Two of the newest employees of the Doddridge County Sheriff’s office work for kibble. Literally. We had the pleasure of meeting them along with their handlers last Friday morning. We were greeted by Sheriff Mike Headley early in his office where we briefly discussed these employees. We were waiting on their escorted arrival by Deputy Garner and Deputy Miller.
“We have never had K-9 Units in Doddridge County before. So this will be a learning experience for all of us” Sheriff Headley said. “These are very special dogs with very special training.” Just then I heard the loud barking from the garage area of the Sheriff’s office. One had arrived and we were about to meet Ekko. After a brief morning orientation of last nights activities, the second Deputy arrived with Blacky, the younger of the two dogs.
We were escorted down to the garage area where both of these high energy dogs stay when the Deputies come into the office. Large holding kennels in the back of the garage keep them safe and contained between trips in the cruisers. These high energy animals are ready to work at a minutes notice.
Ekko is a Belgian Malinois (mal-in-wa). One of the four types of Belgian sheepherding dogs, the Belgian Malinois is an alert, high-energy breed, popular as both a police and military working dog. Although sometimes mistaken for the German Shepherd Dog, the Malinois is more elegant in build and lighter-boned, but does not lack for strength, agility or herding ability. The breed ranges in color from rich fawn to mahogany, with black tips on the hairs and a black mask and ears.
Deputy Miller clipped the leash to Ekko as he opened the cage. “Let him come to you and don’t make eye contact…” With the size of this dog, we were not about to disregard those orders. But Ekko was more interested in taking a drink of fresh water and rubbing up to his handler. He walked over to me an sniffed around before leaning his weight against my leg so I could scratch him and rub his neck. “He sheds constantly” Miller said as we noticed the short brown hair sticking to everyone he rubbed up against for a petting.
Deputy Garner informed us that he was letting the younger of the two out of his cage.
Blacky is a sixteen month old Dutch Shepherd who still has “a lot of puppy in him” said Garner. He’s really energetic and seemed to bounce out of his cage. it’s a strange combination to have a young puppy trained in such a serious manner. “When he’s out and in that squad car, he’s all business.” Garner said, “When we picked these two up, I was informed that Blacky is a ‘flyer’, he has a slighter build than Ekko.” We had to ask about the term flyer. He explained that “this dog can jump, literally fly when needed. The training facility had him jump from about six foot to seven foot away from his subject, and he cleared it with no problem.” Miller added “He’s a jumpin’ son-of-a-gun! You can’t believe it.”
“Both are patrol dogs, which means they are both trained in apprehension as well as drug search.” Garner and Miller listed the drugs they are regularly trained in finding, “We use a scent box for the different narcotics, that keeps them sharp”. The dogs use a nose bumping technique when they encounter a suspicious scent. “Both Ekko and Blacky are what’s known as ‘passive alert’ dogs. That means that the do not scratch or jump at a suspicious smell, it’s enough to let the officer know that they have detected something.”
They continue their apprehension skills each week using training equipment and volunteers as the dogs are trained not to be aggressive to the officers. “Right now we use the cushioned sleeves for arms and legs. Our training suits are to arrive shortly” Garner explained. “With the training, we only work with one dog at a time, it’s pretty rare that they are out of their kennels and in one room together” Miller explained. Garner added that “we should each be able to control the others dogs should the unthinkable happen.”
The trainer has provided us with one protective vest for the pair, but he has us enlisted to receive another from an organization that provides ballistic vests for these types of dogs.
These dogs develop a special bond with their handlers and it is apparent that each depend on the others professional skills to make it safely through a shift. The handlers and dog are trained in a special language that allows only the two of them to communicate with dogs. These dogs become highly aware when the handler calls their attention. Hand signals can assist in the training and communication.
We saw first hand that the dogs do not understand what we would consider a normal command like sit, stay, up roll over…it’s simply not in their lexicon. This insures the handler has the dogs full and undivided attention when the are on duty. It takes a minute to understand that these are not pets. These dogs are highly skilled and trained to work in a dangerous environment. Their full and undivided attention is with their partner at all times. “They are true deputies of the county, sworn in and fully employed by the Sheriff’s Department. The county pays to feed them, house them and train them.”
The discussion lightened up turned to the problem dog owners face everywhere…shedding. The deputies discussed the different brushes on the market as we all ended up covered in dog hair. You don’t notice it until someone points it out, then you see everyone’s pants were covered in dog hair.
