Bobby looks like a black Labrador, except that his ears stand upright, forming two stiff peaks. They're quivering now, as Bobby crouches, ready to lunge at me. He's not making a sound, but his body is tensed, deadly as a cocked pistol. When his handler, a police officer named Ben Harris, orders him to attack, the dog is on me in a flash, snapping his jaws around my right forearm and shaking his head with a frenzied force that whips my torso like that of a rag doll. Although he's growling, Bobby's not mad at me. He's biting because he's been trained to bite. He's wagging his tail because he thinks this exercise is more fun than any human could imagine.
Because I'm wearing padding, I'm not screaming with pain, but it's clear to me I would be if Bobby's teeth had pierced my normal clothing. They'd be deep in the bloody meat of my arm, sunk down to the bone. Even through the heavy quilting, the power in Bobby's bite is frightening. When Harris orders the dog to release me, he backs off but starts barking with such aggression in his voice and posture that that's scary too. Were I a bad guy, I suspect I'd do whatever Harris commanded, to make sure he kept Bobby in check.That's the idea behind the San Diego Police Department's canine unit. Established 20 years ago this past February, the department boasts that it has more dogs than any other law-enforcement agency west of the Mississippi. (Close to 50 animals are usually in service or enrolled in the police-dog academy.) "The dogs give us another option so that the police officers don't have to use their guns," says Bill Nelson, a 27-year veteran who ran the department's SWAT team for 5 years back in the mid-1990s, then took over as the supervisor of the dog group in September of 2001. "I compare it to SWAT because it's a high-speed, low-drag outfit," Nelson says. "And the training they do is just amazing."
Nelson suggested I ride along with one of the canine cops. I wound up accompanying Officer Jim Stevens and his dog, Morris, as they began their ten-hour shift on the limpid Friday afternoon that marked the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. The two seem made for one another. The policeman is 6'3", and when his dog stands up on his hind legs, the tip of his nose reaches the level of his partner's neck. Both man and beast are flat-bellied and broad-shouldered and muscular. Stevens, 46, has thick black hair that he wears combed straight back from his forehead, while the five-year-old dog is a warm tawny color, except for his face. There the fur darkens, and parts of his ears and muzzle match Stevens's patrol uniform in its blackness. The two look color-coordinated.
While Morris spent the first two years of his life in Holland, Stevens is a local. He grew up in Spring Valley, the offspring of an SDPD homicide detective. Because the son "couldn't stand school," he says his father talked him into applying for the police academy. "I figured, well, I'll go ahead just to get him off my ass," the younger Stevens says. "I kind of figured I'd do it for a couple years. Get it out of my system." But he liked the work and had a natural aptitude for it. Today there are some who say he's one of the best patrolmen in the city. "He's been in lots of gun battles and won them all," one of his peers told me with admiration. "And he has a knowledge of the area that he works in that's far above and beyond that of a normal cop. He knows everybody who knows everybody. Dives right into things and really gets involved in what he's doing. It's cops like that that keep the criminal element stirred up. They can't settle in anywhere 'cause Jim's around the corner."
Stevens won acceptance into the canine unit in 1991 and was paired with a two-and-a-half-year-old workaholic German shepherd. "Zasko would let you pet him and kiss him and hug him and be all social with him," Stevens recalls, "but all he cared about was going to work and looking for bad guys." Although most of the city's police dogs retire from their duties between the ages of eight and nine, this dog so excelled at what he did and was in such superb condition that some of the officers in the Mid-City division drew up a petition urging that Stevens's canine partner be allowed to remain on the job for longer than normal. Stevens says Zasko was ten and a half when he finally stopped working, "the oldest working police dog in the city or county that I know of." On the last day of his career, he found a guy armed with a submachine gun hiding underneath a van, Stevens boasts. Zasko then settled into a carefree life at Stevens's home, but he developed serious skeletal problems. "I spent almost $10,000 trying to fix them," the policeman recalls. Toward the end, he had to use a beach towel as a sling to help the dog walk out to relieve himself. He says one night he went out to the dog's kennel and talked to him for about 15 minutes. "I told him, 'You know, if you want to go, buddy, you can go.'" The next morning when he went out to check on him, Zasko lay dead.
Stevens's next dog was another German shepherd, this one imported from Czechoslovakia. The policeman didn't like the dog's given name -- Aswan -- so he shortened it to Juan, an easy change because the sounds were so similar. Juan also loved going to work, Stevens says, but unlike Zasko, "He wanted to be petted. He wanted his belly scratched. He wanted to lick me and play." Juan had four years on the job, and now, at 11, continues to thrive in retirement, according to his master.
Like Juan, Stevens's current partner also underwent a name change. He originally was called Dorus, a man's name in Holland. What the animal needed, the policeman figured, was a name that was cute, not ridiculous. "He's such a big, strong, scary dog." Stevens came up with Morris, a change the animal took in stride.
"His name is the only cute thing about Morris." Why Stevens would say that becomes obvious whenever you come within a few feet of the duo's patrol car. Within the metal-barred rear compartment, Morris explodes into a one-dog riot zone -- a frenzy of savage snarling and barking, flying spittle, and wild lunging. "He doesn't like anybody next to his car," the policeman says. Morris in fact looks intent upon smashing through the roof of the vehicle and ripping out the throats of any and all passersby. When he got Morris in June of 2004, Stevens says the dog never barked when in the car. But Stevens likes his dogs to be "car-protective," so he set himself to the task of turning Morris into the vehicular maniac he is today. He says he did that by having various people approach the car as he gave Morris the command warning him that a threat was close at hand. Morris then barked and growled, and Stevens praised him as the person approaching cowered and ran away. "The dog loves that. Do it three or four times, and before you know it, you've created a car-defensive dog. Part of what we want these dogs to do is to intimidate people."
