HUNTSVILLE, AL – Most Huntsville police cars have a number on the front license plate to identify the officer, but for the vehicles in the K-9 unit, the dogs’ names are on the front of the car.
Names like Gunner, Stryker and Isis – three of the unit’s nine dogs – identify the vehicle on the front plate because according to Officer Cory Upton, they’re in charge.
The eight narcotics dogs one bomb dog are trained in Huntsville to detect drugs and bombs based on odor, something their handlers can’t do.
“We teach them to associate odor to their toy,” said officer and head trainer Mike Posey.
The K-9 unit trains dogs from all over the Southeast in a 13-week program at its facilities off of Johnson Road. Although the initial training happens during those weeks, the dogs are constantly being retrained to keep them on their toes.
For drug dogs, they’re trained to scratch where they find a scent. Bomb dogs are trained to sit when they smell something, so as not to disturb whatever is in the bomb.
Huntsville’s K-9 unit is the second oldest in the nation, active since 1963. The dogs are trained for obedience, agility and evidence recovery. They can find hidden persons, track scents and apprehend criminals.
Sgt. Jeff Huskey said the dogs are not pets. They’re taken care of extremely well, and while they go home with their handlers, they’re isolated and not considered family dogs, he said.
“They are a tool,” said Upton. “I don’t go home and let my kids play with my gun, so my kids don’t play with the dog.”
Untrained, a dog costs around $7,500. Trained, they can bring in as much as $15,000. Huntsville uses German Shepherd breeds from Europe. They’re not the only dog used in K-9 units, but Huntsville’s had good experiences with them, so they keep buying the breed.
This year alone, the Huntsville dogs have had between 30-50 felony apprehensions and recovered more than $150,000 worth of physical evidence,” Huskey said.
Earlier in the year, a dog grabbed the arm of a gunman hiding in a river, forcing him to drop his weapon. The gunman later told police he had planned on shooting at officers as they came around a set of bushes.
“The dogs do save lives,” Posey said.
Most shepherds can understand about 500 commands, and Huntsville’s dogs are trained to understand 20-25.
“They’re intelligent, loyal, good-tempered and dependable dogs,” Posey said.
Upton added, “If they had thumbs, they’d be driving the car.”
Huskey said sometimes, they’re better than humans because they don’t rationalize. They simply do what they’re told.
Once an officer gets into the K-9 unit, they rarely leave.
“This is the best job in police work,” Posey said.