Senior Cpl. Craig Woods has had five canine partners since he joined the Dallas police K9 unit in 1988, and each one has become a member of his family, fetching bad guys on the job and chew toys at home.
“He’s a working dog, much more than a pet with extra oomph,” Woods said of his fifth dog, El. “You’re given him, you train with him, you know what he is for, and you can’t help but become attached. That’s just the downside.”
When El is let loose from the back seat of Woods’ car, he leaps out and searches for an unmarked tree. At home, on off-days, El rests in his city-provided kennel. But when his partner comes outside in uniform, El jumps up and runs to the police SUV.
“El’s always ready to go,” Woods said.
Police dogs typically are either German shepherds or a mix between a shepherd and a Malinois, or Belgian shepherd. The breeds are high energy by birth, but tough by training. The K9 unit regularly trains for 16 to 18 hours a week, and Woods’ bite sleeve, a wearable training tool, has plenty of marks from El’s canines.
“You look for a certain drive and ambition,” said Sgt. Tracy Smith, who heads up the unit. “You know it when you see it.”
K9 commands are often spoken in Dutch, Czech or German because the dogs are born in Europe and tend to be more comfortable with familiar words. El will sit and stay when he hears his commands from Woods, but rarely from anyone else.
“My wife and sons know El’s commands, and when I’m not there he’ll listen to her,” Woods said. “But if I’m there, he’ll look at her like, ‘really?’”
Police dogs usually work for seven to nine years and spend retirement at their partners’ homes. Even though they don’t work, the dogs retain their training.
“If someone they don’t know comes in the backyard, he’s going to raise all kinds of cane until he knows everything is OK,” Woods said. “Do they ever stop being police? No, it’s in them.”
In his 25 years with the unit, Woods has worked alongside Tar, Kimbro, Herrus, Xero and El — and all have been part of the family. Tar, a Labrador, used to splash in the backyard inflatable kiddie pool with Woods’ son.
“He’s laying there with his nose above the water, playing with Junior,” Woods said.
The dogs don’t realize what they do is dangerous, Woods said, because to them, it’s “not a job.” But the dogs will benefit from last month’s donation of bullet- and stab-resistant vests from Vest ‘N’ PDP, a New Mexico organization devoted to protecting police dogs.
“We’ve had some close calls and a couple hurt,” Smith said. “It’ll make the dogs safer.”
Because of the bond between the partners, the officers don’t focus on danger for them or their dogs. If an officer is wounded, whether human or canine, their partner will stay by them to protect them.
“We know it’s out there, but we don’t dwell on it,” Woods said. “I’ve never had a better partner than my K-9s — they never complain, they never change the radio or A/C, they always listen to my stories and they are totally devoted to their jobs.”