Unlike regular patrol officers, the canine units respond to calls all over the city. It's not unheard of for a team to be in Rancho Bernardo one minute, then running down to San Ysidro the next; to zoom from somewhere in the East County over to the beach. But each canine team starts off its shift assigned to a geographical base. For Stevens and Morris this evening, that area would be City Heights and Southeast San Diego. "We'll listen for assaults, for anybody doing anything with a weapon, for robberies," Stevens explained. "Any call where there might be a need for nonlethal force."
As we headed to City Heights, I asked the officer how he and Morris made the adjustment to each other. It had required some patience, Stevens recalled. Morris had first been assigned to another canine cop who had decided he wanted to work on bomb-detection. Although Morris had the nose for that job and the necessary play drive, he lacked another important capacity. Bomb dogs are supposed to sit at attention when they find one of the odors they've been trained to discriminate, but "Morris isn't a mellow dog," Steven says. "He's a little high-strung." As Juan had just retired, Stevens agreed to take over handling Morris, who he knew had a reputation for being "hard" -- prone to challenging his handler for the dominant role in the relationship.
On the day of the handoff, Stevens had the other handler bring the dog to Stevens's back yard. "I wanted it to be a totally neutral territory, where I could introduce myself into the situation. I wasn't going to get real lovey-dovey with him at first, but I threw the ball. I hung out with the two of them for about an hour." After the other man finally left, "I put the dog in the kennel. And the dog whined and howled for hours and hours." He was lonely and confused, Stevens knew, "so I went out and talked to him and hung out with him for about another hour."
Stevens says for the next two weeks, he did nothing but bond with Dorus/Morris. "I didn't give him any commands. All I did was feed him and get him used to me. He wasn't seeing Randy anymore, so he was still confused. But he didn't see me as a threat. I petted him right away. That's part of the reason I was able to get such a quick bond with him." The dog never bit Stevens. "There were a couple incidents where I knew that he was loading up and it was going to happen, but I quelled the situation." Food and affection are only part of the bonding process, Stevens adds. "You have to make the dog realize that you can kick his ass -- even if you can't. You have to trick him into thinking you're tougher than he is. And you can't be afraid of him, even if you are. You can't act like you're even slightly intimidated, because he'll pick right up on that."
Almost a full year had passed since their pairing, and "I just now am feeling real comfortable with him," Stevens told me. Morris had become much friendlier during that time, and Stevens in turn seemed downright fond of his furry partner.
"Throughout the night, I'll go back and rub on him," the policeman said. He likes to dig his fingers into the thick fur around the dog's neck; to nuzzle his dark snout and kiss it. "He wasn't a real lovable dog when I first got him. He's become lovable."
Stevens says his wife, a 103-pound police sergeant, still feels nervous in the unchained presence of 105-pound Morris. "He wants to bond with her, but he wants her to know the pecking order. He'll push up against her. It's the dog's way of saying, 'Know your place.' As far as he's concerned, I'm number one. He's number two, and everyone else falls below us on the totem pole."
The cops say all the San Diego dogs are "alphas" -- naturally inclined to take the leadership role within whatever pack they happen to be living. "That's why we pick them," Stevens says. But "a lot of times, they just go spastic." Because of their potential for aggressive and unpredictable behavior, the dogs almost never live inside the houses of the officers to whom they're assigned. Instead most spend their off-duty hours in back-yard kennels, lounging around except when they're being exercised or groomed by their handlers. Morris's off-duty life sounds particularly idyllic. Stevens says the dog has the run of a half-acre area adjoining his home in Alpine. Confined by chain-link fencing that's more than six feet tall, he spends hours chasing squirrels and lizards. "He's really a funny dog to watch." Stevens has a 14-year-old female schnauzer who likes Morris, according to the policeman. "She comes up to the fence and wags her tail, but he's so big and rough that I've got to be careful. Because he'll want to run up and play with her, but he knocks her around." Morris knocks Stevens around too, but the policeman sounds nonchalant about the roughhousing. "He plays fetch real rough. He can pop a basketball with his jaws. I play rough with him, and he likes to play rough. I'll wrestle him down on the ground."
By four o'clock, we were prowling the streets of City Heights, looking for action. At one traffic light, Stevens pointed out how he tried to position the patrol car so Morris wouldn't have direct eye contact with other drivers and their passengers. As often as not, this ploy fails, as it did a moment later, when a passing taxi driver set the dog off. I found myself giggling at the extremeness of Morris's response -- the ear-shattering cacophony, the frenzied head-banging against the car's ceiling, the slavering lunges under the sloping rear window, dog fur flying, musky dog smell blossoming. "I'm more of a lion tamer than a dog handler," Stevens said, rolling his eyes.
It's such a caricature of canine ferocity, I was astonished to hear that Morris had not yet bitten anyone. "That's not unusual," Stevens said. "Our dogs don't have nearly as many bites now as they did, say, ten years ago." Zasko once got in two bites within a 48-hour period, Stevens says, but he believes that as a result of the three-strikes law, there aren't as many hard-core criminals on the streets. He adds, "To be quite honest with you, I would just as soon go through my entire career with this dog and never have him bite anybody. As long as he's finding people and working as an intimidator."
In mid-October, Morris finally had a chance to sink his teeth into a criminal. The incident unfolded after police had spotted a stolen Honda that led them on a high-speed pursuit, then crashed next to a canyon adjoining Friars Road. The driver bolted from the car and scrambled over a six-foot chain-link fence topped with three feet of barbed wire. Then he disappeared into the undergrowth. "We were going to cut the fence with bolt cutters," says Stevens, who had joined in the last ten minutes or so of the vehicular pursuit. "But one of the officers noticed a tear in the fence down a ways."
