Multiple law enforcement agencies gather in Rifle for K9 training
North Salt Lake City Police Officer Mike Boyle began voicing commands in German.
“Platz!” he commanded to Tres, a 5-year-old German Shepherd, mount mix wearing a healthy velvet coat of light brown fur. “Platz.”
Tres, disciplined and subservient, obeyed the German dog command for “lay” immediately, resting upon the coarse, asphalt parking lot surrounding the Garfield County Sheriff’s Annex building in Rifle.
Soon after, he was blissfully gnawing on a rubber toy.
Upwards of 20 dogs and several law enforcement agencies from in and outside Colorado converged in Rifle last week for K9 training sessions hosted by the High Desert Police K9 Association.
The Grand Junction-based nonprofit association deploys expert K9 handlers who provide enhanced training, certification and support for any agencies with a K9 unit.
Garrett Duncan, a former Rifle Police officer and current Rio Blanco Sheriff’s deputy who represents the association, said participating officers delved last week into case law, obtaining National Police K9 Association certification and then good stuff — live training.
“We sign off, ‘Hey, the dog knows its odors, the dog knows how to search, how to sniff vehicles, how to sniff rooms, the handler knows how to read his dog, check for different behaviors that we would be looking for,” he said. “And then, training wise, we brought in some extra help from Utah and around the state.”
According to their job duties, K9s are integral to law enforcement agencies, Duncan said they’re primarily deployed as a key location tool. These single-purpose dogs are used to help find contraband such as narcotics, drug paraphernalia and missing people.
Dual-purpose K9s, on the other hand, are also used to apprehend suspects using their jaws. Duncan, who used to train K9s with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s personally put on the protective dog training suit and allowed a K9’s sharp teeth to dig into his arm.
“It’s intimidating at first,” he said. “But if you’re doing it the right way it’s actually fun.”
MEET THE LOCALS
The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office has four dogs on staff — Bull, Aren, Rex and Messi. Many of these K9s are European-bred and trained.
Two are assigned to the patrol division, one to investigations and another is a school resource officer.
Garfield County Emergency Operations Sgt. Chad Whiting, a 16-year veteran with the sheriff’s office who’s trained dogs since 2018, said the weeklong training offers a good reminder for highlighting and translating case law into layman’s terms.
“In trainings like this, when we get a big group together, we get different trainers coming to us and we get different ideas and we get people looking at our dogs in different ways,” he said. “They can bring up stuff for us that we may not be seeing, because we train all together all the time.”
Whiting said the big buzzword nowadays is “de-escalation,” so not only is it critical to analyze the ever-changing world of case law, the oversight and fine tuning implemented by High Desert’s experts help law enforcement stay nimble.
“Our handlers have that de-escalation tool in their car all the time. Because, I can tell you, especially in Garfield County, we’ve actually only had one street bite since we restarted the program in 2005,” Whiting said. “And all our other apprehensions have been just because the dog has been there. They’ve given up because the dog is there.”
There is no substitute when it comes to mimicking the scent of narcotics.
Which is why part of last week’s training sessions included substances like methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy.
High Desert president Keith Sanders said part of the training includes setting up large-quantity hides of real narcotics for the dogs to sniff out. Because, sometimes, a K9’s scent is actually unable to detect larger busts.
“If somebody’s bringing a semi-load of illegal narcotics down the highway here, a lot of dogs in the smaller agencies don’t get exposure to that,” he said. “And when a dog is first exposed to large hides like that, it can overwhelm them and they don’t react the way they’re supposed to.”
“We train them in vehicles, buildings, buried hides and tracking,” Sanders said.
Sanders said a K9 has more than 200 million olfactory cells in its nose. In comparison, humans possess about 2 million of these nasal cells that pick up scent.
“If I put a hamburger in front of your face from Sonic, what would you tell me?” Sanders said. “A dog breaks down the buns, the condiments, pickles, lettuce, onion, tomato and meat.”
When a dog is deployed for its other main tool — it’s sharp teeth — it’s trained to conduct criminal apprehension.
In these circumstances, suspects are first given chances to surrender, Sanders said. The announcement is required by law.
If a suspect refuses to comply, a K9 is released. Usually it targets hands or arms.
“We do not target the head, neck or groin areas because of the fact that there’s vitals there,” Sanders said.
Triceps are a favorable target for a dog. That way, a suspect is rendered with limited access to potentially hurt the dog, Sanders said.
“We also train them to do the leg bites — large muscle mass — for pain compliance and motor dysfunction,” he said.
Dogs eligible for K9 duty can be costly, according to estimates offered by High Desert Treasurer Geraldine Earthman.
Earthman, a veteran handler who keeps tattoos of the dogs she’s trained on her legs, said the costs begin to rise once a dog is purchased and is put through handler school.
“We’re looking at $15,000 to $18,000,” she said. “And then you’ve got to outfit a car with all the equipment. If you start up a dual purpose team, it’s probably $25,000 to $28,000 — not including the car.”
The costs, however, are worth it, Sanders said.
“A lot of your departments can’t afford a K9,” he said. “We all have tasers, we have firearms, batons, pepper spray. But once a K9 is deployed, it can be recalled back, and it cannot be used against the handler.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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