Rocco thinks it’s time to play hide-and-seek.
The police-dog-in-training sticks his sensitive nose into one box, then another. At the third box, he sniffs, then sits. He’s found the hidden explosives, and he looks to his human partner for applause and a favorite ball.
“The dogs have to think that this is a game,” says Sgt. Mike Thomas, in charge of the canine unit for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “But it’s for real. It’s life and death.”
Since 1990, the number of canines with keen noses, great speed and firm bites has grown in the sheriff’s office from none to 24. Here and in law enforcement agencies across the country, rising numbers of highly trained dogs help with patrol work, hunt and rescues, and the detection of narcotics and explosives.
“I hope none of our dogs ever finds a bomb,” Thomas says, “but we are prepared.”
Before explosives hidden in backpacks wreaked havoc at the Boston Marathon, the sheriff’s office had two dogs trained in bomb detection. After a recent $48,000 gift from the nonprofit group K9s4COPS, Thomas was able to add four more to the mix.
Finding a match
Over Memorial Day weekend, Thomas and four officers new to the canine unit piled into a Ford F-350 and drove 19 hours to Denver, Ind., the Vohne Liche Kennels and police dog central.
The men, strangers to one another, bonded during the long, cramped trip. Then they had four days to forge similarly strong connections with new canine partners, ranging from 14 to 20 months old.
Watching almost a dozen dogs go through their paces, each man searched for a connection, a match. With each one they wondered – is this dog as talented a bomb dog as advertised? Will he protect me in an emergency? And since this dog is going to be living with me even during off hours, how will he respond to my wife and kids?
Deputy James Love’s car is specially equipped to transport Diesel.
Deputy Alex Chapa says Rocco was the eighth or ninth dog he met.
“I saw him, and I knew. And he responded to me, too.”
In time all four deputies – Thomas went along to facilitate – felt similarly committed. And as soon as they returned to Houston, canines in tow, they swung into an exhausting, 14-week training program.
“It’s just really neat to watch these dogs,” says Thomas, the Yogi Berra of sergeant/trainers. “They’re people just like us.”
Another Thomas wisdom: “It all goes down the leash. If a deputy comes in and has a bad attitude or doesn’t feel good or he’s moping around, that dog is going to be moping around, too.”
Rocco, Diesel, Gerard and Lucky are the new additions to the canine unit. Lucky is a black German shepherd; the rest are Belgian Malinoises. All four have the lean, hungry builds of young wolves, and they seem oblivious to Houston’s heat.
The deputies training with them are not so lucky.
“Hey,” a deputy hollers as the cool of the summer morning burns off. “Does anybody have some human water?”
Superstars at work and home
Thomas was working as a deputy in narcotics more than 20 years ago when his sergeant realized they could improve their success rates by adding drug dogs to the mix.
“We couldn’t see or smell the drugs,” Thomas says. “We’d stop a guy and know something was wrong, but we couldn’t find anything. The dogs pointed right to it.”
The canines also found crime scenes, rescued lost children and dementia patients and caught crooks.
“Most people know when a dog is coming,” Thomas says. “Guess what they do: They give up.”
Back in the day, Thomas says, “the dogs were known as land sharks because they would just bite everything.”
Over time, the dogs have grown more social. Thomas says his third dog, Eros, was a German shepherd who was a superstar at work and at home.
“My daughter, as a baby and a toddler, would sleep on that dog,” Thomas says. “They’d watch TV – they grew up together.”
He pauses and says, “You get attached.”
When Eros died, Thomas got a replacement dog who died of Addison’s disease.
“It was a tough year,” he remembers. “I got divorced, so I lost a wife and two dogs.”
Then Thomas paired up with Bart, another Belgian Malinois. “My guys were scared of Bart – he bit a few sergeants,” he says. “But really, he was a sweetheart. In the car he’d lick my ear or put his head on my shoulder. When he met my current wife, he just rolled over on his back. She says he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Once Thomas and Bart were tracking a 4-year-old lost in the woods. Bart ran ahead, found the child crying and calmed him with lick therapy.
“I have tons of stories like that,” Thomas says. “Tons.”
Group has supplied 50 dogs to agencies
Police dogs cost an average of $12,000 – a prohibitive expense for many law enforcement agencies. That’s where K9s4COPS comes in.
“Our group got started after a canine working for Harris County Precinct 4 was killed in the line of duty, and the county didn’t have the funds to replace him,” executive director Liz Lara Carreño explains. “Our founder, Kristi Schiller, said, ‘We need to get that deputy a dog.’ ”
That was in 2009, and since then the group has bought as many as 50 dogs for law enforcement agencies here, around the state and across the country.
All of the K9s4COPS dogs come from the Indiana kennel, where their training begins. For Rocco, Lucky, Gerard and Diesel – and their deputies – the work will continue through the summer.
Deputy George Love says the main thing he’s learned so far is to stand back and let his dog, Gerard, work.
“He already knows everything,” Love says. “Mostly it’s me learning to read him.”
Deputy James Love (no relation to George) agrees. “The dogs know what they’re doing. We just have to follow them.”
Rocco, Lucky, Gerard and Diesel go home with their deputies when they’re not working, but most live in kennels in the backyard. Until they mellow, they’re tough on home interiors, and they shouldn’t be left alone with young children.
James Love is careful to supervise the interactions between Diesel and his 4-year-old son, but he says the two are already good buddies.
“My son loves Diesel,” Love says. “He already knows most of the commands.”
Deputy David Bair describes his dog, Lucky, as a partner who is trustworthy and true-blue.
“If you’re getting shot at – you always wonder – will your human partner fight, flight or freeze. But a dog will always fight for you. A dog will lay down his life for you.”
This article is from the Houston Chronicle and was written by Claudia Feldman. Photo supplied by Nick De La Torre.