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Concord's K-9s — An Officer's Best Friend and Ally

The six K-9 teams of the Concord Police Department are the first line of defense when it comes to catching bad guys. But these police dogs are more than four-legged officers — they're pets too.

If there's anything that will make a Concord police officer teary, it's talking about past K-9 companions. After all, being a handler is the "best job around," officers say, and spending 24-hours a day with a life-saving partner as well as a pet establishes a deep bond.

"He's part of the family," said Officer Ollie Sansen about his K-9, a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois called Ben. "He's certainly my best friend."

There have been 69 police dogs who have served the Concord Police Department and passed on to doggie heaven since 1965, and each one is honored on the memorial outside CPD's headquarters. The department currently has six K-9 teams consisting of an officer and a dog who work and live together for the duration of a four-year contract.

After the four years, the officer can choose to retire the dog or keep the K-9 working for another four years, depending on the dog's physical condition.

It's a demanding job for the dogs, who usually spend 10-hour shifts on high alert, over-stimulated and being tossed around in the back of a police car. Injuries are common and life spans are shorter than for pet-only dogs. But in the K-9 unit's four-decade history at the Concord Police Department, every single dog has been adopted by a handler upon retirement. Some have even been adopted before retirement — requiring the officer to pay a pro-rated cost that can mean thousands of dollars. 

Being a K-9 handler is also a tough task.

"It's a high liablity position," said Lt. David Hughes. "If there's a significant call, the dog team is going to that," he said. "And if they're deployed, they're out in front."

So why do it? 

"When your dog finds that person or finds that gun or whatever you're looking for — you are the hero," said CPD K-9 program coordinator Sgt. Heidi Stephenson. "I don't know that there's a better feeling."

The dogs are chosen from Alderhorst International in Riverside, which imports puppies from Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic and trains them up to certification level. Concord police dogs are "dual purpose," which means that they're trained both in protection work and narcotics detection, able to seize suspects as well as sniff out drugs, weapons and people.

All dogs give different signals when they find what they're looking for — whether its scratching and drooling or remaining silent and still. The handlers have to learn what to look for and be able to "read" the dog at all times. Ben gives an "aggressive alert," according to Sansen. For example, if he's searching a car and the dope is hidden behind the car stereo, Ben will scratch and bite at the area where he detects a scent.

All K-9 teams do a 10-hour training session each week to keep the dogs acclimated and the handlers in charge. After a few years, the "reading" goes the other way too — dogs start to pick up on emotional cues and even subtle body language from their handlers. As officers at Concord PD say: “your emotions go right down the leash.” 

A police dog costs $9,600 plus tax for its four-year term. But according to Hughes, that cost is offset by the savings. In addition to working as a preventative tool by deterring criminals and forcing them to surrender, the dogs are five times more effective at searching an area than a human being. At a low-end estimate, Hughes says, each police dog saves about $8,000 to $9,000 a year in officer hours.

Stephenson says the community has been very supportive of CPD’s K-9s, showing gratitude by donating money to offset vet costs and even bringing a box of dog treats to police headquarters.

“The support is phenomenal,” she said. “People of Concord love their K-9 teams.”

And the officers love their K-9s.

“You can rationalize all day long that it’s just a piece of equipment,” said Hughes. “But he’s your partner. You train with him, he goes home with you, he’s part of your family. You do everything together for at least four years. So take your own relationship with your personal dog and magnify it 10 times and you’re getting close, I think.”

For more, read the series of profiles on Concord Patch about each of the officer-dog partners in the Concord Police Department's K-9 Unit.
Charlie October 24, 2012 at 05:37 PM
We were told by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer rep for the CPD several years ago that the purchase of the K-9's was all private funding (and at that time, there were seven teams - I was SO impressed!)...That's a far cry from a box of dog treats. Has private monetary support of the K-9 program changed? How much of the initial outlay and subsequent upkeep of the dogs is at taxpayer expense? Please understand, I would support whatever that dollar figure is, because the dogs are so well worth it! I just wonder how the PD might go about better informing the public about the opportunity to help finance this project, to defray the cost to the City?
Emily Henry October 24, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Charlie, according to the Concord Police Department, private funding has never been used to purchase police dogs — with one exception. The only private funding recently was a K-9 ballistic vest fundraiser about 10 years ago at Meadow Homes Park, which raised enough money to purchase seven ballistic ("bullet proof") vests for the dogs.
Charlie October 25, 2012 at 12:54 AM
Thank you, Emily. My information WAS received about ten years ago - must have misunderstood. In any case, I brag about CPD's K-9's all the time. We are so fortunate to have as many as we do out there!
Lisa - Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano October 25, 2012 at 08:33 PM
I love this story. Thank you for sharing.

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