Story by Sara Paul
Dark winds and bitter cold had descended on a sinister Mount Hope, NY night as a routine car stop for a suspended license had turned into a manhunt for a murderer.
Sergeant Justin Butterfield was heading home with his K-9 Deputy, a German Shepherd named Faro, when he received the alert of a suspect who had fled on foot.
Sgt. Butterfield and Deputy Faro responded immediately. Trudging through icy woods, frozen rivers, and rocky terrain, the heroic duo searched for more than three miles before finding the investigatory jackpot: weapons. In the end, the suspect was apprehended; cop and cop’s best friend helped save the day.
“You think you know things, but the truth is the dog is following his instincts. I’m the slack and he’s the lead, and when it’s pitch black, I have just got to trust that he knows what he’s doing,” said a seasoned Sgt. Butterfield, who is a trainer at the Orange County Sheriff’s K-9 Academy in Montgomery, NY, where there are currently eight K-9s in active service.
So, since it’s not in these working pup’s instinctual nature nor vocabulary to boast or brag, it is their human partners in the deterrence of crime who share their tales of bravery and selflessness.
There was the time in which K-9 Deputy Jake, also a Shepherd, sniffed out a carefully hidden 9 mm, a firearm stashed by a calculated criminal who admitted he had plans to use the weapon on his girlfriend had he not been apprehended.
Though officers had spent quite a bit of time searching the large multi-dwelling building, it was Jake, who was trained in explosives, who found the gun in less than three minutes, as he could detect the muzzle blast powder. To be sure, Deputy Jake found the smoking gun.
“We use our eyes; dogs use their noses,” assures Sergeant Dustin Palen, K-9 Supervisor and Trainer at the Academy.
After Jake’s passing, Sgt. Palen was assigned Skip, a two-year-old Malinois-Shepherd mix, born in Hungary, and named for the late Deputy Robert “Skip” Dooley, one of the first canine handler’s in the Sheriff’s office.
“These dogs are fast, strong, and agile, and their number one trait is their nose,” said Sgt. Palen. “They provide us with a tool that cannot be matched with anything else we currently have.”
“Their sense of smell is 1,000 to 10,000 stronger than in humans. They search where we might not think to,” said Sgt. Butterfield, recalling an incident where cops overlooked a filthy trash can overflowing with an overwhelmingly unpleasant stench, whilst Deputy Faro knew without a doubt that the receptacle contained exactly what the officers sought.
Finally acquiescing to Faro’s instincts, the search team found a large quantity of heroin hidden in a diaper.
Warwick PD’s Two K-9s
In the Town of Warwick, two solid K-9s patrol and protect in many key locations every day of the year. Tank, a four-year-old German Shepherd trained in explosives and patrol, accompanies his handler, Officer Vincent Cossentino, to high risk areas such as train and bus stations, schools and malls.
“It’s important to make a presence at all these locations,” notes Warwick Police Officer Kevin Halsey, who has been with the police force for 16 years and has worked with K-9s for 13 years.
Officer Halsey is also a trainer at the K-9 Academy. One of Officer Halsey’s brutal charges is to don a protective suit and teach dogs how to bite suspects properly.
“We want the dog to be confident, not crazy. They are trained to bite and hold the individual until officers can arrive and place the individual in custody,” explains Officer Halsey, who is also an examiner for the State, along with Sgts. Palen and Butterfield, ensuring the K-9s are up to required standards.
Officer Halsey’s assigned K-9 is Nicky, an eight-year-old Belgian Malinois, trained in narcotics and patrol.
K-9 pups have been an integral part of law enforcement agencies since the Middle Ages, with the name K-9 serving as a homophone for canine. The deputy dogs have keen olfactory capabilities and traits that allow them to do things that their human counterparts simply cannot achieve.
Training Facility in Orange County
In Orange County, an expansive 20-year-old facility serves as the County’s training hub. With an agility course, which officers themselves have improved and maintained, that includes an “A” frame, cat walk, and hurdles that mimic things like bushes, fences or windows, the grounds have also welcomed and answered the training needs of dogs from other departments and areas at no cost.
From Putnam and Rockland Counties to as far as South Carolina, the Montgomery location also assisted in training about 60 dogs for the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Multiple Agencies Working Together
“If we have the ability to help other agencies train their dogs, then we do it,” states a humble Sheriff Carl E. DuBois, who is in his 16th year of service.
Sheriff’s staff members agree that it is his leadership that allows the program to grow.
“Sheriff DuBois is a staunch, staunch supporter of the efforts, and this allows us to do what we do to the best of our abilities,” said Sgt. Palen.
Officer Halsey also stresses the comradery of multiple agencies and multiple dogs working together.
“We work well with everyone in our communities, and at the end of the day, if there is a legitimate concern, we are all there to respond to it,” said Officer Halsey.
While the cute and furry friends are well-liked by community members, school-age children, and dog-loving passer-bys they serve in various venues, Sgt. Palen reports that the acquisition and training of both dog and handler is a serious, complex and costly process.
