OCEAN CITY—Bomb threats are scary and serious situations. That is, unless you are a police dog trained to sniff out explosives. Then, it’s nothing more than a game.
“Our K-9 officers are trained so work is their favorite type of game,” said Pfc. Kevin Flower of the Ocean City Police Department, “so whether they are a narcotics dog and they find cocaine in a trunk, or a bomb sniffing dog and they find explosives, they want to succeed so they get the praise from their handler.”
Flower has been a part of the OCPD’s K-9 unit for 11 years, and he and his dog “Uno,” are one of four teams that make up the unit, which will be adding a fifth team in March.
Flower and the OCPD K-9 teams were not involved in the recent sweeping of county schools during the multiple unfounded bomb threats, but just like so many others in our region, Flower was closely following the investigation.
He says despite all the technology that is available in this day and age, police dogs are still a vital part of any investigation of that scale.
“It’s 2016, and we are still using police dogs,” he said. “They are our best resource in a situation like that to get the job done. If it were only humans trying to clear all those buildings, I can’t imagine how long that would have taken.”
Yet, Flower says while the situation may have been a “game” for which the dogs have been trained, the intense workload over a number of days was just as taxing on the dogs and their handlers physically as it was on the community mentally.
“There are some very tired and rewarded police dogs this week,” said Flower. “I know all of those handlers and their dogs that were a part of the investigation and they did a fantastic job clearing those schools and the job couldn’t have been done as quickly without them. To put it in perspective, I usually ask my dog to search a car or a parking lot, but those guys had to ask their dogs to clear multiple schools. That’s a lot of sniffing.”
Bred for Police Work
The use of dogs for police work dates back to the Middle Ages as bloodhounds were used by the French, the Scots, and even during King Henry I’s reign in England.
Police dogs were used in London in the 1880s to hunt down the famous serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that police dogs became commonly used by police forces all across continental Europe. In 1920, German police chose the German Shepherd as the ideal dog for police work and opened the first dog training school in Greenheide that same year. Since then, many different breeds of dogs from Labradors to Malinois (aka the Belgian Shepherd) have been trained to do police work all over the world.
With that history in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that police dogs used in the United States, and here in Ocean City, are mostly born and bred in Europe.
“Three of our dogs are Czech and one is Dutch,” said Flower. “Most police dogs come from eastern Europe, but I’ve recently seen some dogs coming from Mexico. But, both of the dogs I’ve worked with have been Czech, including ‘Uno.’”
Flower gives “Uno” commands in Czech, and since the dog spends time with him both at work, and at home, Flower’s wife and kids are also proficient in Czech commands.
“If you think about it, it wouldn’t make sense to change the commands to English because those dogs were trained in the Czech Republic,” said Flower. “That’s where they are from, but they live and work here now. I’ve spent more time with my K-9 co-workers in my career than I have any human officer I’ve worked with. The dogs become a part of your family.”
Pairing and Training
The OCPD works with a breeder in Pennsylvania who travels to Europe to find the perfect police dogs to patrol our coastal region. Flower says the selection process is very thorough and intensive.
“They have a long list of things that they are looking for, everything from temperament to fitness, because we don’t want to spend time trying to fix problems that might not be able to be fixed,” he said.
For instance, if a dog gets scared by the sound of gunfire at the beginning of its European training, it won’t likely grow out of that once it gets to the OCPD.
“We usually get the dogs once they are 10 to 14 months old and they’ve had extensive training over there,” said Flower, “Then they go through another 12 weeks of training here with us before they go into the field.”
Just as meticulous as the selection and training process is the pairing of a dog with an officer. Sometimes it’s about size, other times outside factors like temperament are taking into account due to the officer having young kids at home, for instance.
Flower says police dogs are trained for certain specialties, so while there are bomb sniffing dogs and narcotics dogs, there are hardly ever dogs that are trained in both specialties.
Yet, even though police dogs are unbelievably fit and highly trained, they still have their limitations, and Flower says those limitations were likely tested for the dogs involved during the recent bomb threats.
“K-9 officers need breaks just like regular officers, but the handlers know their dog better than anyone, so they know when to push them to get the job done and when they need a rest,” said Flower.
The OCPD’s K-9 units are often challenged in the summer months with immense heat and almost countless number of smells to lock in on for tracking purposes.
Still, Flower says he is filled with stories of arrests made where the police dog was the proverbial hero.
“I remember one night a few years ago, we searched a car and basically ripped it apart trying to find drugs,” said Flower. “Uno sniffed around for about a minute and sat down and pointed his nose to the child car seat in the back of the car. That’s where they had hidden the drugs. We might not have ever found that, and the dogs like nothing more winning the game and finding what we asked them to find.”