Sixteen-month-old German Sheppard Vader has a two-sided personality. One side is kind, social and friendly. The other is that of a driven attack animal that will sink his teeth into an arm on command.
“It’s like flipping on a light switch,” Colonie Patrolman Jerry Shaw said.
Shaw is a canine handler – currently the only one with the Colonie Police Department. For the past 10 years, Shaw has trained dogs to be an officer’s best friend and to use their noses to assist with searches of vehicles and buildings for narcotics. Two months ago, the Town of Colonie purchased Vader, and once training is completed, he’ll be the 11th dog in the history of the Colonie Police Department to join the K-9 Unit Patrol Division.
Vader is an energetic 65-pound dog originally from Slovakia, but the town purchased him from a breeder in Connecticut for $7,000. That hefty sum is at no cost to the taxpayers, though; criminals actually indirectly purchased the canine through the department’s drug fund. The town pays for the dog’s food and veterinarian costs for the rest of its life.
“Assets we’ve taken from drug dealers, criminals … they basically purchased the dog,” Shaw said. “It works out because the dogs over the years have found drugs and found money. Why not take the things they found and purchase another dog?”
For the past two months, Vader has been working on intensive obedience training and will eventually become certified in New York state for patrol, tracking and narcotics duties. Over the course of training, he’ll learn tasks like basic obedience, building and outdoor area searches, jumping over obstacles and how to search for specific things.
“Tracking is difficult. (It’s a) natural ability for a dog but (I’m) trying to teach them to learn to track specifically a person … not looking for a bunny rabbit. They need to pick up the ground disturbance of somebody’s foot and track into the footprints,” Shaw said.
Shaw said they often get started with tracking by dropping pieces of hot dogs to keep the dog’s nose to the ground.
Drug training, which Vader will learn after he is patrol and tracking certified, is done placing insides a toy what’s called a “pseudo,” or a chemical compound of a drug that has the actual drug’s odor.
“I can’t sniff out narcotics. A lot of criminals are smart, they’re going to hide things from the police, especially inside a vehicle with hidden compartments,” Shaw said.
Even with a simple game of fetch, the dog quickly learns the drug’s smell, imprinting it into his memory.
“When we tell the dog to look for a drug, in the dog’s mind he’s actually looking for his toy. When they find an odor, they scratch. The dog is scratching because he’s trying to get to it, because his toy’s in there. So what we do is we reward the dog with an (actual) toy, thinking that he made it appear. Then he’s happy, and we can find out whatever it was that he scratched on,” Shaw said.
Ultimately, Shaw said, the dog is trained to seek reward.
“He knows through his training that if he (does something right), he’s going to get something out of it, and that’s why he does it. The dogs that we purchase are toy-driven. All they want to do is chase after a toy,” Shaw said.
As for people, Vader knows how to latch on to an arm. Shaw said this is mainly for the officer’s protection.
“If I’m out with him and someone tries to harm me, he will automatically protect me. I’m dad. He’s not going to let anything happen to me,” Shaw said.
If, for example, a criminal is armed with a weapon and running away, Shaw said the dog is trained to give chase until the officer can catch up.
“(He’ll) bite and hold onto (the) arm until we go up to them and give commands. Our dog is trained to let go and stop biting. If the bad guy stops running away, the dog has to stop. A dog cannot bite a person that’s not moving,” he said. “The dog will go into a bark and hold at (the criminal’s) feet. If the person runs away again, then the dog will bite.”
Shaw also speaks to Vader with Slovakian commands so the criminal doesn’t know what he is saying. However, in all the years that Shaw has worked with canines, he said a Colonie canine has never had to bite anyone.
“People give up when they see the dog. People would rather fight with us then they would with the dogs,” he said.
Although he’s currently training Vader during the day as the weather gets nicer, Shaw normally works the midnight shift and is always on call if a canine is needed. He said oftentimes he’s the only officer in the Capital District with a dog and gets called through other departments as well.
Shaw drives a K-9 Unit SUV, which has no back seats and instead, plenty of room for the dog. Since Shaw does regular patrolling 99 percent of his shift, the dog stays in the car with the air conditioner on and windows cracked. If the A/C were to stop working and the thermostat hits 87 degrees, the van’s windows will automatically go down and an alarm will sound for Shaw to come out.
“It only takes a few minutes for the dog to die in heat,” Shaw said, adding that he likes to check on the dog every 10 or so minutes regardless.
Shaw added that they’ve been fortunate where there was never a situation where the dogs were in danger. The dogs are outfitted with a bulletproof vest like officers.
“We want them thinking that no matter what situation we put them in, even if it’s going in against somebody that possibly has a gun, which I know my dog’s not going to win that battle, I want my dog going in thinking, ‘Based on my training, I can beat anybody. There’s nobody that’s going to stop me.’ And that’s what we need the dogs to think,” Shaw said.
Since the vests are fitted specially for size, Vader will need a brand new one. St. Pius X School in Loudonville is holding a bottle drive to raise money for Vader’s vest.
Training all depends on the dog, Shaw said. While Vader is in training, the department’s current dog, 11-year-old Beny, will continue to work until Vader is certified. Since the department only uses one dog at a time, once Vader is ready, Beny will retire after his 10 years of service.
“The dog will be with the handler until as long as they live,” Shaw said. “Beny gets to retire and enjoy life. It’s part of a pack mentality, just like wolves. (The) dog has to feel that part of the pack.”