The Billings Police Department introduced two of its newest foot soldiers Wednesday, Belgian Malinoises named Susan and Dutch.
They are both dual-purpose dogs, trained to sniff out drugs and to do all the duties associated with regular patrol work, including evidence recovery, tracking, finding people who don’t want to be found and “bite apprehension.”
That last skill is particularly effective at obtaining compliance from criminal suspects.
“Who wants to get bit by a dog?” K-9 officer David Firebaugh asked. It’s a universal phobia, he said, “like spiders and snakes.”
Susan and Dutch, both about 2½ years old, join two other Belgian Malinoises already on the force: Kooko, 5½, and Cuff, who is about 9. Recon, also a dual-purpose dog of the same breed, recently retired, and Cuff will retire about the end of the year. His replacement will be coming on a bit earlier, probably in September, Firebaugh said.
The dogs showed their stuff for a small gathering of media representatives Wednesday at the department’s training facility on Midland Road. Dutch and Kooko worked themselves into a slobbering slather while sniffing out drugs planted in one room, after which Susan and Cuff demonstrated their “bite apprehension” skills on a padded-suit-wearing Firebaugh, in the parking lot.
Firebaugh said the Belgian Malinois has gradually become the K-9 of choice for police departments because dogs of that breed look similar to and have many of the same traits as German shepherds, but are generally smaller, live longer and are less susceptible to maladies like back and hip cancer.
Each police dog has his or her own officer-handler. Firebaugh is Dutch’s handler and Susan is paired with Jeremiah Adams. Cuff is Rob Vickery’s dog and Kooko is handled by Richard Gilmore.
Firebaugh recently spent 12 weeks in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, at a training center for dogs and handlers. He spent six weeks helping to train 30 dogs, including Susan and Dutch, and another six weeks learning how to train handlers.
At the training center, Firebaugh said, handlers being trained ran the gamut from people who had had dogs all their lives to one officer “who had never even had a goldfish before.” Handlers have to learn how to work with the dogs, how to give commands, how to develop a relationship with them.
Two of the Billings Police Department dogs will be assigned full-time to the traffic unit, where they are often used for drug detection; the other two will be used on patrol and wherever else they are needed at any given time.
These dogs are used to detect four kinds of drugs — cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana — but “you can train a dog to find just about anything you want,” Vickery said, including even thumb drives and CDs that might be used as evidence in, say, a case involving child pornography.
The dogs cost up to $14,000 each, but they also save the department lots of time. They can search a building in a fraction of the time it would take multiple officers to do the same job, and they can find drugs that officers might never have found themselves.
Kooko, Gilmore said, is “an amazing drug dog, just amazing.”
Part of what makes them so good is the excitement of the job, Firebaugh said, and they get incredibly wound up when they’re on a case. Just as with humans, that much intense concentration and excitement can be psychologically taxing, a factor that helps determine, along with decreased physical capacity, when the dogs are ready to retire.
When they do retire, their handlers pay the city $1 to release the city from liability, then take the dogs home for good.
“They should have the opportunity to enjoy just being a dog for a while,” Firebaugh said.