According to Sgt. Palen, K-9s are typically acquired by law enforcement agencies at about one to one-and-a-half years old. Handlers are usually looking for “green dogs” who are not formally trained, but who have a drive and temperament that is appropriate for the job.
The Adoption & Training Process
Agencies collaborate with an expert dog broker who will identify young pups who will be workable and healthy. Most pups hail from Europe where there is strong emphasis on breeding for strength and longevity rather than looks or competition.
Adoption fees ranging from about $7,000 to $9,000 may seem steep, but these dogs come with smart breeding and upbringing, and also a health and workability guarantee. If they do not progress, they can, in fact, be transferred or returned.
After the adoption process, the dog is assigned to a handler, a careful matching process that can sometimes mimic a marriage, with “opposites attracting,” according to a smiling Sgt. Butterfield.
Handlers are absolutely included in the rigorous training process, which includes key aspects such as bonding and developing a sense of trust, with the dog first trusting the handler, and then inevitably and as importantly, the handler trusting his dog.
“You really have to earn this and really need a passion for it,” said Sgt. Butterfield, who was on the job only three years before being assigned to the K-9 unit.
After Deputy Faro passed away, Sgt. Butterfield acquired Roger, a seven-year-old Belgian Malinois born in the Netherlands, who was named for former Sheriff Roger Phillips.
“It’s not an easy job. Minimum training equals a minimally trained dog,” said Sgt. Palen. “It takes a special person to do this. You must train to be ready for all seasons, in all elements and in all scenarios.”
One such training scenario is a building search simulation in which there is a field containing six large boxes. Each box has a small slit on the bottom where the odor from the human “suspect” inside can seep out.
Once a search command is given, a K-9 will carefully smell each box until locating the one containing the human. Going a step further, trainers will often place humans in all six boxes for a time and then have all exit except for one. This tests the pup’s ability to not only smell for human scent, but for the freshest scent, a very important detail for an instance where perhaps a large building has just been evacuated and only a suspect remains.
K-9s will all undergo a 16-week Patrol School, which includes obedience and agility, tracking, evidence or article recovery, building search, finding weapons, and lastly, and most minimally, criminal apprehension, a duty that has historically created a negative stereotype for the extremely obedient dogs.
“In the last decade, we have all worked hard to combat the image that these dogs are wild animals that chase, attack, and bite suspects. These dogs only do what they are trained to do,” noting that there are two and only two instances in which a K-9 dog will act on its own will: when the dog itself is in danger or if the handler is in danger.
Patrol training is followed by further specialized training in narcotics, requiring eight weeks, or explosives, an additional 12 weeks. The narcotics training piece has recently become a topic of controversy in the wake of conversations about legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. As the common drug is currently illegal for recreational purposes in New York State, K-9 dogs are still trained to seek it out.
“When and if the law changes, we will adjust the training as necessary. Laws change all the time, but this would be a big one,” said Sgt. Butterfield.
Once K-9s have completed their training and certifications, the badge flashing officer’s best friends are ready to punch in. With 192 hours of in-service training, along with an additional 96 hours in-service training for explosives or narcotics, patrol and narcotics K-9s are re-certified every three years, explosives every year.
The dogs will have about a seven to 10 year work life; they typically remain on the job until between eight and 11 years of age before enjoying their well-deserved retirement in their handler’s home.
From well maintained and manicured training facilities to state of the art cars, these dogs are ultimately and indisputably well cared for. A handler’s take-home vehicle, for example, features a re-constructed back seat area with rounded metal edges, an exhaust fan, and even a built in water bowl.
“You can’t leave work behind when you bring your dog home,” said Sgt. Butterfield, who points out that not only can’t one enjoy a pit-stop at the gym after a long day in the office with a K-9 in the vehicle, but that the pair also might be summoned back to work if there is a call requiring the few and fearless K-9s.
When a K-9 in on the Case
In challenging times when respect for law enforcement is sometimes questionable, the fear of the dogs can certainly lend a hand when pursuing or even interviewing suspects.
“They usually give up when they see a dog because they know this is real and they can’t talk their way out of it,” reports Sgt. Butterfield. “You can’t threaten these dogs.”
To be sure, there have been occasions when interviewed suspects have admitted the location of a drug stash when they learn that a K-9 is on the case.
Unfortunately, with the continued heroin and opioid crisis plaguing the area, the dogs are called upon almost daily to respond to a situation related to drugs.
“This further shows the need for K-9s to be out there. We need to get this stuff out of the hands of those who are contributing to this terrible, life threatening problem,” Sgt. Palen declares sternly.
As if their daily duties are not enough, the loyal K-9s and their hard-working handlers also provide demonstrations for the community, educating the public, particularly school age children, about the importance of the dogs.
With dozens of K-9 pics, both past and present, and patches from collaborative law enforcement agencies lining the walls of the K-9 Academy, the home base wreaks of canine history and a sincere sense of pride.
Sgt. Palen concluded his remarks, reiterating the value of the partnership between law enforcement and their canine companions.
It’s movingly clear as the Sergeant glances fondly and proudly at the photo of his old pal, Deputy Jake, that man’s best friends have become man’s most trusted friends. He simply and humbly states, “Trust your dog.”