VIRGINIA BEACH — How many people out there work with their dogs and spend nearly 24 hours a day with them?
That’s the life of police dog handlers in the Virginia Beach Police Department, who both work and live with their canine partners.
Much like their human colleagues in the department, police dogs receive extensive training and thrive on trust, respect, a command structure and communication with their partners. It is the bond that officers forge with their canines that transforms the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Canine Unit into a crime-fighting cohort that is part man, part beast.
They can be playful at home — but don’t be fooled
All police dog handlers are master police officers who have been on the force for years, says Sgt. Chris Tull, who supervises the canine unit. Each dog is handled by only one officer.
The dogs also live in the homes of officers, and mingle with their friends and family. Officers with the unit said their dogs play with their children and are very protective of them, which is why respecting the violent capabilities of dogs is especially important.
Once the workday is done, the dogs switch into a different mode once they’re at home.
“When we put a harness on the dog and they get in the truck in the morning, they know it’s go time and get excited,” Tull said. “But when the harness comes off and we get back home, they become relaxed.”
That doesn’t mean that police dogs are just like any other pet – many have gone through aggression training, and acting the wrong way can cause problems.
“These dogs have been trained to hurt, and if you don’t have the proper bond with them, issues can arise,” Tull said.
The dogs love to work and typically serve on the force for about seven years, Tull said.
“They could probably work longer than that, but we want them to retire with some sense of health,” Tull said. “We don’t want to work them too hard, and want them to still be able to get up on the couch and live a good life in retirement.”
When dogs retire, their handlers are given first choice to keep the dog as their personal pet, which they usually do.
‘They’re more than just equipment’
The dog training is layered and each layer builds upon the one before it, Tull said.
All of the dogs are male German shepherds or Belgian Malinois and imported from trainers in Holland, Belgium and the Czech Republic. The dogs are raised and receive extensive obedience training there, which is one reason why Virginia Beach Police officers often shout commands at their dogs in Dutch or German.
Canine vendors eventually buy and import the dogs to the U.S. Cobra Canine and Ventosa Kennels are examples of American vendors through which VBPD has purchased dogs, which typically cost about $7,000–$10,000 each.
At the U.S. canine vendors, dogs receive further training, such as scent tracking or aggression training, for example. Once the dogs arrive at the police department, their skill sets are further sharpened for police work by their handlers.
Among their responsibilities, handlers train dogs in pursuit and take-down, and the search of luggage, vehicles and buildings.