogs to wait for the signal to attack a suspect. The handlers shout German commands and when it's all over, give the dog his reward: a quick game of tug-of-war on a well-gnawed rope.

"They know when the suit is on, it's time for aggression work," said Master Deputy Todd Bailey, also the team's trainer. "It's a game to them."

The shepherds leap with playful exuberance when the rope is presented. It's a marked departure from the on-duty dogs, who sit, wait, attack and release with precision.

THE BOND between dog and handler is built with intensity.

Every new patrol/explosive dog and his handler participate in an eight-week, 16-hours-a-day training program that costs $8,000 a dog/handler pair.

But once trained, all the dogs require is a tune-up every Tuesday. They can work until about 8 years old, meaning each dog is good for six years or more of patrolling or narcotic and explosive detection.

During that time, they stay with one handler. For the deputies, that means passing up promotions in other sections of the Sheriff's Office.

To Sayre and his colleagues, it's worth it.

"You end up with a commitment to your partner," he said.

Sayre's partner is a shepherd named Ringo.

At the end of the day, Ringo comes home with him.

"You just don't go home and park your cruiser like a patrol officer does," he said. "The job kind of becomes you, in a way."

The pride each deputy takes in his dog is clear.

"Just seeing the dog work ... it's rewarding, that thrill of seeing the dog," said Master Deputy Tod Thompson.

Thompson's partner, Lux, is his second K-9. Sayre's Ringo is his first. Bailey's Dino is his second. And Master Deputy Ray Sullivan, with the Loudoun County Sheriff Office's K-9 unit since its inception in 1979, is with his seventh dog, Ben.

SULLIVAN knows about the bond between deputy and dog Ñ and family.

Ben goes home and curls in a corner after a day's work.

"The wife and him are tight," Sullivan said. "Super tight. She calls me during the day, 'How's Ben?' He eats before me."

At the end of their careers, K-9s often go home to stay with their partners. But Sullivan has noticed that they don't often live long after retirement.

Bailey, who's been in K-9 for 10 years, has a theory on why retirees don't thrive.

"They pretty much live to go to work," he said. "When they retire and another dog is in their place, it's probably a bit of a shock."

The K-9 unit is a close-knit team not just between deputies and dogs: the unit hasn't expanded since 1997. Currently, there are four German shepherds used for patrol and explosive detection, two bloodhounds and one Labrador mix for narcotics detection.

Without Sayre and Ringo, a man wanted for identity theft in Fairfax County may have gone free.

The man was spotted by a night patrol officer in Ashburn earlier this year. When the suspect ditched his car and headed into a construction site, Ringo was hot on his trail.

Sayre ordered the man to stop three times before setting the dog on him.

The lucky suspect was wearing a leather jacket and suffered only minor bruises from Ringo's bite.

"The guy was compliant by that point and taken into custody," Sayre said. His words were dry law-enforcement-ese, but his eyes lit up as he told the story, belying his passion for the catch.

"No other officer would have been able to catch him on foot," he said.