Garden Grove PD K9 Vader back at work with a new skill: firearms detection

By Jessica Peralta

Full of youthful energy, the 80-pound Vader bounds out of the police car ready for work.

Garden Grove PD Master Officer Edgar Valencia leads Vader to the area the K9 will search. In a matter of seconds, the 2-year-old black German shepherd finds what he’s looking for: the scent of bullet casings.

After giving Vader his reward — a quick tug-of-war with a prized toy — Valencia continues walking. Just as quickly as the first, Vader finds his second target: this one is the scent of ammunition powder.

Vader, a K9 with the Garden Grove PD, gets excited when he realizes he is about to go on a nighttime training exercise with GGPD Master Officer Edgar Valencia.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“Vader will now alert to guns, live ammunition, spent casings, and black powder that’s used for ammunition,” Valencia said.

Valencia and Vader recently completed an 80-hour firearms training course designed to teach police K9s to detect guns and all related scents.

“This is going to be a good asset in the department,” Valencia said.

Valencia, who has been working as a K9 handler for about a year now with Vader, said he wanted to train the dog for firearms detection because he knows there’s a need in the city and county, with very few dogs trained specifically to sniff out guns.

“Our officers here are handling [gun calls] on a more frequent basis,” he said.

Garden Grove PD Master Officer Edgar Valencia talks about his K9 partner, Vader, who is trained to find guns, shell casings, and other gun power-related weapons.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Vader, who has been working on patrol for the last year and has logged one apprehension and numerous surrenders, is not a narcotics dog. In fact, as Valencia explained, for court purposes, patrol dogs are either used to detect narcotics or firearms, but not both.

Vader began training for firearms detection with a simple conditioning method: seeing a gun or bag of casings meant he could play with his toy. Slowly, Valencia began hiding the firearms in more challenging locations, mimicking as much as possible where a criminal might hide a gun or where casings might be left behind.

“We try to expose the dogs to as realistic a setting as possible,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Vader to catch on.

“He’s got a good nose,” Valencia said.

Garden Grove PD Master Officer Edgar Valencia talks about his K9 partner, Vader.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In fact, when a dog doesn’t find a target, it’s hardly ever the dog’s fault, Valencia said, it’s the handler. During training, which took place in empty buildings, restaurants, and warehouses in the area, a gun was placed inside a hole in a trash bin. Vader alerted behind the Dumpster instead of where the gun was placed. Why? The wind blew the scent back.

“You want to know where the wind is going,” Valencia said, adding that besides the K9’s toy, having a pocket lighter on hand to monitor wind direction is key.

Now fully trained as a “gun dog,” Vader returns more equipped to help keep Garden Grove’s streets safe.

One of Valencia’s favorite surrenders is when he took Vader to a home burglary call and was standing outside when all of a sudden, the burglar gave up to Valencia.

Another was the time a man was being combative and wanted to fight.

“As soon as he saw the dog, he stopped cussing, turned around, put his hands on his head,” Valencia said. “[Vader] works as a deterrent pretty good.”