State trooper K-9s making a difference

Taking a bite out of peninsula crime

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

The Soldotna E Detachment post of the Alaska State Troopers welcomed two new officers to its roster in April. One has floppy ears and looks a little like a Muppet and the other shares his name with an area street. These may sound like unusual traits for peace officers, but these two are invaluable new tools to the detachment's public-safety and crime-fighting arsenal.

Troopers Kazan and Kobuk are the new K-9 additions to the peninsula force. The dogs are handled by troopers Brad Nelson and Darrel Christensen.

The E detachment has had police dogs sporadically in the past, but never on a full-time, long-term basis. Police dogs are a fairly rare and sought-after commodity in Alaska. There are only 10 in the state, and it's unusual for a detachment as relatively small as the Soldotna detachment to get one, much less two. Fairbanks, for instance, has two dogs and is much larger. So securing the dogs for the peninsula was a difficult and lengthy process.

"It was two years in the works," Nelson said. "They shot for K-9s for a long time, but they needed money for the dogs, for training the dogs, time to train them -- it's one of those things where everything had to play together."

Kobuk and Kazan cost $4,000 each, not counting the ongoing costs associated with their care, like food, equipment and medical expenses. These dogs don't get run-of-the-mill dog chow or chinchy collars either, they get premium food and special equipment necessary for their training. When they get sick they get immediate attention from a veterinarian that's used to handling working dogs.

The dogs even get their own vehicles -- Ford Expeditions specially modified for the dogs -- complete with their names and K-9 designation painted on.

"We don't get our names on there," Nelson said. "... They are treated a little better than most pets."

The troopers received some help from the community in acquiring the dogs. Tesoro and the Elks Club donated money to purchase the dogs, and Tesoro held a contest for kids in its area gas stations to name them. Currently, a Girl Scout troop is raising money to buy the dogs bullet-proof vests, Nelson said.

Choosing handlers for the dogs was no easy task either. Nelson and Christensen applied for the position and had to go through an interview process with an oral board and be approved by the sate K-9 coordinator.

"There's certain things they look for," Christensen said. "They see if you're a dog person. If you're not a dog lover this is definitely not for you."

Applicants were asked questions about several aspects of their lives.

"It took a lot of butt kissing," Nelson joked. "... They asked questions to get a sense of how you would handle a particular situation. They looked at our home lives, how a dog would affect a family situation. There were lots of factors."

One factor in their favor was that Nelson and Christensen had both recently transferred to Soldotna. Both have been in the E detachment for about a year. Troopers are required to make a move after a certain amount of time into their careers. Since they had recently transferred, they could stay in Soldotna for the career of the dogs, which is generally four to six years.

"There's no way to prepare (for the interviews), you're either what they're looking for or not," Nelson said. "Other guys here would be great handlers but hadn't made a move."

Once they were selected, Christensen and Nelson were sent to Anchorage in January to start training their dogs. Trooper Scott Johnson, of Anchorage, had previously attended an instructor's class so he taught Nelson, Christensen and the other Alaska troopers who got dogs how to train them.

In December, Johnson had visited a kennel in Alabama and selected six dogs for the Alaska State Troopers program. He made his selections by testing about 20 dogs for certain drives, Nelson said.

"I thought finding a police dog would be easy," Nelson said. "It's a very rare thing to find a dog with the qualities we want."

The Alaska program wanted dogs that could do both patrol work and narcotics detection duties. Those assignments require the dogs to have certain traits.

"There are very specific drives he was looking for," Nelson said. "Some drives need to be high, like detecting, play, tracking and hunting, that we're going to do in the workforce."

German shepherds used to be the dog of choice for police work. They make good patrol dogs but it is unusual for a shepherd to do both patrol and narcotics work because their play drive, which makes them good at narcotics detection, isn't very high, Nelson said. The dogs Johnson tested were Belgian Malinois, which have the right characteristics to do both patrol and narcotics work.

One test used was tying the dog to pole with a long chain and leaving it alone for a while so it could examine its surroundings and become a little territorial. Then someone would walk by the dog and see how it reacted.

"Is he an aggressive dog, does he try to attack?" Nelson said. "Does he run to the other side and hide? The dog you look for is going to come to the end of the chain, ears up, and be alert, but not attack."

