North’s jaws clamped around my left forearm and a bolt of comprehension peeled back the night. As his teeth began to squeeze through my jacket, all that I had been learning about police dogs became compressed into a hard biscuit of understanding. So this is what it feels like. For a few split seconds Oceanside officer Curt Milam, North’s handler, disappeared. And so did the motorcycle accident scene at which we had stopped, along with the cluster of Marines, the broken bike, and the injured rider on Hill Street. It was just me and North, the veteran German shepherd police dog they call “Hacksaw” because of his dulled but effective teeth, and we were quickly becoming as one. North was standing in his usual place, behind the front seat of the squad car out of which I had just stepped, and he was leaning through the open back window. His jaw continued closing as mine fell open . . .
One thing about police dogs: they’re impartial. At Curt Milam’s house in Oceanside, where North lives, the dog had let me rub his head and scratch his belly while the officer showered and put on his uniform. In the patrol car, as we drove up I-5 toward downtown Oceanside, North had even licked my face. He was beginning to live up to his reputation as one of the best police dogs in the county — disciplined, controlled, even loving — and little did I know he’d treat me to an intimate demonstration of the police dog’s ultimate weapon: duplicity. Inside his house or his car, you 're North’s friend; outside, you’re his dangerous enemy and he has but one master, Curt Milam. Says the officer, who has formed an extremely close bond with his dog, “North’s a machine.”
This confluence of affection for a living being and respect for its sheer animal ferocity is something upon which Fon Johnson has built an international reputation. Johnson runs a kennel in Rose Canyon, just east of Pacific Beach, and for the last thirty-five years he’s been training police dogs. Over the decades his expertise has become so widely known that two years ago he was invited to South Africa to participate in the judging of the international police-dog trials. He’s trained dogs for almost every local police force (except the San Diego Police Department, which doesn’t have dogs), and several throughout California. He trained North, along with the dog’s first handler. He also trained Milam, North’s fifth handler and the officer the dog will likely be retired with. Johnson says male German shepherds are the most common police dogs for several reasons, two of which are that male shepherds are bigger than females, and unlike Dobermans, they make the transition easily between handlers. North is about eight years old now and probably has two, maybe three good years of service left. Like most old police dogs, he’ll retire and live out his life with his last handler.
Most likely Johnson will train North’s replacement, if he hasn’t retired himself by then. Sixty-seven years old, with a fuzzy gray crew cut and a lined, full, canine-like face (he wouldn’t be offended by the comparison), Johnson is the quintessential dog man. He and his wife Audrey founded the Obedience Club of San Diego in the late 1940s, and it remains the oldest AKC-licensed dog club in town. He’s run the largest kennel in the county for years, and been involved most of his working life with all aspects of grooming, showing, and training dogs. But he is most well known for his work with police dogs, having trained the first here in the early 1950s for Sheriff J.C. O’Connor’s deputies. Since then he’s trained police dogs for El Cajon, Chula Vista, National City, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Imperial Beach, Escondido, Westmorland, Brawley, San Bernardino County, Huntington Beach, Orange, and Visalia. “And we sent one to a Mexican police department just below El Paso,’’ he says.
So if you want to know about police dogs, Johnson’s your man. “Police dogs are born,’’ he states; “you can’t create them.’’ Johnson says all dogs can be classified three ways: alarm dogs, threat dogs, and contact dogs. Alarm dogs have bark but no bite, and are fine for people wanting a dog to protect their household. A threat dog barks too but will stand his ground a little better. But a contact dog, one who loves to bite, is the only type that makes it into the police dog ranks. This is the kind of dog that is first to be put to sleep by dog pounds and Humane Societies because of its danger to the public, but even animal-rights groups, which might be expected to object to using dogs in police work, say saving a biter and training it for the police is preferable to killing it. Still, not all contact dogs can qualify for the demands of working with the cops.
“Basically what you have to have is a dog that, when he runs into a new situation, something that’s spooky and unknown, he won’t back down.’’ To find dogs with the right potential, Johnson runs a simple test. He places the dog in his training yard behind his kennel, and has an assistant in an old tattered coat and hat surprise the dog by rushing in from behind. This “agitator’’ screams and hoots and charges the animal, and if the dog squeals and cowers and tries to get away, he’s no police-dog candidate.
The desired reaction is when the dog — and this is rare — actually tries to attack his assailant and tear him to pieces. The agitator may then fire blanks to see how the dog reacts to gunfire. After all this agitation, the dog must let himself be petted and handled by the trainers. If he won’t and he remains aggressive and defiant, then he’s borderline. “But some departments could use him,” says Johnson, “because they need a more aggressive dog.’’
