In the abandoned east University Co-op building on a hot day in early July, eager paws skitter and slide across the linoleum floor as the furry members of UTPDâ€™s K-9 unit search for hidden explosive scents. This is routine training for the three dogs currently on the force trained
to detect explosives, but today theyâ€™re joined by a new recruitâ€”a five-month-old Belgian Malinois named Baylor. Sheâ€™s a fierce but skinny little thing, with brown fur and a black face accompanied by big ears that remain perpetually perked on high alert.
Her age is evident: Baylor is easily distracted, sniffing at a dead bug on the ground or the treats hidden in her trainerâ€™s pocket. Soon enough, though, the puppy trots over to a scent concealed in a PVC pipe, sticks her nose inside, and quickly sits down to wait for her reward: playtime with a tennis ball on a rope.
â€śThe only time she gets to play with that toy is when weâ€™re doing training,â€ť says UTPD Officer Beck Leider, Baylorâ€™s primary trainer. â€śShe doesnâ€™t get to just run around with it. Itâ€™s a game.â€ť
This is just the beginning of the months-long training to prep Baylor to join the unit, where she will be the first U.S.-born member and first to be fully trained by the department. Once sheâ€™s done, sheâ€™ll not only be able to sniff out bombs, but also find evidence from a crime scene, track people, and bite and hold criminals until an officer can handcuff them. For the past 14 years, UTPD has employed dogs with these capabilities and the K-9 unit has continued to grow with the ever-expanding campus and increases in requests to pre-search buildings. After a series of deadly package bombings in March killed two people and injured five in Austin, the demand for this work only grew.
Baylor, who joined UTPD in late March before she was even two months old, is an anomaly for the unit. In the past, all UTPD dogs were pre-trained, at least 2 years old, and hailed from Europe. The current members of UTâ€™s K-9 unit originally come from Slovakia and the Netherlands, but Baylor is a native Austinite, born into an unexpectedly large litter of Belgian Malinois puppies that belonged to a couple in town who wanted to gift one to a police department. With its space and in-house training capabilities, UTPD was a perfect fitâ€”the breedersâ€™ only request was thatÂ the dog keep the name of their alma mater.
Interest in explosive-detecting dogs grew quickly in the U.S. after 9/11. Eric Johanson, UTPD sergeant and supervisor of the K-9 unit, says heâ€™s received phone calls from three other UT System schools trying to start K-9 units since the Austin bombings. Because of the high demand, these pups cost a pretty penny. Johanson estimates that buying a fully trained dog from Europe can cost up to $18,000, while an untrainedâ€”or a â€śgreenâ€ťâ€”dog can push $10,000. Even though Baylor was donated, the investment is still a bit of a gamble. UTPD knows there is a risk with each dog that they might not work out, although as of right now, there is nothing to suggest that will be the case with Baylor.
Socializing Baylor is an important part of her training to ensure sheâ€™s ready for a busy campusâ€”a process they started in the spring with a couple of popular, selfie-filled meet and greets with students and staff. With around 160 buildings and a population of more than 50,000, the Forty Acres keeps the K-9s busy, especially before big events, where the dogs take about five hours to search the Frank Erwin Center before a commencement ceremony or sweep the football stadium before a home game. Johanson says the number of dogs that have the endurance to do this kind of work is low. But early on, the officers saw that Baylor had a strong desire to hunt and chase, which they call prey driveâ€”an essential characteristic of working dogs.
â€śA dog that has prey drive to even chase a ball is a dog that we can manipulate to desire looking for explosives,â€ť he says. â€śSheâ€™s still showing that.â€ť
BaylorÂ has at least eight more months of training and maturing, physically and mentally, before sheâ€™s ready to join the force alongside her fellow four-legged officers Gus, Beda, and Jarno. Until then, she lives with Leider, who has more than 20 years of experience working with and training dogs. â€śEverything that we do for these dogs, we try to make it fun,â€ť Leider says. â€śI never, ever want our dogs to feel like theyâ€™re being forced to work. I want them to love their jobs as much as we enjoy ours.â€ť