Police K-9s prove mettle through training, tests of nerve

They’re costly to buy and take months to train. Yet a prepared police dog does invaluable work, officers say.

Chloe is a nearly 2-year-old bloodhound in Riviera Beach who specializes in tracking missing children and endangered adults. Ike is a 7-year-old Belgian Malonois in Delray Beach who can sniff out a package of drugs, track a hiding suspect and respond to commands spoken in Dutch. Corby, a 2-year-old German shepherd in Jupiter, can detect explosives and has been featured on his own trading card.

They are among dozens of select, specially trained police K-9 dogs who patrol the streets of Palm Beach County daily with their human handlers. In recent months, K-9 dogs from county law-enforcement agencies have helped search for hurricane victims in the Florida Panhandle. They have tracked suspects fleeing from a car crash in Palm Beach. And in 2017, a Palm Beach County sheriff’s K-9, Casper, was hailed as a hero after the dog took a bullet protecting its handler during a confrontation with a suspect in Jupiter.

“We refer to a police K-9 dog like your NFL football player or a Major League Baseball player,” said Jupiter police Officer Chad Norman, the handler for three of the department’s six police dogs. “They’re on the top of their profession. You have so many that want to try out for it, and so few that make it.”

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Whether it’s searching for a missing person, sniffing out drugs or a bomb or tracking a hiding suspect, K-9 handlers describe their furry companions as invaluable members of the police force. But like their human counterparts, the dogs must undergo a rigorous evaluation process before they can be considered fit for police work.

Patrol dogs and their handlers must complete a minimum of 480 hours — the equivalent of 12 40-hour workweeks — in a K-9 academy. Dogs specializing either in narcotics or explosives may undergo an additional 220 hours — five and one-half workweeks — of training, Norman said.

Even after the dogs have been certified, they receive regular training exercises each week for the duration of their careers, said Sgt. Adam Margolis, a K-9 handler for the Delray Beach Police Department.

“They are animals. You have to keep them sharp,” said Margolis, noting the dogs can become expensive liabilities if not properly trained.

German shepherds and similar breeds, such as the Belgian Malonois, are the most popular choices for patrol dogs. They can cost on average from $10,000 to $12,000 and typically are imported from European countries such as Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands. Imported dogs are popular because they are bred in a manner that allows them to withstand the rigors of police work, local K-9 handlers said.

“The breeding over there, it’s much more controlled and governed,” Norman said.

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The bloodhounds are less expensive, about $1,200, and typically are bred domestically. The dogs’ traits bring certain advantages in the field, their handlers said.

“Their biggest asset is their nose,” Margolis said. “If a bad guy runs and is hiding somewhere, the dog can smell him before I can see them.”

On average, the dogs serve seven to 10 years, depending on their health. Handlers say they look for dogs that have a strong drive and the ability to handle stressful situations. Margolis, who has worked with two dogs, said the search for his first dog went through four candidates before he found a suitable partner.

“You may see environmental issues,” he said. “They may not like like loud noises, or may be afraid gunfire.”

Said Norman: “One of the biggest things is their nerve. They have to have a real strong nerve, not be skittish of loud noises. They have to be very dominant.”

Norman is currently training Jupiter’s newest K-9 team member, Bandit, a 5-month-old bloodhound named in honor of the actor Burt Reynolds, a longtime Jupiter-area resident who died in September. He also is the handler for Sherlock, an 8-year-old bloodhound, and Corby.

Chloe, the first bloodhound for Riviera Beach’s K-9 unit, was certified in October. She will give the department the instant ability to track missing persons without having to wait for assistance from another agency, said Officer Torrence Kearney, Chloe’s handler.

“She’s amazing,” Kearney said. “If we started from inside a building, she can trail from inside to outside. Say there’s a person, they share a room.  … She smells the room and she smells the roommate’s scent and then when we put her nose to an article of the missing person, she eliminates the contaminated scent to follow the trail.”

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K-9 handlers describes a special relationship in the dogs not only become partners, but also members of their families.

“It’s something that is hard to explain unless you’ve done it,” said Riviera Beach Police Officer William Louden, the handler for Milow, a 5-year-old German shepherd. “I’m with him more than anybody. . . . Wherever I go, he’s there.”

Margolis’ first K-9 partner, Max, is enjoying retirement at the age of 13.

Many agencies provide certain protections for their dogs, such as bulletproof vests, although they are only used sparingly because of the hot South Florida climate. Louden said the department’s K-9 handlers won’t knowingly send a dog into a life-threatening situation.

“We’re not going to send a dog in to his death,” he said. “If we know there’s a barricaded subject in the house and he’s armed, we’re not going to send the dog in there.”

Like their human counterparts, dogs who work in narcotics run the risk of exposure to harmful substances search as fentanyl. Margolis said the K-9 unit is equipped with Narcan, which can be injected into a dog in emergency situations.

To date, the department has not had to use Narcan on any of its dogs, Margolis said.

Despite the potential for the dogs to encounter hostile situations, police K-9 handlers dismiss any perception that the dogs are violent.

“They are social animals who have a job to and they do it well,” Margolis said. “I’m not sure how police work would go without a K-9 unit. It would be tough.”

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