Meet Draper Police’s New K-9 Teams
Sook! Sook! Sook!
That’s all one-year-old Sable needs to hear from Draper Police Officer Josh Thaller before she is off, nose in the air, on her search.
This energetic German shepherd—who understands sook (spelled such) is German for “search”—urgently sniffs around the room. Within five seconds, she’s pinpointed an airtight bag of marijuana hidden inside a drawer. She sits, indicating she has located the drugs for Thaller, waiting for his praise and play time with her favorite ball.
“To her, it’s just a game of hide-and-go-seek, and then she gets to play,” says Thaller about the practice search. But to the Draper Police Department, the new K-9 teams of Sable and Thaller and Officer Ryan Clegg and his 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, Judge, are the city’s newest crime deterrent.
Generous donations helped bring the K-9 teams to Draper. Sable came from Havoc K9, a non-profit Utah organization providing police dogs to law enforcement departments free of charge. Local residents and businesses donated funds for canine and vehicle equipment. Both dogs understand German and English commands and are already fighting crime. Sable and Thaller recently were certified as a Drug Detector K-9 team and assisted in two cases that resulted in three felony arrests for drug distribution charges.
“Dogs are so much better at so many things,” says Thaller. “They’re better at locating suspects and they’re better at finding drugs.”
Not only can K-9s do such jobs better, they do them faster and with less red tape. A police dog can sniff the air around a vehicle (which isn’t protected by privacy laws) at a traffic stop, detecting hidden drugs in a matter of minutes. “That gives us probable cause to do a more thorough search of the vehicle,” without having to obtain a court order, says Thaller.
Police dogs do the majority of work nose down, but should a situation become violent, they act as non-lethal weapons. “Bites aren’t always the answer, but if a dog bites a suspect, it is usually not fatal,” says Clegg. More often than not, the dog’s bark or the officer’s command, “Stop or I’ll release the dog!” is enough to subdue suspects.
Training the dogs is a daily, positively-reinforced activity. “Dogs work on rewards based on drive satisfaction (the drive to hunt), tone of voice, and that happy, fun playtime,” says Clegg. Many tasks, including a practice suspect apprehension, are turned into a learning game. Within seconds of being released by Clegg, Judge latches onto a padded bite sleeve worn by Thaller. Pretending to be a suspect, Thaller yells and squirms, igniting the dog’s instinct to attack its prey. Clegg is at Judge’s side, coaching him with a gentle touch and encouraging words. When it’s all over, Judge plays with the bite sleeve as the reward.
Both Thaller and Clegg love dogs, each having two more at home. Off the job, Thaller trains award-winning dogs in hunting retrieval. Clegg nicknamed his dog “Judgey” since, he says, Judge sounds too serious.
After each shift, the K-9s head home with the officers to settle into family life—kids, dogs and all.
While the dogs reside at home, they aren’t considered pets so much as work partners. “If they get too much drive satisfaction at home, they don’t want to go to work,” Thaller says. “We need to make work their happy place, and home, a place to relax, decompress and feel safe.”
Thaller says a dog works and thrives on routine—going to work every day, going home every night, regular training and playtime, and being with the same handler. “It helps to build trust,” he adds. “A dog picks up on these things and it all works together to build the team.”
As the dogs become more accustomed to police work, Clegg and Thaller believe the K-9 teams will instigate more narcotic busts, help with safer criminal apprehension and retrieve evidence more efficiently. And, if there’s a missing person in the area, they’ll be at the ready.
“We want (the K-9 program) to be community-friendly,” says Clegg, adding that they plan to introduce the dogs to schools and community groups interested in seeing what K-9s can do with their noses and teeth.
“We are always happy to answer any questions people have about the dogs,” says Clegg. “The dogs are here for the city.”