Stevens put his dog on a 30-foot lead, and the two of them squeezed through the hole. Then Stevens told Morris to track. "First thing he did was he ran right over to the fence where the guy had jumped over, and he stuck his head into a bush and pulled out the guy's tennis shoe. So I knew he was on the scent."
Urged to continue on, "Morris put his nose down and off he went," Stevens says. "The terrain was really difficult to maneuver because it was down a hill." In the inky darkness, the policeman says he put his trust in the dog, letting the animal tug him toward the bottom of the canyon. There Morris lifted his head and started to "cast high," an indication that he had caught the quarry's immediate odor. Stevens says, "He started pulling me up the hill in a slightly different direction." The policeman knew that no dog who was as tired as Morris was by then would choose to tug his handler back up the hill he had just run down unless he was onto something. So Stevens reiterated the warnings he'd been sounding since he entered the canyon. There was no response, so he made no effort to restrain Morris from diving into a large bush. "You couldn't shine a flashlight and see inside this thing. It was way deep." The next thing he heard was the voice of a man yelling that he'd been bitten.
Stevens says he ordered both the suspect and the dog to come out of the hiding spot. "Morris is kind of a big fellow, and he basically just dragged the guy out. The entire bicep/shoulder area was completely embedded in his mouth. The dog's molars were clamped down on the guy." Tattoos covered the man's skin, and the police soon learned that he was facing several felony warrants. "He'd been in and out of prison his whole life," Stevens says. "He was pretty desperate. He was looking at going back to prison for maybe ten years." Without the dog, the man's gamble to escape would have paid off, according to Stevens. "There was no way we ever would have found him, it was such a huge area." As for Morris, "Once he got back to the car, he was lying down and sleeping 15 minutes later. It was no big deal to him."
In the course of the shift that Stevens, Morris, and I spent together, we kept busy. We spent an hour at a house in Logan Heights where a suspected stalker and parole violator was thought to be holed up. When the man's parents showed up with keys to the front door, another dog handler who'd arrived first at the scene took her dog in to search the place. That turned up nothing, but a third (smaller) police dog was boosted into the attic and let down under the crawl space to make sure the quarry wasn't hidden there. (He wasn't.) We moved on and later, Stevens and Morris and I chanced upon a hit-and-run scene just minutes after the collision occurred, and we spent some time driving around in the hope of finding the perpetrator (a vain hope, as it developed). Stevens also wrote out a warning to a guy who'd made an illegal turn right in front of him. He stopped and chatted with two or three former and current gang members. "I get along with almost all these guys out here," the policeman commented. "I treat them right, even when I arrest them. And they appreciate that."
The most exciting call of the night turned out to be a burglar alarm up in Sorrento Valley. Stevens raced up the 805 at 90 miles an hour and pulled into the parking lot of an auto parts warehouse about a half hour after its alarm had first sounded. Two regular patrolmen were already on the scene, and one pointed out an open door at the side of the building. The question was: was an intruder inside? With Morris's leash in hand, Stevens entered, walked down a long, shadowy hall, and surveyed the rows of towering shelves that filled the building's vast interior. He issued the standard warning: "San Diego police! Come out or you will be bitten!" then released Morris. Now silent, Morris streaked off, his toenails clicking like castanets on the concrete flooring. We heard the clicks receding and growing louder again as the dog raced up and down the aisles. But no fierce barking signaled success, and after a few minutes, Stevens and his fellow officers concluded that if a burglar had broken into the building, he now was gone.
Midnight came and went, with Stevens expressing amazement over how quiet the night had been. On an average night, Morris might be "deployed" three to five times, and that number can climb to eight or ten when things get busy. This night, in contrast, he'd only been pressed into action once. "I'd rate this very slow for a Friday," he judged. "No good stuff. When I think good stuff, I mean a shooting or a stabbing or a pursuit."
A love of hot calls is one of the most common explanations for why people become canine officers. "We're free from the mundane calls," one officer elaborated. "But with anything that's hot, we're rolling. We spend more time with our lights and sirens on than any other unit in the city. Because if they need a dog, they need one now. If you miss the moment, something could happen."
There are other benefits. The hourly pay is higher than for routine patrol officers, and the dog handlers also get extra "maintenance pay" for the time they spend at home grooming, feeding, exercising, and otherwise caring for the dogs. Full-time use of a police car also comes with the job, since the officers have to transport the animals home at the end of the shift.
"Our supervisors are pretty good. They treat us like adults, which isn't the case in the rest of the department," one of the canine handlers told me. "The work is interesting, and you're not subjected to some of the things the rest of the department is -- such as arbitrary transfers." Unlike the situation in some cities, SDPD canine handlers have always been allowed to stay in their jobs for as long as they choose. Once they're in, most remain until they retire from the force. Given the low turnover, anyone wanting to join the ranks of the elite cadre faces a tough challenge.
Nelson, the unit's supervisor, ticked off for me the steps required of applicants. No one can apply until he or she has worked in the department as a patrol officer for at least four years, and then all candidates have to be recommended by their commanders. "Then they have to pass a basic general shooting test and a physical agility test," Nelson said. Handlers have to be able to keep up with their animals. "You have to push your dog over fences sometimes, and you've got to be able to get over with him."
If a candidate passes the firearms and agility tests, the next step is to come before an interview panel. Nelson sits on it, along with two or three sergeants and a senior handler. "We want to see a person who can multitask," Nelson says. "If you have a dog on your leash, it takes your attention. You're training him. Then you add in the cop part, and you have to be able to think on your feet. You have to be somebody with good common sense; someone who can size up a situation and forecast what's going to happen." If things take an unexpected turn, you have to be able to adjust in an instant.
