Dogged determination

Blending into the night, Toronto Police Sgt. Jim Adamson leads his four-legged charge to the rear of a Vanauley Walk townhouse moments before a raid shatters the night's silence.

The canine officer and his dog, Sonik, watch the back door for anyone who may have brushed off the shock and awe of the raiding Emergency Task Force officers storming through the front door early Wednesday morning.

It was the third raid involving the canine unit in seven hours, as police looked for illegal guns -- only one would be successful.

At one home, 14 Division plainclothes officers believed a dismantled AR-15 military assault rifle was hidden in a closet.

About 15 minutes earlier, Adamson and Sonik took part in another raid led by the same ETF team a few blocks away where the plainclothes unit was tipped off about a teen storing a loaded TEC-9 machine pistol in his townhouse basement.

Sensing a change in his handler's body language, Sonik shakes off the slumber he enjoyed most of the evening shift.

"The more intense it gets, the more he gets into the game," Adamson says.

"Our role is outside containment," he says before the raids. "The tactical team will do an entry through the front and in the event that anybody decides they're going to flee the address, they run out the back, they come to me."

With the burst of diversionary explosives that set off fire alarms, the ETF rushed into the townhouses and in each raid, within a minute, they have control.

No one rushed out of either rear door.

Sonik sat and watched, a bystander -- behaving this time more like a pet than a sentry.

However, no weapons were found in those raids.

Earlier, police were more successful. A 9-mm handgun with 10 rounds was recovered by 51 Division plainclothes officers from a suspect who fled a targeted Sherbourne St. apartment before Const. John Gerritts and his dog Chief and the rest of the raiding party arrived.

Steven Misick, 20, of Toronto, who's banned by a court from having a gun or ammunition, was charged with assaulting a cop and numerous other weapons-related charges.

Police nevertheless raided the third-floor apartment, where the tenant let drug dealers use his home for business.

Despite the night spent in relentless search for guns, police couldn't be everywhere.

Jamie "J" Hull, 30, was shot in the head and killed on the other side of the city early Wednesday.

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The canine unit began with a dog bought for a buck in 1989, Staff-Sgt. Max Carter recalls. The inaugural team grew to include eight cops and nine dogs.

But it initially wasn't something that police brass wanted. While some quietly lobbied for four-legged cops, then-chief Jack Marks feared dogs being used to control crowds. Scenes of American police using dogs on crowds during the civil rights struggle disturbed him.

He didn't want that here.

Slowly, with reluctance by some senior officers, the police dog services unit was formed.

On Sept. 26, the unit is hosting an open house, from10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at its Beechwood Dr. station, 20 years after the service birthed its first litter of canine cops.

"We don't use our dogs for crowd control," Gerritts says. "You cannot train a dog to, when there's a whole crowd of people standing around, to point out one person and say, 'That's the guy I want you to get.' They just don't work that way.

"Dogs react to movement and fast movement," he says.

Gerritts says the hunt for a suspect is primal for the dog.

"You're prey as soon as you start running," he says.

The dogs fall under several categories -- including tracking, protection and apprehension -- narcotics detection, HUSAR (Heavy Urban Search and Rescue), explosive and ammunition detection, and cadaver discovery.

German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are used for general purpose, while Labradors, Springer Spaniels, and Malinois are used to find dope, guns, ammunition and explosives.

They've been involved in thousands of arrests.

Carter says the dogs' nose knows.

"When you're nervous or when you're under a bit of stress, you're body is excreting an odour and a bit of sweat. So he would automatically pick up on that," he says.

"That's how we catch bad guys," Carter says. "If you've (got) a fear of apprehension, fear of capture, there's huge stress. They sweat a lot when under stress. You actually stink to the dog, make it easier to him to find."

The training involves a 15-week course but it doesn't end with graduation. One shift a week is used for training and building the bond between canine and handler at the unit's East York compound which is base for 21 dogs.

Carter's mixed Labrador-Shepherd dog, Rip, is trained to find buried bodies, either in collapsed buildings or underground.

Rip found the body of Chi Ngu Ngo, 47, last October buried in Vaughan. A Montreal man is in custody awaiting trial for first-degree murder and a warrant for first-degree murder was issued for a second Montreal man.

The North York man was believed killed last September after he vanished from his home.

But for Rip to be able to bring closure to families like Ngo's, he needs the training. And training must be as realistic as possible.

"I bury human remains two feet under the ground and leave it for three, four hours," Carter explains, adding the remains come from those who donate their bodies to science. "We've got 5.6 acres here ... a minute, a minute and a half, two minutes, he's found it."

However, there's a moratorium on donating remains and Carter and the OPP are preparing a report on the need for training.

They're trying to "help them understand this is a science, we're actually helping people out here," he explained. "These dogs are going ... in collapsed structures and anything like that.

"I'm a big advocate that if you're going to train, you have to use real drugs or whatever," Carter says.

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Gerritts -- in the unit for 19 years -- holds on to the leash of his dog Chief, who's barking to a fire alarm triggered by a diversionary blast set off by an ETF-led raid of the Sherbourne St. apartment. No one is jumping out of the third story window to escape or throw any evidence away.

"Nothing happened here tonight," he says.

Chief goes home with Gerritts every night. All of the dogs go home with their handlers.

They become family members and when they're retired, the animals spend their golden years with their handlers.

"I have to say I love what I do," Gerritts says. "Yeah. It's a super job here and a lot of fun."

Chief is his third dog. His second dog, Sony, became a family favourite.

"They fell in love with this dog ... and he was a lap dog when he was at home," Gerritts says. "All he wanted was attention. But believe it or not, that dog (on the job) was the most aggressive I had."

Sony didn't pass his annual re-qualifying test, in part because he had been beaten and kicked by suspects, and was traded to a U.S. sheriff's department for another dog.

The dogs must have the right temperament.

Gerritts says he tries to keep an emotional distance between himself and Chief.

"At some point in time, that piece of equipment we have, that special piece of equipment we have, we may have to throw him into a spot where, you know what, he may not come out," he says. "You're throwing him into a building where he's searching where you don't want a police officer to search because you don't know what's in the building.

"There's weapons of opportunity everywhere and anything can happen when you get inside a building," Gerritts says.

"Try to, yeah, try to," he says about keeping that emotional gap, "because eventually you're going to have to put that dog into a situation where he's going to have to go after somebody that could possibly be armed.

"Basically, it's going to be at a point that it's either to save your life or save another policeman's life or a citizen's life," he says.

Gerritts, however, agreed he's seen many a cop get very attached to their dog.

"Oh yeah, you can't help but do that," he says, recalling his first dog, Keno. "Oh no. I never thought it would be easy, but my first dog, when I retired him and had to put him down, oh, I was an emotional wreck because of it."

He says he still has a password that is based on Keno's name.

"Because they become so attached, it's another family member," Gerritts says.

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