“I didn’t think the dog would find me.”
Kansas City police Sgt. Bill Brown can’t help but laugh when he hears this from a bruised and bleeding suspect, and he hears it over and over because he always asks.
He knows his dog, Clint, and what he’s capable of, because he has trained him to the precision edge of control and obedience. There’s no rage in the chase, the attack or the bite. It’s simply a game for a police dog.
Command and execution. Dog training 101.
For the price of a romp with a tennis ball, Clint is sure to get his man.
Dogs are special. Just ask any dog person.
Or look over there at the rumpled mass of golden fur curled up in the family room. Or at the foot of your bed.
But none are more special — to Kansas City taxpayers, anyway — than the dozen dogs and their officer handlers who make up the Kansas City Police Department’s canine unit.
Started in 1960 with the donation of a few German shepherds, the canine section of the patrol support unit now includes expertly trained dogs imported from Europe, breeds most of us have never heard of: Belgian Malinois, Dutch shepherd, Czech shepherd. And yes, a German shepherd. To the untrained eye, they all appear to be German shepherds or some color variant of them, but there are differences, dog to dog and among breeds.
All of them, though, are an exquisite blend of athlete, cop, stubborn child and loyal friend.
“Why do I do this?” asks Brown, an 18-year police force and SWAT team veteran who has been on canine for three years. “One, I love dogs, and two, you can learn so much. To watch a dog train and see what a dog can do is amazing. You can find 640 pounds of weed one day and find a lost juvenile the next.
“I had fun in SWAT — I did two stints — but canine was something I always wanted to do,” says Brown, the day shift canine team’s top dog. “I did love it, but I love working with dogs more than I loved SWAT. It’s tough to get here, and once you get here, people don’t leave. People don’t even take the tests to be promoted. There is no desire to leave canine.”
It’s true. They don’t leave even when they can. I spent a few days riding along with Brown and the canine unit. Officers who’ve been retired for years came back to help with training exercises, in uniform, as they do nearly every week.
More on the ride-along later. First, some background.
One dog and one officer are a team, and “you are a team for life,” Brown says. The officers do not swap dogs, and the dogs leave work at night and live with the officers in their homes. They work during the day and are more like pets at night, though probably not in the way Spot, Buddy or Lucy might be to you or me.
“Clint is allowed in the house and is usually laying right by the fireplace at night, just as most house dogs would. But my son knows he can’t tell Clint what to do, and Clint is not out if I’m not home,” Brown says.
But in other ways, Clint sounds just like Spot, Buddy or Lucy.
“He loves to be scratched behind the ears, and he’ll play with his Kong or tennis balls until he drops,” Brown says. (A Kong is a hard, rubber toy dogs get oddly attached to.)
It’s important for the teams to maintain this close bond. Detection work depends almost entirely on the handler noticing the very minute changes in the dog’s behavioral ticks that indicate he is “in odor” and then reacting immediately and redirecting the dog’s search and path in the appropriate, strategic direction.
“Release the bloodhounds!” of movie lore this is not. The dogs don’t move without the handler’s total involvement and purposeful direction.
“The dogs are not allowed to do anything unless we tell them to,” Brown says. “They are trained to do a specific thing; they can’t think for themselves. Well, they can, but we don’t want them to.”
And yet the dogs do understand a work-life balance. They understand that time at home is for relaxing or playing and that time in the police car is all work.
“If the car speeds up or there is a Code One — lights and sirens blazing on the police car — the dogs get amped up,” Brown says. “For party searches, I’ll get my dog excited. I’ll say, ‘We’re about to have some fun. Let’s go get that bad guy.’ ”
The dogs are considered “dual-purpose” canines in law-enforcement lingo. All do patrol work, which usually means supporting the patrol unit by looking for suspects on the run. From there, a dog on the Kansas City force is either narcotics-trained or explosives-trained, and the appropriate team is sent out when a call comes in. The canine team can then lend support for a bomb threat at a school or perform a vehicle or building search when a drug stash is suspected.
Some dogs are better at some tasks than others. Some would rather do detection work than article searches — tossed weapons, bits of clothing, other pieces of evidence found in a secured perimeter.
But most of them are very eager to perform patrol work. That’s good, because the No. 1 priority of the unit is patrol support.
The dogs are spoken to in their “native language,” which is never English. For instance,zoeken
is the Dutch word for “search,” and since Clint is a Belgian Malinois, this word means something to him, whereas “search” would not.
The dogs are acquired pre-trained, first from Europe and then from an importer and training facility in Indiana. They are already 18-24 months old before they are mature enough for duty work on the police force. They’ve been hearing these commands since they were puppies, and it only makes sense to continue to use the same ones.
