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K-9 cop has a nose for crime

Matt Novak, K-9 officer, and his partner, Fax, train on an agility course Oct. 24 at the Tacoma Police Department. - Jacinda Howard, The Mirror
Matt Novak, K-9 officer, and his partner, Fax, train on an agility course Oct. 24 at the Tacoma Police Department.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

The night is dark, damp and cool, allowing scents to pool together and create perfect training conditions.

Since August, Federal Way police officer Matt Novak and his partner, Fax, a purebred German shepherd, have worked late nights training and building a relationship founded on trust, body language and a desire to catch felons.

The two will soon become the department’s newest K-9 team.

The Federal Way Police Department currently has one generalist K-9, which primarily tracks fleeing suspects, and one narcotics K-9, which is trained to sniff out illegal substances. The generalist team, the dog and its handler, are most often called to assist officers in locating suspects — often felons — that have fled the crime scene on foot.

With a keen sense of smell, superior intellect and swift agility, K-9s significantly decrease the chances of a criminal escaping police custody.

“We use them for their tracking abilities,” Novak said.

Precise training prepares the dog to work in real-life situations. Before the dog or its handler can be active on the police force, both must complete 400 hours of training, led by Lakewood Police Department officer and K-9 trainer Jim Syler. Novak and Fax are expected to complete their process in mid-November.

Novak has been with the city’s police department for a little more than five years. A physical fitness test, obstacle course challenge, simulation of carrying a grown dog 50 yards and oral questioning session by two current dog handlers qualified Novak for the job.

In August, the police department purchased Fax, and Novak took him home as a permanent resident and working partner.

Fax, or Fax von den Herbstzeitlosen as it appears on his official records, was born in Frankenberg, Germany, on April 6, 2005. He’s a high-energy purebred German shepherd whose size and strength make him intimidating enough to scare criminals, but not powerful enough to cause significant long-term damage to them, night shift Cmdr. Steve Arbuthnot said.

Despite his young age, he is well-behaved. He laid motionless, with the exception of slight head movements, waiting for Novak’s command Wednesday night in the dimly lit Lakewood City Hall parking lot.

This location, as well as parks, police stations, agility courses, public streets and vegetated areas, serve as training grounds for Fax and Novak. To be successful, they must foster a relationship, Arbuthnot said.

Fax must learn how to track a scent and take commands from his handler. Novak must learn how and when to give those commands and how to interpret Fax’s body language. Not every partnership between a dog and its handler will work, Arbuthnot said.

“Every dog is different,” Syler said. “They each have their own personality.”

Making progress:

In the past three months, Novak and Fax have bonded and made progress. Novak has learned to observe Fax’s ear, tail and head position, as well as recognize when Fax is pulling at his lead more than usual and when he is looking around, instead of smelling the ground.

Fax has learned how to follow a scent. Each night, when most people have found refuge inside and the nocturnal animals have begun to show themselves, Novak, Syler and Fax train.

Syler instructs a volunteer to walk a grid, ranging in length from a few blocks to a mile. The volunteer weaves, turns and attempts to elude Fax while creating a path for him to follow. Then the volunteer hides. A few minutes pass, and Novak and Fax are taken to the head of the path. Neither know where the track will end. In real situations, eye-witnesses and evidence indicate where the track will begin.

Then the team begins its work. A three-block path was established Wednesday. Head down, Fax picked up scents — broken grass, disturbed dirt, anything that signified a human may have recently passed through. With Novak jogging behind him and holding the leash, Fax quickly maneuvered around obstacles and corners.

Arbuthnot, a former K-9 handler with a Florida police force, remarked on Fax’s ability to race ahead in the track without losing the scent he is following.

“It’s an instinct for the dog to use his nose,” Syler said.

Nearing the volunteer’s hiding place, Fax circled the brick enclosure and jumped upon its wall. He pulled at the leash and barked, indicating to Novak that the volunteer — posing as a suspect — was near.

Novak shouted for John Buster, Federal Way police officer and Wednesday night’s volunteer, to come out of his hiding place. Novak commanded Fax to hold back and relinquish his pull on the lead as Buster emerged from hiding.

Fax is trained to bite a suspect only when that person physically confronts him and endangers him and his handler, Arbuthnot said. Fax and Novak completed the track within eight minutes.

“Never underestimate (K-9s); they will surprise you,” Arbuthnot said.

A successful track may require Fax to climb over, jump through and walk across obstacles that would make an average dog cower. For this reason, Novak and Fax train at the Tacoma Police Department’s agility course. Novak commands Fax to jump through a tire, walk a teetering structure that shifts under his weight and scale a fence.

In a few weeks, Fax will face another challenge. He and Novak will complete their training, then conduct their first real track. The Federal Way Police Department utilizes a K-9 team two to three times per week, Arbuthnot said. Novak and Fax will work Friday through Monday graveyard shifts and be on-call at all times of the day and night.

“Those of us in (the K-9 unit) wouldn’t want to do anything different,” Syler said.

The team will work together for approximately seven years, Arbuthnot said. The job is dangerous. Novak and Fax will pursue felons, some whom will be armed. Fax will probably save Novak’s life at least twice during that time, Arbuthnot said.

Novak said Fax is like a kid to him.

“You can’t leave the job at work,” Novak said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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