"We had the perfect example the other night," Nelson offered. "One of my sergeants was down at a warehouse. There was a burglary. They thought a suspect was still in the building. So my guy talked to the field sergeant. The field sergeant said everybody was out of the building. Talked to the owner of the building. Nope, there's nobody in that building. So the only person who should have been in that building was the crook. The sergeant sends his dog in to do the search. The dog turns the corner, and there's an 80-year-old man standing at the end of the hallway. The dog had target lock on him. Tone, as we call it -- because you're sending in a four-legged missile. The sergeant saw what was happening -- that's not somebody we want to bite -- and he was able, through his ability to handle the dog, to call the dog off before the dog bit the guy." Nelson added, "The call-off is probably the most critical thing we teach the dog." The lieutenant says it works most of the time. He uses his hands to form a narrow slit, then peers through it. "That beady little mind has one thing on it: 'There's a bite for me.' That's what they want to do. It's not out of meanness. It's their reward."
Out of all the individuals applying to be a canine handler in a given year, Nelson says he picks the top ten and puts them on a list from which he draws whenever a slot opens up. If he doesn't hire everyone on the list (and he never has), he discards the remaining names at the end of the year and starts the application cycle all over again. He says he wants to feel sure everyone on the list is still eager to become part of a canine team.
To learn how the other part -- the dogs -- get their jobs, I called David Reaver at the Adlerhorst International Police K-9 Academy in Riverside. Reaver not only supplies the San Diego Police Department with all of its dogs, he's helped to shape the standards for modern police dogs in America.
He says this wasn't what he planned to do with his life. Stationed in Europe with the military in the late '50s and early 1960s, "I was a dog person," he recalls. So it was natural for Reaver to get involved with what the Germans call "hundesport" -- literally, dog sport. Dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century, Schutzhund ("protection dog") trials developed as a means of determining which dogs had sufficient working abilities to justify their being bred. The trials require the dogs to track under a variety of circumstances and perform a series of obedience exercises (sitting, lying down, etc.) as well as protection routines (biting and releasing upon command).
When Reaver returned to the States, he was among those who helped to found Schutzhund clubs here. "At one time there were only 2 in the whole state of California. Now there are probably 100," he says. He was living in Huntington Beach around 1973 when it came to his attention that the Huntington Beach Police Department had added dogs to its arsenal. These animals weren't much like the police dogs Reaver had seen in Europe. "They were kind of social misfits that would bite," he recalls. "It was very primitive. There were no standards; nothing that defined what a police dog should be."
Reaver says he offered some friendly criticism. "I was an electrical contractor at the time. I never dreamed there would be a business in this. I wasn't looking to start to sell dogs. But then they kind of challenged me. They said, 'Okay, what would you do?' I had two dogs of my own that were Schutzhund-titled dogs. I sold them to Huntington Beach, then gave them additional training in police work."
While Reaver was training those dogs, the Santa Monica
Police Department contacted him. "They wanted some dogs as well." That's how the business started. Reaver abandoned his electrical contracting business in 1979, and since then he says he's supplied police dogs to more than 400 law-enforcement departments throughout the country.
Except for the first few animals, he hasn't raised any of those dogs from puppyhood. "The strong gene pool is in Europe," he says, so he travels there about eight times a year, covering up to 2000 miles on each trip. "I go to Germany, Holland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary." From each such expedition, Reaver says he brings back between 15 and 35 canines. Most are between two and three years old when they make the transatlantic passage, and according to Reaver, the majority have had a couple of years of Schutzhund-style training. (The protection-dog sports have different names in different countries.)
Over the years, the sources from which Reaver buys the animals have undergone some evolution. When he started, "Nobody was really in the dog business in Europe," he says. Instead he dealt exclusively with sport-dog enthusiasts who had reached a certain level of achievement with their dogs and were ready and willing to sell them. Now, however, brokers exist who buy dogs from the hobbyists and sell them to other intermediaries like Reaver. "The competition for buying the dogs has become keener," Reaver says. He still acquires some of the animals from their raiser/trainers. "For example, we bought the top dog in Holland last year. The guy who owned that dog had a heating and air-conditioning business." Such individuals raise and train the dogs for fun rather than profit. Reaver says he typically pays around $5000 for an animal. "That might look like a lot of money. But if the dog's owner spends two or three days a week training that dog over the course of two years, it's minimum wage or less if you compute it hourly. So it's very cost-effective to have these people doing the work for us." Reaver in turn charges $7850 for each four-footed recruit.
In an effort to try to reduce the cost of the dogs, Reaver says he also has traveled several times to China, where entrepreneurs have been importing and breeding large numbers of German shepherds. He's brought some of those animals to the United States, but he no longer does. "A lot of those dogs had some real serious social problems," he asserts. This he blames on the fact that the Chinese dogs spend most of the time when they're not being trained in large kennels, unlike the European dogs, which typically live in individual kennels in the back yards of families. As a consequence, "The Chinese dogs don't have the same social upbringing as the European dogs," he says. "Dogs solve their problems with each other by aggression," he explains, so when they're raised primarily with other dogs, "they're more apt to be a little bit handler-aggressive; a little bit nasty."
Dogs are unique, Reaver expounds. "They're a pack animal that prefers humans to their own species." When a puppy grows up around a family, it learns that it's subordinate to the humans. "The relationship that a dog has with its pack is very, very strong," says Reaver. "The dog looks to his pack leader as a god. But it's very self-serving. The dog does that because he needs the humans, and he can transfer that relationship very easily. If you had a dog for three years, you might be devoted to each other. But if I buy that dog from you, in a few hours, or at most, days, he will have transferred that same loyalty to me that he had to you. You might be sitting around missing him, but dogs intellectually can't dwell on the past, and they don't recognize that there is a future. They live for the moment. If all their needs are being met in the pack relationship, and they're genetically imprinted to do this work, when somebody else comes along and says, 'Okay, I'm going to do that same work with you,' well, they're just tickled."
