As the happy winner of an Edmonds Police Foundation raffle drawing, I’d like to share with you some highlights of my ensuing night out on the town.
It was near dusk when I approached the patrol car where Officer Hobbs was waiting. I had gifts in hand, as thanks for inviting me on a night-time ride-along. It was like thunder as he saw me and barked out very loudly, with intermittent growls. Officer Hobbs is a 4- year-old, all-black German Shepherd police K9, and his trainer and partner is Officer Jason Robinson.
Jason let Hobbs out of the car to introduce us. Once Hobbs realized that Jason accepted me as OK, then he was fine with me, and at that point made it clear he no longer found any interest in me. I tried not to let that hurt my feelings, since I’d always thought of myself as a dog person. Jason nicely accepted my gifts on Hobbs’ behalf. I figured Hobbs would warm up to me as the evening went on. He never really did.
After a little run around for Hobbs, some play time and a little warm up of commands, it was time to hit the road. I was riding with the Big Dog! Greatly relieved that I got the front seat, I turned to the back to offer Hobbs a few soothing words. He glanced at me. The dog’s adrenaline saturated the air. He was on complete alert and on constant watch for anything and everything around him, whether inside or outside the car. His ears were forward, eyes always moving except when resting on his partner in either expectation or devotion. All of his deep black hair seemed to stand on end, he restlessly moved all around on the back seat platform construction, he barked loudly at every movement, and you could smell the thick urgency of his spirit.
I buckled my seat belt and looked around the cramped passenger seat. The computer and other electronics overflowed from the center of the car. Screens and radios and other equipment were all in handy reach for the driver. I later found out how very much they were all used. When Jason slid into the driver’s seat, his welcoming smile and easy conversation cut the doggone tension.
Dogs like Officer Hobbs have a particular advantage on the night shifts when they can see and optimize other senses better than their human partners. So Hobbs normally works the night shift, but is on call for other times.
The K9s are called upon for tracking people, and sometimes they also end up discovering evidence. Their usefulness is in the immediacy of the chase. Their skills are most effective within four hours of an incident. After that, scent trails start to fade. These police teams are not the ones who carry on with the investigation of cases, like the detectives do. These teams are for the immediate chase and tracking. Then they move on to the next incident, and have to be able to leave the follow-up behind them.
Usually Hobbs will find his target suspect, but in some cases Hobbs finds evidence instead. For example there was a story about after a house break-in when Hobbs discovered a jacket and a paper note, and both items turned out to be direct evidence tied to the suspect who was later caught.
Officer Hobbs wears a police identification vest and collar, and is suited with a bullet-proof vest. Jason’s normal police equipment that he wears, including radio, mace, gun and so on, weighs an extra 20 pounds. It was so exciting to watch them practice their work on their training “breaks.” Hobbs is so well-disciplined; he has to react to commands literally in an instant and with a super degree of attention. He could be commanded out of the car, then down, then attack and then called off attack, then back in the car, then back to attack, all in the matter of 10 seconds. The precision is like very exacting dance choreography. This dog is unbelievably fast. The demonstration of the attack command, with Jason wearing a protective arm sleeve, was most impressive. I hope never to be on the business end of this dog command.
Once when younger, Hobbs was given the attack command and he ran to the culprit, but didn’t attack because he didn’t see the arm “sleeve” so he was confused and instead barked and growled the cornered culprit without attacking because the “game” wasn’t right. He’s matured since then, but yes, Hobbs sees all this as his games. When he does well, he’s rewarded by playing his favorite game with his fetch ball that also has a handle so they can play tug-of-war with it. And he also earns treats. Hobbs’ games are protecting the community.
So how do these dogs track? Well, it’s biology. People shed dead skin cells all the time. These are a personal imprint of their scent and may include additions like perfume, or sweat. A dog can pick up this scent and be disciplined to follow this invisible trail. As the dog follows this trail, it’s being crossed and criss-crossed and intersected by all kinds of other invisible scents, which the dog has to ignore. The dog must focus on the subject’s trail only. Interfering, invisible trails can be other people, food, animals – some arrogant cat! These Hobbs has to ignore and zero in on his assigned scent. That’s when the game is really afoot.
Dead skin cells rest on places for a time. Sometimes they can be stirred up by wind, sending a dog in the wrong direction. Also, sometimes a dog can outrun the skin cell trail because he’s running so fast and it may have turned a corner. Then the dog has to back track a little to see where a suspect may have turned.
Skin cells can also float on top of a water surface, so suspects can actually be tracked over water. Light rain is great because that makes the cells stay in place. The Pacific Northwest has great weather conditions for tracking, including not being too hot. However, heavy rain is tougher for tracking if you’re in a very heavy downpour.
What are other advantages of these cunning K9s? These dogs can cover distance fast. Suspects have a head start, and usually they’ve planned out what they’re doing and are in familiar surroundings so they know where they’re going. They know alleyways and also corridors of apartment buildings. But these are also places that a canine can run through quickly.In addition, they track through back yards. Hobbs once found a suspect after a long chase through many back yards. The suspect thought he was hidden well enough by locking himself in a garden shed, but Hobbs figured out where he was.
The devotion of these partners is obvious. Hobbs watches Jason’s every move, and when Jason is away from the car without Hobbs, the dog is ever watchful and anxious. Hobbs is very much an alpha dog. He’s absolutely fearless and without thought will leap off high boulders or ledges, or run at full speed, potentially headlong into a painful obstruction. Once he was charging through a field of far overgrown grass and weeds and ran directly, face first, into a metal trailer hitch that was hidden in that overgrowth. In the dark, it wasn’t until the dog was all the way back to the patrol car before anyone realized he was streaming blood from his dramatic injury. Sometimes aggravating his fearlessness, Jason says that Hobbs can be a little clumsy.
And Hobbs is a smart character. For example, when Jason picks up the dashboard mic for his police radio to talk to dispatch, no matter how discretely he thinks he’s reached for it, Hobbs will hear and start barking so he can talk with dispatch too. Hobbs is always excited to go on patrol. No matter where he is at home, or if he appears to be sleeping, when Jason takes the car keys off their hook, Hobbs is instantly running for the car.
Years ago, a friend had invited Jason on a ride-along. It just took that one time out and Jason was inspired. After three more times he was hooked. He loves the discipline and the excitement of the tracking just as much as his partner Hobbs does. They’ve excelled at an incredible amount of K9 partner training together to become officers, and continue to excel in their annual certification tests.
During my ride I got to experience that thrill of speeding to a call from dispatch with lights and siren, and Hobbs’ enthusiastically barking loudly right behind my ear. We worked on calls for shoplifts, domestic violence, disturbances involving drugs and not involving drugs, stakeouts, mailbox thefts, and driving around parts of the town that I didn’t even know about in order to observe and look for things and activities that are out of place while residents are sleeping. Businesses and homes are so fortunate to have this protection.
What I’ve shared is just the tip of the tale. Thank you Officer Jason Robinson, the Police Foundation and of course Officer Hobbs, for my chance to ride with the Big Dog.
— By Wendy Kendall