The bond between a dog and its owner is a deep well of loyalty and trust. For the K9 officers with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the connection between a K9 and its handler is all about protection and safety, duty and diligence. Their professional abilities and training must coordinate in the field but the personalities must also gel for the partnership to work. It’s not a buddy cop movie. It’s a dog eat dog world and the K9 officers are taking a bite out of crime while protecting the life of their partner in the face of danger.
As a 24-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Christian Smith has held several different roles in his career but as commanding officer of the K9 unit, he oversees all aspects of the training, logistics and funding. He also works to ensure that all bites are properly investigated and all other avenues are explored before releasing a dog on an unruly perp. “We’ll only release the dog in a non-compliant suspect in certain matters. If a suspect is not showing his hands or has known to be armed in the past or has his hands in his pockets or won’t turn around, it alleviates the officer having to go after the suspect,” says Lt. Smith. “We certainly don’t want to put that dog in a position to sacrifice itself but that dog is out there to protect the officers.”
There is little margin for incompatibility so Lt. Smith takes great care when pairing handlers with a new K9 partner. Introducing a handler to a new dog, mostly shepherd breeds from Pennsylvania, requires six months of daily training to get the dog up to certification levels. The selection process involves kennel rating system and a series of internal training to test courage levels, gunshots, traffic, thunder and lightning. Once they are selected, the dogs must to be able to pass in both detector and patrol functions. All dogs receive training in patrol functions and searching for the bad guys. “It’s critical and you have to keep that in mind when you’re picking a dog out. The handlers don’t get to choose their own dog. We know the officers. When we purchase the dogs, we have to keep in mind the personality of the officer and the dog more so than just size. We’re not going to give a huge dog to a smaller officer who has to throw the dog over fences after suspects. I have had some instances since I’ve been here where the officer does not get along well with the dog and we’ve had to reassign,” says Lt. Smith. “They’re trained specifically what our needs are. We need them to lead in the woods to find a suspect before they can set up an ambush on the officers. Dogs are also used for article searches. If a suspect throws a gun into the weeds, a dog can sense it and find it. Then they’re trained for either explosives or drugs but not both. I pick based on what the department needs and the community and city as a whole. That training stays with them for a dog’s entire career. But the six months is only just the tip of the iceberg. Handlers will train every day between calls for service.”
Dogs will come on the street at about 2 years of age when they’re certified and retire about 9. Smith says if everything works out right, the handler and the dog will stay together for the dog’s entire career. “Most of the time when the handler retires a dog, the dog goes home with the officer and has a life of a little more leisure,” he says. “It’s not required but there is a bond there and usually that will not happen automatically. It’s reasonable to assume that a human police officer – or any adult employee for that matter – could be expected to adjust their temperament to align with their work environment and it’s no different for a K9 officer. “You can really train a lot into them. It’s really amazing what you can do in altering behavior in training. The handler has to tailor his behavior more so than the dog really is expected to.”
Because of their specialized training and heightened awareness, dogs are able to sense a perpetrator by scent and alert the handler of potential danger with his body language. “The dog’s behavior changes when they get close to a suspect that might be hiding in the woods. The officer can see that because he knows the dog and can take cover,” says Lt. Smith. “The officer can call to the suspect and give him plenty of opportunity to come out and if he does not come out, than the dog will make him come out and show his hands and do what he’s told to do.”
Lt. Smith says the department follows a strict protocol regarding the K9 officers. The dogs are not used as any form of punishment. Handlers do not celebrate or reward bites and every bite is investigated to ensure the proper measures were taken during the situation. “When a dog gets a bite, that dog is doing what he is trained to do. The officer releases immediately upon compliance. We review the case carefully to determine if there were any better options and ensure that we were in compliance. Its high liability and we treat it accordingly.”
It’s not all business for K9 officers and their handlers. Lt. Smith says the dogs are a big part of the department’s community outreach programs and often demonstrate their skills to various organizations. “The K9 unit is very community focused. We do over 40 programs a year from schools and businesses to Cub Scouts. We do a lot of different demonstrations for community organizations usually more tailored to the younger children so they can get an idea of what we do. We show the kids that they are not just out there to bite people. We’re very proud of our involvement in the community. The biggest thing I would like people to know if that these dogs serve a vital role in the community.”
For the last two years, Lt. Smith says he’s had a handler win Officer of the Year for their tracking. One dog was instrumental in finding a lot child, tracking over concrete in five different neighborhoods. Another caught a handful of murder suspects in a single month. Many spent days in the thick brush during the search for Lonzie Barton. “They never complain, even when they are in chest-deep mud. They always do what they’re asked to do,” he says. “We take our training and our commitment very seriously and I’m very proud to be part of it.” Although they have it “ruff” sometimes, the K9 unit works hard for the people of Jacksonville everyday.