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The Nose Knows

It's bad news for bad guys, as Las Cruces'
state champion K-9 police unit sniffs out crime.

By Jeff Berg

 

It is said that a dog's sense of smell is 100 million times more sensitive than that of a human. With 220 million smell-sensitive cells, the mutts easily outdistance humans' mere 5 million. A dog's sense of smell is so sophisticated that it has the ability to smell multiple layers of chemicals, allowing it to enjoy a bouquet of scents, not just one.

Las Cruces' award-winning K-9 unit.

What is not so easily explained is why man's best friend (take it easy, cat lovers) prefers the aroma of the neighbors' Airedale's derriere to that of a bouquet of roses.

Nonetheless, dogs are, in general, much more valuable when it comes to putting pets to work than cats are. Cats may be smarter, since they don't sign up for the military or for police duty, but a smart dog can add his work AND cuddling abilities to its resume.

Dogs have been used in various work situations for thousands of years. More opportunities are on the horizon, as scientists are now attempting to train our four-legged friends to be able to identify several forms of cancer. Dogs are also useful in being able to warn people of epileptic seizures, low blood sugar and heart attacks, but how they do so, whether by smell or via change in a person's behavior, is still being studied. Some dogs have even been taught how to dial 911. Other research has indicated that dogs may be able to "diagnose" prostate cancer–and not by sniffing a patient's crotch, but rather through the odor of a urine sample.

And while there probably isn't a police department in the world that uses cats to sniff out drugs, people or bombs, dogs are a different story.

The Las Cruces Police Department has six dogs in its K-9 Unit, which is also referred to as "Team K-9" by the human officers who handle the four-legged officers. In early December, the Las Cruces K-9 Unit was chosen as the "top overall K-9 unit" in New Mexico at a competition in Albuquerque. Competing against units from various police departments, the Border Patrol and the military from around the state, "Team K-9" took first in handler protection, building searches and narcotics detection. The LCPD unit also earned second place in tactical obedience and area search, plus third place awards for another area of handler protection and for explosives detection.

Sergeant Andy De La O is in charge of the award-winning unit, which he will be turning over to another officer this September, when he become eligible for retirement. De La O has been with the unit since its inception in 1991, and truly loves what he does.

"A retired police sergeant proposed that we needed a K-9 unit, and it became an experiment back then with just one dog," De La O recalls.

As that first dog proved his worth, others were added. It was a kind of stair-step process, De La O says: "We later added two more, than went to four, now to six. Police Chief Harry Romero is very pro K-9, and he's been very supportive of the program."

The dogs not only have become a steady part of the police department; they also help save a few bucks–saving 20-40 man hours per pooch.

With its half-dozen dogs, the Las Cruces K-9 program is one of the largest in the state. The Albuquerque PD has only 13 dogs covering a population much larger than Las Cruces.

All but one of the LCPD dogs currently has dual-purpose training, which includes the ability to sniff out caches of drugs, explosives and/or people, both good and bad. "We had some single-purpose dogs before 9/11, but that has changed now," De La O says.

Although De La O loves his work–"It's a kick-ass job," he says with a laugh at one point–he also makes it clear that his upcoming retirement will allow him to hand the reins over to another officer in his unit. "It's time for one of these younger guys to take over," he says, referring to the cluster of police officers who are chatting among themselves nearby.

The LCPD has been the only law-enforcement agency De La O has been with, and his retirement will take place at the 20-year mark.

 

LCPD gets most of its dogs, all but one of which are German Shepherds, from K-9 Services in Albuquerque, which imports most of the dogs from Europe. De La O says that they used to buy the dogs pre-trained, but now the staff of the K-9 Unit does most of the non-basic training themselves. Each dog costs about $14,000.

When evaluating a new K-9 recruit, three major factors are taken into consideration: obedience, scent work and apprehension. Prospective patrol dogs are flown in for a test. If the animal is selected, it will then undergo five to eight weeks of basic training to see if it has the right temperament and other skills to make the grade. Each officer is assigned his own dog, and it becomes his partner for the duration of the dog's term with the police.

"I try to keep them (the dogs) working for about eight years," De La O says. "As long as they remain healthy, that is about the average. It's a hard life; they have to do a lot of work, including a lot of physical things like crawling under fences. When the dog retires, his handler gets the first option to adopt him. I have yet to have a handler not adopt a dog."

Both dog and officer get frequent training upgrades. On this day, for instance, the unit is heading to a city warehouse that has recently been converted to a combination of storage and utility employee offices.

De La O also likes to have his squad participate in contests, of which there are many, such as the recent state championship. A national competition for K-9 patrols is held each year, and the LCPD unit will be heading to Las Vegas this year to compete.

"In 2001, we won top agency and top dog awards," De La O says proudly. "We had the grand champion dog from among 57 teams, including some from federal agencies."

 

The award-winning Las Cruces K-9 Unit is often called upon to help train other K-9 units around the state. The city of Truth or Consequences recently approved the addition of a patrol dog for its police department, for example. "I'll probably go to T or C to help point them in the right direction," De La O says nonchalantly. "We have helped all of the K-9 units south of Socorro, while the APD helps anyone north of that line. I was recently in Hobbs to help their K-9 unit."

Other local agencies such as the Dona Ana County Sheriff and the Southwest New Mexico Correctional Facility also use dogs on a regular basis. De La O says that the state police uses dogs only for locating narcotics.

In Las Cruces, Team K-9 is most often assigned to a night shift, going from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. Two dogs and handlers are on duty during these hours, and serve as backup on most of their calls, as well as being assigned to SWAT duties. But the K-9 Unit is also on call, 24/7.

