JACKSON, WY — No, there’s no big, multi-agency drug bust or manhunt going on in Teton County. All the cop cars you’re seeing around town are here for the annual K-9 Training Seminar with the National Police Canine Association (NPCA).
More than 55 federal and regional K-9 units are in town for the week as part of the largest field training in the nation. There are dogs and handlers from Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and all over Wyoming. Canine units are required to re-train and get re-certified every year in their respective fields. Teton County, for example, only has narcotics dogs — you’ll never get taken down by a Teton County canine, but they’ll find your stash pretty quickly. But NPCA is offering training for every specialty: patrol, narcotics, tracking, and even explosives.
Teton County has hosted this training every spring for the past 17 years, largely thanks to Clarene Law and her hospitality, said Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr (Law offers heavily discounted lodging rates at her properties, and hosts a dinner at the Cowboy Village Resort).
Buckrail got to observe some of the K-9 units on “patrol” training. Patrol training teaches dogs to apprehend felons, usually violent or dangerous felons, on the run, explained Lieutenant Chett Hooper. It looks scary to an untrained eye — big, strong, agile dogs locking in on human decoys dressed in suits of “armor” (and, to be fair, it probably would be scary to an unsuited felon). But look closer, said Corporal Randall Stein, Senior K-9 Handler for the Colorado Rangers. The dogs’ tails are wagging. They’re having a great time. They may look untamed and aggressive, but Randy says quite the opposite is true. This is a game to them — an impeccably trained, precise game. Many of these dogs know commands in more than one language (lots of German Shepherd handlers train their dogs in German, for example). These drills are an exercise in control and in following commands.
Stein’s dog, Blitz, is a big, fluffy, and rather famous German Shepherd. He’s certified in Narcotics Detection, Tracking and Handler Protection. His plush appearance and gentle personality make him a popular ambassador for the Colorado Rangers’ K-9 program — he’s great with kids, loves attention, and truly looks like a gentle giant teddy bear. But he knows how to attack. When it’s his turn, he lunges at the decoy on command and latches on.
Blitz’s tail wags uncontrollably the whole time and lets out enthusiastic, almost human-sounding high-pitched wails. Stein encourages him with pets and enthusiastic praise: “Good boy. Bite the bad man. Bite the bad man.”
“I’m trying to build his confidence,” Stein explained. The trick is teaching the dogs not only to bite, but also to let go. “It’s like a pendulum.” And like any training, it takes a lot of repetition.
But what’s in it for the decoy? Actually, quite a lot, said Zach Diaz in between practice attacks. Diaz wants to be a handler one day, but said he learns “a lot more about dogs as a decoy than you do from the other side of the drill.” It’s not an easy job. It hurts, it’s exhausting, and it requires a lot of “finesse.” Decoys have to learn to turn their bodies a certain way to deflect the blow, both for themselves and for the dog. Doing this wrong can seriously injure or even kill the dog — and that’s the end of your career, Diaz said.
The K-9 units will be training at different places around town all week. Don’t be alarmed to see them around and don’t be afraid to offer some Jackson hospitality.
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