K-9 officers: Cop’s best friend


At home, Titus is pretty sure he’s a lap dog. He gently but intently pours as much of his 80-pound frame onto his master’s legs as he can fit.

His counterpart, Max, is equally confident someone, at any moment, is going to throw a ball for him. He paces the room with anticipation and puppy-like energy.

But all it takes is a sharp verbal command in German, and the two German shepherds are all business, ready for duty as K-9 police officers.

Partners

Titus is the new K-9 for the Aberdeen Police Department, partnered with Officer Steve Timmons. Max works for the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office, partnered with Deputy Tracy Gay. Both dogs came from Indiana, and trained with their human partners this spring.

The rookies went on duty at the beginning of April. Timmons was also partnered with Nitro, the previous K-9 who retired earlier this year.

“It was hard not to take Nitro to work anymore, he wanted to go at first,” Timmons said. “For probably a couple months he’d run to the window and watch me load Titus in the car.”

At 10 years old, the 115-pound Nitro was starting to feel the wear-and-tear of the work, and retired after eight years on the force.

“We didn’t want to work him until the end of his life, we wanted to just let him be a dog for a while,” Timmons said. “I think he’s accepted it now and he’s enjoying his retirement.”

The Sheriff’s Office’s last dog, Gizmo, died suddenly in June of last year. His handler, Deputy Rob Crawford, chose not to work with another dog.

“Starting in law enforcement, I was always interested in it,” Gay said. “It’s one of those things you’re not even guaranteed it’s going to be available.”

The two K-9 teams often work together, searching for people on the run from the police.

Tracking

The big dogs can look intimidating, but they’re friendly, smart animals who understand when it’s time for work.

“They can turn it off and on,” Timmons said.

“Our dogs are pets that like to go to work. It’s a game for them that they enjoy doing,” Gay said.

Gay credited recently retired Deputy Keith Fouts for bringing the program to the next level, and praised Fouts’ service.

“He actually started our current, modern-day program. He wrote our policy and procedures and made it what it is today,” Gay said.

Fouts and his partner, Tor, helped catch more than 120 criminals and saved two lives before Tor’s retirement in 2000.

“These dogs are so valuable for patrol, I couldn’t imagine not having a dog available,” Timmons said.

The dogs are able to search and clear a building in just a few minutes, where it would take several officers at least 20 minutes and put all of them at risk, he explained as an example.

The cool, damp conditions in the Pacific Northwest are ideal for tracking with dogs, Gay said. Max and Titus are the only apprehension dogs in Grays Harbor County, but taking a little extra time to get where they’re needed can be a good thing, giving scents time to settle.

Gay said on a recent track, it was about 2 1/2 hours from the time he and Max left home to the time they found the subject.

“He had been hiding for at least an hour,” Gay said. “If anything, the time helps.”

Sometimes people hide up trees or down manholes when they’re being pursued, but the dogs are trained for that. They can pick up scents even in heavily trafficked areas because they’re taught to specifically look for certain stress indicators.

“You just committed a crime, your body’s going to be giving off a different odor than someone that belongs there, just walking around normal,” Gay said.

After that, it’s just a matter of keeping the scene contained, which is its own challenge in an era where everyone has a cell phone to call for a ride.

Training

Both Gay and Timmons trained near Sequim for three months to earn both state and a Washington State Police Canine Association certifications. The latter isn’t required for the dogs to work, but demonstrates a higher degree of training and skill. Both plan to go for Master Handler certification through the agency, which shows their expertise with the dog, as soon as the partners have been together a year.

Both dogs came from Indiana, and at a premium price. Timmons said Titus cost about $11,000. The Aberdeen K-9 program is fully funded by The Tamaki Foundation in Seattle. The organization stepped up when Nitro was laid off in 2009 due to budget cuts, and has funded the K-9 program ever since.

“Without that support, I don’t know if we’d have a program,” Timmons said.

The Sheriff’s Office has maintained its own program, and has a long history of successful K-9 officers.

“They believe in the K-9 program and fortunately it’s a priority for the department,” Gay said.

Both officers went to Indiana to get the dogs, and Gay attended a seven-week handler course. Timmons already completed that with Nitro.

“There’s a big learning curve for me as a new handler,” Gay said. “How to read the dog, rewarding the dog is a huge one where your timing is important. … Within a second to a second-and-a-half, you need to be ready to reward the dog.”

The best reward: playtime.

“Titus loves tennis balls, that’s his reward,” Timmons said. “Just playing tugs with them is a huge reward.”

New handlers also have to learn how to tell when their dogs are on a scent, and how to slow them down enough to keep them on track. It’s easy for a young, excited dog to miss the spot the subject turned.

Both dogs were trained to respond to commands in German, and Max was started on East Coast-style tracking, which focuses on finding people in vegetated areas, based on broken plants, rather than human scent.

“I had to unwind a lot of that because it’s so different out here,” Gay said.

Timmons had similar issues when they first got Nitro, and this time asked that Titus not be trained.

“They always say the first dog is where you’re learning to be a handler. I’m still learning stuff today with Titus. There’s a lot of learning,” Timmons said.

They started from scratch together, starting from simple obedience up through tracking on asphalt. Both Titus and Max can do that as easily as tracking on vegetation now.

Work is never done

Working with dogs requires challenging training and a lot of dedication, but the work is far from over once the dog is certified and ready for duty.

“It’s every day, even days off,” Timmons said. “I’m with my dog more than I’m with my family.”

They’re constantly practicing, building their teamwork, even attending extra training programs.

“It’s very rewarding. I’m still impressed watching the dogs, I’m amazed watching the dogs track,” Timmons said. The dogs can keep their noses down, concentrating, for more than a mile while they’re on the scent sometimes.

He feels fortunate to get to work with another dog; APD opens up applications to work with a new K-9 to the whole department.

Gay feels just as lucky to be getting his chance to work with a dog. In a department with such a long tradition with the K-9 program, it’s a competitive process to earn a place, and handlers often work with multiple dogs.

“Being a dog guy and having a dog as your partner you’re going to work with every day? I wouldn’t want to change it for anything else,” Gay said.

How to approach a police dog

Like many service animals, police dogs need to concentrate on work while they’re on duty.

“If you want to see the dog, don’t ever just appraoch the dog. Come ask us first,” Aberdeen Officer Steve Timmons said.

If you see a K-9 team working on a track, try to keep away, particularly with animals.

“Your natural response is you’re going to want to see what’s going on. But if you see a dog team out working, try to put your dogs away,” Deputy Tracy Gay said.

“It just adds more scent, more distractions,” Timmons said.

If you have information that might help with the search, call in to 911 instead of approaching the team.

“If we get information that there’s someone up ahead of us, someone that’s running, that’s going to help us,” Gay said. But the extra people can still be a distraction.