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September 29, 2016

What's it take to be top dog? Country's best K-9s are in town for National Trials

Police K-9
02-09276_K9Comp_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

An officer and his K-9 partner compete Tuesday in the agility event at the United States Police Canine Association National Police Dog Trials in Gloucester Township, Camden County.

Police work can be unpredictable, and when the night was over, Mark Pickard was covered in cobwebs, mud and those annoying “stickers” that attach to your clothing and scratch your skin when you’re hurtling your way through an unkempt wooded area at night.

It was worth it, of course, because Pickard had been in pursuit of a 28-year-old man who had beat up his girlfriend “pretty bad.” A call came into the Gloucester Township Police Department for domestic abuse case and Pickard, following his trek through the woods, was able to able to bring in the suspect.

But Pickard had a very big assist on that night a few years ago. As he traversed the woods about four miles north of the Atlantic City Expressway in Blackwood, not far from the elementary school, he had a partner at his side with better tracking ability.


PHOTOS: The nation's best K-9s compete in South Jersey


Schultz was one of the best at his job in the country. Coupled with his natural, God-gifted abilities, Schultz trained hundreds of hours for these kinds of nights.

“The wind was blowing right across from the woods,” Pickard said. “A cool night with the wind blowing, no one else out there. I thought maybe he was hiding in the trucks (at a nearby trucking company). Then (Schultz) did one of these [makes a tilting motion with his head] and I’m like, ‘He’s in the woods.’

“And he was there, hunkered down. I couldn’t even see him, but (Schultz) was going nuts. And then all of a sudden I saw his forearm. ‘Let me see your hands!’ The dog knew he was there.”

Schultz, a former Gloucester Township K-9 officer, was a critical member of the police force that night, and many others. And he was that way because Pickard worked with him, even if it meant driving 45 miles south, following a shift ending at midnight, to the Batsto Village in the Pinelands to work with his friend and fellow officer and K-9 handler, Tom Conroy, in the pitch-black woods.

“(Dogs) use their noses so much that they don’t need to use their eyes as much,” Pickard said. “But their eyesight is actually better than ours at night, for moving things. … When we trained, we’d go out at night and hide a guy in the woods, hide him about 70 yards away. There are trees everywhere. ‘This is the police, you’re under arrest! Find him!’

“Dog is zipping through the woods. If you ran a third that fast, you’d run into a tree. Because I’m telling you it’s black, I have no idea how they don’t hit anything. No idea. Running (full speed) and not running into a tree? Holy (crap). How did he make it around all of that?"

FOUR DAYS, SIX DOZEN DOGS

The many skills of highly-trained K-9 officers are on display in Pickard’s hometown this week. Gloucester Township in Camden County is hosting the 46th Annual United States Police Canine Association National Patrol Dog Trials.

More than six dozen dogs from across the country (plus an entrant from Mexico) are competing in a series of events, including agility and obedience, people and evidence searches, and criminal apprehension. The four-day event (the closing ceremonies are Thursday, complete with a bagpipe band-led closing parade and fireworks show at Timber Creek High School) has brought several thousand people to the town that sits about eight miles south of Philadelphia. 

NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

An official gives directions to an officer and his canine competing in the obedience event Tuesday at the United States Police Canine Association National Police Dog Trials in Gloucester Township, Camden County.

“We’re excited about it,” Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer said in the days leading up to the event. 

“We raised $70,000 to do this, which we’re using to pay for entrant fees, the judges, food. We’re also providing a tour of Philadelphia on Wednesday and Thursday, and holding a public demonstration on Thursday.”

“We’re just so lucky that we can have all of these people coming to share all of the hard work they’ve done,” Gloucester Township Police Chief Harry Earle said. “To show how important K-9 and their teams are to police work. That it’s about apprehending dangerous criminals, it’s about locating lost people, and it’s an important aspect of our community relations program.”

To test the best police dogs in the nation, the K-9 teams are working along two different locales in Gloucester Township – Hickstown Park, a clean and sleek venue with new turf fields, and the Lakeland Complex, a large, mostly wooded area to help simulate a working environment. The teams compete for certification and awards, with the latter presented Thursday.

