For the past month, I’ve been working on a project multiple people have referred to as “a perfect fit.” It’s basically what I was made for.
When it comes to film, motion picture, and the arts, my formative years were in the late 90s and early 2000s. Schwarzenegger, Bruckheimer, the Jason Bourne movies, The Matrix – basically just a non-stop barrage of over-the-top action, suspenseful chase scenes, and a heavy orchestral score with a healthy smattering of synthesized bass drops. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I absorb nature documentaries like they’re water. David Attenborough is my happy place. Bring that into the modern day, where constant sensory input prevails and movie trailers get their own movie trailers, and you’ll start to get an idea of where my head is at when it comes to video production.
Important history part 2: Dogs. I love dogs. I’ve been a “dog person” my entire life. In my early 20s I worked for a local dog trainer. When I started a volunteer project in college, it was focused on (you guessed it) dogs. I had my very own all-dog gallery show. My first national client project was about dogs. My first billboard was a photograph of a dog. At this point, roughly 70-80% of my client projects involve (or happened because of their connection to) dogs.
Jump to a month ago – mid December. I’m invited to a prospective client meeting where I’ll be speaking with a local police officer about an event to raise funds for… police dogs.
You have my attention.
I’ll take a second to mention a thought that occurred to me recently. While I’ve been able to work with a remarkable variety of companies and industries in my relatively short career, there is an underlying repetition. For some reason I don’t quite understand, I seem to attract good people. I’m not just talking about decent human beings. I’m talking about people that “do good” – people that devote large portions of their time or their life to doing things that make the world a better place. I hope to continue this trend, but for now I feel it’s important to acknowledge this realization and recognize these individuals.
There is a non-profit called “The Crosshairs Foundation.” A group of six individuals with backgrounds in law enforcement and public service got together to target issues that need fixing. Their goal is to partner with like-minded companies and individuals to implement changes that make our communities better places to live. This is the group that brought me on for the project. Their next target is the police K9 unit.
Body armor for a human police officer is different than for a K9 officer. While a vest for a human might have a size and be reasonably well contoured to the body, a K9 vest has to be custom tailored to each individual dog. Also, because dogs have to get up close and personal to engage a bad guy, the armor has to wrap around the dog’s entire body and be both bullet and stab proof.
Properly fitted, fully functional K9 body armor can cost up to $3,000 for one vest.
While there are numerous companies, like Spike’s K9, that specialize in high-quality K9 body armor, there is simply not enough funding to go around.
When we first agreed on details, the goal was to produce a three or four minute video, showcasing a few of the more impressive skill sets police K9s possess. After about two hours on the first day of shooting, I realized we made a mistake. There was absolutely no way to fit this project into four minutes. So it grew. What started as a quick-cut montage of dogs being cool ended up as a nearly fifteen minute hybrid of a trailer, action movie, documentary, and educational aid.
Here are a few things I learned during my project with the K9 Units of Oakland County, Michigan.
Let’s get the big one out of the way. THEY. ARE. NOT. JUST. TEETH.
I won’t be supercilious and act like I was never overly cautious of police dogs. When I first met my client and his dog, I maintained a healthy distance from his car. After all, it does say, “Stay Back. Police K9.” He opened the back door to let the dog out and I remained perfectly still and non-threatening. Then the dog came over, leaned on me, I gave a hearty “good boy,” thumped his side a few times, then he ran off to play with his little red chewy ball. I was scarred for life.
It’s not an incomprehensible mind-set. Most times you see police dogs, it’s in the news or on one of those “Best Police Dog Takedowns” compilations on YouTube. And let’s be honest. Visually-speaking, it’s an impressive thing to see: a 70 pound animal flying through the air and slamming into the bad guy at 30mph.
What about the teeth? The scary, gnashing, bone-breaking teeth? Well, yeah. If dogs had fingers and opposable thumbs, you might not see those pearly whites quite so often, but they don’t. They have one tool that they can use to manipulate objects, hold onto things, pick things up, or perform a large number of tasks – their mouth. Let’s be honest, if you had extra long teeth and no hands, it would probably be unsettling to see you open a can of SpaghettiOs.
Lonzo is my client’s dog. He’s a 70 pound bomb-sniffing, power house. I’ve personally see him fly through a car window and forcibly remove a grown adult from the vehicle. This is also Lonzo, enjoying an evening cuddle with his human sister.
