Miami-Dade County

In training: Dog groomed for police work in Miami

Officer Stephanie Collazo during a training exercise to train Nas to stay calm when there is gunfire in Miami on Monday, November 10, 2014.
Officer Stephanie Collazo during a training exercise to train Nas to stay calm when there is gunfire in Miami on Monday, November 10, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

On a cold and windy day before Thanksgiving, an officer from the Miami police K-9 unit was hiding in a garbage can around the unit’s headquarters in Flagami. He wouldn’t stay there long. A police dog was out to get him.

Handler Stephanie Collazo, 32, and her new dog, Nas, a 2-year old Belgian Malinois, scouted the backyard of a house looking for the pretend fugitive hidden somewhere.

Nas sniffed around the patio furniture. He sniffed past the garbage can, but went past as the officers began to pout. Before they could utter a word, he was back at the garbage can, barking.

The pretend offender came out of the can and Nas dug into the officer’s padded arm, immobilizing him.

“Good boy,” said Collazo, as she gave Nas a treat.

This is a routine drill for the K-9 team, which searches indoors and out for evidence, narcotics or explosives. Officer Collazo, the only woman in the unit, is working with Nas as he completes the required 480 hours of training.

Nas has lived with Collazo since August, in a spacious kennel in the family backyard. Collazo, who is married with two kids, will often let her kids play with Nas, but only under her supervision.

“He needs to know the on and off switch,” she said. “I want him to know that when he’s home, he’s a regular dog.”

But while Nas may be a regular dog at home, his job as a police dog goes beyond keeping the home safe. Nas’ main job is to keep Collazo safe during their searches.

Sgt. Alberto Perez, another officer in the unit, said contrary to what many people think, police dogs aren’t always mean and aggressive, and only hope to please their handler.

“They’re constantly training,” he said. “Nothing makes them happier than working.”

Nas is actually a playful dog, always looking to sit on Collazo’s lap despite being too big to behave like a lap dog.

“He thinks he’s that small,” she said, laughing.

Collazo, who always had dogs while growing up, is strict with Nas while training, but playful when she’s trying to bond with him, an important part of the dog-handler relationship that will be vital once Nas is ready to search the field.

“He’s my eyes,” said Collazo, who will train Nas to specialize on narcotics once his training is completed.

A K-9 handler with the unit for eight years, Collazo said she knew she wanted to work with dogs. While she worked as a patrol officer, a fellow officer left her exposed in a risky situation.

“Dogs don’t do that,” she said. “They’re there to put themselves in the danger to protect you.”

Collazo has passed up three opportunities to be promoted because the opportunities are not in the K-9 unit. She said she sees herself retiring in the unit.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I like getting the bad guys off the street, and that’s what we’re doing.”