But it’s also a chance for officers to bond and share trade secrets, too.

“You have guys from all around the country who have different techniques, who have different ways of doing things,” said officer Chris Gerace of the Gloucester Township Police Department, who is competing with a 7-year-old K-9, Arrow. “The first thing I usually do is pick their brain, to see what I can get from them. It might not work on every dog, it might not work with my dog, but it’s something you can put in your toolbox and use it later for somebody else.”

'YOU HAVE TO BE A HARD-WORKING GUY'

The majority of the K-9 teams competing in this week’s trials are one of two breeds: German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Although the dogs vary in age, most are between two and eight years old – beyond the puppy stage but still in peak physical condition.

Most dogs trained to become members of a K-9 team are bought through specialized vendors, or come from Europe, although there are organizations, like the non-profit Throw Away Dogs, that also help supply local law enforcement agencies.

But not every dog will make it as a K-9.

“They test dogs,” said Conroy, a retired Stafford Township police chief who currently trains dogs for K-9 work. “What kind of retrieve drive does he have? Usually in the first few weeks you have a rough idea of how good a dog is or isn’t, and then you go from there.”

But as with any canine-human relationship, it’s equally important to have an officer that can work properly with his animal partner, too.

“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to do this,” Conroy said. “But you have to be a hard-working guy. It’s time-intensive. It’s just like a guy who carves a duck for a living and is good at it and makes a lot of money. It’s the same thing, they’re taking this dog and they’re shaping it and it’s behavior, every day, every day, until it’s finally done. It’s just a matter of time and effort.”

NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

A K-9 competitor climbs the 'A-Frame' obstacle during the agility competition on Tuesday.


Most of that time and effort takes place beyond the 40-hour workweek for the K-9 teams that can compete to be among the best in the country.

Conroy competed in 16 straight national championships, placing as high as second. Gerace and Arrow finished 11th last year during the trials in Springfield, Illinois. Pickard finished in the top 20 with two different dogs, his current retired German Shepherd, Maximus, and as high as 10th in 2010 with Schultz.

It’s not all about trophies, of course. The reward is going back into a job knowing you have a K-9 team that can be perfect at any task, or, at the very least, gaining knowledge of what you need to work on to improve as a team.

The role the K-9 plays on a police force is unique in practice and often critical on the job.

“It’s a living, breathing, searching machine,” Conroy said. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the nose of the dog. So if you’re talking about terror, talking about explosive stuff, everyday drug cases, tracking missing people, bad guys, it’s what they do.

“To quote my wife, it’s spooky. Because you develop a relationship that’s not like any relationship you ever had, even if you've had dogs. I love my wife and kids. But the relationship with the dog, it’s different.” – Chris Gerace, K-9 handler, Gloucester Township

“And the bonus at the end is if someone wants to fight you, you have a tool that can protect you. And the best thing is this: if someone takes away your gun, your baton, they can hurt you. Nobody is taking your dog away and using it against you. It’s the only tool in law enforcement that can’t be used against you.”

Pickard recalled an incident at a motel a few years ago, when officers pursued a man wanted in an armed robbery. Because the suspect was hiding behind a bed, and wouldn’t raise his hands when commanded to do so, the police were in an almost no-win situation.

“The guy did not want to go to jail,” Pickard said. “We had a pepper ball gun, they had a shotgun, a little rifle. And the guy is just hiding there.”

And so Pickard gave Maximus the K-9 command that would best translate as “go crazy.” The armed robbery suspect, who it turns out was not armed at the time, surrendered.

“When you bring one dog out, you watch them (barking and snarling), people just stop,” Pickard said. “Because they kind of know in the back of their head that it’s an animal. You can’t reason with them. We can stop them; they’re trained to stop. But they also – it seems like people know that you can’t shoot them. You can say, ‘Stop, police!’ and they [mocks a suspect rolling his eyes]. But you say, ‘Stop, or I’ll release my dog!’ and they’re like, ‘Oh no, get that dog away from me.’"

A HERO LOST IN THE LINE OF DUTY

Police work can be unpredictable.