Reaver says he does buy some German shepherds from the European suppliers, but nowadays his top choice among dog breeds for the police work is the Belgian Malinois, a short-coated variety of the Belgian shepherd family that tends to be lighter, quicker, more agile, and more energetic than its German cousins. Although a separate breed, the Malinois have been bred much more for their behavior than for their looks, according to Reaver, and the result is "a lot of funny-looking dogs." They can weigh anywhere between 50 and 100 or more pounds. Some have floppy ears; others erect ones. Their color ranges from the coal black of Bobby (who bit my padded arm with such enthusiasm) to the leonine glow of Morris, with wide variation in between. In contrast, German shepherds have a much more consistent appearance, but "they've been bred to be so good-looking that their working qualities have suffered," Reaver thinks. They're also less healthy than the Malinois, in his opinion, with a higher incidence of hip dysplasia and other skeletal problems.
When he's buying dogs to do police work, Reaver's not looking for intelligence but, rather, drive. Drive he defines as a passion to do the things that have been cultivated in the breed. Take running. Both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois were originally developed to herd sheep, so they both like to run. But those who work with the Malinois say their appetite for tearing around seems boundless. "They're kind of like horses," one of the San Diego canine officers told me. "They'll run themselves to death. Shepherds and Rottweilers will eventually reach a point where they'll just flop down because they're exhausted, but a Malinois will never quit."
Or consider biting. Most puppies will chase a gunnysack that's waved in front of them and bite at it. But a dog with a lot of drive will continue to play that game long after others with less drive will, and such tenacity is valuable to anyone who's hoping to train the dog to bite people on command.
Even so, getting any dog to bite humans is a long and often misunderstood process, Reaver says. From biting the gunnysack, puppies are taught to bite a padded sleeve. "They're close to a year or two before you ever say, 'Okay, now you're going to have to bite a human being,' " Reaver says. "If you told a puppy he was going to confront a human being as an adversary, well, there's no way he could handle that. Instead you kind of trick them into it." He says even a ten-year-old police dog won't do anything he perceives to be dangerous. "In other words, if you could convince a dog that there was somebody hiding in a building and he was dangerous, that dog would immediately get behind the handler and say, 'I'll follow you.' If you have a dog that thinks you need to be protected, then you don't have a healthy relationship with that dog. On the contrary, the toughest police dog assumes his handler's going to protect him. Everything else is a bit of a trick -- that it's fun to go chasing people, and you might get to bite them, if certain criteria are present."
Reaver says another misconception about police dogs relates to how dangerous they are. In all the years he's been importing and training the dogs, thousands and thousands of "apprehension contacts" have occurred, he says, but never has one of the dogs killed anyone. It could happen. "You read in the paper frequently about private dogs killing people -- Rottweilers killing children and so on," he acknowledges. "But in the controlled environment that we're using the dogs in, we've never had a death.... If truth be known, when an adult male [human being] is involved with a dog in a life-and-death situation, the human's almost always going to prevail." Reaver thinks the distorted impressions of the dogs' lethality may spring in part from the Vietnam War, when some of the dogs used by the military were euthanized rather than brought back. Reaver says that was done because the parvo disease, then new, was found to have originated in Southeast Asia, and authorities were trying to limit its spread to the U.S. "But stories came back that they had to euthanize these dogs because they had killed so many people."
Overall, Reaver argues that the police dogs' olfactory ability overshadows their utility as weapons. "A dog can save a department 700 to 800 man hours a year," he argues. "You take a department store. If an alarm goes off, the police have to determine if there was an entry. Is someone still there? You might have an officer spending an hour in there, looking around." He says he's put on demonstrations in which he's hidden in department stores and eluded up to four policemen who were looking for him. "I knew where they were. They didn't know where I was. I kept moving. I've gotten in drawers." A dog searching in such a setting will often find the concealed person within ten minutes. Dogs aren't perfect, he acknowledges. "They miss people too, occasionally. But not nearly as frequently as people do. The dog has an olfactory ability a million times greater than a human. He believes his nose over anything else."
The dogs can also create a buffer between suspects and their police pursuers, Reaver says. "A lot of harm is done to policemen and to suspects when they confront each other at close quarters. Say you're walking through a building and you find a burglar who pops up with a screwdriver in his hand, and you shoot him. Later on you might say, 'Well, we didn't have to shoot him,' but normally it would be a justified shooting. You responded spontaneously to a dangerous situation." With a dog in the picture, the outcome can usually be improved, he asserts. "The dog finds this person and maybe he bites him, but that's a lot better. It becomes safer for the suspect and safer for the handler."
According to longtime veterans of the SDPD canine unit, it was concerns about officer safety that first led to the use of dogs here, starting in 1985. With the city close to leading the nation in the number of officers being killed, San Diego turned to Reaver for support troops. The Riverside importer supplied the city with its first dozen dogs, and their numbers gradually grew to 24 over the next six years. The officer mortality rate did begin to drop, the canine officers say. But by 1991, the pendulum seemed to have swung the other way, as a series of confrontations involving "nontraditional weapons" -- a trowel, some steel garden stakes, a baseball bat -- resulted in several citizens being killed by police. Out of the ensuing uproar came community meetings where the police were urged to find more alternatives to deadly force. "One of the things that came from that was to expand the canine unit," says Sergeant Roger Howes, a member of the unit since its inception.
The number of canine teams in San Diego thus jumped from 24 to 46 in 1991. Around 2001, another cycle of officer-involved shootings prompted another citizens' task force to recommend that even more dogs be added. "Their recommendation was that to be optimal we would need two dogs assigned to every division 24 hours a day," says Nelson, the unit's commander. "The bottom line is it would take 63 teams to do that. That would be optimal." But Nelson says the unit hasn't come close to achieving that number. "We did get up to 54," but attrition has since shrunk the number of teams down to 48, and now, with the department overall strapped for patrol officers, no one inside the canine unit is expecting to see any expansion soon. The department is "pretty much decimated right now," Howes says. "It's actually becoming a safety issue. There are so few people to cover other officers out there. We wouldn't want to take any more bodies out of the field."
