Dallas County Sheriff's Deputy Latorrez Jones gently smooths his dog Hawk’s ears and chest fur. Hawk’s jaws lock firmly on the thick burlap arm guard wrapped around Deputy Kevin Ross' arm. As Ross pulls back, simulating an attempt to escape, Hawk’s grip holds steady.
He’s been trained to bite once, hold tight and not let go until he’s told to or made to.
“I’m going to do what’s called taking him off strong,” Latorrez Jones says.
Grabbing Hawk’s collar, he twists it and the dog releases the burlap cuff.
Hawk is a highly trained German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix used to track and find narcotics. He works for two things: high-pitched praise and a green tennis ball.
But he’s also a living, breathing creature. Like human partners, K-9 partners and officers develop strong bonds and learn to read each other's subtle cues. Dogs go home with their officers at night and ride side-by-side with them all day long.
Irving Police Department Officer Jody Jones has had his dog Jiutsu for just 18 months, but already dog and officer are bonded tightly.
“I can't imagine not being able to adopt [him]. … If I wasn't able to adopt him, I'd have to find a way to get him back,” Jones said. “He is at this point part of my family, for sure.”
Until recently, in Texas, handlers could not adopt their K-9 partners when it was time for the dogs to retire. Law enforcement dogs and other animals ready to retire were considered surplus or salvage government property under Texas law.
The Texas constitution required property that state and local agencies no longer needed to be auctioned off, donated or destroyed — including animals.
Some agencies did allow handlers to keep their retired dogs for a small fee, but there was no guarantee that a handler would be able to keep the dogs. The Dallas County Sheriff's Department gave handlers the opportunity to buy their dogs, with the approval of the Commissioners Court.
"I think there's been a lot of creative workarounds," said Collin County Sheriff James Skinner. "At the end of the day, if you got down to it, the law wouldn't have supported those and that's why we did this."
Skinner, who is the chairman of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas' legislative committee, was in charge of bringing the issue to lawmakers' attention. As a former K-9 officer in the United States Air Force, he knew firsthand how tight the bond is between officers and dogs.
Like Texas law, the U.S. military considers service dogs government property. Skinner volunteered for a second tour in the Philippines because he knew his dog Jesse would probably be euthanized when his tours finished.
"Inevitably she was, she was euthanized," he said. "And that never sat well with me."
The military has since banned euthanasia of service dogs upon retirement. But when Skinner took office in 2017, he knew he might have to make decisions about the fate of dogs in the sheriff's department.
"I'm sorry but I don't have the stomach for ordering a dog euthanized after it's given us seven or eight years of service," Skinner said.
Instead, when it came time to decide what to do with a dog on his force who was slowing down because of medical issues, he put the dog on an ultralight duty schedule so it could stay with the force until it died. The department buried the dog on a grassy hill at the Collin County Sheriff's Department and established a dog cemetery there. Today, it's a tradition, and several headstones dot the hill.
As part of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas' legislative agenda, Skinner approached state lawmakers about amending the state constitution to acknowledge that law enforcement animals should be treated different from other types of state property. Senators Brian Birdwell and Jane Nelson and representatives John Smithee, Charlie Geren and Tony Tinderholt sponsored the bill, which passed both chambers unanimously and placed a measure on Texas' fall voter ballot.
On Nov. 5, Texas voters approved Proposition 10, which clarified the rules and now allows handlers to keep their dogs. The measure passed with 94% of the vote, to the relief of K-9 handlers.
“If it's my partner and he can't work anymore for whatever be the medical reason, physical reason, whatever, you know, he should stay where he's been, which is with me,” said Ross, the Dallas County deputy.
Skinner said it's only fair that after a dog has worked hard for most of its life, it gets to retire to a warm, safe home. Most times, that's with the handler who worked with the dog every day before retirement. But, he said, it could also be another law enforcement official who has the experience to care for it and understand the dog's background and behavior.
Because their dogs are trained to bite, Ross, Latorrez Jones and Jody Jones worried about what would happen if their dogs were retired to new families and someone accidentally said the bite command or something that sounded like it. Officers spend a working dog's entire career learning the dog's behavior. To send the dog to a civilian family doesn't make sense, they said.
They also agreed that separating the dog from the handler at the end of the dog's life makes no sense and is cruel to both dog and handler. Anyone who's lost a pet knows that separation is hard enough, but the officer-dog relationship goes far beyond a standard pet-owner relationship.
“Y'all are holding each others' lives," Ross said. "And you're not doing that with your cat or the other dog that's at home in the backyard."
Dog trainers select law enforcement dogs because they exhibit what's called “toy drive,” but might be better described as “play drive,” said Wes Keeling, the owner of Sector K9, a training agency that works with the nonprofit Animal Farm Foundation, which donates police dogs to law enforcement agencies. They select dogs with potential from shelters and train them to donate to police forces.
Toy driven dogs are extremely active and want to play all the time, Keeling said. Keeling trains narcotics and firearms detection dogs. First, he teaches them to find the toy in a room. Once the dog is good at that, Keeling adds the smell of something he wants the dog to be able to find — drugs or gunpowder — and puts it on the toy.
Slowly, dogs learn that when they find the toy with the smell on it, the reward is another toy. After they master that concept, Keeling removes the smell of the first toy and hones the dog's ability to find just the smell of the drug or gunpowder. Eventually, he adds obstacles and distractions such as grass, hills and cat smells, and meticulously teaches the dog to ignore them. Repetition and association prepare the dogs to focus on tracking and finding.
“The dog thinks it's just a big game, that's how we train them,” Keeling said.
Keeling uses English commands with the narcotics and gun dogs he instructs, but tracking dogs, like the ones officers Latorrez Jones, Jody Jones and Kevin Ross use, are trained using foreign language cues so that only the officer can order his dog to do something.
