LAKELAND, Fla. -- With barely a woof and many a sniff, police canines from around the country are gathering in Lakeland, Fla., this week to see who will be top dog.
Consider it the Westminster Dog Show of policing. For three days, the United States Police Canine Association is meeting at Florida Southern University and holding its national detector dog trials.
About eighty teams from across the U.S. – from Maine to Minnesota to Texas to Iowa – are competing. Dogs, guided by their human handlers, are tested on their ability to sniff out drugs, explosives, arson materials, cadavers and wild game.
Handlers and organizers say these tests are not only challenging and mentally stimulating for the dogs, but the trials also allow them to be certified by a national organization. That certification is crucial to a dog and handler's credibility when the team's evidence is presented during a criminal court case.
"You've got to have training records, you've got to prove in court that the dog was not only proficient at one given time, but is continually proficient over time," said Ron Bowling, a national judge for the USPCA, and retired Lakeland, Fla. police canine officer. "That's the purpose of these tests here today."
Most of the dogs competing are German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois, many of whom were born and trained in Europe and then sent to police departments in the United States. Dogs are generally trained to do one or two things – sniff out drugs and find people, for instance, or sniff out explosives and find cadavers. Dogs generally are trained to sniff only one thing.
On Tuesday, each dog-handler team looped around five parked cars while a judge watched. Drugs were planted in two of the cars, and when many of the dogs got a whiff of the exteriors, they were visibly aroused. Some sat patiently, looking at their police officer, while others whined and tried to claw their way into the car.
Shea, a six-year-old German Shepherd with the Polk County Sheriff's office in Florida, panted in the heat as he searched for the drugs. When he keyed in on one car, he looked up at his handler, deputy Jody Gill, with big brown eyes.
"Good boy!" said Gill. He later mentioned that he probably spends more time with Shea than anyone else in his life.
"They've lived with us from day one. They're our dogs. They stay in our house. When I'm at home though, I don't do any work with him, any training. He's just a free dog," said Gill. "He lays on the couch and does his own thing. But then when we come to work it's time to get serious."___