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Federal Way K-9 officers deal with ‘the baddest of the bad’

K-9 Officer Scott Orta demonstrates the power a dog bite Friday. Fax, a German shepherd, bites the training sleeve placed on Orta’s arm.  Together, the German shepherds and their handlers completed 400 hours of training to qualify for their jobs. They also participate in four hours of training per week.  - Jacinda Howard/ The Mirror
K-9 Officer Scott Orta demonstrates the power a dog bite Friday. Fax, a German shepherd, bites the training sleeve placed on Orta’s arm. Together, the German shepherds and their handlers completed 400 hours of training to qualify for their jobs. They also participate in four hours of training per week.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard/ The Mirror

Federal Way’s three K-9 officers dedicate their lives to their dogs and jobs.

These officers chase the most serious of criminals, and spend night and day with their partners — German shepherds. A decade of training, graveyard shifts and dangerous crime scenes come with the title.

Officer Scott Orta and Matt Novak, with dog partners Roscoe and Fax, respectively, are police K-9 generalist teams. Officer Kurt Schwan and partner Caleb are the department’s narcotics team.

K-9 officers are 16 times more likely to be shot on the job, Orta said. In 2007, Federal Way’s K-9 generalist dogs were used 103 times on a typical call, specifically called for 17 times, requested by other agencies 17 times. The dogs performed 31 captures, 13 requiring bites, and found evidence 22 times, Orta said. Novak joined the K-9 unit in September 2007, so most of the statistics were generated by Orta.

The police department pays for veterinarian bills, food and pet supplies. The dogs become their partners’ friends, and once the K-9s are too old to perform well, police departments generally sell them to their handler, Orta said.

“I’ve got the coolest job in the whole department,” Orta said.

Dog duty: Trained

to Bite

Generalist teams track criminals and find evidence. They respond to crime scenes at which a criminal has fled and find suspects that pose a threat to the community, Orta said.

“We’re dealing with the baddest of the bad,” Orta said.

Together, the German shepherds and their handlers completed 400 hours of training to qualify for their jobs. They also participate in four hours of training per week. The dogs are taught to obey their handler’s every command, bite when necessary and release when instructed.

“They are trained to bite,” Novak said. “They are not trained to be vicious.”

The handlers have learned to recognize their dogs’ mannerisms. They know when the animals find a suspect’s scent or when they are getting close to locating the person.

“It’s an art and a science at the same time to be able to read these dogs,” Orta said. “You can’t just grab on and hold on and hope he finds (the criminal).”

K-9 narcotics teams are similar to generalist teams, but the dogs are not trained to bite. They are taught to sniff out drugs. These teams complete 200 hours of training. Caleb can identify marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

The dog’s sense of smell is just as good as an in-field drug test, Orta said.

A K-9 dog typically begins training when it is 18 months to two years old.

Police tend to prefer German shepherds as generalist dogs because they are good in social situations, are high-energy, have a good work ethic and are courageous, obedient and loyal, Novak said.

“They really are the professional athlete of the dog world,” Orta said.

Narcotics dogs usually are picked up at the pound, Orta said. No specific breed is desired, though Caleb is a German shepherd.

However, many of these dogs have been abandoned because they have too much energy and drive to be considered a good pet, Orta said.

All of Federal Way’s dogs spend night and day with their handlers. They are trained to be protective of them.

The back seat of police cars are converted to kennels and the dogs become family pets. They go home with officers after each shift. Roscoe plays with Orta’s children and sleeps bedside.

“They live with us; they sleep with us,” Orta said. “We spend more time with our dogs than we do with our family.”

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

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