K9s tackle copter training

Published: Friday, Dec. 12 2008 12:18 a.m. MST

Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Salas is attacked by "Joe" as the dog's handler, Taylorsville police officer Jeff Sanderson, runs up to Joe during helicopter training in Taylorsville Thursday. The K9s boarded the bird twice and jumped out several feet before it landed as a prerequisite for the patrol qualification.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

TAYLORSVILLE — Outrunning a helicopter during a getaway is tricky. Outrunning a snarling German shepherd trained and determined to jump out a few feet before that 2,500-pound chopper touches down is even tougher.

Churning overhead rotors blasted up chilly air in the faces and snouts of law enforcement handlers and their K9s Thursday afternoon during a training session to prepare them for the real-life noisy conditions they may face.

"Who knows when one of our dogs will have to be flown into the canyon to catch some guy or to save someone in trouble," said Sgt. Wendell Nope, Utah Public Safety K9 training supervisor. "We do this for exposure sake."

The experience of running up to, and climbing into, the helicopter is a prerequisite for a dog's patrol qualification. About 15 K9s and their handlers arrived to pass it off.

Familiarity with running under roaring rotors reeling at 700 feet per second is also an informal conclusion to the daily rigorous training course the teams undergo during their formal months-long training. It takes about six months for an officer and his or her dog to complete both dope and patrol certification.

"It's a hefty investment," Roy police officer Ryan Reed said. "You take an officer off the streets for months, buy him an $8,000-canine, put him in an expensive training program and then hope you get a return on your investment. (The dogs' careers) only last about six or seven years."

Reed's partner, Dukes, is the largest K9 of his class, weighing a "conservative" 110 pounds, Reed boasted.

Each K9 boarded the bird twice and jumped out several feet before it landed, eager to attack an officer on the ground who was running away in a bite suit. All, that is, except for Jag, Sandy city officer Andrew Gordon's K9.

Jag waited until the ride came to a complete stop before jumping out.

"He's like, 'This thing's not on the ground yet, Dad. I'm not hopping out 'till you do,"' Gordon said, joking to another officer after his short 400-yard flight across the park. "I ended up having to give him a real shove after it landed to get him moving."

The pilot in command, trooper Terry Mercer, knew Jag and the others might display signs of nervousness and perhaps even become aggressive.

"I don't really care if the dog bites me, but if it does we could both regret it," Mercer told officers during a preflight meeting in the parking lot.

Thirty-five minutes later his indifference to a bite midflight would be tested.

He passed.

West Valley's K9 handler temporarily lost control of his nervous dog, which in turn jumped up and gnawed into Mercer's shoulder at about 100 feet in the air.

Officers there said most pilots require handlers to muzzle their K9s during the flight for just such reasons, but Lt. Chris Simmons, head of DPS' K9 unit, said this pilot was different: "No, not this ol' boy. He's tough. He served a few tours in Vietnam."

Simmons clutched his shoulder, simulating where and how the dog bit the pilot, and continued, "I looked over there and (Mercer) was playing tug of war with this big ol' dog. And he still landed it just right."


E-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

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