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A Policeman’s Best Friend : Training Prepares Dogs to Bark, Bite, Sniff and Chase

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to telling war stories about cops on the beat, Fon Johnson--who is a private consultant to law enforcement agencies--has a few of his own.

They are police dog tales.

For example, there was the time a policeman was chasing a bad guy on foot. Another officer with his police dog showed up at the scene and yelled for the first officer to stop running so he could release his German shepherd to catch the bad guy.

The first cop didn’t stop running, though.

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Guess who the police dog bit.

“Every day, I hear stories about the great job police dogs do,” Johnson said. “I’m constantly being told by police officers about the trouble they’d be in if they didn’t have their dog.”

But then there are the stories about the police dogs who bite the police officers. “I guess you can’t ever forget,” Johnson said, “that they’re still just dogs.”

There are about 70 specially trained police dogs at work in San Diego County. They’re trained to bark when a bark is sufficient, to chase when they need to chase, and to bite when it comes to that. Moreover--and this may be most important to the target of the dog’s aggression--the dogs must learn to honor the command to stop the chase and to release the bite. Besides these regular patrol dogs, some are trained to sniff out marijuana, heroin and cocaine, and others are trained to smell for explosives, either plastic or gunpowder.

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Johnson, who is 73 and has been a fixture at dog obedience classes around San Diego County since the 1950s, figures that at least half of the patrol canines in the county have been trained by him, to one extent or another, at his business in Oceanside.

So it figures that Johnson is a big booster of police dogs, whose praises are sung far and wide as excellent tools--if not partners--for cops on the beat.

As the trainer of these animals, however, Johnson knows all too well the limitations of police dogs and of the police officers and deputy sheriffs who receive their own training on how to handle the dogs.

The police officers can be harder to train than the dogs, Johnson says. And police departments agree.

“There have been a couple of occasions when we didn’t heed Fon’s advice,” concedes Lt. Ralph Korbacher, who oversees the Oceanside department’s five-dog police canine unit.

“When we pick a (police officer) handler, we send him down to Fon, and he runs the officer through some tests to see how well the person relates to the dog before they begin actual training together,” Korbacher said. “Well, a couple of times we went against Fon’s recommendation in selecting people, and now we’re having to replace them. They didn’t work out.”

“The handler has to have coordination, good timing and, most important, a comfort level with his dog,” Johnson said. Not all police officers show such qualities. Some officers, says Johnson, are too soft on their dogs, letting them play when they shouldn’t and, in the end, allowing them to lose their edge.

Other officers take on an even more macho image when they have a dog as a partner, Johnson said. “I heard of one officer who, when he pulled up at a store to get something, got his dog out of the car and put him on the hood of the car. That simply wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t safe.”

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Stories of police dogs’ effectiveness in the field are almost legendary--even though 95% of their time is spent in the back seat of a police car. Their mere presence--and their bark--has defused many a volatile situation, police say.

“They’re like having a built-in cover unit (back-up partner),” said Oceanside patrolman Dave Larson, who has spent a couple of years with a police dog. “I had a dog once, Carlos, who really pulled me out of a jam. There was a guy down at the beach who was going kind of crazy and throwing around a 55-gallon trash can. The guy turned on me, and Carlos jumped out of the window of my unit and bit the guy on the leg.”

Mostly a Deterrent

More typically, the dogs are simply a deterrent. “You can stop a felony suspect and point all the shotguns in the world at him, and he may still give you a hard time,” Larson said. “But, when you show up with the dog, the guy comes out and puts his hands up right away. He doesn’t want anything to do with that dog. Bad guys see that dog, and usually they get polite as hell towards you.”

The dogs are especially popular for searches because of their ability to smell out persons in hiding and because use of the dog eliminates having to put an officer in the precarious position of having to look around corners and into shadows.

There are few hard statistics on the effectiveness of canine units in terms of their involvement in successful arrests, searches and drug finds. But San Diego Police Sgt. Tom Payne, who oversees his department’s 27 police dogs, observed:

“Since the inception of dogs on patrol, we haven’t had a single incident of an officer being hurt at a scene where a dog was present. We like that kind of statistic more than any other.”

So why don’t departments use more police dogs? For starters, the dogs live with their handlers, and not all officers have homes and yards that lend themselves to dogs.

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“Some officers simply don’t want to have dogs with them on patrol,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Hahn, who works with his department’s 23 canines. “They smell, they get dirty, and the deputies are always having to clean their back windows.”

Police Dogs Are Costly

Also, police dogs--although they don’t apply for overtime--are costly. They can cost from $3,500 to $7,500 to purchase, depending on the dog’s origin and level of training. There are the upkeep and maintenance of the dog. And, police cars have to be converted to canine units, sometimes with special back-seat platforms and remote control, quick-release doors activated from a distance by the patrol officer so the dog can jump out and go to the rescue.

Furthermore, many departments send their police dog handlers and their canine partners to Johnson, other dog trainers or to their own department dog trainers, for continuing training--and that means an officer is being paid when he’s not on street duty.

“We like to set aside one day a week for the handlers and their dogs to work on their training,” said Oceanside’s Korbacher. “That’s up to 20% of their work week when they’re not on the streets patrolling.”

Johnson is one of several police dog trainers in San Diego County, including one other in North County--Rheinland Police K9, which is relocating from Valley Center to the San Pasqual Valley east of Escondido.

