Dogs, humans team up for K-9 police work

Sheriff's Office offers training to teams from Massachusetts, Rhode Island

ken599_599    Lt. Ken Ballinger of the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office offers food to Bruno, a dog from the Quincy Police Department, after Bruno found heroin hidden under a shelving unit.

Dogs find concealed drugs, suspects who are trying to hide

By Sam Pearsall

For Lieut. Kenneth Ballinger, a 19-year veteran dog handler currently working at the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office, being a dog lover was "predetermined."

His father was a handler for 35 years, while his mother was a prestigious German Shepherd breeder in eastern Massachusetts.

K-9s are selected not at all based on aggression or strength, but rather on temperament, character, and physical health. Almost all of their training is in the searching application for both good and bad people, narcotics, crime scene evidence, firearms, ammunition, and bodies.

"You have to be half crazy to do this because it's not like anything else in law enforcement. If you ride a motorcycle, work on a SWAT team, ride a horse, or do any specialized thing, at the end of your shift, your shift is over," he said.

"Not for us. Our dogs and cruisers come home with us," he said. "For everything the public sees us do, there's 50 percent more they don't see us do."

Lieutenant Ballinger, who is on-call almost 365 days a year, is not only the director of the K-9 Unit at the sheriff's office, but is also the instructor of a 16-week Patrol Academy. That's where dogs, accompanied by their assigned handlers from all over southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, train to be service dogs.

He trains about 70 dogs of varying breeds, from German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers to smaller cattle dogs and Dutch herders.

Looking at temperament, character, physical health

Dogs are selected not at all based on aggression or strength, but rather on temperament, character, and physical health. Dogs in training mainly learn skills to be service dogs. Almost all of the training is in the searching application for both good and bad people, narcotics, crime scene evidence, firearms, ammunition, and bodies.

"[Handling police dogs] is not a hobby, it's a lifestyle. You literally plan your life around the dog," Ballinger explained.

For Ballinger, that commitment entails up to 15 extra hours of training and upkeep of his dog on top of the regular 40-hour workweek, in addition to being a full-time father to four young children and a husband. He says it makes things easier that his wife is also a police officer.
Since the handler is "the brains of the team, they have a very high level of responsibility," Ballinger said.

In the words of Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings, "The handlers give their dogs all the credit, but without a good handler the dogs are not at all effective."

Handlers are responsible for their own actions as well as their dog's.

Ballinger said the dog cannot decipher between a good person walking into the house or a bad person, "he's just going to do what he has been trained to do, which is to be protecting of me and my family," he said.

When any visitors come to Ballinger's home or his children begin to get rowdy, he must put his dog in its crate.

About eight years ago, Ballinger implemented a cutting-edge type of training at the sheriff's office that rewards the dog with food instead of playing once they complete their task.

"Food reward training sounds a little bit harsh when you say, well, our dogs only eat when they find what they're trained to find. In truth, they get more food than most dogs would because they're working so much," Ballinger said.

With food as reward, dogs are more precise

Dogs previously were trained by using playtime as the reward. Since play is not a necessity for dogs and food is, the dogs take their work much more seriously and are therefore much more precise.

"Sheriff Cummings was instrumental in giving me the opportunity to pursue that very, very new training," Ballinger said.

Bruno, a two-year-old German Shepherd from the Quincy Police Department, was training on a recent Monday morning.

ken300_488

In just his seventh week, he is able to detect the scent of dozens of narcotics and precisely track down their location.

During a training exercise in a warehouse at the sheriff's office, very small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroine were hidden separately (each wrapped in coffee filter-like papers, as to not harm the dogs) around the warehouse. Within minutes, Bruno found each one. At right, Ballinger is rewarding Bruno after the dog found marijuana hidden between a stack of boxes.

If a team of officers was to search for these small packages of narcotics, it would take several hours with only a 20 percent chance of finding them.

Ballinger trains the dogs in passive indication. Instead of aggressively biting and scratching, once Bruno found each drug, he would lie or sit down, and repeatedly point his nose over the scent.

Each time Bruno used his nose to hit the exact area where the narcotic was hidden, Ballinger fed him his high-calorie dog food from the bag on his belt.

Bruno is a cross-trained dog, meaning he is a patrol dog that also can search for narcotics and other items. The sheriff's office used to have all cross-trained dogs, but about five years ago, with much support from Sheriff Cummings, Ballinger began training the dogs as either single-purpose detection dogs or patrol dogs.

Ballinger described the difficulty of being cross-trained: "It's like trying to be loyal to two masters. There's always that contradiction for them of, ‘Am I coming into the school to search for a suspect, or am I coming into the school to search for drugs?'

"Demand right now is so high for detection dogs, especially bomb dogs and weapon dogs, because of the type of world we live in now," Ballinger said. "As demand increases, the quality of dogs goes down, and the price goes up."

