K-9 companions are pets to the police officers that handle them, but they can do a little more than fetch the morning newspaper on command.
K-9 companions don’t sleep in the station, or bounce from home to home or stay in a special K-9 kennel. They live and breathe with their handlers — the police officers who take on the huge responsibility of becoming a part of a K-9 team. They must complete a 14-week basic training course with the dogs, but that’s just the beginning. If a K-9 is needed during a police response, the handler is on call along with his dog. The call could come at any time, day or night.
At the Fairfax County K-9 basic training graduation, Thursday, July 19, handlers demonstrated their skills at commanding their dogs to perform specific tasks. From sniffing out drugs hidden in a car, to finding a person hiding in a box, the dogs found them all.
K-9 dogs must be able to attack, sniff, walk, run, bite, release, jump and crawl, all under the direct command of their handlers. The dog’s obedience is the most important lesson learned, said Mike Bishop, a former Fairfax County K-9-handler and a certified U.S. Police Canine Association patrol dog trainer. In one demonstration, the dog patiently waited next to his handler while a police officer posing as a criminal fled the scene. Once the handler said to, the dog caught up to the suspect in mere seconds. When the handler told his dog to release that suspect, the dog obeyed.
"The only time a dog is allowed to attack without command is when the handler is threatened," said Bishop.
The Fairfax County Police Department uses only German Shepherds in its K-9 unit. Police K-9s must meet certain police department criteria before being selected from a litter of German Shepherds. For example, K-9s cannot be easily scared by loud noises, as many dogs are, Bishop said. The untrained puppies arrive at the Popes Head Road facility for 14-weeks of training, graduating with the ability to go out and perform their duties. They are taught how to seek out seven main narcotics odors, and they learn how to alert their handlers once those odors are detected. An aggressive alert is when the dog will bark or scratch at the area, and a passive alert is when the dog sits or lays down in front of the area. Dogs also use both passive and aggressive alerts when tracking down humans.
"The most important thing the dog has to do is listen to the handler," said Bishop.