On the Job: NYPD’s K-9 Teams

NYPD’s K-9 teams are loyal partnerships.
By Amy Kantor DVM, January 2015

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.

“Your whole body’s resisting the dog. The biting is very intimidating,” Compitello recalled. “It knocks a lot of guys out [of the training]. They’re afraid, or they get hurt. Dogs are either front-biters and bite with their canines—which hurts the most—or full-mouth biters, using their molars to hang on.” Compitello proudly showed me scars on his right forearm from his training days; five stitches here, three stiches there.

The goal of the 20-week training is to teach the dog that catching a suspect or finding a scent is a game they always win, and the reward is praise and affection from their handler, followed by quick tug of war. If a dog has to be corrected during training, “Better double the praise,” says NYPD officer Rob McArdle, who has been in the K-9 Unit since 1994.

These dogs live for praise from their handlers. Food can’t be used as a reward, since work may take the dog into a restaurant, deli, grocery or other places where food is part of the search environment. So, play is the more practical alternative. K-9 officers carry a rope toy everywhere, and downtime always includes a game of tug.

Nose Work
While apprehending criminals is the K-9 Unit’s first order of business, training dogs to recognize the smell of gunpowder and live human scent is equally important. Humans shed thousands of skin cells with every step, and dogs can smell them. And they’re quick studies; it takes less than a week for a dog to learn a scent.

Using their personal clothes and scuff marks from their shoes, handlers give the command “Track” so their dogs can learn their scent. The dogs also wear a special harness, which they come to associate with scent-tracking. Over the course of a week, training intensifies: the size of the clothing gets smaller, and it’s hidden in increasingly difficult places—garbage bags, under furniture or in ceilings in derelict buildings. Within days, the dog “tracks” to an article of clothing or artifact, and can search for the scent of that person in an abandoned car or building or across miles of a densely wooded area. Hundreds of scents could potentially override or overwhelm the dogs, but they’re able to retain their focus on just one.

The dogs’ scenting skills are also used extensively in recovery operations. In 1994, when McArdle got Baron, his German Shepherd, the training for an NYPD dog lasted 12 weeks. Baron was a patrol dog, one of only 15 working the five boroughs at the time. All of the dogs were trained to recognize gunpowder and live human scent. “Cadaver work was minimal in 1994,” McArdle said. “There was only one day of training. That changed dramatically after 9/11.”

McArdle had just started training with a new dog, Tonto, in early September 2001. After six years of physically rigorous police work, Baron had back pain and difficulty walking. Following a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, Baron eased into retirement, and McArdle was assigned another dog; Tonto was the new boy on the block.

On Duty at Ground Zero
On the morning of 9/11, McArdle was on Staten Island, trailtraining Tonto. He had had the dog only five days. At 8:30, a message came over the police radio: a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“We didn’t believe it. You know, all kinds of crackpots get on our radio. Still, we headed toward the parking lot, and then a civilian said the same thing. We raced to our cars, drove to the base in Brooklyn to get supplies like flashlights and ropes, then headed into the city,” McArdle recalled.

During the weeks following 9/11, as search-and-rescue turned into search-and-recovery, Baron came out of retirement to work as a “spotter,” and, along with the other NYPD patrol dogs, was fast-track-trained for cadaver work, “Some dogs did find human remains in the beginning. But the cadaver scent was so overwhelming; it’s not the ideal situation for a cadaver dog. The dogs were literally on top of it, and it was too powerful.”

McArdle tried to give the dogs directions to turn right or left, things they would normally do automatically. But the dogs found the commands hard to follow. “I don’t think they were reacting to the human emotion. They were frustrated. They kept searching and coming up with nothing. Times like that, you just fall back on your training; the dogs do, too.”

By mid-October, police presence was cut back at Ground Zero, and McArdle and Tonto resumed their five-day-a-week training schedule. By then, training for all NYPD dogs had been extended to 20 weeks, and included extensive cadaver training. It was about this time that Tonto’s name was changed to TC, for Trade Center.

When I first met TC in 2011, he was the sole surviving NYPD dog to have worked Ground Zero. The partnership between McArdle and his dog was as synchronized as any between two individuals who have shared a decade of day-today history.

A Day in the Life
Typically, dogs spend their time in the patrol car or on foot with their handlers, covering an assigned area, usually a borough, both above and below the ground (i.e., patrol and transit). When a precinct needs a specialized unit to help in a particular situation, they’ll call in K-9. Often it’s for a burglary or another felony, and involves searching for a perpetrator in a house or building.

“The dog is the last resort before people go in. We give a clear, loud warning several times to give the suspect time to surrender, and anyone else time to get out of the building. Once that’s done, if there’s no response, we deploy the dog. That’s the toughest call, when you actually have to send your dog into harm’s way,” said McArdle.

