Police dogs learn the ropes at Yakima academy

YAKIMA — The old cartoon crime dog McGruff’s slogan may be “Take a bite out crime,” but a real police dog’s primary asset is its sniffer.

“The main reason we use them is for their nose,” said John Munson, president of the Washington State Police Canine Association.

Of course, powerful jaws that can clamp down on a forearm or ankle help too, especially when a police dog scrambles into a dark, confined space pursuing a bad guy who might have a gun.

That’s one of the scenarios that dogs and their handlers encounter at the WSPCA spring seminar this week in Yakima. There are 14 training sites, eight for K-9 patrol dogs and six for drug dogs.

There are 125 K-9 units from law enforcement agencies around the Northwest and British Columbia participating in the training seminar, hosted by the Yakima Police Department.

A growing number of agencies have K-9 units, and there are about 150 in the state, said Munson, a 15-year veteran dog handler who’s a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy.

That list includes some smaller departments that are acquiring police dogs, such as Sunnyside. The City Council there approved funding last week to add a K-9 unit, and two Sunnyside officers are attending the seminar as observers.

On Tuesday, trainers demonstrated for local media some of the exercises dogs and their handlers go through to practice tracking, searches and controlled bite work.

Inside a concrete structure at a Yakima fire station, handlers were tasked with getting their dogs to lie still on a stretcher-like board while officers lifted it toward an opening in the ceiling. Then the dog was prompted to jump into the dark space above to find a quarry hiding in the attic.

“The training is geared to make the handlers have to think about how to work with the dog” in various situations, Munson said. “There are some tricky scenarios.”

One involves tracking a quarry into a room, but unknown to the handler, another quarry is hiding in the floor. So while the easily located suspect is apprehended, the dog won’t leave and stays over the spot where it’s sniffed out another person.

In real police work, the dogs’ extensive training has paid off. Munson shared a story about a Spokane police dog tracking a suspect who jumped out of a stolen car that officers were pursuing. When the dog neared the hiding suspect, the guy started running again and fired two shots that hit the canine, one in the side of its mouth and one in a leg.

“The dog still kept doing what it was trained to do,” Munson said. “It continued after the guy, and that allowed the handler to react” and return fire.

The dog recovered and returned to K-9 service, though it was retired soon afterward.

Many police canines are German shepherds or Malinois, and Munson said about three-fourths of them are imported from Europe, where dogs are bred for police work. The dogs cost several thousand dollars each.

Many local governments have been forced to make budget cuts during the recession, but Munson said some law enforcement agencies have been able to cover the cost of adding K-9 units through public donations.

“They’re a huge benefit for officers on patrol,” Munson said.

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