Shepherding Success: K-9 teams working well for Midland Police

SEAN PROCTOR | Midland City Police Officer John DuBois walks back to his vehicle with his dog Tza’Yid after setting up a “K-9 sniff test” on Thursday afternoon. Tza’Yid is a narcotics and human odor tracking dog, and it is important to continually train the dog so he is always prepared when called upon.

Bright and curious eyes look each newcomer over, then turn to his partner seeking direction. A firm command sends the dog into a sit.

Obedience is only one of the skill sets Brody and Midland Police Officer Greg Tait work on daily as one of the department’s two K9 teams. And it’s this work that Tait and fellow Officer John DuBois agree has added zest to their careers.

“It’s a great job and I’m glad they gave it to me,” Tait said.

The purebred German shepherds — Brody, who is just over 2 years old, and Tza’Yid, 3 1/2 years old — are the result of a program that was announced nearly two years ago. The impetus for the four-legged assistance was an increase in drug-related crimes, such as assaults, burglaries and thefts.

DuBois has been partnered with Tza’Yid, the department’s drug dog, for nearly two years.

“It’s a change … It’s a challenge. He’s a living creature and you’re responsible for him.”

Tait chose Brody in June, out of 15 dogs.

“He just seemed to me laid back in his demeanor,” he said. “I knew right away.” Brody was certified in mid-September, and thus far the partners have responded to home invasions, tracks and building searches.

An average day for the four-legged heroes consists of eating breakfast at home, then being watched to make sure their stomachs don’t twist — a common problem for the breed — heading off to work and saying hi to all the guys, then going out to the road to take calls and make traffic stops just like any officer. At the end of the shift, they head to the Midland Law Enforcement Center to write reports.

“I am basically a normal police officer with the benefit of a dog in my vehicle,” DuBois said.

Brody, an explosives-detecting dog, is a regional asset, meaning he can be called to any one of 14 counties, including Midland County and spanning from Arenac to Genesee, then east, if the need arises, Tait explained.

“He’s a good resource for the county and also for the region,” Tait said, pointing to The Dow Chemical Co. and Dow Corning right in Midland’s backyard. “He’s a good asset to have.”

Obedience is a foundation in the relationship between the dogs and officers.

“He’s doing pretty good right now,” Tait said, adding Brody got the chance to help catch a suspect once and got down when ordered. He’s been working on learning to stay when Tait pats down suspects, and on recalls. “He’s a tool to be used.”

Tait tries to make training fun, rewarding Brody with his red ball. He said Brody doesn’t know he’s out sniffing for explosives. All the dog knows is he smells a substance and gets a reward. The pair still trains at the K9 Academy Training Facility in Detroit once a week, the same place Tza’Yid also attended at the beginning of his Midland Police career. Now, Tza’Yid and DuBois train with a group of handlers and dogs from the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Office, Alma Police, Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Police and Tawas Police. The training consists of mock traffic stops, tracking and searches for narcotics and explosives.

“It’s a perishable skill. You have to continuously train,” DuBois said.

The dogs are considered “seasoned” in police work around 4 or 5 years old.

“It takes experience,” Tait said. Until then, Tait is careful about the situations he puts Brody into.

“If I know he’s not trained to that situation, I would never put him in that situation. I trust him to be my partner.”

Tza’Yid is just a smidge older than Brody, and DuBois describes him as “a little more calm,” settled down and comfortable.

Tait has been working to introduce Brody to all sorts of buildings, helping him become familiar with different surroundings. They’ve been to the county fair, courthouse, jail, city building, schools and warehouses, just to name a few.

The job isn’t all work — the dogs get out and about to do public relations events. Tait noted a recent presentation to a fourth grade class at Adams Elementary, and shared the dog has worked as an icebreaker to get people to approach him in public.

“I try to get him out in the neighborhoods; kids pet him a lot,” Tait said.

“He’s great around kids,” DuBois said of his partner, adding he’s received nothing but positive reactions from the public.

Each dogs’ specialty isn’t all they are capable of — both can track people and conduct building searches. In fact, during a recent bout of break-ins at city pharmacies, Tza’Yid and Brody also took turns searching a pharmacy basement as well as tracking a suspect who broke into Glover’s.

“Actually one person I arrested wanted to pet him before he went to jail,” Tait said with a laugh about how having a canine partner has changed his job.

DuBois has ferreted out additional tricks to add to the skills Tza’Yid brings to the work.

“In police work, there’s more than one way to do the job,” DuBois said. “Ways to get a better product, a better result.”

Initially, DuBois used his partner one way to search a vehicle. Then another trainer was able to build upon that skill by introducing the use of wind direction during a search. The end result is all about “knowing what you’ve got and how to tackle the situation,” he said.

Tza’Yid is capable of detecting marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, crack and powder cocaine, ecstasy and prescription pills containing opiates, and has found many of the substances. “So we’re doing it.”

Responding to calls in the county and in the area is also part of Tza’Yid’s job.

“I’m not shy to respond to any call,” DuBois said. He recalled one call in Bay County, during which his dog sniffed out marijuana residue after a traffic stop, and he received a compliment from sheriff’s deputies. To have them say they’d “heard Midland had a pretty good drug dog” meant a lot, he said.

Tait said having a dog increases the level of liability, not only for himself as an officer but the public as well. The dangers include those to the dog — a quick dash into traffic resulting in being hit by a car — or to the community in the form of a dog bite.

“With this dog, the liability just goes through the roof,” Tait said, adding that’s why Brody remains on the leash. “A lot of the dog is a reflection of you.”

DuBois said his head is always on a swivel, looking out for the safety for all involved.

“He’s a highly trained police dog, but he’s still a dog,” the officer pointed out, adding he still sniffs certain things and gets into the trash. “The awareness is heightened.”

Each dog has his own personality.

“He’s very laid back, but when it comes to business, he’s all into it,” Tait said of Brody, who is still in his puppy phase. “He’s very in tune with me. He’s always watching me.”

Sometimes Brody just needs to let off steam. “Sometimes he’s really hyper and doesn’t want to work. He’s not a robot.”

Tait said it’s obvious when the dog is “off.” “He’ll just blow by everything.”

The officers also watch their dogs interact with fellow officials.

“It’s cool to see people and how they react to having a dog here,” DuBois said, sharing his partner often gets talked to and petted. “They almost can’t remember what it’s like to not have a dog around.”

Both DuBois and Tait agree getting new partners has invigorated their careers.

“This is the best job for me, as far as police work goes,” DuBois said, explaining the positions were posted and both applied. “It has energized my career,” morphing it from a job of 20 years to an adventure.

“It’s a lot of stress … I enjoy it,” Tait said, adding having a canine partner is a lot different than working regular patrol.

For Tait, the opportunity to learn new techniques after 18 years on the force has provided a new dimension to his work. “How I do my job as a police officer has totally changed.”

Both officers said they plan to retire when their dogs reach the end of their police duty, and the dogs will continue to live at home with them.

“Hopefully the program will be well established and they’ll continue with the program,” DuBois said.

The canine officer project began in 2012 with grants totaling $57,000 from the Midland Area Community Foundation, Dow Chemical Foundation, The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundation. The training and gear for Tza’Yid were purchased with a portion of those dollars. Brody’s training and gear cost a total of $11,100, which was covered by funding from the Homeland Security Region 3.