Sixteen dogs and their police officer handlers tested their skills against one another in the 10th Annual Art O’Keefe Memorial K9 Trials at Zupo Field in Lodi on Saturday.
Among them was 5-year-old Kael and his handler, Lodi Police Officer Ryan LaRue. LaRue has raised Kael since the dog was eight weeks old. They spend four hours in official training mode each week, but the work continues with training exercises LaRue runs at home. Kale, a Belgian Malinois, has been certified as a working police dog for two and half years. He is the only K9 on Lodi’s force to be dual certified in sniffing out narcotics and in protection.
LaRue’s journey to becoming the human half of a K9 team took much longer. As a kid, LaRue remembers watching “K9 Cop,” a James Belushi film that came out in 1989 and sparked his desire to earn that rank himself. Several years of training later, and dozens of hours spent in heavy bite-proof suits, LaRue is one of three K9 officers in Lodi.
These days, Kael keeps busy by chasing after suspects who flee from cars, and holding them down until his partner can catch up to make the arrest.
Six weeks ago, Kael sniffed out a smudge of black tar heroin on the floorboards of a suspicious car LaRue had pulled over, and alerted officers to a compartment in the trunk with more drug paraphernalia.
“Having the dog definitely helps narrow down searches,” said LaRue. Kael is trained to find marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy.
One challenge with the breed is their energy. Honing that intensity and directing it onto one particular target is a skill Kael is still refining.
During the protection phase of the trials, the dog was meant to attack one man who shot off a starter pistol. But Kael was distracted by the crowd, the multiple men in bite guard suits on the baseball field, and the noises coming from the Grape Bowl during a youth football game.
He went after the wrong man, but got in a good bite. For the dog, that’s the reward at the end.
The agility trial is where Kael showed off his best skills. He clambered through a tube, under a bar and across a wobbly wooden bridge before leaping over a six foot wall and through a makeshift window. Though the Lodi dogs do have an advantage: It’s the same course they use in training.
“It’s just fun to let him do what he’s good at,” said LaRue.
The events also took dogs through a human search, trying to determine which of five porta-potties a volunteer was hiding in, and a short obedience routine. On Friday night, a different group of K9s met at the Geweke RV sales parking lot for a stage of narcotics searches.
When he’s not working, LaRue says Kael is the most sociable of Lodi’s dogs.
“It’s like an on-off switch. He allows kids to sit with him,” said LaRue. “He’ll lay on the floor and let them do whatever to him.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.