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Try a Little K-9-ness

John Christ and Asta
Robert Scheer

Bite Me: K-9 and guard-dog trainer John Christ wrestles with police dog Asta, the Watsonville Police Department's star canine drug-sniffer.

Police dogs aren't trained cruelly--nor are they trained to be cruel

By Traci Hukill

IF K-9 OFFICERS RAN ADS in the paper to find dogs, they'd read something like this: "Live with loving family as alpha dog. Back seat of air-conditioned car belongs to you! Must enjoy playing tug-of-war and fetch. No curs or cowards, please. Affable types only need apply."

A dog would be a fool to turn this job down. Unfortunately, as with all great deals, there's a catch, and it goes beyond the fine print that says, "Must be trainable and understand German." The big catch is hidden in the last two lines of the ad, and it keeps most dogs out of the Corps.

"We look for three things," says Lance Stackhouse, a six-year veteran of the Watsonville K-9 unit and owner of a K-9 clinic. "Temperament: They're good with kids. Nerves: They don't get nervous in a new setting. And drive, or focus. Drive is really important because you want a dog who stays on 'play' drive and won't flip out on you."

That's play drive--as opposed to prey drive or defense drive--the common wisdom being that dogs are motivated by fun, food or fear.

In other words, a police dog has to possess the same balance of qualities found in an exceptional person, qualities like gentleness and courage, intelligence and predictability. A fearless dog who snaps at kids in the classroom just won't do, nor will a toddler-loving pooch that lollygags on the job. And though it should be, um, effective when commanded, a police dog should never be vicious.

The people who have brought their dogs to a warehouse on Freedom Boulevard for tonight's training session all insist that their dogs are pushovers, patsies, the worst kinds of sops at heart. "If someone broke into our house, he'd probably lick 'em to death," grumbles one.

He doesn't really mean it, though. None of these people really means it. It's more like a show of modesty trumped up to conceal any unseemly pride in having such a badass dog.

One by one, the dogs--mostly German Shepherds--do their Hound of Hell impersonations for the burlap-sleeved John Christ (rhymes with "mist"), who assists Stackhouse at the clinic.

In scenarios that imitate real-life situations, Christ menaces a handler as he or she walks along a hallway with a leashed dog. On command (commands are given in German in the interest of secrecy), the dog erupts into a snarling, barking, slavering fit of aggression, gleaming rows of pointed teeth standing out in high relief against a curled upper lip.

Costa, a big black-and-tan K-9 hopeful belonging to Gino Carreras of the Monterey County Sheriff's Department, does this part especially well.

Toothy Tug-of-War

IT'S CHARMING, IT REALLY IS, but what's even more impressive is when Costa holds a hapless Christ at bay by barking at him and attacking when he moves--all on Carreras' command, of course--launching himself at Christ and clamping down on the large, padded burlap sleeve Christ dons for the occasion.

Stackhouse stands back, watching for signs of hesitation in the dog. When he calls "Slip!" Christ releases an iron bar in the base of the sleeve, it slips off his arm and Costa prances back to Carreras carrying the sleeve in his mouth like a bird dog piling up ducks, obviously pleased. And why shouldn't he be? He's won yet another game of tug-of-war.

"It starts when they're puppies with a burlap sack," says Stackhouse. "Tug-of-war. And the dog always wins, always."

He gives a moment of thought to this psychological tactic. "You want your dog to think it's the number-one dog," he explains. "You'll never see two police dogs off the leash together because they both believe they're alpha."

"And we want them to keep on thinking that," adds Christ.

The tug-of-war method seems obvious enough, but the chase-ball model of drug sensitization is pure genius. It starts with simple games of fetch with a tennis ball, which begins to smell like "fun" to the dog. Next, Stackhouse stuffs the ball with a little pot, which becomes a desirable scent by association with the game, and then cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine follow, each linked in the dog's mind to a marvelous game of fetch.

"So while the dog's scratching at a glove compartment," says Stackhouse, "he's thinking, 'My tennis ball's in there!' "

Not all the teams here tonight are hoping to make K-9 units. Some are strictly here for personal protection training. The police dog hopefuls, however, are working on serious stuff like gunfire training.

Among them are Monty Hatchett of the Watsonville Police Department and his handsome dog Kaiser. Although WPD has made no commitment to implement another K-9 team, Hatchett loves working with Kaiser anyway. "Dogs are loyal," he says simply. "They make good partners."

Also here tonight is Rich Cabana of the Monterey County Sheriff's Department with a sable female named Sadie. Although Sadie squeaks rather than barks--"It's not very intimidating," says a forlorn Cabana--she shows up the boys in drive and aggression, running hell-bent and biting hard, even through the sleeve.

Stackhouse and Christ are not unaware of the controversy surrounding their work. There is something base and brutal about controlling a population with animals that are very sharp at one end, even if they are just big galoots when they're off-duty. Christ has put some thought into this.

"The days of 'alligators on leashes' during the civil rights movement are over," Christ points out, referring to chilling footage of police dogs attacking black protesters in the 1960s. "But a dog is a very effective, nonlethal way to take a suspect out. People don't think of that."

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From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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