Capitol Police cars get dog-friendly upgrades

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Capitol Police are changing the look of their police cars. One of the things I liked a lot about their old K9 cars was that the name of the dog was painted on the rear passenger door. I haven't seen this on the new cars. Can you find out more about the Capitol Police dogs? How many of them are there? How do they get their names? Do they live with the officers?

- Melanie Dann, Washington

Never fear, the dogs' names will soon be gracing the vehicles. The names are decals and will be stuck on the rear doors as soon as they arrive.

It isn't just the paint job that's new, said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, public information officer. The Ford Crown Victoria K9 vehicles have several nifty features. There are state-of-the-art cages inside to transport the dogs safely, and each vehicle comes with the Hotdog safety system, made by a company called Criminalistics Inc. During the summer, the vehicle's air-conditioning system keeps the canine occupant comfortable. If the AC fails and the mercury rises, the Hotdog system rolls down the electric windows and sounds the vehicle horn.

Exactly 50 dogs work for the U.S. Capitol Police. They are trained, along with their handlers, at a facility near Blue Plains.

The dogs come from various sources. Many are purchased from Auburn University, which has a special breeding program for detector dogs - dogs who use their noses to find bad things. Others come from local rescue groups. The canine personnel include German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Labrador retrievers and one golden retriever.

All but one of the dogs are used to detect explosives. Benny, the German shepherd handled by Sgt. Charles H. Abernethy, lead instructor in the canine section, is the single patrol dog, used to find and apprehend suspects.

Since the dogs are usually at least 18 months old when they arrive for training, they already have names. Occasionally a name is changed. "We don't want too many dogs with the same name," Abernethy said. "We have a Nero and a Nero 2. After that there's no more Neros."

The training takes 12 to 14 weeks and centers around a dog's predilection to have a good time. Instructors look for what most interests a dog in terms of play. "It could be a tennis ball, it could be a Kong, it could be a stuffed animal," Abernethy said. "You just have to find out what the dog values."

That item becomes the reward given to the dog when it successfully detects explosives. Answer Man wondered whether the officers secretly hope the dog will prefer a tennis ball, so they don't have to carry around a stuffed animal, but Abernethy said no, the officers just want a skilled dog, one that exhibits clear behavior when it finds a bomb. (Which it does every day: The dogs are constantly trained with varying quantities and types of explosives.)

Some recruits wash out. Said Abernethy: "Some of the dogs at the beginning have a very good ball drive, but after a couple of weeks, the reward just isn't worth the work."

After two or three weeks, handlers are assigned a dog. After 10 weeks, the dogs go home with their handlers. That's where they will live. "From that point on they start becoming a member of the family," said Abernethy. "When my dog gets in the car, he knows, 'Okay, now I'm going to work.' When he's at home he lays around just like he's just any house pet."

If they stay healthy, dogs work until they're about 10. Most stay with their handler after that, even when a new dog comes on the scene. Abernethy's first dog, a German shepherd named Alfonz, retired with his family. And now Benny is 10. A new dog might be in the future.

Like the loyal government employees they are, retired dogs get a pension: free food and one vet appointment a year.

New year, same effort

It's a new year and what better way to kick it off than with a donation to Children's Hospital? Think of it as a modest deposit into the karmic bank. Your gift will help pay the medical bills of poor children. Please send a check or money order (payable to Children's Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online with a credit card, go to or call 301-565-8501.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company