The Four-Legged Officer
They are not bred to be house dogs,” said Lexington K-9 Senior Handler Brian Burnette. “They are working dogs.”
After 12 years in Lexington Police Department’s Canine Unit, and handling three different dogs, Burnette knows very well the ins, outs, ups and downs of the dirty, demanding and desirable career of a K-9 handler.
“I always wanted to be a cop, but in high school a Kentucky State Police trooper brought a dog in to do a demonstration and I thought, ‘I want to be a dog handler,’” Burnette recalled. I can be a cop and have this specialized area. I first applied and interviewed for a K-9 position when I was still on probation. I knew I wouldn’t get it, but the more I learned, the more I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
But just like Burnette knew from the beginning of his police career exactly what he wanted to do, his K-9 partner, Garik, was bred and groomed from six weeks old to be the best officer he could be.
The Start of a Career
Most canines currently serving in law enforcement were born in Europe and sold to one of many working-dog kennels in the United States when they were about one year old. The most popular breeds of law enforcement K-9 are Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherd and German Shepherd, said Hopkinsville Master Handler Raymond Beaird.
“In Europe, it is a sport to breed working dogs — we play baseball, they raise dogs,” Beaird said of why the best working dogs come from European countries. “It is a prestige thing over there, and there are families who have done it for generations.”
“They breed dogs like we breed horses here in Kentucky,” Lexington Canine Trainer Henry Hicks agreed. “There is no magic pill for it, but they have the good temperament and the good blood lines.”
After some initial familiarity training so the young pups can develop a drive to work and know what a bite sleeve is, they are ready for purchase between 14 months and 2 years old.
“We like to get them at 2 years, but that doesn’t always happen,” Hicks said. “The first pick (from the kennel we use) normally goes to the military. We’re lucky if we get one that is 14 months old. At 2 they are out of the puppy stage and physically developed.”
“And you know their attitude,” Burnette added.
It is at this stage that the career path for the dog and handler merge — the day a new handler gets to choose his new dog, partner and friend. Paducah Police K-9 Handler Lofton Rowley Jr. remembers everything about the day he met Fox. In the training barn at Vohne Liche kennels in Denver, Ind., Rowley was third in line to choose his K-9 partner, behind new handlers from Hopkinsville and Christian County agencies.
“They brought out the first dog and the handler from Christian County liked him and selected him,” Rowley said. “Fox was second and when he came around the corner angels started singing and there was a halo above his head — I knew in an instant that was my dog.
“He went around and did his thing and he did awesome,” he continued. “The Hopkinsville guy put a leash on him and took him out and I was just heartbroken, thinking I just lost him. The next dog comes out and I’m not even watching him, I’m just watching Fox out in the outside kennel. He sees me and says, ‘If you want that dog, we’re not selecting him, I’m just helping out the trainers.’ So I got to pick Fox.”
And if singing angels weren’t enough to seal the deal for Rowley, once he got the dog home and had him about a week, he decided to remove the standard leather collar Fox had been given when he first arrived at the kennel to replace it.
“My badge number is 278, and those are given to us sequentially when we’re hired,” Rowley said. “And when the dogs are brought in, they also are numbered in order, with the year, a dash and their order number.
“When I took off Fox’s collar, his number was 10-278,” he continued. “That was fate, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Ensuring that a dog’s temperament and personality match that of its handler as well as the needs of the department is imperative, Beaird said.
“You just have to pick the right dog,” he said. “They may have 200 dogs on site, but I pick the one that is best for us. Depending on the community needs for a dog is how the dog should be picked. … I will only pick what’s right for our department. It’s like hiring a police officer — you pick the best from the process.”
Vohne Liche kennels also offers a one-year warranty for workability, under which any dog can be returned within the year if it is not up to par, and no questions asked the agency can pick a new dog, Beaird explained.
Once the dog is selected, the handler and K-9 go through basic training, either at the kennel where the dog was purchased or, if the agency has a master handler or trainer on staff, they can opt to provide the training at the department. Basic training at Vohne Liche Kennels is five weeks long. Then, upon returning to the department, like any new officer, the K-9 team goes through an FTO training program to further learn the job, learn about each other and become a solid, successful team.
In Lexington, Hicks guides new dogs and handlers through their 16-week training program, which includes both the basic and FTO portions of training.
All Work and All Play
After the initial training is complete, canines and their handlers hit the road, focusing on calls where the dog’s skills will be most useful, such as robberies in progress, burglaries, disturbances, missing persons and narcotic searches.
“They’re all about patterning,” said Lexington Police Handler Tim Moore. “When their handler comes in, they know they are supposed to go to work. When they hear our sirens and see the lights come on, they sit up, pay attention and know they are getting ready to do something they like.”
All canines are trained on a reward system, where they have a particular toy — a tennis ball, a Kong, a rubber ball on a rope — that they would do just about anything to get the chance to play with. For these four-legged officers, going to work and doing a good job in finding the hidden drugs, seeking out the lost teen or tracking down the fleeing perpetrator allows them to play with their absolute favorite toy. For them, it’s worth it every time.
“These dogs are like professional athletes because everything they do is 100 percent,” Bearid said. “They give all they have all the time.”
Officers talk about the dog getting ‘turned on’ when they hear loud screaming or yelling or their human handler puts on his or her uniform and walks them toward the cruiser. But more than anything, the dogs react to the emotions of their handlers, Lexington’s Burnette said.
“Every emotion you have feeds right down the leash,” he said. “The [dogs] read off our body language, and you can see a little change in the dog — their mouth will shut, they’ll stare, their ears will change a little bit, they start panting. A lot of those are very environmental.
