- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

A police officer stands next to a German shepherd poised to sprint at a man standing 50 feet away. The man turns and runs. A chase ensues and ends when the dog latches onto the man's arm.

"Heel," the officer yells in a stiff command before searching the man. "Sit."

He obeys.

This scene could be one typical of police apprehending a suspect. But yesterday, it was man and dog showing off their skills in a regionwide K-9 competition for the "top dog" honor in the annual U.S. Police Canine Association Region 3 Certification Trials.

The three-day event at Montgomery County Fairgrounds attracted police K-9 teams from around the region. Dogs were rated in obedience, agility, article and suspect searches, and apprehension techniques.

Montgomery County K-9 Officer Paul Kukuck and his dog, Coda, won first place. Teams from Prince William County, Metro Transit and Greenbelt city police won second, third and fourth places, respectively. Metro Transit police won fifth place as well.

The event also allows police K-9 teams to receive regional certification for police dogs' skills. Although certification is voluntary in regional law enforcement units, it is becoming more valued as high-profile lawsuits and prosecutions increase against police departments involved in incidents with police dogs.

"It's an independent review of our skills," said Sgt. Jim Daly, who heads the Montgomery County police's K-9 unit. "We have to meet certain standards. It lends us credibility in civil and criminal court."

The police dog's role in law enforcement has changed over the years, officers said. These days, the most important function they serve is to root out bombs, drugs and cadavers. Twenty years ago, they mostly aided in capturing suspects. Then police departments coveted the "biggest, baddest, brawniest dogs." Now they value intelligence.

Sgt. Daly also said this event allows agencies as diverse as Metro Transit Police and the CIA, as well as municipal, state and county officers to compare notes on their departments and techniques.

"This is an ever-changing field," he said. "I am not sure that we will ever tap out the potential of these dogs. With the proper training and encouragement, it is amazing what they can accomplish. They make it safer for us and for the public."

During competititions for the regionals, the dogs are judged and given points. Later, at regionals, the dogs are judged again on their skills and given points. If they receive a certain number of points, they can qualify to be one of 200 dog teams that go to the national competition. Even the smallest mistake can shave off points, police officers explain. For example, after the dog backs off the suspect, if the officer turns his back on the suspect to face the dog, that can cost the team points.

The perfect dog will go grab the suspect and as soon as the officer issues a command to stop, he backs off, officers said. Yesterday, it took many dogs a few barked orders to release the arm of the suspect. But many dogs who perform perfectly during training blow it at competitions because they sense their handlers' nervousness.

Metropolitan police K-9 Officer Marcello Muzzatti played the suspect yesterday as fellow Officer Monica Coleman unleashed Rex on him.

"It's scary," he said afterward. "We always get bit, always accidentally. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they bite the sleeve. But you can make mistakes."

He took off the padded arm sleeve and displayed a reddened bite mark.

Officer Muzzatti also competed with his dog, Cheko, yesterday and said they both were doing well even if it took Cheko a few commands to back off a suspect.

"He was limping early, but he pulled through," he said.

Greenbelt police Officer Jerry Potts said his dog, Tony, also was doing "well" and having fun.

"He likes this kind of stuff," he said. "He doesn't like the article searches, though. He won't bring stuff back to you."

Officer Potts and Tony certified last year and went to the nationals a few years ago. They won fourth place yesterday.

"You always want to be better as a team and improve with your dog," he said. "You want to know where you stand, even though nine times out of 10 you already know. On a good day, your dog is still a dog."

Regional association president U.S. Park Police Officer Jim Matarese said the most important function of this certification is that it says "I can control my dog."

His dog, Nordi, was not doing as well yesterday.

"He's overly excited," he said. "It's a big game to him. He doesn't know he is working."

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