OCEANSIDE — Nero, a police K-9, hears the urgent command of his handler in need at 50 yards away and races to the decoy simulating an attack on Officer James Smith.
Nero hits the assailant with such force that the decoy is airborne.
This memorable scene at the 17th Annual Riverside Canine Trials hoisted scores for Nero and Officer James Smith of the Oceanside Police Department to win the trial for the prestigious Top Dog Award.
Collectively, Smith and Nero scored high points in all phases of the trial which included building, area and vehicle searches, obedience course routines, and the agitation segment, also referred to as protection.
What makes the win even more impressive is that Smith and Nero have been a police team for less than two years. And this was their first competition.
The November trial, hosted in Palm Desert, attracted 38 police officers and their K-9s. Most competitors came from California, while others journeyed from Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Mexico.
Also representing the Oceanside Police Department was Officer Anis Trabelsi and his K-9, Maximus, who placed third overall for the novice team.
Smith sensed that Nero, his three-year-old Belgian Malinois, was ready for the competition they would endure during the 2-day trial.
“I knew the type of dog Nero was just based on his training and his obedience that he was locked-on right away,” said Smith, adding how his dog’s focus and drive are excellent.
For Smith, the agitation phase was without a doubt the most unforgettable.
“I sent my dog out on a suspect and recalled him when the suspect gave up,” said Smith, adding how another decoy emerged from a blind pretending to assault him. “Nero came, going at Mach 3, hitting the agitator and taking their legs from underneath their feet. In Nero’s mind, he was protecting me and he did what he was supposed to.”
Manuel Villanueva, the K-9 trainer for the Oceanside Police Department said he wasn’t surprised that Smith and Nero won the Top Dog Award.
“James and Nero have a great bond and their personalities are very similar,” said Villanueva, founder and president of Man-K9 in Oceanside.
Villanueva pointed out that this duo is both very energetic and ready to roll at any time.
“I like Nero’s temperament because he’s very confident, he shows strong character, he’s not afraid of any challenge, has good focus on the task and he loves James,” Villanueva said. He continued, “Nero looks to James for leadership, and submits to his handler, but Nero has enough independent character as well to be able to work without him.”
Villanueva said for Smith and Nero to compete at this level against other dogs that have been competing for several years is exceptional.
While Villanueva is thrilled to be a part of the Top Dog Award win, Smith is thankful to have Villanueva as his K-9 trainer.
Before Smith became an Oceanside police officer 7 years ago, he was a military dog handler in the Navy.
Division Capt. Tom Aguigui of the Oceanside Police Department said that Smith’s prior K-9 experience in the military has been beneficial to the department. He describes Smith and Nero as an efficient K-9 team.
For Aguigui, the Top Dog Award represents the commitment to their police service dog program.
“We are very honored and proud of this award that Jim received; it’s a testament to the hard work that he puts in with Nero and why they placed so well,” Aguigui said.