Manteca, CA 27 April 2002 - Of course his K-9 partner is good. Maybe even the best there ever was. Police officers from eleven cities brought their dogs to show each other just how good that partner was on a cold and nasty day last week in Manteca, California.
Four phases of competion display the incredible talent and skill of these police partnerships: search, obedience, agility, and attack. Throughout the trials, the dog must follow the directions of the human partner, completing his tasks as swiftly as possible and always demonstrating attentiveness to the officer's commands. The police officers are on trial, too: they must give the commands and directions clearly, quickly, and indicate to the dogs at a distance whether they are on the right track. Lassie ain't workin' from no script here!
The first phase for the teams was a search for a hidden man: the dogs had to cross an athletic field, scout around three closed-up cars and find the one that had the man lying down inside. Then they had to bark to tell their partner that the man was found, and make sure the "suspect" didn't get out of the car.
Second was a standard obedience test, to walk "at heel" (at the left side of the officer) through rapid turns, to sit and stay while the partner ran ahead, then lie down, then get back to a ‘sit', and only come when called. The toughest move was for the dogs to drop at a command to lie down and stay until called -- executed at a dead-out run.
The third part was the agility test, the worst obstacle being the little jump over a bar (in the picture behind the window thing) -- very hard for the dogs to jump over without knocking the bar down. But the most difficult obstacle was the ladder they had to climb. They have a rough time figuring out where to put their feet. The dogs seemed to love the agility phase, and everybody but criminals had to be impressed at the way these K-9's could go over six-foot fences with power to spare.
Fourth phase is everyone's favorite, spectators and dogs alike -- the attack phase. The first test is a leap into the back of a pickup after the suspect (tailgate is UP) and to bite and hold him. Second is to go after a suspect who ducks around the back of a dumpster and then leaps out, shouting and waving a big club to try to frighten the dog off. The dog must bite and hold him without flinching. Third, the dog is sent after three arguing men, and then is called back to his partner WITHOUT biting the targets because they all put their hands in the air and surrender. Fourth, the dog is sent after a running suspect, but a man in a sheet and funny hat pushing a wheelbarrow gets in the way. The dog must ignore the wierdo and go bite and hold the suspect.
They were all awesome, but some stood out more than others. "Shadow" (Stockton PD) was the only rottweiler among German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois. He did great at the search phase, crappy at the obedience, and didn't come back to his partner, Mark Thrush, when recalled during the attack phase. On the other hand, Shadow has such an imposing presence that just seeing him would stop a perpetrator!
"Eike" (Yolo County) was a real ol' pro. He was wonderful at everything, but his age is beginning to catch up with him, and he can't jump over the high fences anymore. His partner, Renee Lancaster was talking with a police officer and his wife right beside me, so I got to listen to her evaluation of some of the other dogs -- she also travels around training otherK-9 teams. Some of the officers hampered their dog partners by timing their commands wrongly, or even by confusing body postures. When one team was having a rocky time, she pointed out that the officer stopped moving forward, and his dog began to focus more on what his man was going to want instead of on the search. If he had just kept on walking forward, the dog would have kept on task.
"Axe" (California Youth Authority) and his partner Andy Herrera were just super all the way around. My notes on Axe have little to say other than "Great! Superb! Excellent!" because I couldn't take my eyes off this shaggy Shepherd. I'm looking forward to seeing him compete again next month in Modesto.
But as perfect as Axe was, he was still outshone by "Syler" (Modesto PD). Syler did that first search in one swoop, his obedience was flawless, he went over and through every obstacle, and even though his partner was late in the call-back from the attack -- Syler was only about five feet away from the men -- he ran past them (because he was moving too fast to turn), and went right back to his partner, Robert Hart, without a biting, just like he should. The whole crowd of police (and other spectators as well) burst into applause. His was the kind of performance that brings tears to your eyes.
A novice dog, "Abby" (Yolo County) and her partner, Philip Blair, gave me some insights into the intense training that must occur for these teams to work well together. Abby is a young dog, and had for a while been teamed with a different officer. When the officer resigned, Abby was reassigned to Blair, just a few months ago. Although Abby did great work on the obedience and agility phases, she is still in the process of forming her profound attachment to her new partner, and was reluctant to travel too far away from Blair. She is still falling in love.
Renee Lancaster is working with Abby and Blair, and I eavesdropped on her advice. Frequency, she was telling him. Every day take the dog out and have her search for a hidden person, so that every time you go to check out a structure, she knows that what you are doing is finding people. Consistency: keep your postures and your gestures and commands the same each time. That way she'll know what you want her to do without having to slow up to figure it out. And praise that dog lavishly for any progress she makes.
One last comment here: none of my photos show the dogs in action, for a very good reason. The trials are conducted at the far side of an athletic field, behind a chain link fence, so that the dogs will not be distracted from their tasks by a hooting crowd, and so that there is no chance at all for a hooter to be nailed by an excited K-9. "Never, ever, ever run past a police dog, folks," the announcer told the crowd. "Running from the dog is a BAD idea."
Good job, good dogs!