Deputy Miller noted that Ekko was a little small for his frame when they first got him, but he has filled out now. “He’s got some heft to him now, you can feel him when he leans on you and you can se the difference when we work him. He can take down a sizable subject.” And that was one of the attributes that the trainer pointed out…Ekko has the size and Blacky has the jump skill.
As Deputy Garner took Blacky out to the patrol car, Deputy Miller kept Ekko behind. “He’s got some special teeth.” He made the dog set down and pulled back his upper lip to reveal long silver K-9 teeth…not just on one side, but both sides. “When he was in training, he chipped his tooth, so they went ahead and silver coated the fang to keep it from decaying and while they had him under, they did the same as a preventative measure to the other tooth.” We had visions of the 007 henchman “Jaws” from the 1977 film ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and again in 1979 in ‘Moonraker’. With that display, the intimidation factor of Ekko when he bares teeth, just rose immensely.
“These dogs are trained to grab with their mouth, one time…they do not let go until we command them.” Miller added. “The good thing about both of these dogs is they are good natured when they are outside of their kennels and with us in public. They are very well behaved. Once they are placed in that vehicle, it’s a whole new ballgame…they are all business.” Miller noted that the dogs are fully aware of what is going on all around the vehicle at all times.
It was time to take both dogs out to the cruisers. The cruisers are outfitted to keep the dogs safe and comfortable during their shifts. Deputy Miller added that “During training, we learned a lot about these dogs.” Miller added that “Training is the key. The dogs have a natural instinct to do what they are doing. Training was more for us than the dogs.” Garner then commented that “Learning how to read the dogs for drug work, tracking work…we have to keep working with them. Even when I’m at the DCAA I have a kennel down there and Director Cole Crimm has given us permission to use the facility to train for drug work. I’ll hide a scent box on one of the ambulances or personal vehicles or in the building while he’s contained, then get an hour or two of drug training with Blacky. If I’m not running calls, I can spend time working with him and get our training hours in…He’s also done a lot of his apprehension work at the DCAA with my son volunteering.”
Dogs go where we go…
“Deputy Garner stated that “the dogs are permitted to go anywhere we go, that means in restaurants, private homes, offices, hospitals, even hotels that do not permit pets… they are working dogs and are exempted from the pet rules. We can walk them through the mall if we are in there, they are permitted with us.”
The vehicles are now outfitted with the equipment needed to work well with the dogs. A complete make-over of the interior provides a safe and controlled environment for the dogs. Both cruisers are outfitted in a similar fashion with the rear portion of the vehicle divided into passenger and K-9 compartments. Air conditioning is pumped into the dog compartment while the vehicle is running. If we go to shut the cruiser off and we want to leave the dog in the back, they are equipped with a fully automatic ventilation system that lowers the two rear windows and engages a fan, drawing cooler air from outside the vehicle and pulling it through. Deputy Garner set his system and we saw how well it works, drawing the hot air out. “People don’t have to be concerned if they see them in a parked car with the windows up. It’s extremely safe.”
And speaking of safe, We wondered what happens if the officer is engaged in a call and has left the dog in the cruiser, but sees a need for them to assist. Deputy Garner showed us the popper system. It refers to the automated system that is remote controlled by the deputy, somewhat like a garage door opener. A small device that clips to their belt allows the officer to “pop” open the door, freeing the K-9 for service. “When that door opens, these dogs are both trained to find us and when that door opens, they are all business” Garner said.
The dogs stay in service anywhere from five to seven years, depending the age of the dog when he begins service. Once these dogs retire, they will remain with the officer and stay “off duty” for the remainder of their life. They will be released from service by the Sheriff. If we retire first, the dogs will retire with us.
“A lot of work goes into keeping an animal like this.” Deputy Miller stated, “Even off duty, they require handling work, they are always on. These dogs have increased our level of activity, because they need so much attention.”
As we left the interview, the dogs were being walked and had decided to play with each other a bit. Blacky’s puppy energy was hard to contain and Ekko played just as hard. These dogs don’t interact with each other very much as they are mostly on patrol with their handlers. When they are together, they are familiar with each other through training and like any dog, they want to tussle around with each other a bit.
Each dog was about $9,000 each from the training facility. The vehicle modifications and housing, food and ongoing training will cost the county as long as they are in service. One thing that we touched on is the fact that these K-9’s are above all for protection of the officer. “Our wives realize that the difference between coming home at night and not, may come down to our service dog. They respect them for that, and so do we…”
The K-9 units show the Sheriff Headley’s commitment to ridding our county of the underlying drug problem. This is a very large first step in the battle to keep our children safe.