Human officers have families, hang out with their friends, go to the beach, joke around, and engage in a have a wide array of what we might refer to as “personalities.” When they go to work, they put on their vest and prepare for an environment that has a high probability of being dangerous. Effectively, they flip their “it’s time to work switch.” K9s are the same. They’re family dogs. They love to play, cuddle, and interact. Their world can be a dangerous one, and if the time comes that they need to do their job, they will.
Unless you’re a police K9 handler, you’re probably wrong about your expectation of police dog training.
I walked into training on the first day, supremely confident. After all, I had been working with schutzhund-trained dogs for years. These K9s were going to be glued to their handlers, follow down-to-the-inch placement instructions, and stand, sit, and look exactly where I needed them to. Nope – The precision training I had always assumed to be “military” was almost the opposite. That fancy footwork you see at dog shows where the dog precision-pivots in perfect step with its owner? That’s all for show. Police K9s are trained for functionality. The real world is constantly changing and their training reflects that. K9s are trained to adapt to shifts in their environments and still accomplish their given instructions. They can’t adhere to an exact routine, because aside from their general task (track, find, bite, protect, etc.) the way they accomplish that task is different each time.
K9 training is constant.
These dogs aren’t just sent to K9 school, then left to their own devices. They work with their handlers every single day. Just like any finely tuned skill set a human might have, it take constant practice to sharpen and hone their abilities. They need to be in amazing physical condition and always on-point. It takes time and consistency to keep that up.
They are HIGH DRIVE.
One of the things that surprised me the most was how energetic these dogs are. They NEED to work. Just like your dog might get antsy if they don’t go for their daily walk or bark and fidget if they haven’t had enough exercise, K9s need regular mental and physical stimulation, just amped up about 10 times. They’re basically athletes. To stay sharp and on their game, they need to practice. A LOT.
They’ve got one heckuva nose.
Yes, I know. This isn’t new information. Dogs can smell cancer, stress, an encyclopedia of narcotics, and the last bite of your sandwich even if it’s behind 3 doors and on top of the bookshelf. However, this was the first time I’ve ever SEEN a dog smell like this. Did you know objects give off scent in a cone shape? As the dog passes its nose through this “cone of scent” it moves until the smell goes away, then “snaps” its head back in the cone, moving from one edge of the cone to the other, systematically getting closer to the epicenter, until it finds the source of the scent.
They can clearly determine the edge of the “scent cone” because they have independent scent receptors in each nostril. It’s kind of like your binocular vision – you see a slightly different scene with each eye because they are in different locations
What impressed me the most is the speed. Some of these dogs are so fast it was almost impossible to get footage. By the time I realized they were zeroing in on the source, they had already found it.
Bomb dogs and drug dogs have unique characteristics.
Dogs are trained to smell either for narcotics or explosives – not both. Often, a bad guy that leaves an explosive somewhere might also have drugs. While finding the drugs is important, the explosive is a bit more urgent, so you’d want a dog that will only signal that it’s found a combustible substance.
Additionally, there are different ways for a dog to signal that it found the source of a smell. An “active alert” is when the dog barks, nudges, paws, digs, or bites at the source of the scent. When a dog “passively alerts” it quietly sits and stares at the source of the scent. Some drug-sniffing dogs will alert passively, while others alert actively. However, ALL bomb-sniffing dogs are trained to alert passively. It wouldn’t do to start biting or moving an explosive device.
These dogs are basically local celebrities.
Nearly every kid thinks about being a police officer, a fire fight, or something of the like. Second fun fact: people like dogs. As such, community visits are a big deal. These officers make sure to regularly socialize their dogs, taking them to schools and local events. Some of these K9 officers can gain quite the following. Many of them even have their very own calling cards!
They’re already a bigger part of your life than you may think.
Sure, you see them on the roads and you see them on the news, but if you or a loved one is lost, you’ll see them there, too. If you go to a stadium game or your local university, look around and you might see some sniffers going. Going to a large community event? Odds are there might have already been an explosives dog checking around, just to be sure.
These dogs are smart, driven, and faster than Usain Bolt. They are goofy, playful, and chock-full of personality. They are family dogs and highly-trained professionals. They are furry powerhouses, packed into a frame the size of a nine-year-old kid. They can see, smell, hear, run, jump, and maneuver better, and faster than any human.
They’re basically fuzzy superheroes.
This has been one of the coolest projects of my career, and I’ll drop a little spoiler – We’re going to keep this going. It’s going to get bigger – more involved. I’m going to keep learning and I’ll bring you along every step of the way. So, grab your popcorn, sit back, and sink into FUR COURAGE: The Police K9s of Oakland County.