City police putting new recruits through intense sleuth training

5 Belgian dogs bought to sniff for drugs and explosives

October 25, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police have added five new members to their force in recent weeks - European police dogs capable of sniffing for drugs or explosives or taking down suspects with a fierce bite.

A private foundation donated the money to purchase the dogs from a Belgian trainer, who delivered two of the dogs Saturday and three others nearly a month ago to the department's K-9 unit.

The five - two Belgian shepherds and three Belgian Malinois - join 19 others owned by the Baltimore force. The dogs have brown or tan coats with black faces.

Police officials said yesterday that the animals will provide help in protecting the public from potential terrorist attacks in the wake of Sept. 11.

"They are absolutely needed right now," said Maj. Donald Healy, commander of the department's tactical division, which oversees the K-9 unit. "To say they are critical is an understatement."

The new dogs - and their handlers - will undergo rigorous training in the next several months to teach the animals to sniff for drugs, guns and explosives. The dogs are trained to attack suspects and protect officers in a crisis.

The K-9 unit buys mostly European dogs because experience has shown they are better bred for this purpose than American-bred dogs, according to Officer Ted Cox, the unit's head trainer.

The dogs must be able to work on slick floors and not react to gunfire, among other attributes, Cox said.

"If they don't have the nerve and heart for police work, then we drive them out," Cox said. "They have to have heart."

After making sure the dogs are fit for police work, Cox and the other trainers must gauge the dogs' personalities for different jobs. An aggressive dog who latches onto balls and other toys will likely be made a drug dog, Cox said. But trainers will turn a more passive dog into an explosives sniffer because police don't want dogs biting suspicious packages, Cox said.

During training, officers are assigned a specific dog, which they take home at night. Soon, the officers and the dogs are spending more time together than the officers and family members, police said. The dogs are fiercely loyal, and some continue to live with their handlers after they become too old for police work.

Officer Ken Dickstein joined the K-9 unit four years ago. He has a retired dog at home, a German shepherd named Nikko, and is training one of the new dogs, a Belgian shepherd named Ybo.

Nikko has jumped through glass windows at Dickstein's house to reach him as he raked leaves because the dog missed his handler and was lonely, the officer said. The dogs also won't let some people into his house if they view them as potential threats, Dickstein said.

"They'll do anything for you," Dickstein said. "They'll take a bullet for you. ... They are more than your partner. They are your best friend."

Ybo and the four other new dogs were purchased from trainer Luke Mairesome, who has trained more than 90 dogs in the past 16 years in Belgium. The Baltimore-based William Snyder Foundation for Animals gave the Baltimore Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that buys police equipment, $11,500 to purchase the dogs.

Officers in the unit said they would like to receive more donations to buy everything from toys and new showers for the dogs to training equipment, kennels and trucks that can more easily transport the animals.

Officer Jerry Turpin has been in the unit for six of his nine years in the department. His first dog, Reno, a German shepherd, has been retired and "eats lasagna at home all day." His active dog, ImKa, is one of the new Belgian Malinois. Turpin met ImKa at Dulles Airport three weeks ago when he picked her up.

"We're bonding," Turpin said. "We have to get used to working together."

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