The sun beats down on the grassy fields at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and intermittent barking fills the air. Ears up, eyes alert, dozens of muscular canines leap, run, and attack upon command, earning praise and back rubs from their proud trainers and partners.
The United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) 2018 National Patrol Dog Field Trials and Certification is taking place in Huntsville this week, a prestigious honor for the Rocket City. Nearly 90 teams from over 20 states are engaged in fierce competition, where a winner is often determined by a mere half point.
You’re with the unit and your dog more than you’re with your family.”
Police handlers and dogs have been training for hundreds of hours to be ready when duty calls, and in the case of this week’s field trial event, for national bragging rights. Huntsville’s award-winning K9 unit routinely trains every Wednesday, 10 hours straight, racking up more than 500 hours per year to ensure patrol dogs are in top shape.
K9 unit officers join the force because they love dogs, but they stay in the unit for the comradery. “You’re with the unit and your dog more than you’re with your family,” says Jeff Stubbs, HPD Officer/Canine Handler. “Our K9 unit members are a special breed.”
The connection between dog and handler runs deep, says Douglas Moore, HPD Officer/Canine Handler. “My dog, Koda, and I had an immediate bond.”
The handlers typically start training the dogs when they are one year old, and the ties grow stronger as the pair build trust and respect. In Huntsville, handlers go through a 12-week training program. When a handler’s dog retires, the handler goes through the entire training program again with a new dog.
This intense training process keeps the Huntsville K9 unit fresh and up to date on the latest training techniques, including theories on when to feed the animals, and more.
Eager to compete
In the hospitality room at the Marriott host hotel, where most units are staying during the USPCA competition, discussions between K9 officers sound more like conversations in a parent chat room centered on the latest behavior and health-related tips and research for their children. For these officers, K9 education is serious business.
“We have been getting up at 5 a.m. to prepare for the day and often go to bed at 9 or 10 p.m.,” says Stubbs. “As well as prepping for our four competitors, we’re coordinating the overall competition and managing host tasks throughout the day.” Huntsville Police are also networking with the visiting units, guiding them on where to go in the community to enjoy the City’s dining and entertainment options.
Many officers bring their families with them to watch the trials, and there’s plenty of entertainment seeing the dogs and handlers in action.
Athletes as well as professionals, police animals are judged and scored on their abilities to jump through windows, muscle over obstacles, and sniff out evidence at the handler’s command.
Watch the trials Sept. 20
The USPCA competition has six categories: obedience, agility, boxes, articles, apprehension without a gun, and apprehension with a gun. There will be a free public demonstration at Milton Frank Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 6:30 p.m. The event will start with a helicopter escort and will showcase each category as well as the prowess of both dog and handler.