The Hill’s Best Friends

Capitol Police Dogs Sniff Out Bombs, Danger

Posted October 27, 2009 at 3:46pm

Humans aren’t the only members of the Capitol Police who wear badges. Along with the 1,800 officers on the force, 42 dogs also wear badges in their mission to help keep Congress safe. These four-legged employees are trained to sniff out explosives on people and vehicles that approach the Capitol campus.

“We go in and we can save a lot of lives,— says technician Irvin Washington, who works with a German shepherd named Layne.

Washington has logged more than 20 years with the Capitol Police, 15 of them with the K-9 Unit, where he has worked with and housed four dogs. Washington says it was his love of dogs that drew him to the post.

“I said, ‘That’s a great job, to be able to bring your dog to work,’— he says.

The K-9 Unit began in 1971 with 12 dogs that were trained to do patrol work. Soon after the program’s inception, six dogs were cross-trained to detect explosives. The program now includes 42 dogs, all trained and certified by the Capitol Police, the U.S. Police Canine Association and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Many of the dogs are donated by people who didn’t realize how much time and energy a dog requires, others are rescued and some are bred to serve on a police force. While the police department covers the dogs’ food and vet bills, it is each officer’s responsibility to care for his dog. This means having to cart the animal to the vet as well as taking him for evening walks. The average police dog works for six to eight years. After that, the officer has the option of keeping the animal at the end of his tenure or putting him up for adoption.

[IMGCAP(1)]Washington has adopted all of his dogs. “At one point I had three dogs in my house. Can you imagine me walking three dogs?— he says with a laugh. The one retired dog he currently has at home misses the job and cries every time Washington and Layne leave for work, he says.

During a 12-week K-9 training period, officers are matched with a dog based on personality and how they respond to one another. After the match is made, the officer and the dog spend almost every waking hour together. The dogs live, work and, in some cases, sleep in bed with the officer.

“You’re living with that dog; you’re with it sometimes more than your family,— Washington says.

While it is important for each officer to like his dog because they live together, it is also essential to do the job well. It is important that an officer can read his canine’s every move in order to distinguish between real threats and false alarms. For instance, an officer can tell by the animal’s reaction when his dog has detected explosives or simply smells road kill. Washington’s dog, Layne, will flap his ears for a false alarm, a move that is obvious to Washington, but not necessarily to the other officers.

“Every dog is different, and that’s why the pairing is so important,— says technician Brian Kibala, who works with a German shepherd named Thea.

Kibala and Washington grew up with dogs, but Kibala says the training is so intense that it negates his prior experience with canines. The overall training involves simple tasks as well as complex tasks such as sniffing out explosives.

“Dogs are just like people,— Washington says. “They have fears, so we try to expose them to things like riding the escalator, getting in the elevator, and we socialize them. They’re just like little kids; they get distracted.—

The dogs join regular patrols around the Capitol campus, but they also attend the Republican and Democratic national conventions, any large concert held on the National Mall and domestic Congressional delegation trips.

While detecting a bomb that could potentially destroy the Capitol and harm thousands of people may seem like a lot of responsibility for a dog, the officers say the dogs are eager to do it.

“When they see you with your uniform on, they know it’s time to go to work and they get extremely excited. … They know where they’re going. They love their job,— Kibala says.

While the dogs don’t receive a paycheck, they work for “rewards.— For Thea and Layne, these rewards are simply chew toys that the officers toss around with them from time to time.

“That’s what they work for — that little piece of rubber,— Kibala says.

In the end, the dogs are a cross between a partner and a pet, and just like the officers, they like to relax at the end of a shift.

“As soon as you pull into the driveway and try to get that dog to do something, he’ll say, ‘I’m off duty,’— Washington says. But no matter, he adds, because one of the best parts of the job is having a partner that will love him at the end of the day, no matter what.

“You can yell at him, whatever, and you still get a partner who licks your face at the end of the day,— he says.