Publication Date: Friday, January 16, 2004
(January 16, 2004) Canines called into action when police need keen noses, an intimidating presence - or goodwill ambassadors
by Teresa C. Brown
It was a high-speed car chase that turned into a foot pursuit in a heavily wooded area. Police followed the pair of suspects to a San Ramon canyon road, where the fleeing fugitives abandoned their car. One was apprehended while the second remained at large.
As the officers secured the perimeter of the densely forested grounds, Pleasanton police Officer Royce Fontillas was called in to assist in finding the elusive suspect.
Fontillas, a 12-year police veteran, has been on many calls like this one. He and his partner are in demand whenever the police need their highly trained expertise, particularly his partner's keen sense of smell. Fontillas' partner, Uno, is a police canine.
The Pleasanton Police Department has had a K-9 program since 1974, beginning with one dog handled by now-retired Officer Jay Graves, who works part-time at the department. Since that time, the program has expanded to three working German shepherds: two service patrol dogs and a bomb dog. Officer Randy Paulson handles the bomb dog, Robby. Fontillas and Officer Tim Martens handle the patrol dogs, Uno and Pasco, respectively.
Pasco, a 3-year-old male from Holland, joined the department several months ago and is the newest dog in the unit. Pasco replaces Martens' first police dog, Duke, a 6-year-old German shepherd who died Aug. 7 from an intestinal disease. Robby is also fairly new, having joined last spring.
Akin to athletes, the three dogs train continually. Every week, the dogs and handlers meet with trainer Jim Faggiano, of JAFCO Canine Management, for a two-hour workout. Faggiano is a self-employed dog trainer specializing in police dogs.
The average career life for a police dog is between six and eight years, Faggiano said. Not only are the dogs susceptible to injury, but like many large breeds, German shepherds may have a predisposition to hip problems.
Of the three canines, the veteran dog on the force is Uno; at 9 years of age, Uno is still going strong. Fontillas recalled Uno's tracking ability as he followed the cold trail of a rapist who attacked a woman at a bus stop near City Hall on Old Bernal Avenue several years ago. About 45 minutes after the attack, Fontillas put Uno on the attacker's trail. After sorting out the human scents at the crime scene, Uno picked up the suspect's and followed an invisible trail a short distance away to an apartment complex. The dog led Fontillas to the attacker's front door, where officers found the discarded shirt he had worn during the assault in a garage pail outside his door.
The dogs' acute sense of smell is vital to the service work performed. "The bite is miniscule and nose work is paramount," Faggiano said. "The dogs are used to find evidence, narcotics, lost people, anything."
Teaching dogs to track begins with a simple lesson that is gradually expanded. It starts with the handler stamping his or her feet on the grass. Everyone shreds dead skin cells, leaving a scent, Faggiano explained. Just standing in place leaves enough of a scent imprint for dogs to detect. Combine this residual scent with adrenaline-pumped perspiration from a pursuit, and the dog has a scent-laden trail.
But the dog is only as good as its handler, Faggiano cautioned. If a handler does not learn to read the dog's body signals, vital messages may be missed.
Fontillas recalled one incident when Uno was searching a car for drugs. Officers suspected they were in the vehicle but could not find anything. Giving the search command, Fontillas watched as Uno "alerted" - signaled a positive source by scratching - at something under the car, but the officer did not see anything suspicious.
Certain that the dog was not making a mistake, the officer continued looking, blindly reaching up into the car's undercarriage, where he felt something - a baggie of drugs. The suspect had a technique of dumping drugs through the car's gearshift boot on the console whenever police pulled him over, Fontillas said. This time, however, the bag got tangled in the car's mechanisms.
The weekly maintenance training is an opportunity for the handlers to work with the dogs to strengthen their skills. During one session, Paulson concentrated on Robby's bite-and-hold work, an exercise all police dogs go through. One officer will don either a protective sleeve or suit, depending on the exercise. For Robby, the sleeve was used.
Fontillas explained that police dogs must be trained in control. While the dogs are working police canines, they are also a positive role model and routinely perform in public demonstrations. The dogs must be able to go into a crowd and not react negatively, Fontillas said. On the other hand, the dogs must be able to react appropriately when faced with an aggressive subject.
"If the dog doesn't have control, it's not a good service dog for the Police Department," Fontillas said.
"It is an art to training the dogs," explained Paulson. Subtle movements and posturing are used to boost the dog's confidence. In bite work, the dogs are taught to bite down and hold the position to avoid "typewritering" (a pattern of biting, releasing and biting again) to minimize bite injuries, he explained.
The full-body protective suit is a thickly padded 20-pound jacket with extra-long sleeves and similarly constructed pants, held up by suspenders. The bulky suit makes it impossible for the wearer to run. However, it helps protect the wearer from the dog's powerful bite.
Upon command, the dog will charge full speed and hurdle itself toward the padded target. Using its teeth, the up-to-80-pound dog can latch onto its target with such strength as to remain suspended parallel above the ground if the person spins in place.
It is the police dogs' strength and training that make them intimidating tools when dealing with criminals, as in the case of Fontillas and Uno when they were called to track the suspect in the San Ramon canyon.
