It’s close to midnight in Falls Church. The Little City is still, quiet.
The parking lot under Harris-Teeter on West Broad Street is nearly vacant, save for a few cars. It’s perfect time to train.
Officer Matthew Parker opens the back door of his police cruiser to let out his trusted partner, the newest addition to the Falls Church Police Department. Fitz, a 21-month-old German Shepherd, bounds out excitedly, tongue wagging, breathing hard, anticipating some long-awaited action.
Tonight, they are practicing tracking and obedience. Parker likes to do some type of training every night to keep Fitz fresh. The K9 unit has only been needed once thus far since Fitz joined the force in January but the team stays prepared. One never knows when the call may come.
In the empty parking lot, Parker walks Fitz in a straight line on a leash. “Sit,” Parker commands. Fitz immediately bends his hind legs and obeys. Parker takes the leash off. “Stay,” he says. Fitz doesn’t move an inch.
Parker walks 50 feet away, as Fitz remains in his seated position. In a barely audible whisper, Parker murmurs for Fitz to come. Without hesitation, the young K9 sprints to his handler. Parker raises his hand and Fitz screeches to an immediate stop. “Good boy!” Parker commends his dog, rubbing vigorously behind the dog’s ears and on top of his furry head — right in his sweet spot. “Good boy!” Fitz pants heavily, soaking in Parker’s adulation.
As the exercise nears its end, the young dog gets even more bubbly, pacing quickly, eyes trained on Parker. He knows what comes after training. Parker grabs the prize from the front seat of the car — a stretchy orange ball on a string. He tosses it across the parking lot. Before the toy even hits the ground, Fitz is all over it, teeth sinking into the rubbery ball. He presents it to Parker, tongue wagging, waiting for the next throw. This is the best part of his day.
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For over 130 years, dogs have had a place in law enforcement.The English used bloodhounds to hunt Jack the Ripper in 1888, while in Ghent, Belgium, police started formally training dogs for police work in 1899.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that police dogs took hold in the United States, but they have now become indispensable members of the force.
When Fitz was sworn in at City Hall in January, Falls Church welcomed its first police dog in six years. Due to budget constraints, the department relied on Fairfax or Arlington County to provide assistance in cases that called for a K9.
While Falls Church is lucky enough to not need the K9 too often, there are situations where waiting on neighboring departments can mean lost opportunities.
“Without a dog, we always had to call for mutual aid, outside agencies to assist us in those instances,” Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin said. “Most of the time you call for a dog, it’s going to be an immediate crisis that usually entails some type of danger. So you want to attack those as soon as you can, but when you have to call mutual aid, you have to wait. So waiting puts that suspect out in the community longer.”
These four-legged creatures are so valuable because of their heightened senses, particularly their sense of smell. Compare Fitz to the average Joe police officer and it’s not much of a contest. Scientists estimate that dogs’ sense of smell is between 10,000 and 100,000 times as acute as ours. As Gavin put it, we walk into a kitchen and smell a beef stew on the stove. A dog walks into the kitchen and can identify every individual ingredient in the stew.
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Even though dogs are blessed with naturally strong senses, it takes considerable training to turn an excitable puppy into a certified police dog.
While Fitz and Parker now enjoy a symbiotic relationship that only committed partners can attain, the beginning of their 16-week training was anything but smooth.
“My first day, I was like, ‘how did I get the worst dog in class?’ Parker remembers. “He’s barking, moving around, and I’m getting pretty frustrated. But my instructor said not to worry, it’s okay. This is to be expected.”
Over the course of the four months, the Falls Church tandem, along with seven other dogs and their handlers, slowly cultivated the key skills that every police dog must attain.
Say, for instance, a suspect is being tailed by police in a stolen vehicle. The suspect bails out of the car and runs in another direction, dropping items — a gun, wad of cash or cell phone, perhaps — that could be used as evidence. If a police dog like Fitz is there, he can follow the track of the suspect and sniff out that wallet or phone that the suspect may have flung in a bush or under a car.
The dogs are also trained to find people in buildings. Parker and Fitz have responded to a few calls in which an alarm was ringing and the door of the building was open. Parker would send Fitz room by room to check for intruders, thus sparing the police officer from a potentially dangerous situation.
The Falls Church officer and his fearless companion are back in training, four weeks into a class on explosives detection. Having a dog trained in explosives could help the department avoid a situation like last March when seven schools in Northern Virginia, including George Mason High School, received bomb threats. Since Arlington and Fairfax police had other schools that needed the K9 units, Falls Church could only wait for one of those teams to finish, rather than send their own dog to scan the school.
Having a dedicated K9 that keeps officers safer, tracks suspects, finds evidence and can sniff for explosives are unmatched, valuable skills for any police force.
But just having a dog on the force, even when they’re not being called into action, can have a lasting impact on a police department.
“Everyone loves having a dog on board, Gavin says. “Dogs have this ability to really ground the officers and it’s essentially a morale booster. The dogs, they are fearless, they love to work. And when you’re around somebody who loves to work, and you love working with them, it really helps the morale of the department, particularly those who are working around the dog and with the dog.”
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On a recent night, as part of the their daily training, Parker set up a nine foot by nine foot boundary on a lighted patch of grass behind the police station to work on article searches. This reporter was asked to hold two objects for a couple minutes, allowing the human odor to seep onto the items, before hiding them inside the designated boundary.
“Seek,” Parker instructs, leading Fitz to find the items. The young German Shepard meanders slowly through the area, nose pointed toward the dimly lit grass. He sniffs one small patch, then another. After a few minutes, Fitz comes to a small mound of mulch. He senses something. Parker scoops his hand into the brown mound and picks up the hidden cloth police badge.
“Good boy! Good boy!” Parker rubs Fitz’s head, patting him approvingly.
As Fitz leaps back into the police cruiser, Parker can only smile and shake his head.
“Every day I’m impressed,” he says. “Everything, their sense of smell is amazing. From the beginning of class you have this crazy dog that won’t listen to you, and four months later they’ll walk beside you without a leash. It’s pretty amazing.”