Another test involved someone putting on a dog attack sleeve and agitating a dog.

"Is the dog going to turn tail and run or go 'hey, you want to fight, buddy? Let's go,'" Nelson said. "Do the dogs take him? If so, how fast? How hard do they bite? How hard do they hang on?"

Both Kobuk and Kazan displayed the necessary qualities and were selected for the program. The dogs were paired up with handlers on the basis of their personalities. Nelson got Kazan, which is the larger, but more affectionate dog. Christensen got Kobuk, which is more energetic and tends more toward dominance.

Kazan is 85 pounds and Kobuk is 65 pounds. The typical color of a Belgian Malinois is tan to brown fur with black ears and mask, which is Kazan's coloring. Kobuk is black with a white spot on his chest. Typically the dogs have long tails that curve upward and rigid, pointed ears, which are what Kobuk's look like. Kazan's, on the other hand, flop forward.

"He's a throwback," Nelson joked.

In January, the training began. One of the first things the troopers learned was a brief course in a foreign language. The dogs were bred in Holland so they responded to commands in German. As a result, Nelson and Christensen had to memorize about 32 commands in German.

This doesn't mean that anyone who speaks German can command the dogs. They are trained to primarily respond to their handler's voice.

"We call it the gaggle," Christensen said of one exercise. "Six guys would stand around the dog yelling at it and it could tell the handler's voice."

Ordinarily the training takes 18 weeks, but the Soldotna detachment doesn't have enough troopers on staff to do without two for that long, so Nelson's and Christensen's training was accelerated to 10 weeks.

The training involved a great deal of working with the dogs, as well as written tests that the troopers had to score 90 percent or better on. After the training and testing was over for the day, the troopers still had to care for the dogs and prepare equipment for the next day.

"It was mentally exhausting and physically exhausting," Nelson said. "Then we still had to study and take care of the dogs. It was just long days."

Training 12 to 15 hours days were the norm, Christensen said, and working 20 hour days was not unusual.

"The dogs have such drives that they love it," Christensen said. "They will do it all day and all night, where we get tired. (The) dogs could just sleep in the car and be ready to go again."

Even after training, the extra workload continued with the dogs. Nelson and Christenson continually do training exercises with their dogs.

"A dog is like a 3-year-old kid," Nelson said. "You can teach it something, but if you don't do it for a week they'll be like 'huh?'"

Having police dogs means extra paperwork for their handlers and additional legal matters to worry about.

"You open yourself up to civil liability with these guys," Nelson said. "You could do everything absolutely right and you can still get sued."

Nelson and Christensen are required to be with the dogs at all times. They even take the dogs home with them when they're off shift. Kobuk and Kazan haven't left their sides since they got them in January.

"We must maintain sight and sound contact at all times," Christensen said."... It's a lot more work than I thought it would be. They require constant attention. You constantly have to be aware of where they are, they run all over the place. It's a lot of work."

The Belgian Malinois breed tends to be very energetic, and these dogs are trained to be constantly by their master's side, which can cause some difficulties.

On one occasion at home, Nelson unknowingly shut Kazan out of the bathroom and had a china cabinet and carbon monoxide detector destroyed for his error.

"Kazan will run in a frantic rage, going 'where's dad?'" Nelson said. "He was very upset. He lets you know how he feels. As big and tough as the dog is, he's very emotional and very soft."

With all the added responsibility, liability and time, training and monetary demands, one might wonder if being a K-9 handler is worth the hassle.

Both Nelson and Christensen agree, it absolutely is.

"They are a tool that is immeasurable," Nelson said.

Kobuk and Kazan cover the entire peninsula and on up to Anchorage and can respond to calls outside their jurisdiction via helicopter if needed. Nelson and Christensen take the dogs to assist area police agencies in all kinds of situations. The dogs do building searches, narcotics detection and tracking and are trained for handler protection.

The dogs can be especially useful when troopers are faced with someone who's violent or uncompliant.

"Psychologically, it's the same as having six officers there," Christensen said. "They're intimidating looking dogs. Sometimes that's exactly what you want. I'll let (Kobuk) go nuts and bark sometimes. He's in the car going nuts, and people are going, 'don't let him out.'"

