• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!