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Man's best friend takes a bite out of crime

K-9 trainer Hilary Robinson works with what could be her final class


by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Bart, a young Belgian Malinois partnered with Woodburn Officer Zach Williams, stares interestedly at the camera during a recent training session hosted by the Clackamas County Sheriffs Office. When it comes to training dogs, consistency is everything for Hilary Robinson.

“My philosophy is always be consistent,” said Robinson, who recently retired from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, where she helped found the agency’s K-9 unit in 1994. “Consistency is a big thing, because I don’t like saying, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ There’s a reason we train for what we train for. There’s a reason for everything and we’re looking for a definite outcome. It’s like painting a small picture for a dog, breaking it down into puzzle pieces and putting it all together so it’s really black and white for the dog.”

Robinson has helped train every patrol and drug detection dog for the sheriff’s office since 2007 and is now an Oregon Police Canine Association certified master trainer in both patrol and drug detection skills.

Her latest class, however, might be one of her last, and she’s soaking up every day of the six-week advanced patrol training course currently underway in various locations around Clackamas County.

“Hilary out there is the key to our success,” said CCSO Sgt. Paul Coleman, supervisor of the agency’s K-9 unit since 2003. “She won’t say it, but she is a gifted, gifted dog trainer. She gets animal behavior, just generally, and she can see what’s going on with them.”

Coleman watched as Robinson gave short, clipped instructions to a class during a basic obedience session. The four dogs, all sturdy Belgian Malinois, and their handlers were led through various drills over and over, with an emphasis simply on obedience.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Cameron and Vito climb an obstacle at the agency's K9 training ground in Clackamas. Oregon City Police Officer Bill Horton and Mac are in the background, part of a multi-agency training class headed by the CCSO.

Is there a simple way to explain it?

“Yes,” she said. “Sit means sit. Down means down, and here means here.”

The dogs also learn only to respond to their handlers’ commands, which are offered up in Dutch. So even if the fleeing felon on the street understood the language, the dog would ignore any commands hurled its way.

Robinson’s latest class is a multi-agency affair. Sheriff’s deputies Donnie McCafferty and Jeff Cameron are training with Officer Zach Williams of the Woodburn Police Department and Officer Bill Horton of the Oregon City Police Department.

Different states have different standards for certifying dogs for police work. But in Oregon, teams of dogs and handlers are certified periodically through the McMinnville-based OPCA, the members of which are all law enforcement personnel.

McCafferty, a former member of the CCSO SWAT team, had to forego that unit to undergo certification and join the K-9 unit. Like many dog handlers, though, he’s a lifelong dog lover and the transition has not been difficult.

“For me, I just grew up with dogs and I’ve always had a passion for dogs,” he said. “And I’ve been excited about the opportunity to work with a dog. For me, it’s something I’ve always wanted.”

McCafferty will be working with Kilo, a Belgian Malinois that formerly partnered with Robinson before her retirement last November. At only 5 1/2 years old, however, Kilo is far too young to do the same. She’s undergoing recertification with McCafferty, and both of them are growing accustomed to each other.

“It’s a transition period,” he said. “It’s been difficult, but she’s done a great job. It’s just an obstacle that we have to overcome, but it’s going good.”

Life change

When you accept a K-9 unit assignment, you also are agreeing to a complete lifestyle upheaval, Coleman said.

He should know. A father with young children at home, he and his family have had to make plenty of accommodations for Wodan, who spends far more time with Coleman than any of his family members.

“The Odd Couple,” he responded when asked to describe the relationship between dog and man. “We get along. We love each other. You really develop a long, deep bond with the animals. They’ve been man’s best friend for 2,000 years, and they’ve got us figured out.”

Cameron agreed. A patrol deputy prior to the K-9 unit, where he is now paired with Vito, he said he feels like his personality meshes best with fellow dog handlers.

“The reason I got into it was the K-9 handlers,” he said. “They’re more my style. They want to go help people with their partners. It’s an additional tool that we get to use and you see the personalities in the department and that’s the direction you go.”

He also agreed the sudden addition of a family member takes getting used to.

“It does change you, your life is going to change,” he said. “I’ve been around dogs my entire life, but it’s different, this is a tool, it’s not a pet and I’m very strong on that. So I just care for the dog and treat it well, and it’s a co-worker.”

