OCEANSIDE — Officer James Smith and his canine partner Nero, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, were “top dogs” in the Central California canine competition July 20 in Dos Palos.They took home honors in officer protection, obedience, agility, and overall team score.Nero was also recognized as the toughest dog in the competition.
Smith and Nero won out over 20 police and military K9 teams from California and Mexico. Many of the canines competing primarily work as competition dogs.
Smith and Nero put in a 40-hour work week. Nero’s duties are patrol, article searching and trailing. The K9 team also puts in five hours a week or more of training.
“They train every day, every shift to keep the dogs interested,” Sgt. Jeff Novak said. “The handler works a lot with their dogs. The bond is really strong.”
This was Nero’s second competition. He also won the Top Dog Award, scoring highest across all competitions, in the Annual Riverside Canine Trials in Palm Desert in November.
Novak said canine competition is all about the officer’s ability to control the dog.
“It’s a demonstration of control,” Novak said. “It’s a lot of work.”
On the day of the competition Western States Police Canine Association rules are reviewed and competition challenges are held one after another. Some call for officers to use hand signals, others require voice only commands.
In the agility competition officers must verbally guide their dogs through the course.
During the obedience competition the officer hears directions that he must relay to his dog through hand signals.
Obedience challenges include commanding the dog to heel while running, heel while walking slowly, and sit at a distance of 25 yards from the officer.
The competition that best reflects what dogs do in the field is the officer protection competition.
In this competition two men run toward the dog in bite suits and the dog is commanded to run 30 yards past them without biting them. This challenge reflects the real life situation of a suspect surrendering and an officer directing the dog not to attack.
Novak said successful training is a combination of the officer’s work with the dog and the dog’s disposition.
As puppies, police dogs must obey commands, listen to command changes, and not be intimated by shouting or loud noises. The ability to bite and let go is key.
“Obedience is the foundation,” Novak said. “The last thing anyone wants is a dog running around biting anybody.”
Nero first joined the Oceanside police force at age 2.
“Seeing the dog for the first time he was faster than Carl Lewis,” Novak said. “He is very smart, energetic and has a nice disposition. He’s a very even tempered, funny dog.”
There are also requirements for officers who wish to take on a canine partner. Officers need to pass a series of physical strength and agility tests and an interview on how and when to utilize the dog on the job. Officers must also display an even temperament.
“It’s the cream of crop of patrol officers,” Novak said.
Once paired up with a canine partner, officers are in charge of ongoing dog training and daily care. The dogs go home with the officers, but they are not treated like family pets during their years of service.
“They’re kept in a kennel,” Novak said. “When they’re young you don’t want them to turn into house pets.”
Novak said all officers receive training on how to work alongside a K9 team. Fellow officers learn to wait until the officer has control of his canine before they approach a suspect.
After nine years of service most Malinois police dogs retire. The officer can choose to adopt the dog as a pet or the dog is put up for police staff or public adoption. The owner must be up to the demands of owning a highly trained working dog.