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Paw and Order

Police K-9 units have become an increasingly essential law-enforcement tool in and around Baltimore.

On a clear, crisp March day, Officer Christopher Davies prepares the second floor of a long-abandoned building at Rosewood State Hospital to go to the dogs—or, more specifically, to the Baltimore County K-9 unit.

Earlier in the day, Davies had signed out dangerous controlled substances stored in a safe at Essex headquarters (many of which were seized during local drug busts) as well as an arsenal of explosives acquired through the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Now, as if preparing for a dangerous scavenger hunt, Davies plants plastic Zip-Loc baggies of heroin, hashish, meth, and explosive compounds such as R5 and PETN in various hiding places around the floor. The hash goes on a shelf in the bathroom; the heroin gets stashed in a room behind closed doors; the meth is hidden inside the receiver of a telephone that sits on top of a desk area.

“It’s like a game of hide and seek,” explains Davies. “That’s all we do out here all day.”

First to arrive on the scene is the team of 4-year-old German shepherd Bosco and his handler, Sergeant Daniel Buchler, a former lacrosse player dressed in County-issued navy cargo pants with Oakley sunglasses on top of his head and a 40-caliber sig (pistol) strapped to one leg. Bosco, with his bear-sized paws, is equally formidable—at 99 pounds, he is one of the K-9 unit’s larger animals and, like many of the canines, is a dual-purpose dog trained in explosives and patrol work.

Bosco sniffs his way across the floors of the empty, tiled hallways while Buchler eggs on his shepherd with words of encouragement.

“Let’s get the bad guy. Let’s get the bad guy,” he says.

As Bosco sniffs, Buchler guides the dog through the halls, running his hands along the walls. When Buchler points to a paper-towel holder in a bathroom, Bosco stands gracefully on his hind legs and shoves his snout along the edge of the dispenser. Suddenly, Bosco’s breathing shifts from a steady pant to a more excited one. “He’s easy to read,” says Buchler. “You can hear his breathing change as he inhales.” Bosco takes a whiff, spins around, and then offers his “final response”—”a sit,” which is what he’s been trained to do once he locates the explosives. Buchler retrieves the R5 shoved up in the dispenser and praises Bosco for a job well done. “Good boy. Good boy,” he repeats, tossing Bosco his Kong chew toy reward. “He’s a foam monster,” says Buchler as he beams at the sight of his drooling dog who appears to be foaming at the mouth. “Yes, he is.”

For decades now, police dogs (thought to have originated in Belgium in 1859) have been widely employed throughout the United States, although in the wake of 9/11, they’ve become an increasingly common tool used against terrorism, especially for explosives. And Baltimore has benefited. Thanks to a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security in 2010, Baltimore County received six Suburban SUVs for the unit. (They’ve since tricked the Suburbans out with a customized HVAC “hot-dog” system to keep temperatures just right for the dogs who often have to wait in cars before their officers bring them out to sniff around.)

Even before the events of 9/11, the Baltimore area was ahead of its time in using man’s best friend to assist the men and women in blue. Founded in 1956, Baltimore City’s unit is thought to be the oldest in the country with Baltimore County and the Maryland State Police units—both founded in 1961—not far behind. (Baltimore County has a relatively large unit for the state, with 25 handlers, one bloodhound, four Labradors, and 23 German shepherds.) As of today, Maryland has a K-9 unit in almost every county.

It was the Baltimore County K-9 Unit that presided over Obama’s visit to Towson University in 2011 and guarded the perimeter of a Dundalk row house during the 2000 fight-to-the-finish standoff with spree killer Joseph Palczynski. Throughout the Old Line State, the K-9 units patrol our streets, our malls, and our airports. They are called to the scene during armed robberies or when citizens are lost or on the lam.

According to Lieutenant Stephen Troutman, top dog of Baltimore County’s K-9 Unit, his team handled 6,600 calls for service last year (in Baltimore County and beyond), which led to 129 apprehensions. Though, interestingly, Troutman notes that “the mere presence of a dog is such a powerful deterrent” that of those 129 apprehensions, only 25 times was a dog actually directed to bite.

Yes, the dogs are trained to bite, but using force is a last resort. And this reflects a certain shift in policy. In the “olden days,” explains Maryland State Police Corporal Rick Kelly, “These dogs were known as ‘alligators on a leash.’ Nationally, that’s how it was done. We’d say, ‘You have five seconds to show yourself before you get bitten.’ Those days are over—now, we ‘play fair’ and give one-minute warnings. When a dog is present, that’s often enough for people to turn themselves in.”

But it’s not just their bite that makes them an effective tool against crime. Simply put, dogs can do things that humans cannot.

“They can sweep a stadium with 40,000 to 80,000 people,” says Sergeant Eric Fogle, unit commander of the Maryland State Police’s Special Operations Division. “Or [inspect] a school with 1,000 kids that’s been shut down because of a bomb threat, or seize 39 kilos of cocaine. It’s hard to put a price on what they do. It’s immeasurable.”

