Last year, 17 members of the Prince George's County Police Department together made 328 felony apprehensions--yet they can't talk, qualify for a driver's license or work alone. They make up the canine division, which recently graduated 10 new dogs.
At a small ceremony climaxing 14 weeks of intensive training, Lt. Dave Mitchell, commander of the special enforcement section that includes canine operations, stressed the importance of canine police work before an audience that included 10 graduating officers, each of whom will work one-on-one with a dog until it retires or dies.
Sgt. Pete Parrish, the department's dog trainer for the past 10 years, agrees with Mitchell:
"It's a great feeling to have the option of calling a canine officer when you have a call that's going to involve a search," Parrish said. "Probably the most interesting statistic about these dogs was in the "Guinness Book of World Records" and says the sensitivity of their nose is about a million times greater that that of a human."
That superhuman, or superdog, quality was demonstrated by one recent graduate last Wednesday--a mere week after joining the force.
Pfc. Brian Felter and his four-legged partner Strider were called to the scene of a break-in at a Greenbelt grocery store. After the intruder was warned by loudspeaker that the dog was being sent in and enough time had elapsed for him to surrender, Strider took to his paws and sniffed his way to the back of the store where a man was hiding on a shelf near the ceiling.
"The dogs are trained to physically apprehend when they go in on a search," Parrish explained. "In this case, the dog could only smell because it was dark and the man couldn't be reached by the dog. Otherwise, he would have attacked."
In 1982, the County Police Department's canine unit conducted 3,541 searches. Since January, the dogs and their officers already have made 120 felony apprehensions and conducted 1,246 searches.
The dogs don't always come away winners after a struggle with criminals, however. In fact, the dogs have fallen on glass, and even swallowed it, after jumping through windows. They have been shot at, stabbed, kicked and beaten.
Veterinary bills ran $2,463 in 1982, and the department this year already has spent $3,447. Three older dogs that retired from the force in March required extensive medical attention, which caused the recent increase in medical costs.
One of the unit's bravest dogs, Shadow, had his muzzle ripped open after a man tried to poke the dog's eye out but missed. Shadow, although injured, continued to attack the man, who was arrested a few days later when he applied for treatment for dog bites at a local hospital.
Shadow's career was ended because of the injuries.
Old police dogs don't simply fade away. Most officers become so attached to their partners that they keep them on as pets when the dogs leave the force. Shadow is now a pet of his former partner, Officer John Williams.
All dogs on the force were donated to the department by citizens or the dog pound. They must be males, show aggressive behavior and resemble a German shepherd, although they don't have to be purebred.
Parrish said not all dogs are suited for police work. When screening a potential trainee, he pretends to attack the dog to see if he gets an assertive reaction, and blank cartridges are fired near the dog.
"We look for a dog that is confident," he said. "Dogs that are afraid, who show fear with strangers, who bite out of fear or run from gunfire are not suited for police work."