Concord’s canine force tells some fierce tails

By Denisen Hartlove on September 10, 2013

Matt Switzer and Figo for websiteDogs are said to be man’s best friend. Renowned for their loyalty and devotion, a dog sticks with his master through thick and thin.

But the six dogs of the Canine Division of the Concord Police Department and their handlers take the canine-human bond just a little bit farther than that.

On a recent Tuesday night, at an undisclosed location in North Concord, the sounds of a dog fiercely barking and men shouting elicited nary a glance from Concord Police Corporal Dan Sweany, who stood close by. In fact, the ruckus was his fault, as members of the well-regarded canine division Sweaney heads practiced nearby.

There, the dogs practiced locating guns and drugs, trailing suspects and lost children, and launching themselves at an officer who’d clearly drawn a short straw and was clad – in the 90 degree evening heat – in a heavy protective suit, a game that could be called “bring down the suspect.”

As much fun as the dogs seemed to be having, the play was serious business.

Sniffing out stashes

Concord’s six-team division – down from nine due to budget cuts – handles an average of 75 calls per week. In addition to calls in Concord, the department pools resources with those of other cities.

“San Ramon, Moraga, Oakland, Walnut Creek…” Sweaney ticked down the list of areas they’ve worked as the sounds of mayhem continued in the background. Other areas lend their dogs for jobs in Concord as well, including BART dogs who are specially trained to sniff for bombs.

“We’re all fighting the same battle,” he said.

Each of the officers had his own set of stories of stashes their particular dogs had found, or suspects they’d flushed out, and in a couple of cases, lost or wandering souls the dogs helped rescue.

One incident Sweaney recalled, years ago, involved a panicked call the department had received from a parent. Their worst nightmare had happened: a back was turned for only a moment, a door left unlatched, and their 3-year old had disappeared, just like that. Police were called, and the division summoned. Scents were taken, and 45 heart-rending minutes later, the toddler was trailed to a nearby supermarket, to where he’d wandered on his own, and safely returned home.

Other calls aren’t so benign.

Officer Todd Nunn’s dog, Dantest – who travels with his own baseball-style trading cards to be given out to his adoring, often pint-sized, fan club – was called to a “drug sniff,” where he found significant amounts of drugs – and a gun – hidden behind the center console of a car.

Officer Ollie Sansen’s dog is Ben, an unnervingly grinning, happy-go-lucky Belgian Malinois. Ben is specifically trained in narcotics detection, and Sansen’s voice took on an unmistakably proud tone, as he recounted a call they’d taken to help at a crime scene in Oakland, where Ben found three pounds of cocaine, potentially worth six figures, hidden in a stereo box.

“You’re so proud of your dog when he does what he’s trained to do,” he admitted.

Lifelong bond

The training the dogs are given is no small matter. Priced at about $10,000 each, the division purchases each dog from Riverside-based Adlherhorst International. The company’s owners travel every few months to Europe, where they find dogs in Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Bred and trained in many of the skills needed for a life in law enforcement from the time they’re puppies, the dogs are then transported to the U.S. Police departments throughout the country send teams to Adlerhorst’s facilities where they test the dogs themselves – like scouts would professional athletes – before buying and bringing them home for further training with the officers with whom the dogs will be paired.

“It’s a lot of repetition,” Sansen described. “We’re learning the quirks of the dog, learning the dog’s personality.”

The teams work together for four years, at the end of which term, the officer is given the opportunity to adopt their canine partner – previously classified as city property – for $1. Most do, the bond between the two continuing through the dog’s retirement.

“He’s my best friend and he’s my buddy,” says Sansen. “He’s all business in the car, he’s my partner at work. But he’s my dog at home.”

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