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By Marti Maguire
The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. - The black German shepherd zeroed in quickly on the white box with a man hidden inside, jogging past five others with hardly a sniff even for ones where the man had hidden before, leaving a lingering human scent.
Minutes later, David Gomez smiled ear to ear as he described the dog, named Loki after the Norse god of mischief, as "high-energy and highly motivated."
Gomez and Loki are members of the New York Police Department Transit Bureau and one of more than 100 dog-and-handler teams in Raleigh this week for the U. S. Police Canine Association National Field Trials. The event is the Olympics for police dogs, with canines competing in tests of agility, obedience and crime-fighting skills, gratifying the handlers who worked so hard to train them.
But these aren't the pampered show dogs you might catch on cable television. These are dogs that can track down a suspect by the smell left on trampled grass. They are trained to attack at the sound of a gunshot and have played with marijuana-stuffed toys as they learned to sniff out drugs.
Nor are they the sad beasts burned into people's minds by video footage of a State Highway Patrol officer repeatedly kicking a police dog as it dangled by its leash. That incident prompted the suspension of the patrol's canine unit while a review is conducted.
Trooper Charles Jones was fired. A judge ruled that he was dismissed unfairly, but the State Personnel Commission has not yet decided whether he will be rehired.
The police canine association was formed to create a certification for the dogs so that their actions would better stand up in courts, said Sgt. Phil Medlin of the Raleigh Police Department, who heads the department's dog unit and hosted the event. It also sets standards for training police dogs.
"When you don't have a standard, you can run into a problems," Medlin said.
The State Highway Patrol is not a member of the association; a spokesman said its trainers are certified by a different group.
Medlin said the association the RPD belongs to recommends training based on rewarding dogs for good behavior -- not punishing them for bad behavior. Medlin said disciplinary tools such as choke collars, pinch collars and electric collars are sometimes used, particularly when training dogs to apprehend suspects.
At the trials, events that simulate nabbing suspects are some of the most challenging. Dogs chase down an officer posing as a suspect (and wearing an arm guard), bite down hard once, then wait while their handler searches the suspect. In some trials, they are called off before biting, or are expected to respond as the suspect attacks their handler.
Regional trials are used to earn certification; the nationals, in Raleigh for the first time this year, are mainly for bragging rights.
The dogs competing this week are mostly German shepherds, with a few Belgian malinois, the breed in the trooper abuse case. They come from long lines of dogs who have all done police work. But for their handlers, they are also pets.
"These are not attack dogs," said Bob Hoyle, a Raleigh police officer whose 7-year-old shepherd, Jago, competed in the event. "These are highly trained, specialized dogs."
Hoyle said he keeps three police dogs at his home - one specially trained to sniff out bombs. They play with his children, 3 and 5, when they're not at work.
The canine team is one of the most sought-after positions in any department, officers said. Members of the NYPD Transit Bureau said that about 800 officers applied to fill 20 positions when the bureau opened a canine division.
The group said the abusive methods used by state trooper Jones were a far cry from those they employed.
Loki learned to search out suspects little by little, Gomez said, first following someone into a room, then finding which of two rooms held the person, then adding rooms from there. Each time, he was rewarded with praise for going to the correct door.
"We don't use food or anything," Gomez said. "The dogs do all of this just because we love and encourage them. They live to please us."

The Events

WHAT: The U.S. Police Canine Association National Field Trials

SCORING: Police dogs compete in four events meant to simulate skills needed for police work. To compete at the national competition, dogs had to score a minimum of 560 out of 700 points at a regional event.

APPREHENSION (340 POINTS): Dogs must track down suspects prompted by their handlers or the sound of a gun. In various trials, a dog will either bite the suspect once and hold him while the handler searches the suspect, or turn back before reaching the suspect.

SUSPECT SEARCH (100 POINTS): A dog must find a person hiding in one of six large wooden boxes arranged in a field.

EVIDENCE SEARCH (70 POINTS): Dogs must find objects such as matchboxes or screwdrivers hidden in boxes strewn in a large field.

AGILITY (60 POINTS): Dogs clear hurdles, climb ladders, jump over and crawl under beams, and more.

OBEDIENCE (120 POINTS): Dogs must follow handlers' directions, such as heel and sit, from close by and 25 feet away.

Wire Service
 
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