Six years ago, on a cold November night, Pickard and Schultz were in pursuit of one of two suspects accused of robbing Lucky Dragon, a Chinese restaurant in Blackwood. A footrace ensued, with the suspect hopping one fence after another and Schultz not giving him an inch, following his every step.

But then the run of fences ended and they ended up on the edge of the six-lane highway that runs from Philadelphia to the Atlantic Expressway, Route 42.

“The way Schultz bit him at first, he had a loose jacket on,” Pickard said. “He grabbed the jacket and got turned upside down, so the guy was able to drag him because he didn’t have his feet stable. And by the time he righted himself, he was up on the side of the road, he let go of his jacket and grabbed him under the arm. And then the guy was fighting with him on the side of the road. They were both standing there and a car came and clipped him [and Schultz] and they broke apart. Then the guy ran across traffic and Schultz got hit by the next car.”

Schultz, a 3 1/2-year-old German Shepherd who placed 10th in the nation just two months earlier, died at the scene. Less than two weeks later, an estimated 1,000 people, along with more than 100 K-9 teams from all over the country, attended the emotional memorial service for the fallen K-9.

NoneRyan Lawrence/PhillyVoice

Retired police officer Mark Pickard and his two current dogs, Bell and retired K-9 Maximus, at his home in Blackwood. Pickard's former K-9 partner, Schultz, was killed in action six years ago.

“The township treated him, his funeral – he was like a hero,” Pickard said. “It was a hero’s sendoff.”

Pickard, now retired from the police force, lives in Blackwood with his three kids (two are current police officers), retired K-9 Maximus and another German Shepherd, Bell. Less than two years after Schultz’s death, Pickard lost his wife and his mother to cancer.

But six years later, his eyes still redden when he talks about Schultz.

“That’s really where the bond is,” Pickard said of officer and K-9, both risking their lives on a daily basis as a team. “When you have a dog that works for you, and he wants to go out and please you, and that’s all about training properly, the dog loves doing it. And when he does a good job, he gives you a ‘Yo, we kicked some ass.’ It’s really gratifying.

“But I always go back to the Schultz thing. And I think that’s why it bothers me. Because I trained him, I put him in that position. He did his job. And it seems like I’m the one who threw him out there, you know what I mean? He did his job.”

In memory of the fallen officer,  Schultz's Law was passed not long after his death to ensure that criminals found guilty of killing a police dog, or a dog engaged in a search-and-rescue operation, receive a mandatory minimum five-year prison term.

The reality is police officers, whether two-legged or four-legged, put their lives at risk everyday to protect their communities. 

"It’s the same with any of us," Gerace said "That’s his job. He lives for doing it. And he’d rather die doing that than sitting in a car for the rest of his life. That’s what they live for, it’s the only thing they want. A lot of times when they retire they don’t live very long because that drive to work is so intense, and once it’s gone, it kills them, mentally, and the body follows quickly."

"This is what they do, they serve you," Conroy said. "The dog, unlike a person, has no fear. He’s not going to think twice about doing his job. He just does it. He does what he’s trained to do."

'HOW GOOD IS MY DOG?'

Perhaps it’s fitting that, of all the places in the Philadelphia area to host a prestigious event of the country’s best K-9 officers, Gloucester Township was selected. A half-dozen years ago, the community rallied around Schultz’s passing and now the same officers that worked alongside Pickard and Schultz are having a light shined on the work they’re doing, too.

Conroy took pride in watching Arrow and the three other New Jersey K-9 teams he’s worked with excel in the article search drill on Tuesday. It took Arrow about 90 seconds to find two different lost items – a key and a shotgun shell – through a 30-yard patch of knee-high, thick grass.

“We’ve trained for endless hours,” Conroy said. “To watch these guys do well, it’s exciting.”

On Wednesday, the K-9 teams took to one of the turf fields at Hickstown Park and showed off speed, strength and aggressiveness in the criminal apprehension drill, also known as “bite work.” When commanded, the K-9 took off for the “suspect,” but if another command was barked out by their human handler, they immediately stopped and returned to the place they began.

To see the high energy of these dogs reeled in that quickly with one verbal command was nothing short of remarkable.

