K9 cops: A dog's-eye view of police work

Watch Hamilton police's K9 unit run an obstacle course with a camera tied to their harnesses giving you an idea of what the view is like for a dog doing police work.

Hamilton's K9 unit was the first ever implemented in Ontario

Const. John Sabatini explains the way he feels about his police dog, Maverick. 1:23

No one is immune to the charms of a playful German shepherd — not even police officers.

The four-man Hamilton police K9 unit was at the airport Wednesday, holding a training session and running an obstacle course with their dogs — Scout, Jake, Armour and Maverick.

Most of the officers are all business, even in casual conversation. They explain in longwinded technical terms how the dogs are trained, and it’s exactly how you’d expect a police officer to act when they’re at work — professional, if a little stoic.

But that all changes when their dogs run towards them. Tense shoulders relax, broad smiles grow across their faces and that authoritative voice becomes warm and loving.

A chorus of “good boy!” rings out each time a dog sniffs out a marker used to represent cash or drugs, or catches someone hiding off the in the woods posing as a suspect.

Among tail wags and happy barks, it’s obvious that even if some of these officers are six foot three and 250 pounds — they really love their dogs.

He's kind of like my child

“The bond is immense. It’s hard to describe,” says Const. John Sabatini, who has been working as a dog handler with his dog Maverick for over five years.

“It’s kind of like your child, really. Sometimes it can get pretty emotional if you think about your dog and what you’ve been through.”

And these animals see more action in dog years than most people do in their entire lives. Most of them start training at just a year old, and complete multiple courses to learn how to chase runners as well as track down drugs, firearms and even explosives. The dogs and their handlers have to go through a provincially mandated 16-week training certification course on top of other training.

Const. Dave Kerkhof with his police dog, Scout. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The dogs are also brought in for things like tracking lost kids and Alzheimer’s patients. “They’re a huge tool for our service,” Sabatini says.

But the job doesn’t come without risk. Back in 1992 a Hamilton police dog named Troy was killed by a close range shotgun blast after he and police officers surrounded a suspect in a local backyard. “I try not to think about it,” Sabatini says. It can be hard to see your dog run off towards danger, because these animals become part of their handler’s families. They go home when the officer goes home, and stay with them for life.

“When I go into the backyard and get him and he sees me in my uniform, the switch is on and he realizes we’re going to work,” Sabatini says. “But if it’s my day off and he sees me in my shorts, t-shirt and sandals, he realizes it’s a day off.”

No crotch biting

Hamilton was the first police service in the province to bring in a formal K9 unit, back in 1960. But the service was using dogs way before that too — as far back as 1878. The unit is all German shepherds, who are prized for both their strength and intelligence. Other breeds like labs and cocker spaniels are sometimes used as police dogs too — though they’re better at detection work than bringing down a suspect.

And yes, these dogs can bring down a suspect. Though friendly, they move at impressive speeds. Their imposing bark alone is often enough to bring someone out of hiding, Sabatini says.

They’ll also grab onto any part of the body except the face, neck or crotch. The dog handler’s SUV even comes equipped with a remote “bail out system” where he can press a remote button and the back door will swing open, freeing the dog to help him out.

“But the dogs aren’t taught to cause harm to people. They’re just taught to hang on until an officer can get there,” Sabatini says. “Now, if the suspect tries to get away or fight with the dog, then the risk of injury increases.”

A healthy dog gets to stay in service for five to eight years, and then a new officer gets a crack at the unit. So for now, these guys will treasure the time they get to spend with their furry partners.

“It’s a lot of work, training and constant upkeep,” Sabatini says.

“But it’s definitely worth it.”


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