Dogs can be expensive

The average price for a police dog is about $6,500.  In the past, they have been imported from all over the world. Because of Ballinger's innovative training philosophies, he now can pick up dogs for free at the pound or shelters like the MSPCA instead of paying thousands of dollars.

"Regardless of the breed or price, if they have the characteristics we need that's great," he said.
More than 20 detection dogs now working in southeastern Massachusetts were rescued from unfavorable environments.

The financial expense is one reason some police departments have dropped K-9 programs, especially on the Cape. According to Barnstable Sheriff James Cummings, small departments do not need to tie up an officer with a dog. Instead it makes more sense to call neighboring departments that do have K-9 units or the K-9 Unit at the sheriff's office.

The financial expense is one reason some police departments have dropped K-9 programs, especially on the Cape.

According to Sheriff Cummings, small departments do not need to tie up an officer with a dog.

Instead it makes more sense to call neighboring departments that do have K-9 units or the K-9 Unit at the sheriff's office.

But the recent economic crisis has been hitting hard all around, so the K-9 Unit at the sheriff's office recently came up with a plan to combat the expenses of having so many dogs.

Ballinger and a fellow handler, Lieut. Barney Murphy, conveniently happen to be carpenters. In recent weeks, they've been building a breeding facility on the grounds of the sheriff's office.

This facility, being built solely with drug money seized by the dogs, will be "the first of its kind in the country," Ballinger said of the rectangular framed building with several built-in kennels as well as a whelping room from the female and her newly born puppies.

As they worked to put the doors on, Ballinger and Murphy explain that the puppies will be used for law enforcement and public safety and the dogs will go to only highly trained and well-qualified handlers.

The sheriff's office already has two females, a lab and a Dutch herder, that will be the first to breed here and a litter is expected this spring.

Instead of paying thousands of dollars to import dogs from overseas, Sheriff Cummings said, the dogs will be born, raised, and trained right on the grounds, which will certainly cut back on expenses and offset the cost of the K-9 program.

Quashnet School class will name puppies

Naming the puppies, a significant part of the new puppy-rearing program, has become the responsibility of the Quashnet Elementary School in Mashpee.

Ballinger and Murphy's children are in the same class, where naming the puppies will be tied into the history curriculum.

Each puppy of this first litter will be given a name starting with the letter ‘A' to represent the first litter and make it easy to track the dogs. Each name will have significance from a historical context.

At present, the Yarmouth Police Department has two dogs, Barnstable has three, Sandwich has one, and Wellfleet has a 10-year-old bloodhound, Beau.

The day after Christmas, Beau tracked the scent from a man's shirt for about two miles and found him in an Eastham basement. The man was wanted on two arrest warrants after fleeing police.

"He has the best nose in the business," according to Beau's handler of 10 years, Officer Jerre Austin.

Because Wellfleet is a small Cape town, Beau has expanded his work to do more than 100 searches all over the East Coast for children, runaways, and fleeing criminals.

The Wellfleet Police Department's K-9 Unit came at no cost to the town because Beau was donated by the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction.

Although some Cape towns do have their own dogs and handlers on call, the K-9 Unit at the sheriff's office continues to assist all 15 Cape towns, as well as other agencies that request their services, such as the Coast Guard or even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Calls for work are up

In 2008, Ballinger's six K-9 teams responded to 550 calls for outside departments and agencies, up from 351 the previous year. These incidents do not include the daily searches and seizures in the prison, the parking lot, or of the visitors.

Due to the high demand and the high cost of police dogs, it's important for the dogs to perform to their potential for as long as possible.

These dogs not only are work partners, they are pets. "We stop them from working at about nine years old even if they still want to work because we try to give them some life. So they get to be just a pet with their handler at home," Ballinger explained.

With Ballinger's new training program, the single-purpose dogs are predicted to be in service for up to two years longer than the cross-trained dogs, which means working for up to eight years as opposed to about six. Because their physical workload and stress levels are reduced when being trained as either a patrol dog or detection dog, they are able to work longer.

These dogs not only are work partners, they are pets. "We stop them from working at about nine years old even if they still want to work because we try to give them some life. So they get to be just a pet with their handler at home," Ballinger explained.

After they retire and reside permanently with their handler, they can enjoy the same level of care they did when in public service because of an independent not-for-profit called the Cape Cod Police K-9 Relief Fund.

Since these dogs are prone to injury due to high stress and physical demands of the job, they usually suffer more major medical problems as they age. Donations are made to "ease the burden of some of the food, shelter, and veterinary costs incurred in maintaining a retired K-9s."

Visit here to learn more about the organization and make a donation.

bruno599_599    Bruno from the Quincy Police Department finds a small quantity of cocaine hidden between the drawers.

cruisers599_599    Cruisers from variety of police departments testify to popularity of K-9 training offered at Barnstable County Sheriff's Office.
bpd-jaxx_599    Jaxx, who works with Lt. Barney Murphy of the sheriff's office, stands at alert on a cold winter day.

CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.