"We go to a lot of high-priority calls–burglaries, high-grade felonies–to see if we have to search for a person or help locate evidence," says De La O.

The sergeant adds that he's always amazed at the public's response to the dogs and the officers. "The average citizen will say, 'Oh, we have a K-9 unit,' and dog lovers are fascinated by us."

When the dogs are on duty, they are actually engaging in a form of play, he explains–hence the need for a dog to be active and alert. The training for the animals is based on this. When the canine is successful in locating a stash of drugs, the dog is given a toy that has been hidden with the drugs, which is covered with the scent.

 

At the training warehouse, De La O and several of the other officers run their canine partners through some exercises. The first dog to work is a special guest, "Ace," a rookie, whose handler is Sergeant Cheryl Lackey, who works at the correctional facility west of Las Cruces. Lackey absorbs some teasing from some of the officers, as someone has found out that Ace's real name is "Astor." Kind of like a boy named Sue.

Lackey's previous dog had died recently, as did the other animal that was posted at the prison. The prison is waiting for funding to replace the second canine.

Ace's training starts with a vigorous game of tug o' war. Lackey does a kind of catch and release with a soft toy the size of half a baseball bat, attached to a long tether- type leash. As Lackey "plays" with Ace, she heaps constant praise upon the dog. Its commands are sometimes given in German, a sign of the dog's European upbringing. This practice is done with the more experienced dogs, too.

"The dogs like to learn how to work for you and can't wait for you to bring the 'toy' out again," Lackey says.

Several times, Lackey needs to stop to attend to one of the hazards of the play/training, which Ace is very interested in. The dog also exhibits an amazing capacity for producing dog drool.

Food is not used as an incentive during this type of training, but on occasion it is used for obedience drills.

"We use the dogs for crowd control and cell extractions," Lackey explains. "When a prisoner won't come out of his cell, we use the dogs to help bring him out. We'll send one in to grab him and drag him out."

Ace is given more obedience training and a few trips up and down some steep stairs. Research has found that some dogs are afraid to go on staircases, which is certainly a necessity for the patrol dogs. Loud noises and shiny floors are also areas in which a dog can need extra training. Finally, Ace/Astor is returned to Lackey's vehicle.

"Dog coming out!" Lackey cries out each time she and Ace come to any place with a blind spot or through a doorway. It is against policy for other officers to issue a command to other dogs, so as to not confuse them, and during this training session only one animal at a time is going through the exercises.

"Andre" is next up for a refresher in sniffing out drugs. The officers have previously placed some towels scented with the odor of marijuana and methamphetamines around the large warehouse. It will now be up to Andre to find the stashes.

De La O smiles when he dispels the myth that dogs that are trained to sniff out drugs are actually hooked on a narcotic. "Not at all true," he says.

One would think Andre is on some kind of upper himself, however, as he is extremely lively and frisky. The officer leads Andre on his leash, moving briskly along a wall. As he does so, the officer raises and lowers his arm against the wall, to help Andre to learn how to sniff high and low for contraband. Andre leaps up and down at the officer's command.

Andre is next taken into the men's restroom, and after a quick turn through the room, he stops suddenly in front of a metal locker. An extra snuffle or two, and Andre sits and patiently stares at the locker. The officer tries to pull him away, but Andre will have none of it. He remains at "sit," and won't budge until the handler opens the locker door. Inside is the towel "toy" and a metal container with several pounds of firmly wrapped locoweed inside. Andre's reward for finding this stash, which would probably net several grand on the street? He gets to play with the towel. But only for a moment, as Officer Mike Rickards leads Andre out of the restroom to look for the next stash.

"They go absolutely nuts for the toy," explains another of the handlers, Officer Mike Motto, as he is half-tugged down the hall by the next trainee, JR, who goes through a routine similar to that of Andre.

"Scent tape" is also used for training, Motto says, as JR quickly finds small amounts of drugs taped to various spots around the facility. "The tape soaks up odor, and we always use a fresh roll to make sure that they are not hitting on the smell of the glue or the slobber of the previous dog."

JR proves as adept as Andre, and in no time has found all of the hidden drug caches. Officer Motto, who has been with the program since 1993 and has worked as an instructor since 1997, adds, "The dogs have a good time doing their job."

The last dog that will be getting a bit of training is Rocco. He seems to be larger and stronger than his fellow four-leggeds, and is tethered to a post as he practices his "bite work," which is something that Ace will need to learn in the future.

Rickards comes back from his patrol car with a thick heavy plastic sleeve covered in burlap. Normally during this phase of the training, another officer will don the sleeve for the exercise, allowing the animal to chomp down on his arm at some point. This time, however, Rickards is concealed briefly behind a corner, before revealing himself. He makes a lot of aggressive noise, and carries a riding-crop-type stick that he uses to intimidate Rocco into an aggressive mode. As the officer knocks over a chair and continues to yell and make a lot of racket, there is no doubt that Rocco would like a piece of Rickards.

Motto says that this exercise helps to heighten the dogs' hunting instinct. "He wants to hunt prey," the officer says. There is no doubt that if Rickards were a real outlaw, he would be on Rocco's menu.

As have the other dogs, Rocco receives an abundance of praise as part of his reward for a job well done.

All of the dogs live with their handlers during off hours, which creates an interesting home life scenario. De La O explains that since he is the "alpha" male of the pack (family), his own patrol dog, Ulyx, is second only to him at his house. Ulyx has worked with the sergeant for nearly three years.

"They are pack animals, and I am the 'leader of the pack.' Ulyx is second, and my wife has to be third," De La O says. "She won't miss that when I retire."

 

The Las Cruces K-9 Unit is available for demonstrations to civic groups, schools and the like. They can be reached by calling the LCPD at 526-0795.

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.

 

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