Last week I paid a visit to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit. As you can probably guess from the videos below, it wasn’t a trip that I’ll soon forget.
I was invited by Lt. Michael Barnhill, one of the most energetic and hard-working human beings that you’ll find anywhere. Lt. Barnhill manages a team of six dog/handler tandems, five of which are dual-purpose patrol/narcotics teams and one of which focuses exclusively on explosives detection. They help keep the peace in a busy suburban community located to the southwest of Atlanta.
I was introduced to Lt. Barnhill by a mutual friend who keenly observed that the Varsity Ball would be the perfect tool to help maintain the fitness of the uber-athletic dogs of the DCSO. After spending a few hours watching Sgt. Ace, Boogie, Falco, Hero, Milo, and Charon trying in vain to destroy their new Varsity Balls, Lt. Barnhill invited me to try on the “bite suit,” a thick, full-body garment that handlers wear when serving as a “mark” in apprehension exercises (as in “apprehend that guy by chasing him down and attacking him”).
It took me a few minutes to understand what he was suggesting. Then it dawned on me — Lt. Barnhill was inviting me to be a mark. He wanted to turn his finely-tuned canine attack machines loose on me.
I guess my well–documented fascination with working dogs triumphed over my fear of being mangled — because I accepted. A few minutes later I was strapped into the bite suit, sweating profusely, and running for my life.
Here’s what the experience taught me about police dogs:
Running From An Apprehension Dog Is Useless
A highly-fit German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois can run more than twice as fast as the fastest human over a short distance. So, when conducting apprehension training exercises, handlers usually give the “mark” a head start. In my case, I was afforded about twenty yards of breathing room and then instructed to begin running.
I was caught in what felt like a heartbeat. One second I was listening to the handler warning me to “stop or I’ll release the dog” (I was instructed to ignore his commands) and the next the dog was on me. There wasn’t even any time to notice any feeling of fear or apprehension.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re Usain Bolt or just some aging hack in a cumbersome full-body bite suit — trying to escape an apprehension dog is useless. These canine athletes are FAST.
Apprehension Dogs “Hit” Hard
When wearing a bite suit, the feeling of being bitten by an apprehension dog doesn’t involve any sharp pain or crushing sensation. The suits are heavily padded and they dull most of the pain that would otherwise be inflicted by the dogs’ powerful jaws.
That’s not to say that the experience of being hit by an apprehension dog is pleasant. It’s just more like being slammed by an NFL linebacker than being jabbed with daggers.
Most apprehension dogs are large and rock-solid (in my case, Charon and Falco each weighed about 80 pounds). They gather momentum as they dart across the training ground and don’t decelerate at all before smashing into their mark.
In my experience, the force of the impact was enough to stagger me and leave me momentarily disoriented. While I didn’t “go to ground” on any of the hits, I am confident that I would have lost my footing if I had been running at full-speed without the bite suit.
Lt. Barnhill had warned me to do my best to avoid that scary situation. When a mark is laid out on the ground, his unprotected head and neck are prone to off-target bites. While the DCSO dogs are trained to bite with incredible accuracy, accidents – the kind that require 64 “staples across the face” – occasionally happen.
Thankfully, I avoided becoming the subject of future cautionary tales.
Apprehension Dogs Have Jaws Like Vices
Being hit by an apprehension dog is noticeably unlike being tackled by a football player in one key regard: after the dog hits you, it grabs onto you with its mouth and does not let go until it wants to.
They usually hit in the mid-back and their jaws are so powerful that they can jump, latch onto the mark, and actually suspend themselves off the ground using only their vice-like jaw strength.
Apprehension Dogs Are Absurdly Responsive to Behavioral Cues
Apprehension dogs attack with a tremendous amount of drive and vigor. Watch the videos embedded in this post again and observe the single-minded focus which the dogs bring to the activity. At the moment of impact, the only thing that matters in their world is properly hitting the mark.
While their attentiveness to the task of apprehending a suspect was impressive to behold, I was even more impressed by their responsiveness to release cues. Check out the video of Falco below and watch how quickly he disengages his bite once he is cued to release. Despite all his enthusiasm for biting and tugging, he is capable of shutting those behaviors down in an instant. That’s a real testament to the quality of the training work that he and his handler have done.
Enjoy the vids — I hope you all have a good laugh at my expense. Have a great Wednesday and, if you’re a criminal, stay out of Douglas County! Many thanks to Lt. Barnhill and the rest of the guys from the Unit !
– Coach Dan