The bad guy lurks in the shadows, wearing a ridiculous foam rubber suit. What heinous deed has he committed? Raiding a futon factory? Escaping from a Michelin commercial? Either way, his padding is so thick, he can't put his arms down.
"Police K-9 unit!" shouts an officer. "Come out now or I'll send in the dog." No response from the Michelin Man, who's taken cover in an empty motel. Actually a rookie cop from East Cleveland rather than a fugitive from a tire empire, he's been recruited to wear the "bite suit" at this training session for police dogs. One by one, 14 canines track him down and attack on command. By night's end, he's battered, bruised, and bathed in puppy slobber.
Officer Dan Warner from Medina is happy the rookie showed up, relieving him of bite-suit duty. One of the more recent K-9 recruits, he's taken his share of licks.
"The newest guy usually ends up wearing the suit," Warner says good-naturedly. At 29, the former Marine is a five-year veteran of the force. When he started, he leaped headlong into drug work, and now he's one of the most promising narcotics officers in the burgeoning suburb.
Warner's partner, Dutch, a five-month-old German shepherd, leaped headlong into chasing tennis balls scented with marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Dutch has about eight more months of training before he can join the force. For now, he's immersing himself in the criminal element, riding with Warner during his late-night shift.
"I've been hounding for a canine for two years," Warner says, grinning wholesomely at his practiced line. "They can help you so much. There's so many things he can do that I can't."
It's common knowledge that a dog helps by being much scarier than a human, holding a criminal at bay so the cop doesn't need to use a weapon. It's not-so-common knowledge that when Fido sniffs out something suspicious, a cop doesn't need to jump through legal hoops to search a car. Warrants to the wind, any plastic baggie wedged in the upholstery is fair game.
Before Dutch can catch any real bad guys, though, he'll practice on pretend ones. It's all part of the rigors of training, from basic obedience to "bite work" sessions, in which the pups attack a stand-in thug wearing a rubber sleeve.
The state started certifying police dogs about 15 years ago, legitimizing what was once a dubious profession. Since then, about 150 area police departments have established canine units, up from 8 or 10 in the 1980s. Medina uses its dogs to track down both hardened criminals and drunken teens toilet-papering houses -- "situations where we don't want to go out there with our guns raised, but we want to find them," says Warner. Then, perhaps, the wayward youths can be put on the path to righteousness and Charmin conservation.
Mike Gabel, a cop from tiny Bath Township, uses his dog, Nieko, for random locker searches at local schools. When he joined the department several years ago, Gabel pushed for a K-9 unit, because his life had been saved by a dog who took a bullet during a drug bust.
"I was working in Florida," he says. "The dog was sent out to distract the gunman, and the suspect focused on the dog and shot the dog. Then another officer killed the suspect. Ever since then, I've had the biggest faith in dogs."
Nieko's not too fond of people, while Dutch had to be taught the importance of not rolling over for a belly rub when confronted by a criminal. During a recent visit to a nursery school, he let 120 preschoolers pat him on the head.
"That's good practice," says Warner. "You don't want him to be afraid of people. But you don't want to coddle him too much, either. You want him to be alert."
There's nothing worse than a passive-aggressive dog, according to Tom Schmidt, a volunteer K-9 trainer for about 10 departments in the area.
"Some dogs will let you pet them, then bite you on the butt on the way out," he says. "What's the good of a dog biting on the way out? You want to bite on the way in."
Words to chew on. And another thing: No matter how tasty the criminal looks, don't attack until your owner gives the word -- "Fass," the German command to bite hard and hang on. For most dogs, jaw control is learned, mainly through lots of practice attacks on the person wearing the foam sleeve. For the sleeve-wearer, the scary part is seeing the big dog at the end of the leash, baring his drool-coated fangs. The actual biting part has all the fierceness of a giant cocker spaniel tugging on a giant sock.
"You learn a lot about a dog by bite," says Schmidt. "If he's timid, he'll put his paws up on the bite sleeve -- so he can split if he needs to. The most aggressive dogs, they'll try to wrap their paws around the guy."
Dutch is a "hugger," says a pleased Warner. When he goes after the sleeve, sure enough, he gets the bad guy in a 360, hopping on his hind legs to stay in control.
