The sounds of gunfire and growling dogs interrupted an otherwise quiet, sunny Wednesday morning on the University of Kentucky’s Coldstream Research Campus.
Police officers and their K-9 partners from across Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio have been in Lexington all week as they work toward re-certification at the 2016 United States Police Canine Association Certification and Trials. The officers focused Wednesday on apprehending fellow officers posing as fleeing suspects.
The guns used by fleeing “bad guys” were firing blanks, but a cluster of shredded sweatshirts lying in the grass showed the police dogs’ bites were very real. Many of the dogs went airborne as they lunged at running officers before clamping down on their padding-covered arms.
Convincing the dogs to go after a suspect isn’t the hard part; it’s getting them to stop and let go once they’re in pursuit, Erlanger police Sgt. Chad Girdler said.
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“You build the dog up so much to go catch the bad guy and then you want to stop him,” Girdler said. “You’ve got to be able to keep control of the discipline of the dog to bring him back to you.”
As each of the dogs ran through their drills, officers from other departments gathered to watch. The trials, which were hosted and organized by the University of Kentucky Police Department, brought about 30 dogs and their partners.
“The dog doesn’t pay attention to the other people, all of the pressure is on the handler. It’s all your friends watching,” Girdler said. “They’re dogs and they will act out, especially when it’s training day.”
Officers aren’t allowed to have any physical contact with their canine partners during the apprehension exercise, said Evansville, Ind., police officer Jason Thomas.
“This is all done off lead; the handler can’t touch the dogs for any of these tests,” Thomas said. “The dog has to be under perfect control by voice.”
The exercises Wednesday signaled the end of a week full of search, detection and agility trials.
“Everything is designed to simulate a street situation,” Thomas said. “There’s a crawl, which simulates crawling under a car; there’s a hurtle, simulates jumping over a fence, and a catwalk simulates a ladder.”
Yearly re-certification is important to ensure police dogs are skilled, social and under control, Thomas said.
“You can’t have a dog out apprehending criminals in public around innocent people if he’s just going to bite and hold the first person he sees,” said Thomas, who is also the president of the USPCA region including Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
The training doesn’t end with large events or trials. Officers have to work with the dogs daily to maintain their skills.
“It’s kind of like learning a new language, if you don’t speak that new language frequently you’re going to lose it,” Girdler said. “If you don’t do the same activities with these dogs, then they’re not going to stay as sharp.”