Loki sticks close to Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Emmanuel Koutsofias’ left leg.
Suddenly, the Belgian Malinois stops and lies down — all while keeping an eye on Koutsofias.
Koutsofias quickly rewards his four-legged partner with a “good boy,” a rub on the head and a tennis ball toss for listening to his command.
“They think they are playing,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Ian Sklar of the dogs at a recent training session. “They are so happy to be at work.”
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But law enforcement officers across South Florida say humans are the lucky ones. German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, bloodhounds and other dog breeds are valuable members of the law enforcement community that help sniff out criminals, find missing people and detain those who choose to run.
“Dogs can do things humans can’t,” Sklar said as he helped train some of the department’s 17 dogs. “They have an incredible sense of smell and can find things we never would be able to find.”
At the training field, Loki, who is 77 pounds, easily climbed up a ladder and navigated a bridge before stopping on command on a narrow platform. He then jumped over fences and through windows.
Law enforcement dogs are rewarded only with praise. Treats —especially on the job — are not allowed.
“They need to be able to handle any situation,” Sklar said, adding that dogs go through nearly 500 hours of training with their partner before getting a badge. “You never know where a criminal is going to hide.”
CHOOSING A DOG
Law enforcement agencies use different breeds for different tasks. Most of the dogs who look for drugs and are trained to apprehend criminals are either German shepherds or Belgian Malinois.
Miami Beach K-9 Sgt. Jon Brudzinski said those breeds are chosen not only because of their size — they are often large and strong — but because of their temperament.
“These dogs truly enjoy what they do,” he said.
Sklar said selecting a dog to be on the force is a long and sometimes tedious process. The dogs are often brought to South Florida from Europe and then are sold to departments by a broker.
But Sklar said the dogs have to “prove themselves” before they are hired.
“They go through a lot of tests to see if they can do what we need them to do,” he said.
A dog that will look for something until he finds it or not be spooked easily is the type of dog Sklar is looking for.
“We want the top dog,” he said.
Using animals in law enforcement isn’t new, said Kevin Lystad, president of the Miami-Dade Association of Chiefs of Police. Their keen sense of smell that helps human officers track down criminals.
“If there is a pizza, humans smell pizza,” Lystad said. “Dogs smell the individual ingredients. The bread, the water, the cheese, the sauce, the oregano. We don’t have that ability.”
And when a bad guy chooses to run, tracking them down by scent can save time.
Dogs have been used in law enforcement for more than a century, but today they’re increasingly used in more detailed work, said Miami Beach Sgt. Brudzinski.
“There is an increased level of sophistication in the way dogs are used and the dogs are trained,” he said, explaining that his fleet is trained even on the beach to be prepared for everything.
“Our dogs need to be able to react quickly,” he said. “That is what the training is for.”
CARING FOR DOGS
Animals also don’t cost as much as their human companions. According to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, dogs cost between $10,500 to $12,500 initially, with the department paying about $1,145 a year for food and other expenses.
“They are worth their weight in gold,” Sklar said.
In terms of equipment, K-9 officers have specially equipped cars so the dogs are comfortable. They also have a special remote that allows them to open the door in case they need assistance from their dog.
Brudzinski said the dogs live with their handler, adding that his dog Rocko knows when it’s time to go to work based on when he puts on his uniform.
“He does circles when he sees me in the uniform,” he said. “That means we are going to work.”
Law enforcement officers generally refer to their animals as their partners.
“They are just as much an officer as I am,” Sklar said. “They do all the work.”
When a police dog dies — especially in the line of duty — they are given a proper burial.
K-9s were recently in the news when Hialeah patrol officer Nelson Enriquez left his bloodhound Jimmy and his Belgian Malinois Hector in the back of his Ford Explorer SUV with the engine turned off at his Davie home. Both dogs were later found dead.
Davie and Hialeah police are investigating.
And while such incidents do happen, it’s rare.
Brudzinski said the relationship between handler and K-9 is strong.
“He’s got my back,” he said of his dog. “And I’ve got his.”