"He's breaking all the charts, really going overboard," says Warner. "He's got a nice, strong bite. He came into the program with his paws on fire. He was ready to roll."
After the bite work comes a little indoor tracking. A dirty bookstore on Brookpark Road, closed during a recent crackdown on porno joints, turns out to be a good pretend druggie haven. A Wimbledon of contraband, there's a heroin-scented tennis ball stashed in a cinderblock, cocaine up on a shelf, and pot behind a partition.
"Where's the dope? Go get the dope!" encourages Warner, as Dutch lets his snout do the walking. "Git it! Git it!" Though his nose quivers and his ears prick up, Dutch isn't interested in dope -- he's really hunting for his drug-scented doggy toys.
"This dog will go to his grave thinking a tennis ball is his dope," says a none-too-solemn Schmidt, a crane operator at Ford who considers K-9 training his true calling. "We're sort of tricking him."
Schmidt and his wife, Kathy, started raising dogs 26 years ago.
"We didn't like how they were misbehaving, so we tried to train them on our own," says Tom, trying to talk over the yakking of a pair of riled parrots at his Macedonia home. Eventually, the Schmidts traveled to Germany for schooling in Schutzhunde, the traditional military style of dog discipline. Back in Macedonia, they started a private Schutzhunde school, but got bored instilling nobility in every Tom, Dick, and Bowser.
"Schutzhunde work is always the same," says Schmidt, who donates the police dogs, which usually cost around $8,000, to departments who either don't have the budget or aren't big enough to fund K-9 units on their own. "It gets tedious. But with the K-9 units, we're always coming up with new exercises. Everybody contributes. And there's lots of camaraderie. These officers have become our friends."
At the abandoned motel, another casualty of the smut sweep, there's camaraderie galore. While a couple of cops go inside to check for unsuspecting homeless people (who probably don't want to wake up from a nap with Cujo at their throat), the rest of the crew mills about, reminiscing about their best drug busts. Warner had an awesome weekend. Drugs were left sitting on car seats. Drugs dropped out of a guy's shorts. And a woman had five packets of dope in her bra, packets she gave up voluntarily after Warner told her he wasn't about to search there.
"Then you'd have to buy her dinner," gibes Dan Getto, Warner's fellow officer in Medina. A three-year veteran on the K-9 unit, Getto likes to give the new guys a good ribbing. The de facto historian of the group, he's quick to remember outstanding K-9 moments, like the time the dearly departed Odin the Wonderdog from Olmsted Township (nickname: "The Dragon") climbed ladders to get the crook -- and outstanding practical jokes they played on new recruits, like the time they fired blanks at an unsuspecting rookie who was hiding in the shrubs. Nobody told the kid they were blanks. He lived to see another day, barely. And probably another prank.
While the East Cleveland rookie suits up in his Michelinwear, assuming his hiding place, the boys map out their latest gag. Once the dog attacks, locking teeth on bite suit, they'll yell at the top of their lungs, then jump the poor guy.
It all goes smoothly. The rookie is scared shitless, and he even gets clawed above the eyebrow, emerging red-faced and watery-eyed. His fiancée, who's brought a Polaroid, snaps a picture of the raw fear on his face. That'll be one to show the grandkids.
Getto checks out the wound. "Aw, you got it easy. That's nothing!" he teases. "Five or more stitches, or it don't count. Get back in there. It's hammer time! Watch your genitals." It's all in good fun until somebody loses an eyebrow hair.
Brenda, a relentless dog from the Department of Natural Resources, also known as "The Beast," takes the longest to track, sniffing every room in sequence, aristocratically stopping for a potty break mid-search.
"She's methodical, isn't she?" observes Schmidt. "The way she works, it's like a wind-up toy."
When it's Dutch's turn to hunt the hoodlum, he finds him like quicksilver.
"Good boy!" whispers Warner. "Good boy!"
Dutch is no Odin the Wonderdog yet, but he's no French poodle, either. Though he hasn't quite figured out the German commands for "sit," "heel," and "attack " -- bleibing when he's supposed to be plotzing -- he at least gets the sense that he's in the midst of something much bigger than a kitchen chase with the Chuckwagon. His ears prick up, and he sniffs the discord in the air. There could be a killer in the bushes. Or a serial toilet-paper-thrower behind the tree.
Laura Putre can be reached at email@example.com.
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