Within the canine unit, Howes supervises the overall training program for the teams. He says that the enterprise has evolved over the years. Whereas Reaver in the beginning provided San Diego with dogs he had trained to the point of being street-ready, he now provides the city with dogs that have just arrived from Europe. From among the new arrivals, Howes says Reaver will pick out several who might be candidates for the San Diegans. "We like a very aggressive dog," Howes explains. "Some of the other departments might want a dog that is more playful. Maybe you could do more demonstrations with children or something. But we find those dogs typically perform worse in the field." The San Diego unit also uses only male animals, believing them to be more assertive.
Howes and one or more of the other full-time trainers then drive up to Riverside to assess the courage and temperament of the canine candidates. "We try to evaluate whether they're going to be able to be converted to a police dog," Howes says. "We probably wash out three-quarters of the dogs we test." The sergeant says more evaluation is done when the surviving dogs arrive in San Diego. Some have never worked inside a building before. "So we bring them in and see how they react on slippery floors. We try to run them up and down stairs. Some of the dogs freak out." Howes says the rejects are returned to Reaver, and the remaining animals are matched with handlers. The pairs then go through a training academy that can last anywhere from six to ten weeks.
Within the academy, the goal is to transform animals that have been engaging in a lighthearted hobby into ones that can carry out the sometimes deadly business of police work. "Obedience is the basis for all the training," says Howes. "The dog listening to what you tell him to do, even if he doesn't want to. That's what you build on." Instead of searching for people in outdoor settings (as the sport dogs do), "We have them searching for suspects in buildings. They already know how to bite, from the time when they were puppies, so we keep reinforcing and developing that." The dogs are introduced to muzzles so they can be trained to attack a human being wearing regular clothes, instead of a bite suit. "Those bite suits are like a big toy for them. It's all fun. It's almost a no-brainer they're going to bite the bite suit. But to get them to engage a real person is a much more difficult thing."
Even after graduating from the academy, the canine teams devote a big chunk of time to training. They say it keeps the officers and dogs in top form, and they also credit it for the "virtually nonexistent" amount the city has had to pay out for lawsuits involving the animals. Each of the unit's squads (a sergeant and five or six officers) spends four hours a week training together, and the bomb-detection and drug-detection teams (usually one each per squad) are allotted an additional four hours each week to concentrate on practicing their specialties. The regular training sessions cover four broad activities: searching canyons or other open spaces, searching buildings, working with vehicles, and doing basic obedience drills. These rotate on a regular schedule. At each, "You try to show the dog as many locations and situations as you can," Officer Ben Harris told me.
Within his squad, Harris has the responsibility for organizing the weekly training sessions. Of all the people I met within the canine unit, he seemed like the one who had found his vocation earliest. He says that when he was 12, he begged his mother for the better part of a year to let him have a German shepherd. She relented on the condition that he take the dog to obedience training, so Harris signed up for one of the classes taught in the San Diego Zoo parking lot and wound up loving everything about the sessions. When he became a policeman, he knew what his ultimate goal was. "Someday I'm going to become a canine handler," he vowed at the time.
Harris says the canine squads are always looking for new training sites. They've found a dozen or so locations around the city where they've gotten permission to work. One is the old Charger practice field at Qualcomm Stadium. Another is an abandoned convalescent hospital near Alvarado hospital. Mixing it up prevents the sessions from getting boring and keeps the animals on their toes. On the cloudy morning when I accompanied Harris's squad on one of their training outings, the men would be using the old Ryan Aeronautical facility adjoining Lindbergh Field to carry out a lesson plan that might have been called "bad guys and cars."
First, each man had his dog perform a quick pattern of basic obedience commands -- down, sit, stay, come, and the like. Because each team was working off-leash, it kept its distance from the other members of the squad, and no dog was out of its patrol car in the presence of any other dog. "If we let two or more of them get together, we'd have a huge dogfight," one of the officers said. "They'd basically kill each other. Because one of them's going to be in charge, and each one of them thinks it's him. It's like having a two-year-old around you all the time."
All the dogs in Harris's squad are Belgian Malinois, and all happened to have come from the Czech Republic, which meant that the commands that morning would be issued in Czech. The handlers say it's easier for them to learn the 15 or so words they need to control the animals than it is to teach the dogs their English equivalents. (Other languages found among the canine unit are German and Dutch.) For the morning's first scenario, Harris explained to the group that each canine team would take turns chasing a battered SUV with tinted windows. They could assume that it was stolen and that the occupants had committed felonies. Beyond that, they'd have to figure out what to do.
"There's two forks to training," Harris told me as he and I took up a position where we could watch the action. "One is we're training the dog to do something, but the way you verify that the team is going to work out in the field is to test them here. That requires the dog to do what he's commanded to do, but it also requires the officer to make good decisions." In this case, Harris had already instructed the driver of the getaway vehicle to screech to a halt, then leap out and run away, leaving his cohort in the SUV. "We talk about the Malinois being high-drive," Harris said. "Cops are high-drive too. You don't do this work because you want to relax somewhere. You do it because you want to chase somebody; get somebody." But as far as Harris was concerned, the wrong decision would be for one of the canine officers to leap out of his patrol car and take off after the driver. "We're dealing with violent, armed suspects here, so the guy who's still in the vehicle could run you over, which unfortunately has happened before and killed officers. Or he could watch you go by and pull his gun out and shoot you in the back of the head as you go by, then get in the car and take off. You have to be aware of an ambush."