Fontillas commanded Uno to search and released the German shepherd. The dog quickly darted out of sight. Within minutes, Uno returned to Fontillas, carrying a tennis shoe.
The shoe was neither old nor new, and it did not have the look of longtime exposure to the elements, Fontillas said. Again, he commanded Uno to search. This time, Fontillas kept up with Uno, as the dog raced to a tree and began jumping up under its branches.
During the search, the police officers had been scouring the ground for the suspect, but Uno "alerted" them skyward. Looking up in the tree, about 10 feet above the ground, Fontillas saw a man hugging the tree trunk in silence. The man - the suspect - was wearing only one shoe.
The K-9 nose ... how to find bombs
The K-9 nose ... how to find bombs
(January 16, 2004)
Pleasanton police have the distinction of having one of only six bomb dogs in the entire Bay Area. The other departments are Oakland, the California Highway Patrol in San Francisco, Milpitas, UC Berkeley and the U.S. Park Police Department, said Officer Randy Paulson, who handles bomb dog Robby.
All service dogs are trained for either narcotics or bomb detection, but not both, said Lt. Tom Fenner, Pleasanton's K-9 program manager. The training requires different "alerting" signals, he explained. A narcotics dog is trained to scratch the area where it detects drugs; a bomb dog is trained to react passively and sit, he said, because scratching movements may detonate the explosive.
Bomb dogs also require additional training beyond the weekly patrol training.
"Bomb dogs require four hours per week to maintain at a high level of proficiency," Fenner said. Paulson and Robby meet every week with trainer Tammy Quirin to keep the dog's bomb-searching skills optimal. They work in different buildings throughout the city, giving the dog a variety of sites, large and small, to conduct searches.
A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Quirin teaches and certifies bomb dogs using stringent Department of Defense standards. When she retired from the military, Quirin was the U.S. Armed Forces Command Program Manager, overseeing the military dog program that included 300 dogs and handlers. In addition to training police dogs, she also has obedience classes throughout the East Bay and works for the Hopalong Animal Rescue in Oakland.
Not all dogs can be patrol dogs and not all can be detection dogs, Quirin said. Most patrol dogs are German shepherds, Belgium malinois, Dutch shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans, she explained. They do not use pit bulls because they are too people-friendly, she added. In detection work, other dogs are used, such as beagles, Labradors, golden retrievers and mixed breeds.
Bomb dogs are trained to detect 14 different explosive components, Quirin explained. When searching a site, "one dog does the work of four humans," she said, adding, "No machine can beat a dog."
When training the dogs, the handler must find a reward that is valuable to the dog, Quirin said. It can be a ball, food or playing tug-of-war. Robby works for a toy similar to a field retriever's dummy (a canvas stick toy used to train dogs to retrieve). During a recent training exercise, Paulson gave Robby a break outside a church, while Quirin took inert explosive components, packaged in cloth pouches, and hid them in and around the building.
She explained that she tries to think like someone planting bombs. She hides the components from ground level up to 9-10 feet above ground and anywhere from 6-8 inches deep. Likely hiding places are between a door and the door jam, inside flower planters or on a bookcase. In addition to using the pouches holding the components, Quirin also hid tins of smokeless and black powder, two explosive ingredients readily found in many stores. To challenge the dog, sometimes she will attempt to "mask" the scent using coffee grounds or air freshener.
The training sessions keep Robby's nose in top detecting condition. As a bomb dog, Robby must be certified annually, meaning a stringent weeklong test detecting 40 explosives with only one error allowed.
Although Robby has been on active duty only since August, Paulson has been called out nine times to put him to work, including using him for bomb threats, gubernatorial protection and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's visit in October. Paulson and Robby were among the responders during a bombing at the Shaklee building in Hacienda Business Park in September.
During any bomb threat, Paulson goes into the area alone with Robby. With no more protective gear than a patrol officer's uniform and Kevlar vest, the officer follows Robby from a distance, letting the dog do his work.
"His job is to go and find the device and the bomb," Paulson explained. "My job, I bring as a handler, is to make sure he doesn't miss an area in the search." Paulson said, referring to Robby's nose, "I trust him 110 percent."
Odors radiate out from an object in a cone shape, Quirin explained, calling the phenomenon a "scent cone." Dogs work, passing in and out of the scent cone, gradually narrowing in on the source producing the odor. In this way, the dogs are able to locate the smallest of objects. To help the handlers see the direction that scents are drifting, a small bottle of talc powder is kept on hand. One quick squeeze and a puff of white powder will reveal minute air movement.
During a training session, Quirin placed a pouch in plain sight on a windowsill to demonstrate how the dogs are taught to search by scent in an inverted "V" pattern, moving from low to high areas. "Sight has nothing to do with it," she said.
Paulson commanded Robby to search. Robby appeared intent, his head barely weaving from side to side, but his body continually moving without a pause as he worked his way from the floor, to a bench seat, to a windowsill and back down again, in the pattern Quirin described.
As Robby moved closer to the pouch on the windowsill, he seemed oblivious to the innocuous-looking object - until he detected the explosive's scent. Robby immediately backed up and sat down, the alert signal.
For a job well done, Paulson promptly tossed Robby his reward, and the 78-pound canine pounced on his chew toy with the enthusiasm of a puppy.
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