Keeping paw and order

K-9 units from across the nation came to Raleigh recently to see who was the best at sniffing out trouble

Madeline Gray—North State Journal

RALEIGH — These police pooches were sniffing out way more than just snacks at the State Bureau of Investigation Detector Dog Trials in Raleigh recently. More than 100 professional K-9 units from all over the U.S. and Canada competed in the the United States Police Canine Association’s National Detector Dog Trials to see which team was the best at identifying narcotics and assisting in other law enforcement or search and rescue operations.A variety of breeds of police dogs including Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, Belgium malinois and even a springer spaniel showed off their ability to sniff and detect narcotics, explosives, accelerants or cadavers. Dogs serving in the armed forces and correction departments were there to compete as well. For the narcotics competition organizers set up five identical cars and hid narcotics in two. Cpl. Matt Chism and his K-9, Ajk, of Brunswick County won that challenge, finding both items in two minutes and six seconds. Judges based the scores on speed and the communication between the handler and K-9.”Proper training means that handlers have full control of their dogs, and a properly trained dog will listen to any command the handler gives,” said SBI’s criminal specialist and K-9 Unit coordinator Ken Mathias. “Dogs at this trial level should perform flawlessly.”For certification dogs must pass tests of obedience, agility, suspect search-scent discrimination, article search, apprehension and call-off skills, false start control, apprehension with gunfire, and ability to protect the handler. It takes approximately 12 weeks or more to properly train a police service dog. The dogs often start in training between 12 and 15 months old and work until age 9 or 10, when they often retire as a family pet in their handler’s home.Mathias knows the challenge and the blessing of a K-9 partner. He says he owes his life to a police dog. One of the police dogs he trained while working for the Raleigh Police Department was with him while tracking a serial burglar on June 3, 1992. His dog, Meta, grabbed the arm of the suspect, who was hiding in a clump of azalea bushes. The man was holding a cocked gun and ready to fire at Mathias, and Meta would not let go until the man was apprehended.When Mathias retired from the Raleigh Police Department in 2008 he became the SBI’s dog handler. He trains SBI’s detector dogs and travels statewide each year to 100 or more bomb or cadaver cases. The dogs trained by Mathias and other trainers like him are professionals and a key part of the law enforcement community. They are trained to chase and apprehend suspects. One of the factors judged is their bite work, lunge and strategic chase skills. All of it is part of their certification process.”USPCA is the gold standard of police dog certification,” said Mathias. “They have some of the most rigorous standards in our profession, and this is a very prestigious competition.”The detector dogs must recertify every year as their human partners are often forced to put their life in their paws. While it’s an honor to compete in this annual challenge, it’s no fun run. For this competition, dogs must prequalify at regional events to enter the more difficult national competition. Awards will be given from first to 15th places.While dogs from across the nation competed in Raleigh, the N.C. SBI had eight of its 17 detector dogs compete in the national trials. N.C.’s home team dogs were two SBI drug dogs, Labradors named Jip and Reesi; a Dutch shepherd named Rayne, and a Belgian malinois named Cajun. The SBI’s two bomb dogs are Mayo and Tony, both Labrador retrievers. The cadaver dogs are Bart, a German shepherd, and Stash, a springer spaniel.Once the challenges were met and the winners crowned, the K-9 teams took in a Hurricanes game at PNC Arena in Raleigh. The competitions continue thoughout the year, each focused on different regions and different skills, but all recognizing the irreplaceable talent and companionship of the nation’s police dogs.