It’s also hard to wait for the dog to come out before the Special Unit police officers go in. “You’re praying that they don’t find anybody in there, that the dog didn’t mess up.” McArdle paused, and then continued. “It’s all trust. The dogs are trusting that you’ll never put them in harm’s way. You’re trusting them with your life. They’ll get killed before one of us does.”

So far, New York City hasn’t had a NYPD dog die in the line of duty—none have been shot, stabbed or hit by a car— although dogs have been injured. In June of this year, Caesar suffered a near-fatal electrocution while searching an area of Ft. Bennett Field in Brooklyn. An exposed 220-volt wire had electrified the ground during a rainstorm. Compitello, only a few feet away, saw his dog hold up his leg, fall to the ground and start violently seizing, all in a matter of seconds. At first, he thought that Caesar had been bitten by a snake. He radioed for emergency transport to the hospital, and, after two days of intensive medical care, Caesar recovered. Compitello later realized how close he came to being electrocuted himself, had Caesar not been walking in front of him and taken the shock first.

A few years ago in New Jersey, a police canine was shot and killed in a private house. Afterward, there was an outpouring of public money specifically to outfit police dogs with bulletproof vests. The downside is that the vests are very restrictive; ultimately, it’s up to the handlers whether or not their dogs wear them. Typically, the only gear the dogs wear is a collar, so there’s less to grab.

“It’s a horrible feeling. The dog is there to protect us and is used as a tool, but the dog also comes home with us; he’s part of the family,” observed Officer Colecchia. Officer Compitello voiced the grim reality: “The dog’s replaceable, you’re not. The dog goes first.” As hard as it is for every police officer in the K-9 Unit to know, understanding this from the beginning is also part of their training.

A Price to be Paid
TC retired in May 2012. When police dogs retire, their handlers usually adopt them, and all of their expenses fall on the officers and their families. NYPD dogs spend their lives working as full-time police officers, yet they retire without a pension.

During the summer of 2012, TC developed a persistent cough. His chest X-rays showed many circular opacities, and he was given a presumptive diagnosis of lung cancer by a veterinary oncologist. Knowing his history—that for three months, he’d had his nose to the ground on a daily basis at the site of the incinerated trade towers—I suspected that it might be sarcoidosis, a progressive, inflammatory lung disease that many people exposed to the 9/11 fumes also developed.

The only other disease TC could have had was a fungal infection, which was not only extremely unlikely but also carried an equally poor prognosis, even with treatment. For a definitive diagnosis, a lung biopsy was required; this is an invasive procedure and requires anesthesia, which is always a worry with older dogs. Understandably, McArdle wasn’t interested in pursuing a diagnosis. Other than the cough, TC was not displaying any other symptoms, and continued living a comfortable, happy life with McArdle, his family and their new police dog, Clancy.

During the course of the following year, however, X-rays showed that TC’s lung disease was progressing. When TC was 13 years old, an ultrasound revealed that a tumor was growing within his heart. This sort of tumor, presumptively a cancer—a cardiac hemangiosarcoma—is relatively common among German Shepherds. Because of its location, TC was at risk for sudden internal bleeding, collapse and death.

On December 26, 2013, Rob McArdle called me at home. He was at his local vet, about an hour outside of the city. “TC’s in heart failure,” McArdle said, his voice cracking, “I’m going to let him go. I want to do right by him.”

This was, of course, also understandable. TC had always done right by McArdle. As his partner, he showed up every day and did his job without error or hesitation. As a beloved family dog, he had seen three children grow to adulthood and was able to see them a final time when they came home for the holidays. The relationship between McArdle and TC was standard for a police officer and his service dog: heroes protecting each other as well as the rest of us.

I called McArdle not long after he had TC euthanized. He was already in the patrol car, driving to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Long Island. TC’s body, wrapped in his blanket, lay on the back seat, where he’d sat every day for 11 years.

Rob McArdle now patrols his familiar beat in Midtown Manhattan with Clancy, who has been his K9 partner since TC retired. Blaze is a healthy 13-year-old, happily retired and family pet to the five Colecchia children. He’s also mentor to Timmy, the three-year-old Shepherd who’s now Colecchia’s K9 partner; Timmy excels in SAR and has a nose every bit as keen as Blaze’s. Anthony Compitello has a newly trained three-year-old Belgian Malinois, Argo, although 9-year-old Caesar has yet to retire.

Colecchia and Blaze, Compitello and Caesar, McArdle and TC: these teams and others like them are symbols of the power of dogs and people working together. May public awareness of these dogs and their importance to police officers— and to public safety—continue to grow.

Amy Kantor, DVM has practiced in New York City for 20 years and is also a freelance writer. Named one of the city’s Best Veterinarians in New York Magazine in 2002, she works with the NYPD, at the NYC Animal Care and Control and in various local practices.