How a dog goes from average canine to K9 police partner
Police paired with canine colleagues say "you can't measure how brave" their four-legged fellow officers are.
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He remembers the sharp part of the blade. Every time that blade came down, all he could visualize was his partner’s head coming off.
“I still get shivers,” says Constable Steve Balice of Toronto Police.
On Nov. 23, 2015, late in the evening, Balice and his partner, German Shepherd Lonca, 2, were assigned to guard the backyard of a house while a search warrant was executed. A man came running from the rear of the house.
He had something in his hand.
A black machete.
Balice told the man to stop.
He didn’t listen.
He ran towards the officers, blade swinging.
Balice commanded the dog to stop him.
Lonca, a trained, certified patrol dog, gripped the man’s leg in his mouth and brought him down.
The man continued to fight back, waiving the machete at everything within arm’s length.
He struck Lonca on his snout, side of the face, body, neck and left front paw.
“But the dog didn’t give up,” says Staff Sgt. James Hung of the Police Dog Services.
“You can’t measure how brave that is.”
Officers apprehended the suspect.
Lonca’s police training kicked in and he ran to the backyard where another suspect was trying to escape. His bark deterred her from escaping.
When everything was under control, the dog was taken to the hospital where he was treated for his injuries: five stitches to his snout and two staples to his left front paw. One of his canine teeth is chipped.
The dog was back to work within a week.
The suspect Phuoc Dang, 56, of Toronto, was charged under the Justice for Animals in Service Act, the first person to be charged under it. The act is better known as Quanto’s law, named for an Edmonton police dog, Quanto, who was stabbed on Oct. 7, 2013, while trying to apprehend a fleeing suspect, and who died of his injuries. Dang’s trial is scheduled for next year.
While Lonca has no physical scars he does seem to have memories of it, his handler says. Lonca is a tad more vigilant when they execute warrants.
“As soon as I go in a backyard again, he’s staring at the doors,” says Balice, as he watches Lonca roll around in the grass and simply be a dog on a sunny day. “He thinks someone’s coming at him.”
Lonca is trained for general patrolling, which entails searching for people who are hiding; tracking suspects; searching for missing people and evidence.
Toronto Police has 32 dogs paired with 22 officers. Some officers have two dogs.
Some of them, such as Lonca, are trained for general patrolling while others are trained for explosive, drug and firearm detection, cadaver detection, and the training period for these is two months.
Mostly, Hung says, they “want dogs who want to finish the race. Like Usain Bolt. We don’t want dogs to just lie down, in front of the fireplace.”
Other attributes sought in a dog include a social and friendly nature; high drive, and stability. The animal should not be afraid of loud noises or anything that it’s going to encounter in the city, he says.
Hung says that of every five dogs, one makes the roster.
The dogs come from different breeders across Europe and North America. Lonca was born in the Czech Republic. Hung’s dog, Salvo, was born in Serbia.
“We select the dog best suited for the job we need it for,” Hung says.
When the police find a dog that checks off all the criteria, they send it off to the vet for a check-up. The dog undergoes an X-ray from nose to tail and is given a blood test.
Then the training starts.
Buying a puppy for the police force costs between $5,000 and $10,000, and training, mostly the time put in, costs about $150,000.
Sometimes a dog looks good on paper, but a few months or even a year into the program, it starts to falter. It could be a medical issue or something unforeseen.
At other times, some dogs simply decide they don’t want to be trained anymore, he says. Then there are times they can’t do something — clearing an obstacle course, jumping or running.
These dogs are returned.
“Our brokers are pretty good,” he says. “They usually take them back and replace them with a new one. They have a guarantee that they’ll pass our course.”
On graduation, these dogs get a diploma and a work leash, Hung says. This leash is a short leather tether of four feet. The training leash is six feet and more versatile.
Graduation doesn’t mean the training stops. It continues every day, Hung says. “It’s sort of maintenance training,” he adds.
It’s a chilly Friday morning and Salvo cannot contain his excitement.
His tail wagging wildly. He is panting in anticipation, his pink tongue hanging out. The three-and-a-half year old dog’s eyes zip between his master and the obstacle course that is his playground.
At Hung’s command Salvo soars over two hurdles, clears an obstacle that resembles a fence sitting over mesh. He slithers through a tube and wriggles out from under a low cot-like, four-legged contraption. He scrambles over a see-saw, runs across a ledge, then comes to a point where he must choose whether to go down a slide or steps.
His reward? A ball.
Salvo snatches it.
He runs to the corner of the field and chews on it.
Hung gives him a few minutes.
“He’s very, very toy-driven,” he says, watching Salvo salivate over the ball.
Most handlers have their dogs for a lifetime. Lonca was a year old when he was partnered with Balice, and Salvo was a year-and-a-half old when he was paired with Hung.
The dogs are somewhat similar to teenagers now, willful at times, bouncy and full of energy. But they seem to grow older faster than their two-legged partners. And they suffer similar ailments.
When a dog is ready to retire, it is usually the handler who takes him or her as a family pet. It is a business transaction; a sum of $1 is paid to the city for the dog.
Hung says he’d like to take Salvo. Balice says he’d like to take Lonca.
While in service the dogs spend almost all their time with their human partners. In the evening, the dogs go home with their masters.
Salvo knows that when he’s home, it’s time to rest, Hung says. Similarly, Balice says Lonca sprawls out in front of the TV or fireplace and chills.
So how is having a K9 partner different from having a two-legged partner?
“A K9 partner is a colleague for whom you don’t have to buy coffee . . . they don’t complain as much . . . (I don’t have to) listen to their woes. I don’t have to argue with them as much either; a very unique partner who searches better than humans; is faster than humans; more versatile and very protective.”
For these furry heroes, work is play.
“They’re always ready to work,” he says. “Whether it’s 3 in the morning . . . you don’t have to splash water on their face to wake them up . . . . It’s a unique bond.”