Note that pre-trained does not mean fully trained. There is still much work to be done to pass national certification once a dog finally arrives in Kansas City. Also, the dogs are named in Europe, which makes me think someone over there on the early end of this continuum is a Clint Eastwood fan.
“Just how normal are these dogs?” I ask Brown.
Do they chase tennis balls? Yes, oh yes.
Play with squeaky latex toys? Not Clint, though some others do.
Whine if they don’t get walked enough? They’re pretty active.
Do the dogs like one another? No. They’re all alphas, and alphas together in a group are generally not a good mix, particularly police dogs.
And importantly: If you see an officer and his or her dog out in the community, can you pet the dog? No, don’t try it. The dogs are working and know it. They may interpret an advance as a threat against the officer, whom they are bound to protect.
I roll up for my ride-along at the canine unit and see a line of police cars, parked but running, their hoods up — a visual totally at odds with the buttoned-down image I usually associate with police officers. Hey, I’m not riding in no broke-down car!
I park, and it takes only a few steps for this incongruence to resolve itself. The hoods are up because the air conditioning is on, and the police dogs are inside the cars, at the ready, eager to fight crime. There is no mistaking the loud, consistent barking as I walk past the cars and approach the door of the canine unit headquarters just south of the sports stadiums.
The cars are specially outfitted to do dual duty as kennels. They have no backseats; the area is fitted instead with a large water jug and a pad to ease the stress on the dog’s feet. Otherwise, there is room enough for the dog to stand and pace freely back and forth. A caged divider separates the front of the car from the back. Windows in the car are tinted to keep the car cooler for the dog.
Graphics on the car doors read, “CAUTION: Patrol dog in the car.” Without the graphics — and the noise — you wouldn’t know there was special cargo inside.
A call comes in over the radio. There has been a hit-and-run involving three cars and multiple injuries at 23rd Street and Topping Avenue. A 5-foot-8, 180-pound white male suspect in red shorts and gray shirt was seen by eyewitnesses running northeast from the intersection after the wreck.
We hop in the car and race to the scene. And just as Brown told me he would, an excited and ever-pacing Clint knows something is about to happen.
“I know, I know,” Brown says to his dog many times over, clearly shorthand for “We’re almost there — stop asking.”
But it’s a different dog that will search on this call. Officers Krista Huth and Jason Brungardt take Brungardt’s dog, Brunie, out on this unforgiving, triple-digit day, leaving Huth’s dog, Rudy, behind on deck. (Pure coincidence, by the way, that Brungardt’s dog has a name similar to his.)
“We keep in mind how hot it is and switch the dogs out if we have to,” Brown says. “When it’s this hot, we have two things working against us: the heat and the fact that the dog will tire.”
The officers start where the suspect was last seen and begin working the area until the dog picks up a scent. Brunie locks on, but ultimately the dog and the officers come up empty.
“A suspect can run a long way in a short amount of time before we get there,” Brown says.
On a different day but under similar circumstances, the suspect could be injured by such a violent crash, meaning there would be a good possibility he would hide and lie down.
“With a good perimeter set up, we’d find him,” Brown says.
It’s hard not to root for the dogs. With this particular accident, a large crowd has assembled, and there are multiple injuries. The police chief is there, as are accident investigators, news helicopters, ambulances and fire trucks. To see the officers emerge from the woods with the suspect in cuffs would have been a just ending for a violent morning.
But were eyewitness reports accurate? Did the driver of the abandoned vehicle run northeast or could it have been northwest? Was it 10 minutes ago? Twenty? How lengthy was the head start?
“It could be a wild goose chase if he took off in a different direction than what was reported. He could be out of the cone,” Brown says.
A scent cone is the cone-shaped area that focuses the dog’s directional travel as he moves across the ground.
“Does the dog know he didn’t find the suspect?” I ask.
“He knows. He’s probably frustrated right now,” Brown says.
“In training, we make it so there is always success, and the dog gets rewarded. In the dog’s mind, he learns that no matter how long he goes, there’s a reward at the end.”
The dogs are a police tool like a Taser or a baton or a side arm. And thankfully, chasing down fleeing suspects is not a daily activity. The majority of the work for the canine unit is searching for crime scene evidence — a gun or a knife, for instance — and narcotics or explosives detection work. The dogs are busy, but a day when a police dog actually bites someone is rare.
Clint did bite a suspect in early September. The time before that? Easter.
The dogs can apprehend suspects without biting them, and Brown always thanks suspects when they surrender willingly without the dog’s involvement.
“It’s preferred,” he says. “I think it is more the presence of the dog or hearing the dog that scares people.”
