RALEIGH, N.C. -- A decade ago, police dogs were seen as four-legged indulgences that took too big a bite out of the budget for most small-town departments to consider.
Now, small departments say they can't afford not to have canines, which can be trained to identify drugs and explosives, find missing or wanted people, locate evidence and protect their handlers. At least eight of the 12 municipalities in Wake County have canine units, along with the sheriff's office.
Even at a price tag of as much as $10,000 per dog -- departments often use grants and other means to offset costs -- the canines earn their keep, law enforcement officials say.
"Using a dog in certain situations is such a time-saver, and that translates into money," said Sgt. Chris Poston, an officer in the town of Holly Springs' four-member canine unit. "Things that would take many man-hours, the dogs can do much more quickly and more safely than a human. When you have an asset that works that well, and gets paid with a rubber ball and dog food, that's pretty economical versus a human being."
Poston was one of about two dozen officer-canine teams participating in two recent days of training exercises hosted by Wake Tech Community College. With law enforcement's growing reliance on the dogs, Wake Tech would like to establish a regional training academy, where animals and their handlers could affordably develop and maintain their skills, said Angela Mizelle, the college's dean of public safety training.
Wake Tech worked with the National Police Canine Center to bring in Kevin Beck of Enforcement Canine Inc., a Wilmington company that sells police dogs and runs in-service training. For this event, Beck combined some classroom work with a series of exercises for the handlers and their dogs that mimicked the kinds of tasks they might be called to do.
Rewarded with a 'bite'
During one exercise, the teams took turns searching an unoccupied former office building on the campus of Dorothea Dix Hospital. With its long, narrow hallways connecting to a warren of rooms, the building would be an easy place for a fugitive to hide and a dangerous place for an officer to search.
One by one, each officer came to the front entry of the building, stopped with their dog and shouted in a warning. "Holly Springs Police Department! You're under arrest!" Poston bellowed into the foyer when it was his turn. "I'll send a police dog in to find you. If he finds you, he will bite you. Come out now!"
With that, Poston gave Oz, a 4-year-old German shepherd, a command and some slack on his leash, letting the dog go in first. When he knew the foyer was clear, Poston let the dog go inside the next set of doors. When that was clear, the pair began to work the hallway.
The reward for the dog in this exercise was finding the subject of the search -- a trained "decoy" dressed in a thickly padded "bite suit" --and, given the command, being allowed to chomp his arm or leg.
The post-9/11 effect
Poston, who has been with the department 13 years, became a canine officer about a decade ago, when Holly Springs' canine team was new, having started with one officer the town hired from another department, complete with a police dog and a car outfitted to carry it.
"It was sort of a package deal," Poston recalls.
The popularity of police dogs increased sharply after 9/11, as even small communities recognized the benefits of being able to conduct quick searches. As demand for animals has soared, so have prices; a decade ago, a police force could buy a dog with some training for about $1,500. Today they can cost $10,000 or more, depending on whether they're trained as patrol animals, which can search for evidence, track and apprehend people, and protect their handlers; as narcotics detectors; as explosives detectors; or as multi-purpose dogs with more than one specialty.
Some town governments budget the cost of the dogs, while others have relied on Homeland Security grants, or donations of dogs or their veterinary care.
Across North Carolina, there are thought to be several hundred working police dogs. Departments that don't have canine teams often have relationships with ones that do, and borrow the teams when needed.
Joe Mercer, one of 10 canine officers with the Raleigh Police Department, said most police dogs are German shepherds or Belgian malinois, and many are imported from Eastern Europe. They are often taught to follow commands in German, Dutch or Czech.
Each dog has a different personality, Mercer said, and different tendencies. Some are afraid of tight spaces, or slick floors or dark rooms, or of obstacles that have to be climbed. Training such as officers did last week helps the team overcome those fears, Mercer said, so that when teams encounter similar situations on the job, they'll be able to work through them.
Officers often talk about the sense of partnership that develops between police dogs and their handlers, and the added level of security canine officers feel. The dogs usually live with their handlers and come to work with them every day.
"We carry guns and handcuffs and spray and batons, and someone could potentially take those away from you," said Poston of Holly Springs. "We often say that the dog is the only tool we carry that cannot be used against us. If I'm a good handler, nobody can turn my dog on me. They're loyal to the last breath. That's the bond we have."
A community's best friend
Jason Godwin, chief of the Knightdale Police, said his department started its canine team about year ago with the purchase of a German shepherd and the donation of a malinois. A local veterinarian provides free care for the dogs, and handlers have been able to get training at no charge through a partnership with the Raleigh Police.
The department has used the dogs to search buildings when security alarms sounded at night, and officers have seized illegal drugs the dogs have found during vehicle stops. "But the biggest impact has been in community relations," Godwin said. "Police officers are a little intimidating because of all the equipment they carry, and having a dog just opens up an avenue for interaction."
Kids are especially responsive, Godwin said, so the handlers have taken the dogs to schools and to meetings with youth groups. "Dogs break that barrier," he said.
The town even decided to hold a naming contest for its younger police dog, the malinois, a female that was about a year old when she came to the department. A kindergarten class at Knightdale Elementary School scored a pizza party for offering up the winning name. She now answers to Knighla.
Copyright 2013 - The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service