Another wrong choice would be for anyone to send his dog after the fleeing driver, since that would still leave the problem of the felonious passenger. "That car has tinted windows. If we asked officers to go up there and stick their heads in, they might find out the guy's lying in there on the floorboards with a gun." Instead, the proper response would be to send the dog in, "and if there's somebody in there, the dog will bite them." Or at least try. For this scenario, each animal would be wearing a muzzle, though that still could be dangerous, Harris pointed out. "I've had my nose broken by a dog in a muzzle. It's like getting hit by a boxer, only a boxer's glove is padded, and that muzzle is not."
What followed at this point was quite entertaining. Around the corner of the alleyway where Harris and I were waiting squealed the SUV, with a black-and-white right behind it, lights flashing. Both screeched to a halt, and as the SUV driver escaped, the canine officer reacted just as Harris had hoped he would. He jumped out of his door, opened the rear door, and grasping his dog's collar, let him out. He made him sit, then bellowed the customary warnings, while the dog leaned forward and wriggled, emitting high-pitched squeaky yelps and wagging his tail in anticipation. "They're in their glory," Harris said, admiring the sight. "They live for this." When the officer released the dog, it streaked toward the SUV and leapt inside. Yowling noises and cries of faux pain issued from the inside of the vehicle. "Good boy! Good boy!" the handler called as he went to retrieve the animal. When he returned, he grinned and remarked, "We could be working for a living."
Every one of the men in the squad made the right choice for the exercise, but in the next scenario scripted by Harris, things didn't go as well. Harris called it a "cover now" drill, one simulating a situation in which an officer was in trouble and asking for immediate aid. For it, the training officer placed a mat on the cement of the alleyway and lay down on it. Next to him knelt Mike Fowler, the seniormost officer in the squad, wearing a camouflage jacket. When the first of the patrol cars rounded the corner, the driver saw Fowler pretending to pummel the other policeman. Harris had told me that he hoped each man would stop and unload his dog, taking him by the collar and walking him over to the fight on his two hind legs (to maximize the handler's control over the animal), then placing his muzzle right on the suspect to ensure that the correct person would get bit. But one of the younger officers dashed over to the fracas, sans canine. "He probably had just two seconds to make up his mind what to do," commented another training supervisor who was watching this. "But that's what's going to happen out in the field."
Another member of the squad walked his dog over to the fight, just as Harris had wanted, but released him a little too far away, and the dog wound up attacking the training officer. Later, when Fowler had a turn to play cop instead of bad guy, his dog Max managed to break free from his grip, and he too went for Harris. "Oops. I lost the officer," Fowler said.
A natural comedian, Fowler's been a canine handler for a dozen years. When I later drove back with him to the canine office, he talked about what it takes to do the work. You have to be the leader in your relationship with the animal, and that part's easy for most cops, he asserted. "What they have a problem with is breaking down this chiseled look that they've trained all their life to have. Somebody might see them or something. But you have to be able to break down and love the dog and cater to his needs. A lot of guys can't or won't do that. It's just not their thing."
Irrepressible, jaunty, and garrulous, Fowler has no problem revealing his affection for animals. His at-home menagerie includes a Chihuahua that was a gift from his wife, a Rottweiler, a retired police Malinois, and a fat yellow Lab who failed to make it as a Seeing Eye dog. Fowler has been a volunteer puppy-raiser for both the Guide Dogs of the Desert program and the Canine Companions for Independence (which supplies disabled individuals with helper dogs), and he now moonlights teaching other puppy-raisers how to train their animals.
He told me he still loves going to work every day as a canine cop, but he's now just hanging on, trying to get through the next 2 years. He'll then have 20 years in with the force and will be able to retire. "It's a young man's game," he explained. From all the years of being yanked about while trying to control his police dogs, both Fowler's shoulders have been torn. They hurt. From all the barking, "Most of us have lost all of our high-frequency hearing." Fowler says that when the city's risk-management department tested the decibel level within the canine cars, "They found we well exceeded OSHA standards. But the problem is we don't know how to fix that." Headphones would prevent them from hearing critical calls on the radio, and Plexiglas dividers would prevent the dogs from getting the air flow they need.
Fowler's been bitten more than a dozen times, and he says nine of those incidents have sent him to the hospital. One of the worst happened during a training scenario when "things went seriously wrong." In a darkened room in which Max had been searching for a pretend bad guy, the dog was trying to grab a reward toy but connected instead with the policeman's leg, severing the tendons leading to his foot and exposing the bone. "Max still loves me," the policeman says, and he in turn hasn't held a grudge. "Look at those big coyote ears," he said to me at one point about his partner's most striking physical attribute. "If he was running across the road at midnight, you'd think he was a coyote." When they're driving together, Fowler keeps the grate between the front and back compartments of his patrol car open, and Max often rakes the policeman's shoulder with his big knobby paw. "That's passive-aggressive behavior," Fowler commented. "He's trying to tell me what to do, and what do most of us do?" The policeman handed Max back a biscuit.
One doggy partner did cross the line as far as Fowler was concerned. His third animal, a pure black long-haired German shepherd named Blesk, "was psycho," according to the handler. "He had a wire loose. There was something wrong. You couldn't get [emotionally] close to that dog. He wouldn't let you." Things came to a head one day when Blesk "came up the leash" on Fowler, in the argot of the handlers. "He was challenging my authority; trying to take control of the pack. This can happen because of the makeup of the dog or maybe your lack of dominance. Anyway, I was unsuccessful." Blesk tore into Fowler's right hand, driving his teeth clear through the fleshy part below the little finger. Fowler couldn't work for close to ten weeks, recovering from the injury. Today a couple of divots testify to the incident.
