K-9 units a law enforcement tool, training and networking vital to their work

Officers and their K-9s practice getting in and out of the helicopter this week for K-9 training on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News
Officers and their K-9s practice getting in and out of the helicopter this week for K-9 training on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY – The old adage that dogs are “man’s best friend” takes on deeper meaning for police officers who rely on their K-9 partners for backup.

For these officers, a dog isn’t just a playmate to throw a Frisbee out to but a partner they train, work and live with.

No one knows this better than Iron County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Peterson who spent nearly three years alone until recently when he was chosen as the department’s K-9 handler. Today, Peterson goes everywhere with his dog Bolos, a 3-year-old Dutch shepherd from Holland.

“He goes everywhere with me,” Peterson said. “When I go to work, he goes with me and when I go home at night he goes with me. He spends more time with me than my family.”

Peterson and Bolos joined about 20 other police K-9 handlers and their four-legged partners for a two-day training Monday and Tuesday on Kolob Mountain, located on the border of Iron and Washington counties.

The annual training event was started 16 years ago by Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Ryan Bauer and former Cedar City Police Officer Jason Thomas. Both had been K-9 handlers during their careers and wanted to provide training to officers and their dogs who, coming from smaller agencies, might not otherwise receive it.

Iron County Sheriff K-9 waits for orders from his handler during a two-day training on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News
Iron County Sheriff K-9 waits for orders from his handler during a two-day training on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

Since that time, the annual event has grown to include K-9 handlers and trainers from all over the country; this year’s group included a few participants from the Las Vegas, Nevada area.

Many of the field scenarios set up for the training gave K-9s and their handlers a chance to experience close to real-life situations that will ultimately transfer to the job.

In some of the exercises, a female decoy was used to act as a suspect, in order to help get the dogs used to the female scent and what to do when encountering a female in the line of duty.

Kalie Robins, who acted as the female decoy, said traditionally dogs are female-friendly and more receptive to a woman’s presence.

“So at one point I ran upstairs and hid behind a shower curtain; and females smell completely different than a male, so to have them find a female was totally different for them. And a shower curtain looks like a wall to them, so it’s hard for them to differentiate (between) a wall and something that’s flexible,” Robins said. “So to have them come in and try to find us, it was really neat to see which ones could make it through and which ones had a harder time finding a female.

“There are some dogs that look at you (as a female) like, ‘Am I supposed to bite you? What are you?’ because we don’t smell the same.”

The first day of training this year included deployment scenarios using the nearby Kolob Reservoir to help get the animals comfortable with the water.

One of the officers shoots off a gun with his K-9 by his side during a two-day training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News
One of the officers shoots off a gun with his K-9 by his side during a two-day training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

“Water is not a natural environment for dogs,” Thomas said, “so working with them around and in the water really gives the dog and the handler confidence to know there isn’t a situation they can’t handle together.”

The water deployments really helped Peterson and Bolos, who both attended the training for the first time. Peterson said, he and Bolos learned some techniques they weren’t familiar before the training.

In other instances, the dogs had to learn how to respond appropriately to sounds of gunshot fire, something that often makes K-9s anxious.

Handlers and their dogs also used a helicopter on site to help their dogs get comfortable getting in and out of the noisy aircraft as well as riding in it. For some of the K-9s, the helicopter ride wasn’t a big deal but Peterson’s K-9, Bolos, wasn’t exactly thrilled.

Still, the anxiety from the ride didn’t stop Bolos from knowing what to do when the helicopter landed and he saw a male decoy acting as a suspect stationed in the field. Upon Peterson’s command, Bolos jumped out and headed straight to the “suspect,” tackling him with his bite.

Decoys at the two-day training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News
Decoys at the two-day training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

For many of the K-9 handlers, the environment of the mountainous range offers a different setting than the urban areas they commonly work in.

“This is a new environment and new stresses for both the dogs and their handlers,” Thomas said. “It’s a different type of environment that many of them have never been exposed to and it’s a harsher environment to work in.”

The training gives the K-9 teams an opportunity to search for suspects in the mountains, Thomas added, and helps to teach the dogs to stay focused even when a rabbit or a deer jumps out in front of them.

Working in the outdoor environment made Kevin Hart, a K-9 handler for the Forest Service in Southern Utah, feel more confident in both himself and his K-9, Fiji.

“It’s training that takes you out of the box and gives you something to think about that you normally wouldn’t think about,” Hart said. “It really tests the limits of the dogs. It’s good exposure for both the handler and the K-9.”

Kent Hatch and Brady McDonald, K-9 handlers at Gunnison Prison, have come down for the training for three years and every time, both officers said they take something home with them they can use in their jobs at the prison.

“We were doing hostage scenarios up here and building clearings. At the prison, we have buildings and warehouses,” Hatch said, “and if you happen to have an inmate that goes off and is barricaded up in one of those buildings, it now is the exact same scenario as the suspect on the street that’s barricaded in a building – it’s just on prison property. … If you have an inmate that runs and escapes and goes to a surrounding town, it’s going to be us that deals with it.”

Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower who went up to the training the second day to support his deputies said he was impressed with what his K-9 handler had learned in the two days he was there.

“It’s well worth the time to attend. You can’t replace that type of training where you have professional trainers for these guys to learn from,” Gower said. “The mountains also give the handler and the K-9 a whole new environment to work in and build confidence with each other. This is absolutely a high quality training that affords these officers opportunities they can’t get anywhere else.”

Iron County Sheriff Deputy Shawn Peterson with his K-9 Bolos came to some training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News
Iron County Sheriff Deputy Shawn Peterson with his K-9 Bolos came to some training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

Costs for the event are always kept to a minimum through charity and volunteers:

  • The nonprofit group Friends of Iron County Police K-9s sponsors the training and carries most of the financial burden of putting it on every year.
  • The Department of Public Safety’s Aerospace Bureau provides the helicopter and the pilot.
  • The property where the training is held is owned by a police officer and offered for use free of charge.
  • Most of the trainers volunteer their time.

“This type of professional training would normally cost hundreds, if not a thousand or more dollars, for these guys to attend,” Bauer said. “But the only cost to the officer is their meals because of the Friends of Iron County K-9s that sponsor this entire two-day event. These officers are getting professional training and in a harsher environment that really helps give them and their dogs confidence to handle any situation they come into.”

While the officers all agreed the training was valuable, it was the networking with other K-9 handlers that many found priceless.

Peterson, who is newer to K-9 handling talked about what he gained working with K-9 handlers from different backgrounds and with various experiences.

Iron County Sheriff Deputy Shawn Peterson cleans up his police K-9 at the training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News
Iron County Sheriff Deputy Shawn Peterson cleans up his police K-9 at the training this week on Kolob Mountain, Utah, July 12, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George/Cedar City News

“You have guys up here with 20-plus years experience strictly in K-9,” he said. “So for me – that’s only really beginning – to be able to talk with them and tell them about what I’ve done in different deployments and ask them what they think and have them, just from what they’re hearing, give me ideas and share their knowledge and experience –really helps me out as a handler.”

All the different agencies there networking with the handlers and learning the different experiences they go through was what Hart said was the biggest benefit of the event.

“Learning from other handlers, what they do, what works and what doesn’t. Connecting with these other guys is huge.”

About Friends of Iron County Police K-9s

Friends of Iron County Police K-9s is a nonprofit organization that provides funding for additional training for officers and their K-9s and also assists with the ongoing costs of medications, food, and vet bills that accrue after a police K-9 is retired.

For more information on how to donate or volunteer to help contact Friends of Iron County Police K-9s.

Email: tsullivan@stgnews.com

Twitter: @tracie_sullivan

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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