MARIETTA — A family TV show born out of a love of reptiles is taking a furry turn this week with the Marietta Police Department’s K-9 unit.
Tanya and Richard Curren of Greenville, South Carolina, said they started producing “Pierce’s Scaly Adventures” two years ago, after their son Pierce, 13, for whom the program is named, developed an intense interest in reptiles.
This week, the Cobb natives returned to what they call their “old stomping grounds” to shoot an episode for the show’s second season featuring Marietta police dogs in action.
“This will be an awesome way to shine a light on everything they do here in the community,” said Tanya Curren, who graduated from McEachern High School.
Richard Curren, a Lassiter alumnus, also grew up in Marietta. Both parents received their degrees from Kennesaw State University back when it was known as Kennesaw State College, and were married at Mount Paran Church off Northside Parkway.
The family of three spent their first day of filming tagging along with Officer Mark Bishop and his partner, a Belgian Malinois named Bono, as they tended to real calls in the community.
Pierce said his favorite part of the experience so far was watching Bishop and Bono in action during two different drug searches.
“It’s been an education to learn how important it is, the relationship between dogs and partner,” said Richard Curren, who is an executive producer for “Scaly Adventures.”
Bishop, who has served on the K-9 unit for three years, said the bond between dogs and their partners is one of the most important aspects of a successful team.
“Knowing your dog is the key to it,” he explained. “Over time, you and your dog get real close, and you really get to know your dog real well.”
Officer Ray Figueroa, the department trainer, outlined the intensive training process police dogs and their handlers undergo before beginning work in the field. His partner, a Belgian Malinois named Riddick, is the largest of the unit’s three dogs.
Figueroa said the process begins for potential police dogs when they are about one year old. Trainers start with a practice known as “drive development,” during which a powerful attachment to a toy is encouraged with the dogs; Figueroa described the exercise as “basically making them OCD for a toy.”
Trainers then introduce the dogs to the types of skills they would be learning in order to do police work, such as attacking suspects and searching for items. Figueroa said a dog’s ability to pick up on the tasks depends on each individual canine’s “mentality and maturity.” Police departments such as Marietta’s will then select the dogs best suited for the law enforcement life to continue with their training, choosing the candidates from a breeder’s pool of dogs.
Bishop said new officers who have never handled a dog before must initially undergo 80 hours of training with their four-legged partners.
“You’re learning how to work a dog, and when you’re doing that, you’re learning how to work your dog,” Bishop explained, emphasizing the importance of each officer getting to know his or her specific canine. “They’re like human beings. They have their own little quirks, so to speak.”
Figueroa said the department tries to pair officers with dogs who fit their personalities. As an example, he said a “strong-headed” officer would be coupled with a “tougher” dog.
“If it’s someone who can tend to be a little more playful with the dog, a weaker dog might be perfect for them,” Figueroa explained. “What we try to do is mesh them together and try to make a good canine team.”
Dogs in Marietta’s K-9 unit learn to detect the scents of methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, even when they’re veiled by other odors, Bishop said.
They are also taught to track humans over short and long distances and to locate evidence that an officer’s eyes might miss.
All three dogs learn all of the skills, officers explained, and none is stuck in a particular specialty.
Bishop noted dogs and handlers go through eight hours of sustainment training each week to keep the dogs’ skills “sharp,” as well as unscheduled training each time a dog makes a mistake in the field, such as falsely alerting police to the presence of drugs.
Bishop estimates adding a new dog to the force — after accounting for expenses such as the handler’s training, a new vehicle outfitted for a canine, and equipment — costs about $80,000.
Biannual veterinary visits, food, and other miscellaneous expenditures rack up even more costs during the six to eight years the typical police dog stays in the field, Bishop said, though he could not approximate how much they would be.
Each of the three officers in the K-9 unit said they share a special relationship with their dog.
Officer Paula Davis’ Czech shepherd, Ava, sometimes snaps at strangers when she’s on the job, Davis said, but never takes a swipe at her. Davis knows her partner so well that she could predict when Ava was about to bite based on her dog’s facial expression.
The dogs learn their commands in a different language, Bishop said, in part to prevent anyone but their handlers from instructing the dogs.
Bishop’s partner, Bono, responds to directives in German, while Figueroa says he gives orders to Riddick in Dutch.
At the end of the work day or night, dogs go home with their handlers, where they live as long the two serve in the unit together. When a dog’s retirement nears, Figueroa said it’s up to the officers whether they want to keep their dogs, as long as the police department allows it. Usually, Figueroa explained, officers opt to stay with their dogs after years of incredible closeness.
The Currens said their episode on the unit will aim to help children see the good work police do for communities and encourage them not to be afraid of officers or their dogs.
Segments will include demonstrations of common training exercises and footage of actual drug discoveries in Cobb. Reruns from the first season of “Scaly Adventures” appears locally on WATC-TV every Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., and the Currens noted episodes from the second season, like the one featuring Marietta’s K-9 unit, will hit the air this fall. Front and center in the episode will be the harmony and cooperation of the trio of handlers and their dogs.
Even though the K-9 pairs work in the field alone, they still train as a team and feel solidarity in the work they do every day.
“If he goes out and finds 100 pounds of weed tomorrow, I’m not going to be jealous,” Bishop said of his teammates Figueroa and Riddick. “I’m going to feel great, because it reflects on all of us.”
Figueroa agreed the unit supports its members, saying the officers are quick to text each other when one of them accomplishes something good.
Said Figueroa: “It’s all about the team.”