Handlers and dogs from Cobb County and four local police departments — Acworth, Marietta, Powder Springs and Smyrna — train together weekly, reinforcing a bond one officer said is almost indescribable.
“A lot is hard to put into words,” said Cobb Police officer Mark Blakeney, whose six-year K-9 partner is Diesel. “The dog is with you so much in the car. They go home with us every night. You’re so used to having that dog around. I see him more than I see my wife and kids.”
Officer Adam East said his four-year K-9 partner, a German shepherd named Bear, is a loyal companion.
“He’s always there at work and home. He’s one of my best friends,” East said. “He can be annoying, but I love him.”
A trained German shepherd or Belgian Malinois can run $10,000 to $15,000, before factoring in $30 or more per month for food and about $1,000 a year for various other expenses.
The city of Acworth uses confiscated drug money for its three-dog force, Capt. Mark Cheatham said, and saved taxpayers $2,000 by inviting trainer Jan Scofield to visit the city from his Titusville, Fla., location.
The city of Marietta saves even more by relying on Officer Reynaldo Figueroa for in-house training, a process that can take six to eight weeks.
Figueroa recently got a new public safety partner, Riddick, also one of three animals on the squad, who replaced the officer’s previous partner, Inga.
“When (his) partner, Inga, was tragically hit by a car and killed last year, his grief was no less than someone who had lost a brother or sister,” Marietta Police Officer David Baldwin said in a statement.
Cobb and Acworth have had K-9 deaths in the line of duty, which Cobb County Unit
Commander Lt. Terri Blackmer said is a constant hazard.
“We’re the tip of the sword. Everyone else is behind us,” she said about fugitive pursuits. “The bad guys will see us before we see them.”
Qualifications vary little from agency to agency. Most agreed the animals need to be able to act both fierce and friendly, depending on the situation.
“We look for dogs that are very sociable and can handle demonstrations like school outreach programs,” Cheatham said.
Officer Celeste Rausch of the Smyrna Police Department, whose K-9 partner is a Belgian Malinois named Paco, said human skill also determine success on the job.
“It requires the handler to be in shape because you’re walking over some rough terrain,” she said. “You have to be available because you’re on call 24/7. You’ve got to have a lot of patience. Your heart’s got to be in it. You make it a lifestyle.”
Other assets include firm grasp on laws pertaining to narcotics and traffic stops, good decision-making abilities, problem-solving skills — and real estate.
“The handler must own their own home with a yard and live within 30 miles of the city limits,” Baldwin said.
He said the first quality sought, however, is a “true care for animals,” with which Blackmer agreed.
“It’s a bond like no other. It’s a calling. We love what we do,” she said.
The solidarity extends to the humans on the teams, whether in one department or between the agencies.
“A lot of it is like a marriage,” Blackmer said. “We don’t always get along, but we will be there to support each other. We really, really watch out for each other.”
On their watch, K-9s offer a good return on investment, Austell Police Chief R.G. Starrett said.
“We have found lost individuals, tracked down numerous criminals, located property and narcotics, and have had our K-9 officers protected by their K-9s,” he said. “The presence of a K-9 has not only protected our officers and assisted them in their duties, but has also kept us from possibly having to use deadly force in some situations.”
Cobb County Schools Public Safety Director James Arrowood said children respond well to the four-footed officers.
“They all pet him. They pull his tail. He doesn’t mind,” Arrowood said about Ghost, a mild-mannered yellow Labrador who works with handler Sgt. Mike Rolfe.
The dog’s specialty is sniffing out drugs, like during a recent incident when he alerted on a visitor’s car.
“We had a hit on someone who had driven onto campus,” Arrowood said.
While officers said they savored the sense of accomplishment from hauling in contraband drugs, weapons and cash, the dogs get their own payday.
“It’s almost like a game to them,” said Sgt. Dana Pierce of the county police. “They know they’re going to get rewarded with a silly rubber ball.”