The police dogs "don't bite easy. These are horrific bites," Fowler said. He says they tend to differ from those that back-yard dogs might inflict. Most of the time, the latter "bite defensively," he says, "biting and then releasing to give you the opportunity to run." The canine officers don't want that to happen when they send one of their dogs after you. They want you to direct all your attention to the creature that's causing your intense pain. That's why the handlers spend so much time training their dogs to bite and hold on.
Fowler and Max had had the opportunity to practice that maneuver in a public display just a few weeks before. The incident had started up at the cross on Mt. Soledad, Fowler told me, where a man had drawn attention to himself with a blaring stereo. "He was yelling at people, obscene stuff as they walked by. Just generally harassing people. So they called the cops."
When an officer showed up, the fellow sped away in his truck, and the policeman lost him on the winding mountain roads. But unbeknownst to the fleeing driver, a nearby police helicopter spotted him and started alerting other units to his movements. This occurred around 5:30 p.m., Fowler says. He and another canine officer who happened to be riding with him heard about the developing chase, but they were in Mission Valley, boxed in by rush-hour traffic. To their elation, the fleeing suspect took the 805 south to 163. "We were right off Friars. And sure enough if he didn't go by us. We fell right in behind him and turned on the lights and stuff, and the chase was on."
Fowler says it continued for a good 40 minutes. Driving on freeway shoulders, reaching speeds of up to 115 miles per hour, the man tore south on 5, then west across the Coronado Bridge over to Orange Avenue. He turned around and came back over the bridge, south on 5 again, then east on 54. He led the officers over city streets too: eastbound on Clairemont Drive at one point; westbound on Balboa. "And he crashed all along the way," says Fowler, "just smashing people out of the way, crashing and smashing."
Dispatchers meanwhile were checking the man's license plates and making other inquiries. "What we found was that he had a criminal record as long as your arm," Fowler says. "He'd been convicted before for felony evasion -- fleeing from police officers." There were battery and drunk driving and drug charges in his past. "Also, the previous Thursday he had called the police over at Belmont Park, wanting to commit suicide. The last thing we found out was that he had just purchased a handgun two or three days earlier. So our belief was, 'He's nuts. He doesn't like police, and he wants us to kill him. Suicide by cop.' The way he was fleeing and smashing showed wanton, derelict disregard. He didn't care who he killed, who got in the way, who he smashed into. Even when he crashed for the final time, his whole front end by then was smashed like an accordion. But he threw his truck in reverse, trying to get away. Then the CHP came up from behind and pinned him in."
Fowler says all the officers came within a few feet of the man's vehicle, guns drawn, bellowing for him to come out. "Well, the guy gets out of the truck and stands there with the door open. Then they order him to get on the ground. He doesn't move. That tells me a couple of things about a suspect. He's thinking something else. That could be dangerous." Fowler suspected that the man had his new gun tucked into the back of his waistband. "All he had to do was make a move and they would have lit him up."
One of the regular San Diego police officers stepped forward a few feet and sprayed the man with mace, "right in his face," Fowler recalls. "That's supposed to disable and disorient him, but it didn't do anything. Nothing!" The man continued staring, stony-faced. Life or death becomes a matter of split seconds, at such times, Fowler says. "You're focused on what you're doing. I came up on him, stood next to the cops, gave my warning. And he stood there and stared at me and Max. I know my command was very clear, very concise, very commanding: 'Drop to the ground now!' But he just stood there, and the only thing I could think of was, 'He wants you to go hands-on with him.' And when you put hands on a guy who's nuts, bad things happen."
If he had waited at that point to see what the suspect would do next, "I would have been remiss in my job," Fowler argues. "Because I'm supposed to intervene. If I had allowed him the time to even pretend he was going to get a gun, he would have died right there on the spot." Instead, Fowler unloosed Max, who rushed over and sank his teeth into the man's thigh. "It buckled his knees, and he dropped to the ground, screaming, 'Ahhh! What'd you do that for?' " The man was handcuffed and taken to the hospital.
"So I did my job. Everything is cool. And complaints started rolling in right away," Fowler says. "People who'd been watching this in the luxury of their living room were on the phone. They had it all figured out. Of course they didn't know what we knew. All they saw was this poor guy being bit. And they forgot that he was willing to run over people and kill them on the spot and not even look back." But it wasn't the first time Fowler and the other dog handlers have heard complaints about the use of police dogs. Some people see it as being a form of involuntary servitude or a violation of the animals' rights.
Later, in the hospital, the suspect disclosed that he was having marital problems. Fowler and the other canine cops say cases of would-be "suicide by cop" are common. They think it's fascinating to see how people change their minds about wanting to die when the instrument they're facing is a dog. "Nobody wants to be consumed by an animal," Fowler observes. "It's this primal fear of being eaten, and nobody wants to face that, even crazy people."
Dogs, of course, never try to kill themselves, and Fowler says the handlers never send their animals on what they know to be suicide runs. "There's no point to that. If it gets to that point, we can bypass the dog and call SWAT out.
"But we do send the dogs into hazardous places and situations," Fowler acknowledges. The only San Diego police dog ever killed in the line of duty was struck by a car while chasing someone across Highway 163, but over the years, a couple of dogs have gotten shot, and one was sliced open by a burglar wielding a butcher knife. He needed 160 stitches. Another was stabbed by a psychotic who barricaded himself into a bathroom at the King's Inn Motel in Mission Valley and ripped out a shower-curtain rod, turning it into a weapon. All the injured animals recovered and went back to work.
They were happy to do so, Fowler says. They didn't associate their injuries with their work lives; that's an abstraction beyond the capacity of dogs. Dogs live in the moment, the policemen reminded me. Riding around for hours in the presence of their masters, barking madly, being let out every now and then to chase people or race around at top speed in places laden with new smells -- these are the things some dogs live for. If you're one of those dogs and you're recruited into the ranks of the San Diego Police force, you probably have nothing to whine about.