Johnson mentions Carlsbad and Oceanside as examples of different police departments wanting different types of dogs. Oceanside had a small police force in 1971, the year it got its first “K-9 detail.’’ Veterans like Detective Jim Wood remember that Oceanside’s crowd control problems “were unbelievable.” The combination of vast numbers of Marines moving through Camp Pendleton on their way to Southeast Asia, and the combustible spirit of the times, made for some rollicking brawls and a lot of injured police officers. Fon Johnson says the City of Oceanside was losing a significant amount of money every year due to police injuries. Curt Milam says some of the Marines back then would just as soon go to jail as go to Vietnam. To quell a disturbance. Detective Wood recalls that “you’d call all the cops together in a group and try to outnumber the mob.’’ So Johnson trained four dogs for Oceanside, and says that in that first year they recorded seventy bites and police injuries fell to zero. He contrasts that with the first year Carlsbad officers got dogs, about five years ago. The little town that borders Oceanside is miles distant in its street problems. Not a single bite was notched that first year in Carlsbad.
“So Oceanside wants a little tougher dog,’’ says Johnson, “but times are changing overall. We’re generally looking for tougher dogs for everybody.’’ He cites the incidence of PCP use, which gives a person superhuman strength and blots out pain, as well as youth gangs’ pride in scars of any kind — including those from dog bites — as examples of why tougher dogs are taking to the streets in patrol cars.
For San Diego police, times are changing in a fundamental way. For the first time in its history the San Diego department is leaning toward obtaining its own police dogs. “We are looking favorably at getting nine or ten dogs,’’ says police commander Ken Fortier of SDPD. A feasibility study completed two years ago, when the police chief decided against hiring dogs, is now being updated. One gets the impression that Chief Kolender has already decided that his force will have a K-9 detail, and it simply remains for the bureaucratic motions to legitimize the formation of the squad. “We’ve had a philosophical resistance to using dogs,’’ explains Fortier, who’s in charge of long-range planning for the department. That resistance is based on the fact that San Diego police work is primarily urban, and much of it centers on minority neighborhoods like Southeast San Diego and the barrios. “And in these minority areas the use of dogs has had an ugly connotation,’’ continues Fortier. “How it’s perceived has been a concern.” But it’s not as if San Diego officers don't use dogs now. Several times a month dogs from outlying police agencies are called in by San Diego police for assistance in locating hidden suspects or defusing dangerous crowd situations. And numerous formal requests for dogs have been made by San Diego officers. One former San Diego officer. Bob Magers, was working in Southeast San Diego two years ago when he formally offered to supply a dog and pay for the training himself. The formal reply was a terse No. “They said it would ‘offend the public,’ for one thing,” recalls Magers, who has since become a police officer on the K-9 detail in National City, “and also that they couldn't afford the lawsuits from dog bites.’’ Magers and other officers around the county say the San Diego police force has always been more concerned with its image than it should be, so it may be undergoing a seminal change if it really does get dogs.
Fortier acknowledges that the new attitude toward a K-9 detail is partly based on the recent public pressure for two-man patrol cars. While a dog certainly cannot replace an additional officer, the animal is being seen as a compromise that improves police capabilities at low cost. And it’s not hard to find good arguments for acquiring dogs, such as the possibility that they can help avoid the use of lethal force.
A classic example of this occurred in Oceanside one night about two years ago. Officer Les Lang and his dog Fritz responded to a residential disturbance near the intersection of Tremont and Minnesota streets in southwest Oceanside. A man with a handgun was loose and threatening people. As Lang was inside a house in the neighborhood taking a report, the man appeared on the street outside holding a pistol. Lang went out and called Fritz — who’d been on street duty only about six months — over to the officer’s side. Lang ordered the suspect to drop the gun. He wouldn’t. The man started toward the officer and the dog. Lang ordered the man to halt and drop the gun. He kept coming. So the officer set the dog on the man. When Fritz jumped him, the gun went flying away and the man went down. The suspect repeatedly kicked the dog in the stomach with his heavy boots until the officer pulled him away and handcuffed him. Lang, who is no longer with the force, told his sergeant that if it weren't for Fritz, he would have had to shoot the man, who ended up in a mental institution. Unfortunately, Fritz suffered a twisted intestine while being kicked, and he eventually had to be destroyed.
Losing a dog in the line of duty is as traumatic to Fon Johnson as it is to the dog's handler. About twenty dogs currently on local police forces received their training from Johnson, and he knows each one individually. “Yeah, you get attached to the dogs because you have to put yourself so much into them.” he says.
