Police K9s are highly trained dogs that chase criminals, find drugs and sniff out bombs. Training them is one of the most specialized law enforcement jobs out there.
The Tempe Police K9 unit invited ABC15 to join the training for a closer look at these amazing dogs.
Once a dog and handler are paired, they’re partners for the life of the dog--even living at home with their handlers. After initial training, the dogs still train four hours per week for the entire length of their service.
Officers lead their K9s through mock drug searches where they sniff out actual drugs planted around the police station. Others are trained to sniff out bomb materials.
However, one of the most essential functions of a police K9 is keeping its handler safe one the search for dangerous criminals. The dogs practice clearing rooms and finding a “suspect” hidden behind a door. It’s a vital operation that allows police to find a hiding suspect while officers wait safely outside.
“He's telling us hey, suspect's in this room. At that point we can go in in a tactically safe manor,” said Sgt. Tony Miller, with the Tempe Police K9 Unit.
The training allows officers to learn important behavior patterns and cues from their dogs. For the dogs, however, it’s just a high stakes game of fetch.
“If that dog loves that toy we can get him to do anything,” said Sgt. Miller.
That includes chasing down, biting and stopping the most dangerous criminals.
“These dogs aren't trained to maul people,” said Sgt. Miller.
They’re trained to dive into a situation that’s too dangerous for officers.
“Let that dog go up there, ‘grab onto him,’ pull him out of the car for us and make sure there aren't any weapons in his hands,” said Sgt. Miller, giving one example where police might tell the dog to bite a suspect.
Tempe police allowed me to dress up in the training “bite suit” to see what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a K9 attack. For this scenario, I played the bad guy, dressed head to toe in heavy protective clothing designed to prevent the dog from actually tearing into flesh.
“It is not going to penetrate your skin, but you are definitely going to feel the pressure on your bones and on your muscles,” said Officer Frank Razo, explaining the process.
The good guy in the scenario was Sgt. Miller and his dog Roko – a large German Shepard.
At Sgt. Miller’s command, Roko ran full speed toward me, hitting with enough force to spin me 180 degrees. The dog latched onto an arm and violently shook its head until Sgt. Miller gave the command to stop. It took an amazing amount of energy just to stay on my feet.
“Did you feel the pressure?” asked Razo after the demonstration.
“Oh yeah, it's a lot of pressure,” I said, rubbing my arm and breathing hard after the dog attack.
Even with the bite suit the dog left teeth marks and bruises. A suspect without protection doesn't stand a chance. Because of that, police dogs are very rarely sent to attack suspects.
“The standard to use the dog in the police world is very high,” said Sgt. Miller. “We need to show that this person has committed a serious crime, this person is dangerous to the community, dangerous to officers and actively either evading arrest or fighting with officers.”
Bad guys beware – if you see a cop with a dog it’s best to do what he says.
Dogs and their handlers are usually together for five to eight years. When a dog gets too old to stay in the fight, Tempe police sends it off to retirement – living out its life as a family dog with its handler.