Police canines are genetically blessed super soldiers of sorts. For starters, their olfactory senses can be up to “40 to one hundred times stronger than humans,” says John Pearce, associate director of the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University where scientists have proven that dogs can smell 10 to 50 particles (that’s the size of something so small it could fit on a pinhead) per one trillion particles. In many cases, dogs have superior hearing, eyes equipped for night vision, and the ability to run up to 30 mph. In other words, dogs may be man’s best friend, but they can be a bad guy’s worst nightmare.

“As human beings, I don’t think we could genetically create something that would be a better tool for the tactics that we do,” says Davies. “If we sat back and said, ‘We are going to create an excellent tool for law-enforcement search and rescue, companion work, and public service, and let’s figure out how were going to do it,’ the first thing we would say is, ‘Let’s make sure he’s very stable—let’s give him four legs. Let’s make sure he’s very strong and can withstand the elements, so let’s give him fur and muscles everywhere.’ And as you went along with your list, you’d probably say, ‘That looks a lot like a dog.'”

Back at North Point’s headquarters in Essex, Steve Troutman is the guy who reads all the reports, deals with the litigation (Troutman can cite chapter and verse on seemingly every legal ruling involving K-9 dog bites), and oversees everything from the veterinary calls (because the work is so physical, it’s not uncommon for dogs to get injured in the line of duty) to the purchasing of new unit dogs.

“These dogs are living creatures and they become a companion to the [officer’s] family,” says Troutman, sitting in his office near a tiny memorial to Duke, Baltimore County’s first police pooch. “But the dog is still owned by Baltimore County, and is considered ‘equipment.’ It’s difficult to say that because it’s an animal, but it’s really like my handgun and my radio.”

Because of strict breeding standards, strong bloodlines, and a long history of using canines for police work, the “equipment” is most often imported from countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany. And though the price tag can be steep at upwards of $7,000 per dog, canines have proven to be quite cost effective. “One dog team [one cop and one canine] can replace the efforts of five officers,” points out Troutman.

Which is why ongoing training is so essential.

At Rosewood and other area training grounds, the point of the exercises is to expose the dogs—and their handlers—to an infinite number of scenarios they might encounter in the field. “You can never replicate everything that happens on the road,” says Davies, “but we try to be as creative as we can.”

The officers and their dogs go through a 16-week basic patrol school (think agility training, obedience, bite and hold work), plus an additional six-to-eight week “scent training” camp for the dog to learn to detect narcotics or explosives. Beyond that, each team is also required to “retrain” an additional 18 days a year to keep all involved on their paws and toes. It’s one thing to train in a controlled environment, says Troutman, “but the million-dollar question is if you move that task to a different location, from roadside to a ship to the interstate, can they do that simple task you trained them to do? And that’s why we never stop training.”

By the end of boot camp, the dogs and their handlers form a unique working relationship that extends off the job as well.

“Picture being married and being with [your spouse] 24 hours a day,” says Baltimore County Corporal Joe Putnam, who has a narcotics dog named Carbo. “At work. At home. On weekends and whenever you go somewhere—just because I’m off, doesn’t mean he wants to be. All he wants to do is work.”

Occasionally, a dog doesn’t have the right stuff to serve as a police canine, such as Buchler’s yellow Lab, Rusty, who is now happily living out his “retirement” at Buchler’s home. “The Lab is a washout,” laughs Buchler. “He was a bomb trainee who decided he preferred the permanent vacation concept. We got to that fourth week of training, and he just lost interest.”

Not so Buchler’s Bosco, Officer Chris Strevig’s Jett, and Corporal Michael Stricker’s Jack (who was given a set of titanium teeth after chewing through his cage—talk about a crime deterrent), who appear eager and ready to go. First, Davies calls out a series of military-style commands to the handlers, “Halt. Line up on your left. March. Pass your dogs. Leave them down.” Then, their handlers speak to the dogs in a mix of their “native” languages, most often German and Czech. “Sitz (sit), lehne (lay), zustat (stay), propustit (release),” and the dogs follow their every command.

In the ultimate test of canine self-control, Davies dresses as a decoy in a blue “scratch suit.” He comes within inches of each of the handlers and their charges, making sudden movements with his arms and loud cracking sounds with his whip. The dogs seem unbearably tense as they screech and whine, but none of them come within a wet nose of Davies. “He’s doing everything in his power to keep in control,” explains Putnam looking at Jett. “They have to ignore the decoy because the handler is telling them it’s okay.”

During “tug play,” the dogs let loose for a job well done, but Bosco’s tooth inadvertently nicks Buchler’s hand. “Almost all of the handlers have been bitten by their dogs at least once,” says Buchler. “You know what we say as a guy is standing there with two to four holes in his hand bleeding?” asks Buchler rhetorically. “We say, ‘Welcome to K-9.'”

But while dogs such as Bosco are fierce enough to apprehend suspects with a “bite- and-hold” technique usually aimed at the extremities (“Picture the pressure of three refrigerators on top of you,” cracks one of the officers), even more amazing than all the doggie derring-do is their ability to transform from ferocious warriors to beloved family fuzzballs.

“This is how terrible mine is,” laughs Buchler showing a photo of his 13-year-old daughter laying on the floor while hugging Bosco who, mere moments ago, looked like a ringer for Cujo. “On the weekends, he just plays,” says Buchler smiling at his partner. “On the weekends, he’s just a dog.”