Working Like Dogs: Capital
"You have to let the dog tell you where the drugs are. You can't just show the dog where you think the drugs are." Doug Nadoraski - Albany police officer
When Amsterdam Police Officer Robert Miseikis first brought home an 18-month-old German shepherd named Thor from a kennel, the dog wasn't even housebroken.
Now, after more than two years of training, Thor has an impressive service record as a police K-9.
Among Thor's accomplishments: He sniffed out a large quantity of heroin in a baby powder container when human detectives couldn't find any drugs during a vehicle search.
He tracked and found a man in the woods who had fled after burning a van.
And he bit a man in the leg as the man yelled that he was going to kill Miseikis and grabbed the officer, knocking Miseikis to his knees.
"He's my best buddy. I know everything he'll do before he does it," Miseikis said.
Hours of training
Miseikis, along with other police K-9 handlers across the Capital Region, say that loyalty and dependability come with hours of training necessary to keep the K-9 teams certified and in top form.
A raw K-9 patrol team - a dog and a handler with no prior team experience - must successfully complete 360 hours of training and then pass a series of tests to become certified by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
After becoming state certified as a K-9 team, the dogs and their handlers must complete eight to 16 hours a month of training to maintain their status.
The variation in training hours each month depends on what type of work the dog performs with the police department.
In addition to completing the monthly training, the K-9 teams must undergo testing every three years to become recertified.
"The K-9 unit certification process is intense in its requirements of both the patrolman and the dog," said DCJS spokesman Scott Steinhardt.
To comply with the state standards, a local group called the Capital District K-9 Training Group meets weekly to train for a full day.
The group is composed of 20 or so K-9 teams from agencies such as the Amsterdam Police Department, Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, Colonie Police Department, Albany Police Department and the Pittsfield, Mass., Police Department.
While the local K-9 teams began training together in the early 1990s, the group didn't adopt its name until three or four years ago.
Covering each of the training areas of obedience, agility, tracking, area searches, building searches, narcotics and aggression, the group rotates training teams to host the sessions each week.
The Colonie Police Department hosted the group this past week and received permission to use an abandoned Caldor store in the Latham Circle Mall as the setting.
Ulster County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Lattin worked on minimum force skills with his 3-year-old German shepherd partner, Regan. The two have been on patrol together for about six months.
Regan sat next to Lattin as East Greenbush Police Sgt. Rick Kemner, playing the "bad guy," walked 50 feet away and placed a specially padded sleeve on his arm.
"Mr. Kemner, I want to talk to you. Please come here," Lattin yelled during role playing in the empty store. "Mr. Kemner? Are you the polite police, or what?"
Kemner yelled back, taunting Lattin.
"I want to talk to you," Lattin called again.
"About what? If you want to talk, you're going to have to come and get me, Perrier police!" Kemner yelled, while giving Lattin a signal to send Regan after him as he ran.
Lattin let go of Regan's leash and commanded him to go after Kemner. As Regan bounded toward Kemner, Kemner stopped and stood still.
Lattin commanded the dog to stop in front of Kemner and bark, but the dog went ahead and latched onto Kemner's specially padded sleeve with his teeth.
Lattin tugged on Regan's leash, pulled him away from Kemner and scolded him. The handler then commanded Regan to sit and bark while Kemner stood still. The dog obeyed.
With the correct move, Regan was rewarded. He was allowed to pull the padded sleeve off Kemner and run around with the "toy," his tail wagging as he showed off his prize.
On subsequent tries practicing minimum force, Regan obeyed Lattin's orders and was rewarded with a toy.
"This is a young dog that hasn't been out of school long," Kemner explained. "It takes about a year for a team to become proficient."
Learning is mutual
Kemner points out the training to maintain the K-9 teams' skills is as much for the handlers as it is for the dogs.
Take Albany Police Officer Kyle McCraith. At the recent training session, McCraith took his 3-year-old German shepherd, Sam, through a couple of rooms with narcotics hidden throughout.
