The recent death of a K-9 in the line of duty in Wichita has reinforced how essential the work of a police dog is — and the risks it involves.
"As K-9 handlers, we all know that we put our dogs in those dangerous situations. That is what they're trained to do," said Newton Police Department Sgt. Jason Thompson.
For the past 25 years, the Newton Police Department has used K-9s to detect and deter criminal activity.
"Both of our current dogs are dual-purpose dogs, meaning they're trained in drug detection and criminal apprehension," Thompson said.
In 2015, NPD's K-9s assisted in 110 arrests, 316 vehicle searches and recovered and more than $37,000 in illegal narcotics.
"Our dogs are used, on average, a couple of times a day," Thompson said. "They're a really effective and efficient tool."
One K-9 can stop a suspect that might take several officers to subdue. Having a K-9 present increases the likelihood that a suspect will surrender to officers.
"You can point your gun at somebody, and that doesn't have an effect on them as much as it does if you tell them you're going to send the dog after them," Thompson said. "Not many people can relate to what it's like to be shot, but most people in their lifetime have been bitten by a dog and they know that's an unpleasant experience."
Finding suspects who are hiding is another part of a K-9's work.
"We can search buildings that have been broken into a lot faster than going door to door," Thompson said. "The dog goes in, and they're trained to smell for human odor."
K-9s can also locate items that have been hidden or thrown away by suspects.
"There's human odor on anything you touch, whether it be keys or a cellphone, handgun or knife," Thompson said.
Their agility and size lets K-9s go into spaces that are difficult for officers.
"We've deployed our dogs into crawlspaces of houses, attics of houses, into cars," Thompson said.
In 2015, the K-9 Unit completed 11 school searches in Newton. Having regular school searches is intended to deter people from having drugs on school grounds.
"We can't stop what they choose to do on their own time, but if we can stop them bringing drugs into our schools, that's a success," Thompson said.
NPD's K-9 Unit assists agencies from other counties, as well as other Harvey County agencies and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
"When it comes to illegal drugs, there's plenty of work here, unfortunately, and we've got to combat it," Thompson said.
Though criminals may try to hide or mask the odor of their illegal substances, their efforts are no match for the dog's keen noses. Items that contain tetrahydrocannabinol, such as brownies, candies, energy drinks or oils, are easily detected by K-9s.
"They can smell and detect things that we can't, as humans, that are concealed or hidden," Thompson said. "The dogs have no problem with it at all."
In addition to their regular shift work, K-9 officers are on call 24/7. An addition of more K-9s would mean fewer overtime hours for K-9 officers and less time wasted in waiting for the dogs to arrive when they are needed.
"Eventually, we would like to have four, so we could have one per shift," Thompson said.
The dogs are chosen for training when then are around 18 months old and go through 12 to 14 weeks of training with their officer to become certified.
"We push the dogs pretty hard, which they love," Thompson said. "They're as happy as can be when they're out working, that's their time to shine, that's what they're raised to do."
Each month, K-9s go through 24 hours of continued training. Officers work with the dogs to have them find smaller and smaller amounts of drugs hidden in increasingly difficult locations.
"We keep extensive training records and deployment records of everything that we've done," Thompson said.
Unlike police dogs of the past, K-9s are trained not to initiate aggression towards people or other dogs.
"Nowadays, if the dog shows any aggression towards somebody that they're not trying to apprehend, that washes them out," Thompson said. "You can get a dog that does just as good at taking people down without being mean and vicious."
K-9 officers use a mixture of commands in German, Dutch and English for the dogs.
"We use a couple of commands in English because it would be used as a command for the suspect and the dog at the same time," Thompson said.
Life is not all work and no play for the K-9s.
"The dogs have free time when they're home with their families," Thompson said. "The dogs, on their off days, have time to just be a dog."