Or hearing one of the officers yell the standard warning before unleashing the dog should do the trick: “Come out now or I will release the dog. Come out now or he will bite you.” Pause. Repeat.
A controlled but accelerating dog is then released after a suspect with his handler following behind. This finding and biting usually happens pretty quickly, and the dogs are taught to bite and hold on to the suspect until told to release. The officers then yell, “Stand still, stop fighting my dog.”
“If the suspect starts fighting back, the dog will stop biting that spot and move to a different one. The more you fight the dog, the more the dog fights back because the dog is threatened,” Brown says. “It’s the worst thing you can do, fight back. That’s when the ripping and tearing come in.”
Are you listening, criminals?
“It’s hard to hide from a dog,” he says. “People don’t realize that dogs can sense fear. The dog is working on the fear scent. Your adrenaline is pumping, and you can’t control that. The dog is working on an odor we can’t begin to smell.”
If you’ve ever seen a police dog demonstration, you’re probably familiar with the most exciting part: when a seemingly calm dog is commanded with a single word to run, leap and attack an officer until told to release. Sometimes the officer is wearing an enormous, puffy suit made of jute, and sometime he or she is wearing only an arm “sleeve” made of hard plastic and jute.
Either way, it’s heart-pumping stuff. Trained officers will let the dog engage their arms, legs, whatever, from inside the safety of the suit, and the dog will not let go until commanded to do so. Sometimes the officer will turn circles and move across the lawn, and the dog will twist and flip in the wind, still not letting go. It is a powerful demonstration, and I still remember the first time I saw it at Girl Scout camp decades ago.
All this training by the Kansas City officers starts when the dogs are still puppies, as young as 15 months, when they are individually selected through a sort of boot camp elimination process at the Vohne Liche Kennels in Denver, Ind. Vohne Liche imports pre-trained dogs from Europe and further hones their police and governmentally desired detection skills for federal and municipal agencies nationwide. KCPD has been working with the company since 1995.
“We are one of the only departments allowed to test and evaluate dogs without their oversight,” Brown says. “We look at about 10 dogs over the course of four or five days.”
“We are not concerned with what a dog looks like, we don’t care what breed it is. We care that it can save a handler’s life,” he continues. “When I first saw Clint, I thought he was kind of small and scrawny. I didn’t know if he was going to have enough. He’s 68 pounds but thinks he’s 100. But Clint outshined them all on the skills portion of the testing. Size does not matter. We go on skill.”
An early discussion with the kennel lets them know what the canine unit is looking for — a drug dog or an explosives dog. Vohne Liche then selects dogs of various breeds to be evaluated.
“On Day 1, we look at all 10 dogs and test them all on all drills. By Day 2 we’re already down to four or five,” Brown says. “We must match the dog with the handler.
“We look for dogs with a high ball drive. When I say ball drive, I mean whatever they like to play with, we want them to be really possessive of it so they will really work for it. When we test and evaluate in weeds and tall grass, we don’t care if he finds it, we care how long he hunts for it. The most successful police dogs will refuse to give up.”
Police work is dangerous duty for all officers, human and canine. Three of Kansas City’s canine patrol dogs have fallen in the line of duty since 1960, and they are memorialized in stone in front of the canine unit headquarters.
Trooper was lost shortly after the unit formed in 1961, and another dog was not lost until Star was shot in the line of duty in 1991. Many Kansas Citians know that Star was featured in the Jim Belushi movie “K-9” before going to work with Pat Patterson on the KCPD canine unit. Star was shot by a suspect wanted in the attempted murder of a police officer.
“When you get your next dog, you don’t let them so far out in front of you. You won’t send your dog in to just anything,” says retired officer Patterson, who still trains with the teams on Wednesdays.
Retired officer Ron Jenkins lost his dog, Dio, in 2007 while chasing suspects through a building. The suspects made it up to the roof and managed to turn a corner before Dio could, and Dio ran off the edge of the roof. The fall killed him.
The life of a police dog has two sides to it, Brown tells me.
“There is a misconception that the dogs are mean,” he says. “But there is a difference between work and home for them.”
After spending a few days with the team, it’s obvious. These dogs are as loved and cared for as all the costume-wearing pets I’ve encountered. Canine officers say that their dogs’ health and survival needs seem to always take precedence over their own.
Still, the working life of a police dog is relatively short: only five or six years for some, due to the stressful and strenuous nature of the work.
When it’s decided their careers are over, the dogs are allowed to retire at home with their handlers to a lifetime of Kongs and endless games of chase with bouncing tennis balls.
If your school, event or organization is interested in having the canine team do a demonstration, contact Sgt. Bill Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.