Tri-city K9 training fosters learning among law enforcement agencies

By Jessica Peralta

All 85 pounds of Dutch shepherd Riggs comes charging at the officer. He braces himself – and screams.

His handler, Tustin PD Officer Eric Kent, commands Riggs to release, which he does, and the dog is taken back to his air-conditioned patrol car to wait for his turn again.

“He’s a strong dog,” says Kent. “He’s all muscle.”

Indeed, the three officers serving as volunteer decoys, or agitators, on this Tuesday – part of a tri-city K9 unit weekly training session – noted feeling some “pinches” even through the 40-pound bite suit each decoy put on before the apprehension simulation exercise.

Tustin PD’s K9 Riggs holds on during a training session.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The K9 units participating in the weekly training include Orange, Santa Ana and the Tustin Police Departments. It’s part of a collaboration that helps the three K9 units share knowledge and tips on working as K9 handlers.

“What’s great is each one of our cities handles a variety of different types of crimes,” says OPD K9 Officer Jude King, whose male, all-black German shepherd, Griffin, is 4 1/2. “We’re learning from each other’s experience, we’re learning from each other’s techniques and tactics.”

Tuesday’s session also was a learning experience for the three officers volunteering as decoys. Kent and Tustin PD Officer Chuck Mitchell, who served as a decoy for eight years before getting his own K9, Kingsley, earlier this year, instructed the decoys on putting on the bite suit and working with the dogs.

Tustin K9 Officer Chuck Mitchell helps TPD Officer Robert Nelson put on protective gear before the start of K9 training.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“It helps us out a lot,” says Kent. “The decoy is a huge part of K9 training… It’s a very physical task. Those dogs are heavy and they’re pulling on you… And that bite suit doesn’t breathe very well.”

The handlers always are on the lookout for officers wanting to volunteer as decoys, as well as new locations to conduct training. On this particular Tuesday, the training was at Tustin Unified School District’s main transportation hub.

“We try and switch it up as much as we can and get a new and fresh building for them,” says Mitchell.

Tustin PD Officer Eric Kent orders his K9 partner, Riggs, to attack a pretend bad guy, another TPD officer, during a training session.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The handlers rotate locations through their three respective cities. Usually when it’s a city’s week to host, those handlers find the location in their city for the training, says OPD K9 Officer Damon Allen, who is the handler for 8-year-old, black-and-sable German shepherd Bosco.

Allen says the units train for a variety of situations and techniques, including scent searches for suspects, alerting to a suspect, apprehending suspects after a felony car stop, evidence searches for things like guns, narcotics searches and building searches, where dogs can practice working in dark environments with slick floors (which they may not like).

In addition to the weekly training, the three agencies attend a monthly training at a K9 handler school in Riverside.

“You basically get the opportunity to learn off of every handler and their dog,” says Allen of the tri-city training.

Tustin PD Officer Chuck Mitchell gives his new K9 partner, Kingsley, the command to attack during a training session.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Riggs, a Tustin PD K9, gets ready for the command during a training session.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Riggs, Tustin PD’s new K9, grabs on to a Tustin PD officer playing the part of a decoy during a training session.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC