Metro-North customers are protected by more than just the Metropolitan Transit Authority police; riders are also protected by the roughly 50 canines that patrol the facilities.
Those dogs make up the MTA police K-9 force. And the process to become a dog, or a handler, on the force isn‚Äôt an easy one.
Recruiters will test about 30 dogs ‚ÄĒ which typically come from Europe ‚ÄĒ before choosing one to serve on the K-9 unit, said Capt. John Kerwick, who oversees the K-9 division.
German shepherd and Belgian Malinois are the breeds that make up the unit. They are picked to join the unit when they‚Äôre between 12- and 14-months-old.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs when they‚Äôre most teachable,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the best age to select them. We want the dog to have confidence and be able to do his job.‚ÄĚ
The handlers who will ultimately be taking their canine partner home with them every night are carefully picked as well.
‚ÄúThe environment we work in is so tricky,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said.
MTA is the largest public transportation network in the U.S. It serves about 15.3 million people within the 5,000-square-mile area from the five boroughs of New York City, through Long Island, southeastern New York State and Connecticut.
In Connecticut, there are K-9 units stationed in central locations of New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford, Kerwick said.
The MTA dogs have to be focused, especially among large groups of people. Kerwick said the dogs cannot be too aggressive or too timid, because a dog without a balanced personality will never be 100 percent on the job.
To ensure the dogs are focused, they undergo 12 weeks of training with their handlers before officially joining the unit‚Äôs ranks. The training facility they use opened in Stormville, N.Y., on June 8, 2016.
‚ÄúThe dogs are trained to recognize all explosives that are known to man,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said, including improvised, or homemade, explosives.
During training, classes are provided for officers to better understand how to work with a four-legged partner.
It‚Äôs a big commitment on the human side, Kerwick said, since officers bring their partners home with them. The dogs even join them on vacations.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a very detailed selection progress for them (the officers),‚ÄĚ Kerwick said. ‚ÄúThey have to show an interest in terrorism and be willing to work very hard. It‚Äôs a very demanding job.‚ÄĚ
The way the MTA police dogs are trained is through play-motivation.
‚ÄúWe offer them a toy to play with,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said. ‚Äú(It will be) something the dog is very, very fond of. We make sure they‚Äôre toy-driven ‚ÄĒ almost crazy for a toy.‚ÄĚ
With this type of motivation, the dogs likely view their job as playtime rather than work, he said.
‚ÄúWe use our voices a lot ‚ÄĒ a playful voice,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said.
He said the change in voice and inflections on certain words or phrases can completely change the dog‚Äôs behavior.
And when it‚Äôs time to search, the dogs know it.
‚ÄúThese dogs know whenever they‚Äôre told a certain word, they‚Äôre going to play ‚ÄĒ or search ‚ÄĒ and get a reward,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said. That reward is most frequently their favorite toy.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre fun junkies,‚ÄĚ Kerwick added with a laugh. ‚ÄúThese dogs default to the work mode. And it‚Äôs not really work, it‚Äôs play (for them).‚ÄĚ
Most of the calls the K-9 unit responds to aren‚Äôt too serious, Kerwick said.
‚ÄúA lot of times people just leave things on trains that are just innocuous, unattended articles,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said. ‚ÄúBut in today‚Äôs world, nothing is simple anymore.‚ÄĚ
He said every call that comes in is checked ‚ÄĒ after all, the MTA police work 24/7.
‚ÄúOur mission is to make sure the transit passengers are safer than they are anywhere else,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said. ‚Äú(MTA police) create good barriers between the people that are trying to do us harm and the people that don‚Äôt deserve to be harmed.‚ÄĚ
The dogs will enter Metro-North trains with their handlers and track down any scent they‚Äôve been trained to pick up. If the dog finds something, it will sit or lie down .
‚ÄúA dog‚Äôs nose … is about 3,000 times more sensitive than yours and mine,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said.
When searching for people, the dogs can easily distinguish between different scents. Kerwick said the sensitivity of their noses helps them pick up on the subtle difference in a human‚Äôs scent.
‚ÄúThe basics are similar, but everyone has a specific scent,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúA dog can differentiate between all of us. We just have to teach the dog how to do that.‚ÄĚ
The K-9 unit also has cameras that can be strapped to the dog‚Äôs back when responding to a call. The cameras can even be used in the dark, since there is an infrared setting.
‚ÄúThe handler is close by to help the dog and people back in the command post can see real-time feed,‚ÄĚ Kerwick said.
Kerwick said attentive Connecticut residents have been proactive in calling in suspicious activities or unattended bags.
‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs mostly because of ‚ÄėIf you see something, say something,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Kerwick said.
The See Something, Say Something slogan encourages commuters to keep alert around trains, buses, bridges and roadways, and to report any suspicious behavior. Fliers advertising the phrase can be found on Connecticut transportation and surrounding terminals.