When NYPD officer Benny Colecchia brought his partner, Blaze, a nine-year-old German Shepherd, to the lower Manhattan emergency veterinary practice where I worked as surgeon in 2010, the big, stoic dog was displaying symptoms of colonic torsion, an uncommon twisting of the colon. If it wasn’t surgically corrected, Blaze could die.
Given Blaze’s age, even with surgery, the prognosis was guarded. He might require a bowel resection (removal of the compromised bowel) or develop sepsis (infection), or the bowel might fail altogether. But there was absolutely no hesitation on Colecchia’s part about going forward.
“Blaze is always on the money,” said Colecchia, a 16-year veteran of the NYPD. “He’s never balked.” The two had been partners for seven years at the time. Blaze, whose name was “Imp” before he joined the force, is known for his skilled cadaver-recovery work. Just prior to his trip to the vet ER, he had found a charred human torso in a burned-out Bronx building; the fire had been deliberately set.
Like most NYPD dogs, Blaze had been born and raised in the Czech Republic, which is known for its high-quality breeders and the dogs they produce specifically for police work. The city buys the dogs through established brokers for about $4,000 each. Considering that this includes the dogs’ veterinary expenses, food and housing for the first two years of their lives, as well as the flight to New York, it’s a good deal.
After 9/11, the city recognized the need to increase the number of NYPD K-9 units, and recruited heavily from the patrol ranks; Colecchia transferred over in 2003. Originally used primarily for patrol, the K-9 Unit now comprises four divisions: Transit, Emergency Service Unit (ESU), bomb and narcotics. There are approximately 40 dogs each in Transit and ESU (80 combined) and roughly eight dogs each in the narcotics and bomb divisions. But it wasn’t until 9/11 and their extensive use at Ground Zero for SAR operations that they became a critical part of the force and more publicly visible.
In fact, my first experience taking care of NYPD dogs came during this fraught time. Several dogs with burned, cut and bleeding footpads were brought into the practice where I worked in downtown Manhattan; their paws had been injured as the dogs scoured the edges of the inferno that had been the Twin Towers. The heat had caused the protective external footpads to separate from the underlying tissue. Despite how painful their paws must’ve been, their drive to continue searching was huge. I saw a hard-wired imperative in these dogs, a one-way arrow pointing to “Go.”
Anthony Compitello, another K-9 officer and a 19-year veteran New York City cop, brought in his partner Caesar, a 100-pound, six-year-old German Shepherd, for a surgical consult in 2012. Later, we talked about what it takes to be part of this unit. Compitello said there were 11 in his 2005 graduating class, which was the department’s largest. In order to apply for transfer to the K-9 Unit, an officer must have five years’ experience with the NYPD. “You can’t be a knucklehead,” Compitello observed. Once an officer is cleared, he or she must pass a rigorous physical-fitness test consisting of a run, an 80-pound carry to simulate a dog’s weight and a wall climb holding a 50-pound bag overhead.
Taking the Bite
According to Compitello, the toughest physical challenge by far is the four so-called “apprehensions” (bites) they take from a canine in training. Since most people are right-handed, the officers (known as “handlers” once a dog has been assigned to them) wrap their right arms in a leather sleeve covered in burlap. The dog then bites and locks onto the protected arm while the officer pulls away and “works” the dog back and forth, dragging the big canine 10 to 15 feet as the dog continues to bite down.
During this exercise, the dog is on-leash, restrained by the handler. Since a handler’s dog can’t be trained to bite him or her, the cops partner up and take the bite from another handler’s dog. This training is vital, as all NYPD dogs are trained to “locate and bite” (as opposed to “locate and bark”) once they find a perpetrator. One of the NYPD dogs’ most important roles is to apprehend suspects, and the “get” is the dogs’ reward: they’re primed to want the bite.