“But the dog picks up that if daddy grabs my collar and starts screaming real loud, it hypes them up and they realize that if I find someone in here he’s going to be the bad guy,” Burnette continued.
But just like the canines, the officers with whom they share their shift are in the position 100 percent as well — and it’s not always easy.
“It’s a dirty, physical job,” Lexington’s Moore said. “You’re either injured or filthy every day. Your car smells. But it’s awesome to catch someone. The most rewarding thing is to see your dog do all the things they have been taught and to do them right.”
“People in this unit are adrenaline junkies, and they love it,” Hicks added.
Handlers in almost any K-9 unit has at least one story where they, with their dog, were able to do something that couldn’t have been done otherwise, and how much pride they take in those moments.
For Beaird and Chopper in Hopkinsville, it was finding a 13-year-old missing girl in the middle of winter who had been missing for hours. For Burnette and Garik in Lexington it was tracking down a rapist.
“That definitely was my most rewarding catch,” Burnette said. “He did horrible things, and the dog gave me the ability to be able [to catch him].”
Practice Makes Perfect
Just like any officer, the K-9 officer has to continue to train, and constantly learn, apply and improve his skills. The federal standard is 16 hours of continuous training each month. In Hopkinsville, their four-dog unit trains together at least two Wednesdays each month, but often train all four Wednesdays, for a total of 40 hours. The unit also trains with Fort Campbell handlers.
In Lexington, their 10-dog unit conducts detection training every week and three days during the week, the entire unit is on duty and participates in group training. Then once a month they conduct a large training on something that the dogs don’t regularly get exposed to, such as taking them to the range and helping them learn to stay calm and settled during live gunfire.
Paducah’s three-dog unit trains for four hours each week, in addition to training with three to four other local agencies.
But, actually, all K-9 teams train every single day — on their own, between calls. They practice their skills, further develop their obedience and advance their abilities during any down time they have on shift.
“We don’t just want to keep them fresh, we want to advance our dogs,” Beaird said. “If a dog’s testing is to track for 400 yards on multiple surfaces, then we’ll start to push that out to a mile. In obedience, if I can walk away for one minute, then I’ll try two minutes. Then I’ll go out of sight, and he has to lay still.
“I just keep pushing our canines and our handlers,” he continued.
Lexington has a full training facility behind their kennels. They are able to train their canines on skills such as climbing ladders, jumping over numerous types of walls and fences and searching for suspects holed up in small spaces.
At the End of The Day
But just as importantly as consistent and mandated training, ensuring these dogs have a rest period is vital to the life of the canine.
“When we have new dogs and handlers, I want them to understand that home is rest time, it’s not work time,” Beaird said.
What that down time looks like for each dog and handler relationship varies greatly, depending on agency protocol, the dog’s temperament and the handler’s family dynamic.
Lexington’s kennels are the off-duty resting location for their canines. Officers leave their dogs there after duty.
“These dogs are active and to have them in your house, they are like Tasmanian devils,” Moore said.
In addition, having them in kennels is beneficial if someone goes on vacation or is away at training, other officers don’t have to go to the officer’s house to take care of the dog, and all the dogs are very comfortable around all the handlers in the unit, allowing them to come and go and feed anyone’s dog without any issues, Hicks said.
But many departments don’t have the facility to have a kennel for their canine unit. In Hopkinsville, their dogs go home with the officer each day, but Bearid said all their dogs are housed in outside kennels so they can get used to temperatures and extremes on their bodies, allowing them to grow fur in the winter and not overheat in the summer.
Rowley’s K-9, Fox, lives inside with him and his family of five, though he did not always live inside.
“He’s almost 7 now, and he’s just a family dog at home,” Rowley said. “He craves attention, follows you to the bathroom, tries to get in the shower with you and lies at your feet. But if someone shows up that he doesn’t know, he’s very protective.”
But no matter the off-duty accommodations, eventually every K-9 reaches an age where they can no longer do the job, or they lose the drive to do the job to the best of their ability. For many canines, this age comes around 8 or 9 years old. But several agencies have had dogs continue working until age 10.
“We would never work a dog past 10,” Lexington’s Hicks said. “We let them go on to be a dog and enjoy life before they pass. They have a good life here, but it’s not the same as laying on a couch sleeping.”
“They give so many years of their life working and tracking, and they deserve a retirement,” Burnette added.
Paducah gives their handlers the option of purchasing their K-9 from the department for $1 when the dog is ready to retire, Rowley said.
And most departments follow similar protocol, allowing handlers the option to adopt their K-9 partner to become a permanent family pet when they can no longer work. If the handler does not want to or cannot accept the responsibility that comes with accommodating an aging dog, the other members of the unit or other officers who used to work in the K-9 unit are given the opportunity to take the dog.
Because the working life of a K-9 is much shorter than that of an officer, officers often retire their dogs and go on to get brand new dogs and the whole process starts all over.
“The hardest part of switching is their personalities are all different,” Burnette said. “Now you’re dealing with something that acts and thinks differently than you’re used to. And the handler can’t do the same things with the next dog and they have to adjust their handling a little bit.
“Just like people, they have strengths and lesser areas and you have to work to improve in different areas, and as they get older they don’t require as much maintenance handling,” he continued. “So when you go back, it’s like becoming a new handler, too.”
But because these officers are 100-percent sold on this grimy and gratifying career, they know that the challenges in a new canine-handler relationship will soon be replaced by a strong bond between dog and officer that is full of joy, fun, excitement, love and respect.
“This is not a unit that has a lot of openings,” Moore said. “We love what we do here, we get along with the other people, and we are just one big family.”