A good police dog – or K-9 officer – makes police work safer and can save an officer’s life, V.I. Police Officer and K-9 instructor Jason Viveros told Good Hope Country Day School students during a K-9 demonstration Thursday.
"I probably would not be here today if not for my dog," Viveros told the rapt throng of students in the school’s gymnasium.
"I got in a situation a couple of months ago" where a suspect had a semi-automatic rifle aimed in his direction, Viveros said. Without hesitation, his dog went after the man, who fired two shots at the running dog, missing twice. Then, when the dog leaped at him, the suspect cracked the dog hard over the head with his rifle, dazing him.
"He stopped and came back to me to recover," Viveros said. The distraction from the dog gave Viveros an opportunity to make the arrest, but without the dog, there was a strong possibility he might have been shot, he said.
"We love our dogs and we cry if they die or get killed. But they are there to help police and, as sad as it makes us, better a dog than one of our police officers," Viveros said.
The animals have a far better sense of smell than people, making them invaluable in searching for contraband, explosives, chemicals and cadavers, according to Viveros. "They can distinguish identical twins by smell," he said.
Before Viveros and four other officers showed how the dogs work, students in the school’s forensic science class lined up in front of the school and each student rattled off some facts about K-9 police dogs and their history, telling classmates how the first U.S. law enforcement K-9 teams were established in 1907 and that it costs $12,000 and up to train a single dog.
Forensic science teacher Laurie Dunton and the students also presented a brand new bite suit to the officers as a gift.
When the K-9 unit gave a demonstration last year, the bite suit was visibly worn and "Sgt. (Greg) Bennerson was really feeling the bites through it," Dunton said.
The school’s National Honor Society sold raffle tickets as a fundraiser for the Police Department golf tournament last year and raised $1,100, which went towards the purchase of the state-of-the-art, K-9 bite suit.
Officer Roger Roberts immediately put the new suit on and Viveros promptly ordered K-9 officer Jeff – a dog – on him. Jeff shot like a rocket toward Roberts, leaped up and sank his teeth into the arm of the bite suit. Later they sent two dogs at once, and Roberts had dogs hanging off both arms.
"I’ll have a strong black and blue mark on that arm tomorrow," Roberts laughed afterward.
Officer Nakia Samuel gave demonstrations with her K-9 officer Hassan; Officer Haraldo Charles with K-9 officer Hektor; and Officer Lionel Benjamin with Jeff.
Then Viveros put on an arm protecting sleeve and another officer set a dog on him. The dog barked furiously until let off its leash, then lunged and grabbed Viveros’ arm protecting sleeve. Viveros held the dog off the ground, hanging by its teeth from the arm sleeve.
You want to see something really cool?" Viveros said right afterward. "I can pet him, play with him right now after that," he said, petting the clearly happy dog who just attacked him. "It’s just business, nothing personal. They are not angry. They are just carrying out their training," he said.
That is not to say working with police dogs is without its risks, Viveros said, recalling an officer who was badly bitten during training, causing a serious, bloody wound that is still healing.
The officers took questions from the students after the demonstration.
On student asked if a police dog has ever killed anyone. Never in the territory, Viveros said, noting he was only aware of one ever in the U.S.
While a dog may hurt you some when it takes you down, it is "trained not to kill," he said.
“Can any breed of dog be trained to be a police dog?” another student asked.
In principal, any dog can be trained, but not all breeds are well-suited for it, Viveros said. "I’m not sure I’d try to send a chihuahua to take someone down," he said. Like most K-9 units, the V.I. uses German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and blends of the two, he said. Malinois look similar to German shepherds, but have smaller frames, smaller ears and a sleeker, more muscular build. They also have different temperaments, he said.
Throw a ball into a ravine and a German shepherd will "run to the edge, stop and look around," while the Malinois will "just keep going, leap off the edge and grab the ball," he said.