VALPARAISO — A police officer walks a German shepherd up into a trailer full of lockers, searching for the narcotics hidden inside.
In less than a minute, the dog finds the drugs and is given his favorite toy as a reward. That exercise was one of the many in which K-9 teams were trained this week at the North American Police Work Dog Association National Seminar. The workshop, hosted by the Valparaiso Police Department, opened Sunday and runs through Thursday.
The dogs were being trained all across Valparaiso for a variety of tasks. One officer ran a course with his dog to detect mail bombs. Other officers headed to the temporary Valparaiso City Hall at the former Hayes Leonard Elementary School to practice building searches.
“These dogs are highly disciplined and can adapt to any situation,” said Todd Kobitz, a master K-9 trainer for the Valparaiso Police Department and one of the organizers. “They know when certain actions are appropriate. If I ordered them to attack for no reason, they'd get confused. They're adapted well for their job.”
The training showcased how dogs accept commands and efficiently execute them in highly emotional situations. The Gary K-9 unit was practicing an advanced version of classic obedience training, getting a team of four dogs to sit, stay and even sit on each other in almost an instant.
Rick Ashabranner, president of the North American Police Work Dog Association, said training can vary between dogs and each trainer has some different techniques.
The trainers admit it's difficult and time-consuming, but it's the reason K-9 teams from parts of Canada and about 25 states came to the seminar.
"What you've got here is such a tremendous group of individuals with such knowledge, literally a combination of hundreds and hundreds of years of experience and training from all different environments,” Ashabranner said. “You come here and you literally get to pick and choose what might work for you.”
The workshops provided a chance for officers to learn new skills, practice what they already knew and get a nationally recognized certification. The event had about 50 master trainers who can certify officers' skills, something very important to the strict standards to which police K-9 units are held.
Kobitz said he needs to practice with his dogs 16 hours a month to keep them in the best shape for the job. Ashabranner said trainers like Kobitz also need additional hours of class work, training and provide a minimum number of certifications each year to maintain their title.
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“We're the only specialty in the police that requires a mandatory amount of hours per month to train. To me that speaks volumes on the importance of the training,” Kobitz said. “SWAT teams don't have mandatory hours and they have such an important mission.”
A poorly trained dog could also become a liability for a department.
“It has a lot to do with officer safety and public safety,” Ashabranner said. “It's like maintaining anything. If you don't take care of it, it'll perform badly and even dangerously. We'd rather not have any police department become the source of case law involving K-9 units.”
Valparaiso Police Chief Jeff Balon said he's seen how useful dogs are in the field, specifically searches in keeping narcotics out of the city.
“If you had to search a school without a K-9, how many officers would have to go there, taking them away from the other part of their job, just to do that? (Police) K-9 units can go to that in a very short amount of time and let you know that they found the bad guy or sniff out drugs.”
The number of drugs confiscated or kept away from the city isn't what matters most in Kobitz's mind, but that it never got into circulation.
“We want Valparaiso to be as nice it can so we're very strict with narcotics, no matter how much or how little,” he said. “Every bit helps."
The city was chosen two years ago to host the seminar because of the variety of available locations at which to train and because of the facilities at the Multi Agency Academic Cooperative training center, where much of it was hosted.
Kobitz said the MAAC and the McMillan Family Foundation which funds the facility, were key in getting the event in Valparaiso. The event also prompted the MAAC to build a special K-9 training area on its campus.