The troopers have arrested one man several times in the past and he has always been uncooperative, Christensen said.

"Each time we arrest the guy it's a five officer fight," he said. "The other day the dog started barking and he said 'OK.' That guy was so compliant. As soon as I put the dog away all that changed."

Having a dog on scene also cuts down on the number of people who try to evade arrest. When someone does attempt to get away, they soon learn why that's not a wise idea. Kobuk and Kazan are trained in a bark and detain procedure. Their handlers can send the dogs after someone who's trying to get away. The dogs run much faster than humans so they can catch up quickly. The dogs won't bite a passive person, Nelson said, but if the person keeps running or attacks the dog, the dog will attack.

"It's excruciating pain," Christensen said. "(Kazan's) bite is absolutely phenomenal, the pressure's so intense. Kazan will bite once and hold on. Kobuk will have 37 bites in, he's just intense."

In training, the handlers use full bite suits or arm protectors when training the dogs to do bark and detain procedures.

"I can't imagine what it would have been like without the gear on," Christensen said. "That's why we say it's very stupid to evade a police dog."

Narcotics detection is another specialty for the dogs.

"Dogs can find drugs like you wouldn't believe," Nelson said. "Their olfactory ability is amazing."

The dogs are trained to find heroine, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana. To the dogs, finding drugs is a game because they're taught to associate drugs with toys. To train the dogs, handlers package narcotics in special dog toys and hide them. So to the dog, the smell of narcotics means they get to find a toy. Kobuk is particularly good at narcotics detection because he has a high play drive, Christensen said.

"He loves toys, he will kill himself over a toy," Christensen said about the time Kobuk chased a toy under a snowblower and had to get stitches in his head. Another time he tore his nose open trying to get at a toy that rolled under a snowmachine, he said.

Kazan is good at narcotics detection as well, but has a higher tracking drive so he's better at finding people, building searches and similar activities.

Although their work schedule can be demanding, it's not all work and no play for these dogs.

"We take them home with us," Nelson said. "We spend a lot of time just playing with them, it lets them just be dogs."

Christensen takes Kobuk running with him and has even taken him flying.

"They love their fun time," he said. "At work they have to obey their commands. When they're on their own time they can do more of what they want."

Kobuk doesn't like a lot of affection so Christensen is careful with him when Kobuk interacts with Christensen's wife and 8-year-old daughter.

"I don't let him out of my sight when we're at home," he said. "My daughter has been bit by a dog. Not this dog, but a dog, so she's cautious around him -- which is good."

Kazan, on the other hand, likes affection enough that he becomes a member of the family at home.

"My wife was nervous at first until she sat on the couch with him and scratched his head for two hours," Nelson said.

As much as the dogs enjoy their play time at home, they know what it means to go to work.

"When I put on my uniform in the morning, Kobuk gets so excited he starts turning circles," Christensen said. "They know what's going on when you put the vest on."

Through this experience, the peninsula has gained two valuable assets in public safety and crime prevention, and Nelson and Christensen have made loyal friends for life.

"My wife wants to know why (Kazan's) name is tattooed on my arm and hers isn't," Nelson said about his relationship with his dog.

Kobuk and Kazan are popular in the community as well and tend to attract interested children and adults wherever they go. Nelson and Christensen said they don't mind people coming to see the dogs and even pet them while they're on duty, but warned that people should always ask permission first. They advised that anyone approaching the dogs should move slowly and not agitate them. Agitating a police dog while its in its vehicle is a crime, Nelson said, and assaulting a police dog is a felony just as serious as assaulting a police officer.

Kobuk and Kazan will likely be with the peninsula law enforcement for at least 4 to 6 years. When their careers as police dogs are over, their handlers have several options of what to do with them. They could find the dogs a good home somewhere, kennel them or even euthanize them. Judging by the strong attachments the dogs have obviously formed with their handlers and vice versa after just six months, the more likely option is the two will retire into a home life with their handlers.

"After a month of having him, they thought Kobuk had a bad hip so they took X-rays," Christensen said. "If they decided Kobuk had a bad hip you would have had one depressed guy, when I thought about not having that dog."

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