K-9 Evo demonstrates apprehending a suspect on Lt. Lee Carswell, K-9 supervisor for the SCSO. Photo by David Grace.
Officers of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office just completed a strenuous training process and are ready to go on patrol — as long as their human partners are driving.
Three new handlers have completed training and been added to the K-9 Unit of the SCSO.
Deputy Kris Thomas and K-9 Dexter, Deputy Brandon Shull and K-9 Evo and Deputy Sam Ford and K-9 Diablo are now ready to patrol Sullivan County. The three sets of partners had to complete an intensive 10-week training course which took place at the SCSO training center in Blountville.
For the handlers, it was a special day.
"I'm kind of glad for training to be over with," Ford said on Friday. "I'm just ready to get out and use them on patrol a little bit."
Ford has been with the department for 10 years. He's been a patrol officer and the last four years, has been a member of the SWAT team. He was looking for a challenge and decided to sign up to be a K-9 officer.
He said the K-9 training was completely different from SWAT training. He said it was a challenge and the hardest part was trying to read the dog. Diablo is a veteran of the department — winning Top Dog awards in 2013 at a regional certification event — so he knows what to do, but Ford did not know Diablo's signals. He had to learn those and said it was tougher than he thought, with each day still bringing new lessons.
During the 10-week training period, the dogs and their handlers were trained in building searches, suspect tracking, narcotics detection, article searches and apprehending suspects. All were recently certified by the United States K-9 Association at a trial held in Loudon County, Tennessee.
Even though the course is over, training is not. It is recommended nationally for K-9 handlers to have documented training a minimum of 16 hours a month.
"It basically consumes you," said Lt. Lee Carswell, K-9 Supervisor for the SCSO. "These K-9 handlers can tell you, it's basically a never ending process. It's just like anything else, it takes several years for them to really perform as a team at their highest potential."
Potential K-9s go through a rigorous selection process. Dogs are selected from a vendor, usually overseas, and need to exhibit certain types of instincts. Not every dog can do this type of work, so the department has to be selective when choosing a new officer.
The dogs are between a year and a half to two years old when they are selected and usually come with no training at all, but have a desire to work.
"The hardest part is not usually training the K-9, it's the handler," Carswell said. "The handlers have to learn how read the K-9s, know when to correct the dog, know when to reward the dog and the dogs learn by association through that process."
Once trained, K-9s will stay on the force until they are 10 or 11-years-old, as long as no medical conditions arise. Some dogs have had to retire at 7 or 8-years-old because of hip problems.
Completing training is not only rewarding for the K-9s and their handlers, but Carswell feels a sense of pride too.
"There's probably nothing more satisfying than seeing those K-9s and seeing how they progressed over a 10-week period," he said. "Because there are times in that training where you think, 'Are they going to make it or are they not?' Then when you see them over that 10-week period come together as a team and then successfully go through a very tough certification and then make it through it is one of the most satisfying things as a trainer you can have."