Special to the Tribune
I've been enjoying learning and writing about police dogs recently as Prescott Valley has brought in the Arizona Law Enforcement Canine Association conference.
By the time you read this column, the handlers and their dogs will have completed their public demonstration scheduled for Tuesday at Tim's Toyota Center in Prescott Valley.
Because of our Tuesday press time, I got a sneak preview Monday afternoon of certification training at the Bradshaw High School East athletic field. I also heard some of the "stories inside the stories" that I always love to find, like the one about Maricopa County Sheriff's K-9 Officer Jon Anderson and Toby, a German Shepherd who is 8 years old and still working with great skill and enthusiasm, even though he's been shot in the line of duty. Read his story on my Creature Feature blog at pvtrib.com.
Another wonderful story that I heard Monday is the one about Darrius, another big German Shepherd. Darrius' owner called the Phoenix Police Dept. and asked if they might take him for a police dog, because she knew if he made the grade, he would be treated well. She had to give him up because she was moving to Guatemala to work with Habitat for Humanity.
Sgt. Rich Maiocco of the Phoenix PD said he gets many such offers from German Shepherd owners who can no longer keep the dogs. He said he has tested a lot of them, but has never had one pass all the requirements for training as a police dog. Darrius, however, "tested through the roof," Maiocco said.
At age 3, older than most police dogs begin their training, Darrius had to demonstrate play, prey and defense drives. The Phoenix department was able to take him into training, saving thousands of dollars in the purchase price, and giving a good home to a good dog.
He lives now with Maiocco, but will move on to live with a K-9 officer when the department can match him with the right partner. A lot depends on whether this former household pet can learn what he needs to do as a patrol dog.
Maiocco said Darrius will at the least be a good narcotics dog, what officers call a "single purpose" dog. The Phoenix department has all dual purpose dogs, those that patrol and do narcotics or explosives detection, but many agencies can use a dog like Darrius.
"Somewhere down the road, he'll work," Maiocco said, "and every day he does, that's money in the department's pocket, because we didn't have the purchase price."
"Not all dogs make police dogs," he added. "You can't teach drive."
Another happy part of the story is that although Maiocco gets several calls each month from people wanting to donate German Shepherds for police work, and though they almost never work out, he keeps a list, because people also call him asking where to get a German Shepherd. He puts the two together and hopefully matches some needy dogs with good homes.
Unfortunately that drive is the same trait that makes many of these dogs unable to fit into a normal family, which is a good reason for people to carefully research the breed before they get the dog!
One of the things I also observed in the dogs I saw on Monday is the enthusiasm with which they work.
I've trained and worked with dogs since the 70s, and dog training in that time has undergone a seismic shift. Like Maiocco said, even 10 years ago, "Training used to be all compulsion. The industry has learned that reward is best."
Most of the K-9 officers carry their dogs' favorite toy with them, and as soon as the dog complies with a command, they look for that toy. It's their reward, and it results in happy, playful dogs with a serious purpose.
When a dog such as Toby reaches eight years old, the usual retirement age, the investment in his purchase and training could total $11,000 or more. But as any pet owner knows, your heart also gets involved, and it would be hard not to be especially fond of an animal that watches your back and partners with you every day in dangerous situations.
While departments encourage officers to try to remember that these dogs are tools of law enforcement, most of them will end up like the loyal Toby, who will retire in Anderson's home, and Prescott Valley's own Joey, now eight, who will retire with officer Paul Hines' family.
(Heidi Dahms Foster is Editorial Manager, non-daily publications for Prescott Newspapers, Inc.)