ST. GEORGE – Few things can produce a deer-in-the-headlights look like being approached by a police officer. Dealing with one of your city’s finest can feel intimidating sometimes, but what about when that officer has a four-legged partner with him?
When St. George Officer Jeremy Needles and his partner, Marco, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois, paid a visit to a popular skimboarding spot on the Virgin River, everyone took note. Some eyes went wide while others, like a trio of teenage boys, became momentarily stiff as the police officer looked their way.
“Which one of you is the best skimboarder?” Needles asked the boys, and suddenly the three boys were visibly less tense. One of them claimed to be the best and proceeded to show his prowess on the skimboard. He ran, threw the board on the water and rode it off a ramp – at which point board and rider separated immediately and went off in different directions.
Looking back at the others, Needles said, “Are you guys going to let him show you up?”
Needles soon left the riverside with Marco and returned to the patrol truck specially catered to Marco’s needs. Where the back seat would be in an extended cab truck, Marco has a comfortable spot to jump into where food, water and air conditioning await him. To help guarantee he stays cool at all times, special sensors have been installed in the truck to monitor the temperature and alert Needles if the air conditioning quits or things get too hot inside. This is where Marco stays while driving with Needles or happens to be parked somewhere. The air conditioner runs full time.
When off duty, Marco goes home with Needles. “He’s with me 24/7,” Needles said.
Marco joined the ranks of the St. George Police Department in 2008. He is originally from the Czech Republic, Needles said, and was bred from champion dogs who won “bitework” competitions.
Marco is also the second Belgian Malinois used by the department. The other dog, Buster, actually works with the Washington County Drug Task Force, though his handler is a St. George Police officer like Needles.
While Buster is used with the task force, Marco is a dedicated patrol dog.
“My job is to back up officers,” Needles said. He and Marco have no dedicated patrol route. Instead they pay visits to various city parks and popular public areas like the city skate park and the skimboarding one on the Virgin River. Needles said they do this because the sight of an officer with a dog acts not only as a potential deterrent against criminal activity, but also provides for positive public relations opportunities.
As they are not tied to any particular patrol route, Needles and Marco are able to provide quick backup to officers in whatever part of town they happen to be in at the time, or they can run across town if an extra officer or drug sniffing dog is needed for any reason.
“We’re busy throughout the whole city,” Needles said.
Needles and Marco also visit area elementary schools were they give presentations on drug prevention tp students. Marco’s social nature is what makes the presentations possible, Needles said, and added the dog’s “social capacity” was one of the reasons the police picked him up.
“He’s a very social dog,” Sgt. Sam Despain said, who has formerly been a K-9 handler himself. When not engaged in sniffing out drugs or other aspects of police work, Marco loves to play.
Despain and Needles are responsible for the police having the two dogs it currently does. The Police Department has used dogs off and on throughout the years, Despain said, and after the last dog was retired the department didn’t get a replacement until 2006 when the two police officers pitched the idea of new dogs to their superiors.
Purpose and training
“(The dogs) are nonbiased and hardworking,” Despain said, “another tool that we have that’s a proven tool.”
Both Despain and Needles said that 99 percent of the work the dogs do is drug-sniffing. They are also trained in suspect apprehension, but that rarely takes place.
St. George Police Chief Marlon Stratton said suspects typically give up once they see a dog brought out. One look at the dog – who can turn from a friendly tail-wagging creature into a barking, snarling hellhound at a handler’s command – is enough to get most people cooperating with police.
Needles said he’s only had to bring Marco out of the patrol truck seven times to potentially deal with a problem suspect, and each time the suspect gave up as soon as they saw the dog. In each case, however, Needles explained that a list of criteria involving suspect behavior has to be met before a dog is ever released.
As for drug detention, Needles held a demonstration involving a sample of marijuana. The sample was hidden in a public park restroom – the sample also happened to be five years old. Needles sent Marco into the restroom to find the sample, gave the dog commands in German as he went, and also remarked on how powerful a dog’s sense of smell is in comparison to that of a human.
Once the command was given to search out the drug, Marco went from being hyperactive and playful to quiet and focused. He moved about the restroom until he came to the sink. He sniffed at the area and then began to bark – he had found the marijuana underneath the sink.
Abrupt changes in behavior followed by barking, biting or scratching – or a combination of these actions – are signs to an officer that something suspicious has been sniffed out by the K-9.
Once found, Needles retrieved the sample and rewarded Marco with an old piece of fabric the dog could chew on and rip about to his heart’s content. Training like this takes place daily.
The same thing happens after performing real searches, Needles said. If Marco finds something, he is rewarded, having been trained and conditioned to see drugs as something akin to toys to be found.
“It’s a big game to (the dogs),” he said.
Needles became Marco’s handler shortly after the dog came to the police department. Before then he acted as Marco’s “agitator” during bitework training. Essentially, the agitator is a giant chew toy for the dog, he said. After working with the dog, Needles said, he applied to be a K-9 handler and was lucky enough to be chosen for the position.
Needles himself is a veteran of the U.S. Army who served in the Iraq War. He joined the police force in 2005 and has served as a K-9 officer since 2008.
In order to become a K-9 officer, Needles had to take 10 hours of agitator training, 320 hours of narcotics training, plus another 320 hours of patrol training. These are also requirements for annual recertification.
Along wth St. George, the Washington City Police Department also employs a K-9 unit, as does the Cedar City Police Department.
Recently a Cedar City Police K-9, Pajko, also a Belgian Malinois, was in the news after being injured while apprehending a suspect. Pajko sustained injuries to his neck that required surgery. He went to Las Vegas for the surgery and is anticipated to make a full recovery.
Updates on Pajko’s recovery, as well as news related to the dogs used by Cedar City Police, can be found on the “Friends of Iron County Police K-9” Facebook page.
Needles estimated that the average span of a police dog’s service was possibly between eight and 10 years, though retirement could come sooner depending upon the severity of trauma and injuries the dog may experience while on duty.
As for Marco, Needles said he is first in line to adopt his partner when his days of drug sniffing and patrolling are over.
- Surgery for injured police dog successful, return to active duty anticipated
- Cedar City police dog injured on duty, suspect arrested
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