McCraith guided Sam to check a fire box on the wall. When Sam failed to "hit" on any drugs behind the fire box by scratching, barking or sitting down, his nose headed for a nearby electrical outlet.
But McCraith guided Sam out of that area before the dog could react.
"You see, the dog started to jump toward the outlet but [McCraith] pulled him away too quickly," observed K-9 handler and Albany Police Officer Doug Nadoraski. "You have to let the dog tell you where the drugs are. You can't just show the dog where you think the drugs are."
When other handlers told McCraith he had missed some narcotics, McCraith let Sam's nose do all the work. This time Sam scratched at the wall around the electrical outlet, where two ounces of heroin were hidden. Sam was rewarded with a tug toy.
The weekly maintenance training reinforces what the K-9 teams learned in basic school, where the handlers and K-9s first solidify as partners.
"As the team develops, they learn how to read each other," said Kemner, who has worked as a handler since 1983. "The handler has to recognize the signs. They can be as small as the dog's ears being perked up or his tail cocked. But one way or another the dog's trying to say, `Hey, Dad, something's wrong here.' "
Before earning initial certification, the teams must attend a basic K-9 school.
Montgomery County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeffery T. Smith attended a five-week training school at the Ohio kennel where he was paired with his German shepherd partner, Dix, now 7.
The pair trained for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
"I can remember the first week being nervous because I didn't know what he was going to do. But once I started feeding him, taking care of him and training with him, I realized he relied on me as much as I was going to rely on him," Smith said.
"It's fabulous when you start to realize that all that work has paid off. I trust him so much. I just follow him. He's the smart one; we're just the dummies on the other end of the leash," Smith continued.
He admitted there are bumps along the road.
Shortly after he and Dix became certified as a K-9 team, they were out on patrol and Smith stopped at the sheriff's office, then located on Park Street in the village of Fonda.
When Smith came back outside to his patrol vehicle, he noticed Dix was gone. Frantically calling and looking all over for the dog, Smith discovered Dix had chased a cat all the way to the Fonda Speedway, about a mile down the road.
Smith quickly trained Dix to stay in the patrol vehicle unless called to come outside.
Like the Capital District K-9 Training Group, the New York State Police train more frequently than required by the state.
All state police handlers and their K-9s must attend a 20-week training school before being tested by the state for initial certification as a K-9 team. Of the 43 state police dogs, 40 are German shepherds; the rest are Rottweilers.
After becoming certified, the K-9 teams in each troop get together once a month for training. And once every three months, the teams report to division headquarters in Albany for a full week of training.
During that time, examiners are called in to test and recertify the dogs.
State Police Sgt. Tim Fischer, who oversees the statewide K-9 program, said troopers are recertified every three months because he doesn't feel the state's standard of recertification every three years is sufficient.
"We've had over 500 calls to schools in the past year for bomb threats. When our bomb dogs are through searching the building and an administrator says to me, `Can we bring the children back in this school?' - that's a big responsibility," Fischer said.
The K-9s are a popular law enforcement tool. Of the state police's 43 K-9s, about half are bomb-sniffing dogs. Those dogs require other methods of training but are still trained in areas such as obedience and agility.
And in the Zone 5 region for city, village and town police departments and sheriff's departments, 24 municipal departments have had or currently have K-9 teams.
The maintenance training itself doesn't cost any cash. Each municipal police department and the state police have compensation agreements with handlers for off-duty care of the dogs and expect that many of the handlers' work days throughout the year are going to be spent training.
While the handlers in the Capital District training group say the constant training isn't easy, they know it's necessary.
"Your training is never done because people's lives depend on how these dogs work," said Pittsfield, Mass. police officer Marc Strout, who is partnered with a 4-year-old German shepherd named Jack.
"[Jack's] here to help protect the public and to protect the police officers. He'd take a bullet for us," Strout said.