K-9's and Service Dogs
Dogs are often referred to “man’s best friend,” and for very good reason. Our favorite four-legged friends are unconditionally loyal, intelligent, and comforting...which makes them perfect additions to the family. However, dogs are capable of being much more than family pets. They can also serve alongside policemen, firemen, people suffering from a variety of mental and physical illnesses, and much more. Dogs who assist police and other law enforcement personnel are called “Police Dogs,” or more commonly, “K-9’s.” Service dogs, on the other hand, are trained to assist people with all types of disabilities. Here at Cypress, we thought it was important to learn more about the type of work that K-9’s do and also how service dogs help people with disabilities cope with daily life.
K-9’s are specifically trained to help police and other law enforcement and emergency personnel. Usually, they fall under the breeds of German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Belgian Malinois. While they may be irresistibly cute, they are on the job! As a K-9, they have many jobs to do, including sniffing for drugs and explosives, detecting weapons, finding missing people, protecting their handlers, and more. Police dogs are really common here in the U.S, on the federal, state, and local levels. They are also treated like family by their handlers.
Not just any dog can be a K-9, however. They must first pass a very rigorous obedience class and be able to promptly follow the demands of their handler. They are also specifically trained as either “single purpose” or “dual purpose.” Single purpose dogs are used for protection purposes, while dual purpose dogs offer protection and either explosive and narcotic detection (they can’t be trained to detect both!) Just like policemen put their lives on the line every day to serve their communities, so do their four-legged companions.
To give a better look into how K-9’s provide invaluable assistance to police and sheriff departments, we wanted to highlight the K-9’s of our coverage area. The Oakland Police Department is home to the “Oakland Dog Squad,” which is made up of two K-9’s. They include K-9 Rex, the German Shepherd who was adopted from the United States Air Force and who is handled by Officer Bouchard. Rex is responsible for lots of things, including everyday duties, narcotics detection, and suspect apprehension. In March of 2011, Rex underwent an intense eight week training program that helped him prepare for life as a K-9. Rex passed his training regimen with flying colors and is now considered a “Dual-Purpose” K-9 because of his narcotic detection and patrol abilities.
In October of 2011, the Oakland Police Department purchased K-9 Reggie, a German Shepherd who works alongside Officer Russell on the West TN Drug Task Force. Reggie brilliantly passed all of his training in December 2011 and now serves as a “Single-Purpose” K-9 for his sole focus in narcotic detection. Since December 2011, Officer Russell and Reggie have worked with the West TN Drug Task Force in many different areas, such as cars, open fields, buildings, and more.
To give us even more insight on the work police dogs do every day, we sat down with Tipton County Deputy, Deputy BJ Williams, who has worked with the Tipton County Sheriff’s Department for 10 years. He holds many titles there, including Patrol Supervisor, SWAT Team Leader, and, of course, the Canine Supervisor. “I got all these hats I put on!” he joked. His department currently has four canines. They consist of one German Shepherd and three Belgian Malinois. He explained that they were moving away from German Shepherds, as the Belgian Malinois tends to be faster, leaner, and more productive. They also tend to have fewer health problems and are slightly smaller. However, he emphasizes that they are very high strung. For anyone thinking of getting one as a pet, he warns, “Be ready! Be ready to run every day!” The dog Williams spends the most time with is Ero, a dual-purpose Belgian Malinois who even lives with him at his home. Talk about the perfect guard dog! Williams laughed as he described the bare patches of grass in his yard from Ero running circles over and over, calling it his “Nascar Tracks.” “We also have Helios, who was actually donated by Ms. Charlotte Narduzzi. Kira, a ‘bomb detection’ dog. And Arizon, we’ve had for four years.”
When asked about the training process, he described it as extremely rigorous. When they start out, you have to do a lot of training...little stuff, trying to get associated with the dog. If you don’t do a lot of obedience [training] when you work with them at home, you can guarantee that when you start training them, they’re going to come back at you. Once you do that, you go to a 14-week school, which is 8 hours a day, every day, not including the stuff you’re going to go home and do,” he explained. Continuing their training at home proves quite difficult, because the dogs are pretty mad at their handlers once the day is over! “That 14 weeks, I mean, you have to run the dogs - get them in shape, get you in shape to be able to keep up with them, to basic training on the odors, narcotics, explosives...then, you get into your apprehension work if your dog does that. So you pretty much take your dog from nothing, a dog that has zero training, and turning them into this machine that can do its job.”
Ero’s responsibilities as a K-9 include narcotics and apprehension. “Kira does explosives and apprehension.” He mentioned that while they don’t have any at the Tipton County department, some dogs are trained for cellphones, cadavers, bodies, cancer, bedbugs, all kinds of stuff you can train dogs to find.” After passing the training course and keeping up to date with the required standards, dogs are just like full-time employees. “They’re right there beside you, they’re on call with you...they get badges and everything.” A place in Millington actually offers plots and have a special ceremony when K-9’s pass away.
As to how the K-9’s alert their handlers when they detect something, there are different ways they can do it. “Ero is what we call passive,” Williams explained. “He sits, he will bark, but you don’t train them to bark. Some of them just do it.” He explained that other dogs are more aggressive alerters. “Aggressive alert dogs scratch - we try to stay away from that because you can ruin someone’s really nice car!”
When asked about the average retirement age for K-9’s, he explained that it depends on many factors such as the dog’s size. “Ero, he’s 10 now, and I figure that probably within the next year or so he’ll probably need to retire.” While the Tipton County Sheriff Department only has four K-9’s at this time, they may consider adding more in the future. “As the county grows, we grow,” he explained. “Right now, four does pretty good - it gives us enough for one on each shift plus one that can float to be there when we need it.”
Off the job, however, K-9’s are really just like normal dogs. “It’s weird,” he laughs. “I take him to the house, and someone comes over...and it’s like he’s completely different. He’s cool, he’s calm, he’s collected…[Then], I put him in the car and we go to work and he barks at people and wants to eat people! It’s like a switch flips.” Williams also gives advice to those who are considering becoming K-9 handlers. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot more work than people realize. You’re talking, once you get done with that school, you’re still mandated to train for a specific amount of time - which is anywhere from five to eight hours every couple weeks, ten to sixteen hours a month.” He continues, “You also have annual certifications, and none of that includes the time you’re at work and the time you’re at home and brushing, bathing, grooming, feeding…” Williams not only considers K-9’s to be fellow employees, but also as his own dogs that he loves and takes great care of. “I spend more time with this dog than I do with my family a lot of times,” he said. “Which he is part of the family and I love him, but it’s hard.” They aren’t dogs that you can simply leave at home and not worry about. “Fourth of July [and] New Year's, he’s in the house, locked up. If we were to put him outside, he’s climbing a fence, and he’s finding the first person launching a firework and...I’m fixing to get sued!”
Service dogs are quite the hard workers, as well. These are dogs that have been specifically trained for certain tasks to assist people with disabilities and help them lead a normal daily life. These disabilities don’t have to just be physical, though. While they can serve the visually or hearing impaired or those who suffer from seizures, they can also be incredibly helpful for people suffering from mental disorders. For example, service dogs can help those suffering from PTSD, extreme social anxiety, Autism, epilepsy...the list goes on and on.
You have probably seen Service Dogs throughout your life. Because they are protected under Federal Law under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ACA), they can travel alongside their owners to almost all public places, like restaurants, hotels, planes, and more. Usually, service dogs wear a ‘service dog’ vest or tags indicating not to pet them!