Citizens' Academy Students Meet Four-Legged Backup For Charlottesville's Police
The Daily Progress | Charlottesville, VA
October 9, 2013
Students in Charlottesville's annual citizens' police academy have spent the past six weeks learning about officers' tools of the trade.
In a recent class, they learned about the department's furriest tool: Leo.
Leo, 5, is a Belgian Malinois, a breed of shepherd that's become increasingly popular for police officers in the last 25 years or so, said Irene Howcroft, owner of a Malinois kennel.
Leo is the partner of Lynn Childers, who's been a police officer for 17 years and has spent nine of those years with four-legged backup.
Howcroft, who has owned the Ruidoso Malinois kennel in Captain, N.M., for about 15 years, said the dogs'popularity is growing because of their spirit, athleticism, intelligence, courage and loyalty.
Leo is one of two dogs the department currently owns. Ringo is a new, young dog, and is attending a 16-week training course in Norfolk that will last until December.
Childers spoke about the importance of police dogs like Leo before letting him show off his skills of detecting drugs and personal items.
She hid a packet of marijuana inside a drink vending machine in the courtyard of Charlottesville High School. Leo excitedly sniffed around the perimeter of the courtyard, tail wagging, before scratching at the vending machine, his sign that he had located the drugs. As a reward, Childers played tug of war with him with a towel.
Childers explained that Leo, who is cross-trained for patrol and for searching for narcotics, has different cues for his different functions. He wears different harnesses, which help him know what he's going to be asked to do. And he gets different toys as rewards for completing tasks.
When Leo found Childers' watch in the grass of the courtyard in an example of how he finds items with human scent, he laid down, and was rewarded with a ball on a cord.
As most police dogs come from European countries where working dogs are bred for sport, Childers said they often don't understand commands in English. Using different cues and rewards can help in training, she said.
On the job, Leo rides in the back of Childers' patrol car, which has been converted into a dog crate. Childers has a heat sensor installed in the vehicle that alerts her if it becomes too hot, and she has a remote release for Leo's door, in case she needs him to spring suddenly into action.
She said Leo is trained to bite and hold, not to bite multiple times. And she said he only bites if he's asked to.
Childers said that many times Leo can be a deterrent. "People are usually pretty quick to give it up," she said. "Once they know the dog is there, they usually call it a day."
Childers, a dog-lover, has two non-working dogs at home, along with a retired German shepherd who was her partner before Leo. Leo also lives with Childers. "He is with me more than any other creature," she said.
Officers whose Belgian Malinois are their partners are some of the only homes suited for the breed, Howcroft said. She said that, in general, the dogs are much too high-energy and serious to become family dogs, and she said that, in her opinion, German shepherds are no longer as good as they were in the past at being police dogs because they've been bred to become calmer for families.
Childers said she takes Leo for daily runs and helps him keep his nose sharp by practicing different sniffing techniques. "I try to make it fun," she said. "I treat him like the athlete he is."
Howcroft summed up Leo's breed as a sports-car kind of dog.
"They are the Ferrari of the K-9 world," she said. "They make everything else look big, slow and stupid."
Childers said working with dogs is exactly what she wants to do with her career as a police officer.
"He makes my job much more enjoyable," she said. "I've spent 17 years on the street, and the reason I do it is because I get to work with the dog. I get to combine two things I love very much."