Two new officers join K-9 force

Two new officers join K-9 force

December 30th, 2011 by Kate Belz in News

K-9 handler Billy Atwell stands with his new dog Kona after running him through an agility course at the Chattanooga Police Department firing range early Wednesday morning.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


The Chattanooga Police Department currently has eight dogs in its K-9 unit. They are usually already named when the officers pick them out, but if the handlers name the animals, they like to stick with quick, simple names, Sgt. Tommy Meeks said.

• Belgian Malinois -- Kona, Duco, Chico, Wren, Kilo, Xander* (narcotics and patrol)

• Dutch Shepherd -- Khan (bomb search and patrol)

• German Shepherd -- Nico* (narcotics and patrol)

• Golden retriever -- Red (narcotics search, highway intervention)

• Black Labrador -- Sammy (search and rescue, narcotics)

*Retiring in January

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

The Chattanooga Police Department's two newest officers will be prized for their keen sense of smell and sharp teeth. They will be paid with praise and small toys made from PVC pipe.

"That's their paycheck," the department's K-9 Unit head trainer Officer, Barry Vradenburgh, says as he watches one of the department's new dogs, Kona, jump hurdles in the rain. At the end of the work, he will reward the dog with one of the toys.

Kona and Duco are the K-9 Unit's two new police dogs, still in the middle of their 15-week training. Besides agility training with the hurdles, the dogs are learning how to sniff out a wide variety of drugs, track a suspect and take that suspect down upon command.

"To them it's all a game," said K-9 Officer Zach Moody, who is going to be the handler for Duco. "They live for this."

Both dogs are Belgian Malinois, born in Holland and brought to the United States by a Williamsburg, Va., vendor. Officers picked them out in September, said Sgt. Tommy Meeks, who oversees the K-9 Unit.

Over the last decade, the Malinois has surpassed the German shepherd as top dog for law enforcement, according to Meeks.

"Malinois have fewer health conditions and they are somewhat smaller," he said. "They have got great noses."

The officers examined 18 different dogs before settling on Kona and Duco in September.

"We check their search patterns, their levels of engagement and their courage. We check and see how they deal with urban areas and heights," said Vradenburgh, who has been with the K-9 unit for more than 15 years.

Kona and Duco will be used primarily for sniffing out narcotics, though they also will be used for searches, tracking and suspect apprehension, if needed. Although the dogs may be expected to run into a line of fire to take down an assailant, the department doesn't look for an aggressive dog.

The pair will replace two other dogs, Xander and Nico, who will retire in January. A dog's working life span is six years, Meeks said, but a dog doesn't necessarily stay with the same handler for its entire service.

The department spent between $7,000 and $8,000 for each dog, and they're worth almost twice that once they're trained. A bomb dog can cost up to $20,000, Meeks said, and all the dogs are insured.

"These dogs are an incredible tool," he said. "And they can be a weapon if you need them to be. We can send them into a situation that we may not want to risk sending an officer into."

The dogs must be "green" when the department picks them out, meaning they have had no training whatsoever. They learn commands in Dutch and German and have a long checklist of skills they must master before they can be certified by the U.S. Police K-9 Association.

Each day over 15 weeks, the dogs are trained for obedience, agility, evidence search, suspect search, criminal apprehension, narcotics detection and suspect apprehension.

"It's all about repetition for them right now," said Vradenburgh.

It is also the time when the K-9 handlers are practicing their own skills. To be a handler, officers must be on the force for three years, then they go through an application process that includes a series of tests, including candidates' ability to interact with dogs, said Meeks.

Officer Luke Timmons joined the K-9 unit in June after a six-week handler's course.

"You've always got a partner with you who will do anything for you," Timmons said.

Like police officers, the dogs work long days: seven hours on the street with officers and one hour of training.

When the dogs go home with their handlers, they are put in a kennel and not allowed to interact with any other family members or pets. The dogs only eat once a day, a chicken-and-rice formula.

"They work for love and attention. If they're getting that at home, why would they come to work?" Meeks asked.

A key part of the training is developing the dog's relationship with their handlers, he said.

Different dogs match with different handlers' personalities and making that match is an important part of the initial process of pairing dogs with handlers.

"There's a fine line in the relationship between the handler and the dogs. They are not pets," says Vradenburgh, who has been a handler for about seven dogs at the department. "You can't get too attached to them, but you can't be too distant, either. You have to have a strong working bond."