Once the training is complete, officers are matched with dogs and trained to control them and work with them.
“It's the ultimate partnership,” Keeling said. “A dog and a human working together to achieve a goal.”
In a parking lot behind the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, Ross’ dog, Chapo, is shaking with pent-up longing as he stares at the green tennis ball in Latorrez Jones’ hand. The ball is the sole toy he trains with. All of his desires, urges and training focus on that single orb. Latorrez Jones throws it and Chapo launches into the air at the ball. Release.
Chapo, a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix, is Ross' first police dog. They've been together for one year. Side by side, they work patrol and narcotics search missions. Ross adjusted to working with Chapo fast.
“Within the month it was reading my dog, him looking at me, like 'come on,' and me looking at him saying, 'I'm right behind you,'” Ross said.
Ross, like many handlers, uses Hungarian language cues to direct Chapo, who alerts Ross by subtle changes in his movement and breathing patterns. Chapo knows when Ross puts on a flat collar, he'll be looking for narcotics. When he's in a full harness, it's time to track a suspect. Chapo runs on a long lead and sometimes he sees the suspect before Ross can — it's up to Chapo to catch and hold the suspect until Ross and other officers get there.
“When you're tracking, if he's pulling and he's coming, he's not going to turn around, look at you, you just got to go with him,” Ross said.
Chapo loves to work, Ross said, but at home he's just a regular dog — usually. One night, Ross came home with Chapo and tied him up in the backyard while he went to get dog food. When he came back, Ross found Chapo at the top of the fence staring next door at the neighbor's dogs.
“I've had dogs, had pit bulls, German shepherds, mutts, everything. It's completely different now," Ross said. "I mean, he's just so smart and so sharp."
When his dog does well, it's a win for the officer as well, Jody Jones said. When his dog Jiutsu does something bad, Jones feels the disappointment. They start each workday with exercise to make sure Jiutsu is in tune for the day ahead.
“As I see him build, we get a little bit more attached. And then it becomes a pride thing as I see him be successful,” Jones said.
Right now, he’s training Jiutsu to communicate with eye contact. Each day, before he eats, the dog has to lock eyes with Jones for five seconds.
“I want him to know that when he looks at me, that's when he is going to get that positive reinforcement," Jones said. "For the five seconds it's, 'Eh? Eh? Let me go, let me go.' As soon as he does, boom, go get your food."
When they head out, Jiutsu is right there in the back seat. It's easy to talk to him, Jones said, a bit sheepishly. This is his partner, after all. Human officers talk to each other all the time.
“Because he’s back there," he said. "He stares at me and when the lights go on, he definitely can feel the vibe of what’s going on as my, I won’t say anxiety, but as my emotion increases, so does his. He’s right there with me."
Latorrez Jones' dog, Hawk, goes so far as to reach through the gate to get at his handler while they're driving.
“Every chance he's pawing me through the gate of the truck. He's trying to lick my hand, he'll lick my ear while I'm driving,” Latorrez Jones said, grinning.
All three officers' dogs are trained to sniff out and locate illegal drugs. Dog noses are far more powerful and precise than human beings, which makes them invaluable, irreplaceable tools for police work. The dogs can locate marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy.
They are rarely wrong and don't stop until they find the drugs, Latorrez Jones said.
Many officers consider dogs an alternative to using lethal weapons when apprehending a suspect, as well. They're adept at grabbing a suspect by the arm or leg, which they're trained to bite once and hold firmly, a technique that causes the least possible damage to the person. An extremity bite hurts and requires medical attention but isn't usually life-threatening.
“It's one of those things where I have given every opportunity, every opportunity for somebody to surrender before I release that dog,” Jody Jones said.
Before entering a building with his dog, each officer announces his presence, and that he has a dog with him who will bite.
“Our commands are: Dallas County Sheriff's Department, come out with your hands up or I will send my dog that will find and bite you," Latorrez Jones said. "I make that announcement three times before I send him."
Sometimes just the announcement is enough to make a suspect come out or surrender. Other times, the dog's presence saves lives. Jody Jones recounted, reverently, how in 2015, a suspect shot at an Irving Police force dog, instead of at responding officers. The dog survived and so did the officers.
But because the dogs are trained to bite and bite hard, interactions occasionally go wrong. Recently, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department settled with the family of a girl who was bitten by a law enforcement dog while the dog and handler were at her school as part of a demonstration.
After the demonstration, the deputy and his dog were on the school playground. Children crowded around the dog, petting it. The girl's family insists the bite was unprovoked. The incident report says that the girl who was bitten took a toy from the dog. The county paid $25,000 to the girl and her family.
Jody Jones says he is wary when bringing his dog around other people.
“One of the things they teach in handler school, everything that dog does, whether it's good or bad, comes from you," he said. "If he's going to go out there and be a crazy person, it's because you’ve allowed him to be a crazy person. So it's not the dog doing anything wrong, it's you."
On a cool November day, Jody Jones reinforced that point as he talked to students from Singley Academy. He commands in four languages: Dutch, German, Latin and Japanese. Responding to the officer's cues, Jiutsu jumped and latched onto a trainer wearing a yellow protective coat and hung from the arm of the jacket, jaws locked tightly on the fabric. Then he chased the trainer across an open field, overtaking him and leaping to catch his sleeve again.
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It's important to train dogs constantly and reinforce their good behaviors, Jody Jones told the students. It's his fault if the dog doesn't do what he says.
Dogs want to work and to please their handlers. When they're on the job, they're driven by a single-minded mission to find the drugs or person. The connection between dog and handler is so strong that usually they operate a seamless partnership.
“You just know, it's like a husband and a wife that's been together forever," Keeling said. "That look, and you just know."