“The guys are the very best in the country,” Conroy said. “It’s not just their jobs. They’re very passionate about it, they put all of their time into it. They work hard to serve their communities and they come here to interact with everyone, learn new stuff, and test their skills.

"How good is my dog?’ If you’re a rifle sniper. you can go to a competition and see it. This is a scored certification. At the end of this we’ll know whose dog is the most technically precise.”

Arrow missed his verbal command in Thursday’s bite drill. Like humans, the K-9 officers aren’t always perfect.

But a day earlier, after running through the first two days of competition with ease, Gerace couldn’t have been more excited for his partner and constant companion.

“It’s very stressful,” Gerace said. “I can’t lie. It’s very stressful. He did awesome, though. I haven’t put the time into it like I normally would truthfully, getting ready for nationals, because I had to do all the stuff preparing for (hosting) it. But to see him perform like he did, I can’t ask for more from him. He’s an awesome dog.”

PARTNERS, IN THE TRUEST SENSE

You don’t have to search very far in the history of pop culture for examples of successful police teams (Murtaugh and Riggs, Crockett and Tubbs, Bunk and McNulty) or the strong relationship between man and dog (Lassie, Old Yeller, Charlie Brown and Snoopy).

But the marriage between police officer and K-9 brings the union of law enforcement partners and man and his best friend to a different level. They are basically together 24 hours a day, at work and at home.

  • THURSDAY'S CLOSING CEREMONIES
  • Free public demonstration of police dogs in action, 4:30-6 p.m. at Timber Creek High School
  • Parade of K-9 teams, 6 p.m., from Camden County College and Hickstown Park to Timber Creek High
  • Fireworks display at Timber Creek High, following the parade
  • Free light refreshments provided at the events

“They spend more time with their dogs than they do their families,” said Bridget Gerace, Chris’ wife. "It’s just total love and devotion, that dog. ... We’re all attached to him. He keeps daddy safe, he keeps my husband safe every day."

Since K-9s are high-energy animals, you can’t exactly have someone sit and watch them if you want to take a quick, unplanned vacation. They need ample exercise and rely on their handlers in the police force, both when on and off the job. 

They’re almost inseparable.

“He’ll pace until he gets back,” Bridget Gerace said when asked if her husband is allowed to run an errand while Arrow stays at home. “I mean he wants to be with him constantly. … Even if (Chris) goes outside, he’ll sit at the door and watch him the whole time. And he never clicks the door closed, and he does it on purpose. If he goes out to talk to somebody and if the dog needs to get out there, he’s getting through that glass."

Bridget Gerace laughed. But the bond of a K-9 team is that strong, 

"It’s two living beings that are working together as one, every day," Conroy said. "Every day."


NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Rocco, a K-9 with the Rochester, Minnesota police department, clears a hurdle after taking a command from his officer, James Kenison, during the agility event on Tuesday at the National Police Dog Trials in Gloucester Township..


“To quote my wife, it’s spooky,” Chris Gerace said. “Because you develop a relationship that’s not like any relationship you ever had, even if you've had dogs. I love my wife and kids. But the relationship with the dog, it’s different. You can communicate without saying a word. He knows what I’m thinking. It’s very strange. It’s something few people experience and it’s a shame, because if you did, you’d see dogs in a whole new light.”

Gerace has been in Gloucester Township’s K-9 unit – four dogs and four handlers – for six years.

Conroy understands the bond, too. He was on a K-9 team for 20 of his 28 years as a police officer.

Pickard worked in the police force for nearly 20 years and spent the majority of that time in the K9 unit, working with four different dogs – Andy, Hans, Schultz and Maximus.

And like their human counterparts, they can retire to a less-stressed life, too. As Pickard sat in his backyard last week, and recalled stories of chasing suspects into streets and woods, Maximus, the former K-9 motel hero, ran off his early-morning energy by jumping in and out of Pickard’s pool, shaking himself off only to dive right back in.

“He’s losing it because he’s becoming a house dog,” Pickard smiled as he watched Max, who's had hundreds of hours of training, splashing around like a puppy. “And partly because my girlfriend spoils him. I’m glad he has this life. (Compared) with the way Schultz went out. He’s getting to be a dog.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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