K-9s in Hickory for training, testing

HICKORY - Sasha barks once and sits by her handler, tail wagging.

With one word from Jerry Hacker, she lunges, latching onto the arm of someone nearby and sinking her teeth into the bite sleeve that protects her skin.

Another quiet word from Hacker and Sasha lets go, sitting next to his side, tail wagging, looking up to him for approval. He gives it to her in the form of a scratch on the head and words of praise.

Sasha, a Belgian Malinois, and Hacker are with the Reidsville Police Department. They're in town this week as part of the N.C. Spring Seminar with the American Police Canine Association, hosted by the Catawba County Sheriff's Office. More than two dozen K-9 units are getting certified in obedience, aggression, evidence recovery, tracking, searching for narcotics and more.

Some, like Sasha, are experienced. Sasha is 10 years old. Others are new.

Gene Ramos is with the Concord Police Department. Although his dog, Cello, is 7 and experienced, Ramos is a new K-9 officer. He graduated from a training course Friday and said he feels pretty confident in his and Cello's abilities.

On Tuesday, he and Cello successfully identified marijuana, methamphetamine, hash, heroin and cocaine, all sealed inside cardboard boxes and placed among 11 other identical cardboard boxes on the floor. To pass the test, each team is given unlimited time to check out the boxes and identify which ones have drugs. The dog can make whatever signal it wants, but the officer must tell the person administering the test which box contains drugs.

Handlers make finding drugs a game for their dogs and the dogs eagerly walk from box to box sniffing them out.

When Cello found a box with drugs, he pawed at it and licked it. Ramos gave Cello a tennis ball as a reward.

Ramos admits the situations he and Cello are training for can be difficult.

"It can be stressful, and it can be pretty hard," he said. "Nothing's easy in the real world."

The pair also took their tracking test Tuesday. You can be certified as level 1, 2 or 3. Level 1 is for a quarter mile, level 2 is one mile and level 3 is for one-and-a-half miles. Human scent is laid out on grass, asphalt, gravel and other surfaces, on objects such as guns, weapons, cash and other items for the dogs to find, said Mike Johnson, president of the American Police Canine Association. Depending on the level of certification, there are time intervals between when the items are placed on the trail and when the teams go out to track them.

Johnson said only about five out of 96 teams are certified at level 3.

"A lot of teams don't try for it because it requires a lot of time and effort," he said.

You also have to be certain of your certification. If you're certified as level 2 and try for a level 3 and fail, you lose your level 2 certification, as well, Johnson said.

David Vallas and Rex, with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, tried for a level 2 tracking certification Tuesday, but didn't achieve it.

Vallas said he would try again. He's worked with Rex, building on the skills Rex already knows, to get him ready for the level 2 certification.

The dogs in town this week also work to ensure they won't run away when there's danger. Gunfire tests make sure dogs won't run when they hear shots fired.

"You go through baby steps with the dogs to train them. It takes several months to get them accustomed to it," said Bob Lewis, president of and master trainer with Canines United for Public Safety. "You want a dog that's confident with himself and is able to protect the officer that he's with, because that's his main job."

The dogs also are required to search for suspects. A "decoy" suspect hides in the woods and the dog has to search for that person. Dogs must also do article searches for a leather object, a plastic object — such as a credit card — and a metal object, such as a can.

"We look at different materials that hold the scent of a person better than others, so we can test them if a suspect dropped something," Lewis said. "In training, we make it a game for them. It's 90 percent praise, so it's fun for them, so that they want to work for you."

If a dog fails a test, Lewis makes recommendations for what the officer can do to help retrain the dog.

"A dog is just like all the other tools in your belt — it's just one more tool you have with you," said Lenny Rivera, with the Concord Police Department. "When we're not doing article searches or looking for drugs, we're answering calls, going to wrecks, doing things that any other officer would be doing."

Officers just want to be sure that extra "tool" will react when there's danger. Tuesday afternoon, Ramos and Cello, as well as Thomas McKenzie and AJ with the Mint Hill Police Department, got extra training on passive resistance training.

"A guy can be sitting on the couch, watching a ball game, with a gun under his leg, and you want your dog to go after him," Johnson said.

Both Cello and AJ did not react initially to Dannie Cline, the "decoy" on the couch. After a little bit of training with Cline showing some aggression toward the dogs' respective officers, and the officers training their dogs to attack Cline, the dogs knew Cline was a threat. They barked at him and attacked his arm.

"You have to do an increment process," Johnson said. "When they first came in, they didn't care. But the person could have been a threat initially. They're learning."

McKenzie said he saw an improvement in AJ after just two times.

"I feel a lot better, but we have more work to do," he said.

The seminar will continue throughout the week.

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