Their first order of business is to find dogs that show an aptitude for police work--animals that are aggressive, but not overly so.

“We don’t evaluate dogs until they’re at least a year old,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for dogs with a certain temperament, something they’re born with that you can identify through testing.”

Three Parts to Screening Test

That basic test calls for someone to run toward the dog, flailing his arms and yelling, to see if the dog holds his ground or scampers away, afraid. Next, the dog is surprised by someone at the last possible moment, to see if the animal spooks easily. The third test is the firing of a gun to see if the dog is bothered by the report.

Johnson only tests German shepherds and, in more recent years, Belgian Malinois--a dog similar in size and appearance to the shepherd, but with a short coat, a slightly more aggressive personality and somewhat greater agility and speed. “They’re a little harder to handle, since they’re more aggressive and have a tendency to challenge the owner to find out if they can get away with something,” Johnson said. “But they’ve got lots of drive and intensity.”

Other dogs--even mutts--that show the proper raw attributes could be trained as police canines, Johnson said, “but departments like the psychological effect that a German shepherd or Malinois has because of his appearance.” The dogs weigh 75 to 80 pounds, or more.

Of the dogs he tests, only about 1 in 75 pass muster and are then available for full-fledged police dog training.

For years, such dogs usually were donated to police departments by local owners. In more recent years, however, a growing number of dogs trained by Johnson have been imported from Europe, and many of those dogs already have received some preliminary training, especially in West Germany where the canine sport of schutzhund consumes entire towns. Schutzhund involves the competition among dogs for ability to track, obey and protect their master, including biting aggressors by going after their padded arms.

The problem, Johnson said, is that, since these dogs score points in competition for how aggressively they go after their target’s arm, they become “sleeve happy,” and actually have to be broken of that aggressiveness to some degree so they can work in public with a police officer.

Training Requires Patience

On paper, the dog training regiment sounds simple enough, although it calls for patience.

The first step--and perhaps the most important--is teaching the dog to stay in his car until he is either called out, or until the level of aggression against his handler has reached the point he senses that he is needed.

But, for some dogs, an open window is simply too inviting. Oceanside’s Korbacher recalled the time a police dog jumped out of a patrol unit on a downtown street for no apparent reason. Officers didn’t find him until the next day.

Aggressiveness in dogs is developed by playing tug-of-war with them with a burlap bag so they learn to become “hyper” and to grab on to something. “Most of our dogs come to us with that temperament already, so then we have to teach them where to go with that drive,” Johnson said.

The next step, then, is to put a heavy pad around one’s arm, and to teach the dog to go for it instead of the burlap bag. Then, the officer enters the training picture. He and the trainer, who has his arm padded and plays the role of the bad guy--tussle, and the dog learns to “attack” the trainer. Concurrently, the dog learns not to attack his own handler, the officer himself.

There have been occasions, though, when a dog has mistakenly bitten the officer when he and the suspect are tussling, so officers are taught that, when they call their dog out of a car during a skirmish, they are to push themselves away from the suspect so the dog can properly identify and go after his target.

Dog’s Reward Is a Bite

To teach a dog to search for a suspect, whether in an open field or inside a building, it is allowed first to bite its subject. That person then hides, the dog is given the command to bite, and is taken by leash to possible hiding places. “We take him from hiding place to hiding place until he smells the person, then we give him his reward--he bites,” Johnson said. By extension, the dog learns that, when given the search command, he may find someone to bite at the other end.

Since police don’t always want the dog to bite the subject in hiding, the dog also learns another command to simply “alert” his handler when he has found the subject, without sinking his teeth into him.

Dogs that smell for narcotics or explosives are trained by having their favorite toy wrapped up with a pinch of plastic explosives, gunpowder or drugs--whether marijuana, cocaine or heroine. The dogs come to associate those smells with their toys and, eventually, learn not to smell for the toy but for the explosives or drugs themselves.

During training, the caches are hidden in areas filled with other smells--Johnson uses a tool shed filled with paints and solvents, for instance--so the animals learn to make the proper distinction. Johnson even puts out dog food and trains the dog to ignore the meat. “We don’t want a dog going into someone’s house and being distracted by the smells in a kitchen,” Johnson said.

So sensitive is a dog’s nose that it can even detect the residue of drugs on currency--a delight to law enforcement agencies because they are allowed to seize money that is used in the drug business.

Sniffing Out Explosives

Explosives dogs--the trickiest to train--are further taught that, when they pick up the appropriate smell during their search, they are not to become hyper over it, but to passively alert their handler, perhaps by sitting at attention. Unlike drug searches, in which a dog may scrape and claw away until he gets to the drugs, explosive-sniffing dogs are taught only to detect the smell without pursuing it further.

Not all dogs pass the training. “We had a super dog that wouldn’t release his bite in training. We had to let him go,” Johnson said. “We had another dog that wouldn’t attack even when you beat him over the head with a bag, but he had one super nose, so we turned him into a drug dog.”

The dog may complete his training in a matter of weeks, Johnson said, “but we don’t consider them real police dogs until they’ve been out on the streets for a year. It’s like a police officer--he may graduate from the academy with his skills down in theory, but he won’t be a streetwise cop until he’s been out there for a while.”


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