Burlington and Elon K-9 officers are training three new K-9s for their individual departments.
Burlington K-9 handlers Jason Comer and Carley Swiggett and Elon K-9 handler Ditra Graves began their eight-week training class with their new dogs Gunner, Koda and Lucas, respectively. The dogs and their handlers started the class Monday, Aug. 20, withÂ state K-9 Instructor Jim OâBrien, who will teach the dogs tracking, criminal apprehensionÂ â which includes biting offendersÂ â article searches, drug detection for marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, and obedience.
âWe look for really high driven dogs,â OâBrien said. âIf you are looking to hire an employee, you want a really driven person. That is what we are doing.â
The dogs and their handlers will train every day as well as night shifts to ensure the dogs are exposed to everything they will see in their everyday life.
âThe dogs need to be exposed to everything they are going to see on the street,â OâBrien said.
At the end of the training course, the dogs and their handlers will undergo a certification process where the dogs must complete a series of tasks. This includes tracking in distracting environments, drug searches in vehicles, buildings, parcels and outside areas and apprehension work, which is sending the dog to bite an offender, call the dog off from biting the offender and even stopping the dog halfway to biting the offender.
âWith the bite work, there is a lot of control,â OâBrien said. âThey send the dog on the bad guy and about halfway there, the guy surrenders. They have to say âheelâ and call the dog back. It is really the only tool in law enforcement that they can call back after they deploy it. If they shoot a gun, they canât call the bullet back. They can call back a dog.â
The dogs, which were bred in Europe, vary by age and breed. Gunner is 11 months old, and a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix. Koda isÂ 2 years old and a purebred German shepherd. Lucas is 2Â˝ years old and a purebred Belgian Malinois.
Burlington began its search for two new K-9s in April, and Elon asked for one in June. They asked for OâBrienâs assistance as his kennel in Wilson County is filled with dogs who are either brand new, somewhat done with training or almost done.
Even though the training course is mostly meant for the dogs, it is also the best way for the handlers to bond with the dogs and learn about them.
âEvery dog is just like us,â Comer said. âThey got different personalities and different quirks and manners and things like that.â
One way the handlers and trainer work with the dogs is by using a bite pillow or a toy that will get the dog to chase. This also enforces positive training.
âWe use that for his prey item, if you will,” OâBrien said. âMost of the dogs like to bite, so it teaches them to have a full bite. It teaches them how to bite, and also it is a reward.
âWe donât want little frontal bites. The whole idea is if he bites a bad guy, he is not biting the guy all over the place. We are not looking to hurt the guy,â OâBrien said. âWe are looking to make the guy stop what he is not supposed to be doing. We want the dog to hold on on one spot. That way [the guy] is not riddled with bites.â
The bite pillow and other toys also teach the dogs that everything they are doing is a game.
âThese dogs are not mean,â OâBrien said. âThey are not mean at all. We donât select mean dogs. These dogs have no idea that the bad guy wants to hurt them. We trick them into believing this is all fun.â
OâBrien will even go so far as to shout or shake the toy around or pretend he is hurt to encourage the dogs.
âYou want to dog to understand this is a fun game. The more he bites, the funner it becomes,â OâBrien said. âIt is about building him up and making him strong. That is what you do with a kid. You try to teach him to play a game or whatever, and you got to make him stronger and stronger. We are a sparring partner for the dog.â
The trainer explained that they typically look for social dogs with high drives, as that is the preferred type of K-9 nowadays.
âIf they are mean, we wonât even look at them,â OâBrian said. âThey need to be really social. These guys arenât going to want to work with a dog that is going to try to bite their face off every time.â
In the cases where the dogs are not compatible with the handlers or they do become aggressive, the department will either send the dog back to where it came from or try to adopt it out to another handler.
Reporter Kate Croxton can be reached at email@example.com or 336-506-3078. Follow her on Twitter at @katecroxtonBTN.