Robinson and anyone else involved in law enforcement are adamant about that last point. Dogs trained for police work are not pets, despite often agreeable personalities and mild temperaments. While the dogs normally can and do get along well with other family members, when it becomes time for work they must be able to focus on the task at hand to the exclusion of everything else — even if it means risking their own safety.

The Belgian Malinois meets those requirements perfectly. Bred in Europe to help protect livestock, the hardy, energetic breed somewhat resembles the German shepherd, which has largely been supplanted in the United States and other countries as the preferred breed for police work.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Clackamas County Sheriff's Deputy Donnie McCafferty and Kilo train on the agency's Clackamas training ground along with Woodburn Police Officer Zach Williams (background).

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office purchases dogs ranging from 18 months old to 4 years in age through Adlerhorst International out of Riverside, Calif. Adlerhorst sells dogs imported from Europe and certified by the Royal Dutch Police Association, or KNPV, in obedience and other basic skills. This, Coleman said, helps avoid numerous training issues and reduces his agency’s liability in the long run.

“We don’t necessarily have to worry about the dog having the right temperament,” Coleman said, explaining that the KNPV was established specifically to train dogs for police work.

“They’ve got clubs and they get together and train dogs in basic obedience,” he said. “They train dogs to find people, how to find scent, they train them to do some bite work, control, obedience, that kind of stuff, and then they title the dog and then they sell them to the crazy Americans who will pay outrageous money for these dogs. Which isn’t too outrageous, when I say that.”

Each Belgian Malinois costs the sheriff’s office $9,600 at current rates. But that price buys more than a trained dog — it also purchases peace of mind.

“We just have found that it’s more reliable for us to know that, ‘Hey, this dog already has its temperament tested.’” Coleman said. “Because you can spend a year, two years, training a dog from a puppy and if it doesn’t have the right temperament it doesn’t work.”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Woodburn Police Officer Zach Williams leads Bart through an obstacle course at the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office K9 training ground.

Field work

Once the current class is completed, the four handlers and their dogs will return to their respective agencies for several weeks of field training prior to flying solo on patrol for the first time.

Before then, they’ll be practicing vehicle stops, bite work, obedience and more obedience, suspect tracking and apprehension and many other skills that provide the K-9 handlers with a bit of an edge over other patrol officers. So much so, in fact, that the six dog handlers currently working for CCSO — seven with the addition of Cameron and Vito — must be able to respond to calls anywhere in the county when they involve a violent crime or suspect that must be found as soon

as possible.

“We’ve got a basic protocol, and basically it falls in line with case law that’s come out for use of force,” said Coleman. “So when we’re looking at deploying the dog, we’re looking at the seriousness of the crime, if the person is evading or attempting to evade capture, the threat that they pose to the community or the officer, do we have any other options or capture or locate or ID this person — those kind of things play in.”

The dog handler also more or less calls the shots when it comes to the scene of an incident, he added.

“Our supervisors, they know what they don’t know,” Coleman said. “So I’ve got a 25-year veteran who shows up with a dog and has been around the block seven thousand times, it’s like: ‘Go work.’”

That respect has to be earned, Robinson added.

“We don’t select handlers based on who they are,” she said. “It’s their work, their work ethic, who they are and how fast they can make correct decisions. It’s because of the liability and what they’re doing with that dog, because they literally take over that call when they get there.”

Despite the added responsibility, there always are more applications for the K-9 unit than spots to fill. That could, in part, be attributed to the effectiveness of dogs in ensuring a safe outcome for suspects and officers alike.

“It’s amazing,” said Coleman. “Say you have a guy inside of the building, maybe you’ve got a guy who seriously assaulted his wife, put her in the hospital and he doesn’t want to come out. There’s weapons in a lot of houses, maybe he’s armed, maybe he’s not, but he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to assault somebody that he cares about, so what’s he going to do to someone he doesn’t care about?”

In those circumstances, he added, the dog often provides a quick resolution.

“The dog barks a little bit and now the guy starts thinking, sometimes even through that meth-induced or alcohol-induced laden brain, that barking will get through,” he said. “People realize they’re not going to be able to argue or debate with the dog, and more often than not, it gets people to surrender to us.”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Retired CCSO Deputy Hilary Robinson, back, oversees a final class of K-9 officers and dogs, including (from left) Woodburn Officer Zach Williams and Bart, CCSO Deputy Donnie McCafferty and Kilo and CCSO Deputy Jeff Cameron and Vito.




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