Aside from that, good police dogs are hard to find. They come from a variety of sources, including dog pounds, private donors, and sometimes breeders, although the frequency of suitable dogs — one in seventy-five — doesn’t increase among purebreds. One dog on the National City force was picked up by a cop as a stray, just sauntering down the street.
Once a dog has been located and screened, it takes Johnson and his main trainer, Vic Beltran, about three months to get the dog and its handler ready for street work. This course includes about fifty hours of training and unlimited follow-up sessions, and costs the police departments $700 per dog. This is considered a bargain, since the going rate for a trained police dog outside of San Diego County is approximately $3000. “Police forces down here just don’t have the budgets,” laments Johnson, who recently sold a fully trained Doberman to the police department in Visalia (south of Fresno) for $2300.
After the young dogs have been tested, they’re sent home with the police handler to see how the animal and the cop’s family get along. A dog’s character and demeanor cannot really be determined until it is at least one year old, which is why Johnson recommends that people don’t buy puppies if they want a dog for personal protection. If the dog gets along with the officer’s wife and children, the course begins.
Johnson believes that control is the most important measure of a police dog’s effectiveness, so the first few weeks of training are taken up with standard obedience work. From there the animal is eased into agility and jumping exercises on the obstacle course. This helps keep the dog in good physical condition as well as familiarize him with some of the obstacles and tight spaces he’ll encounter on the street. About halfway through the training the dog will begin to be agitated with a long, rolled-up gunny sack. The agitator will continuously strike the dog with the sack, but the handler will not let his animal have the satisfaction of sinking his teeth into the object. After several sessions of this the dog is extremely frustrated, and he’s finally given his chance to bite. This is a crucial stage. The dog must demonstrate his ardor in trying to tear the sack to bits, but must also be disciplined enough to let go of it on command from the handler. For a police dog, retreat on command is as important as attacking at the right time.
By this stage it’s also clear to Johnson whether or not a handler has the right “touch.” He says that police handlers often are not good dog people, and sometimes wishes he could reject or wash out a handler as he can a dog. Occasionally a dog will do poorly in the training until he’s switched to another handler, and then he’ll do fine. And Johnson tells of a local handler (he won’t name) who recently gave up a perfectly good police dog because the animal wouldn't bite suspects on two separate occasions when the suspects had already given themselves up. One incident involved a chase across a field that ended when the suspect froze and the dog quit the chase and returned to the handler, who arrested the petrified man. The officer felt the dog should have bitten. The second case involved a search in which the dog discovered a suspect hiding under a bush. Again he didn’t bite, and the man gave himself up. “So the handler retired the dog,” says Johnson, shaking his head. “It used to be that a man was on the force twelve, fifteen years before he got a dog. The officers were more mature. Now, guys on for three or four years, ex-military, the macho types, they want a meaner dog. The more they bite, the better they like it, but it’s at the expense of control.” Johnson says he judges three or four police-dog trials every year throughout the state, “and in the last four years half the dogs we see shouldn’t be on the street — they’re uncontrollable.”
Control is the central theme of Johnson’s training. When a dog finally learns to let go of the gunny sack on the “Out!” command, then the handler will begin allowing the dog to bite the pad the agitator wears on his arm. The training builds from there to the point where the dog actually chases the agitator. Gradually the dog learns to stop in mid-chase on the out command and return to the handler or the back seat of the mock patrol car without biting the agitator. “That’s one difference between a dog and a bullet,” Johnson tells the cops; “you can call back a dog before he hits the wrong person, but you can’t call back a bullet.”
Once the dog has become proficient at biting, chasing, and responding to the handler’s orders, Johnson starts him working with scent. The agitator hides in an alleyway beside the kennel building, and the dog is sent in to find him. Johnson says that about half of the otherwise qualified dogs will not bark when they find the culprit, so they have to be encouraged to bark. They are rewarded primarily with praise, not food, when they do. Sometimes as a payoff to barking, the dog is allowed to bite the arm pad. further reinforcing his ferocity along with the habit of barking. The dog is taught to zigzag in his search patterns to try and pick up the agitator’s scent, and he's rewarded with lavish praise when he locates the hidden suspect.
This scenting skill is separate from tracking, which is just now becoming recognized locally as a valuable job for police dogs to learn. The City of Chula Vista recently allocated $500 for its dogs to be taught tracking by Johnson, and the county sheriff’s department, which trains its own dogs, is also starting to teach it. “It seems like in Southern California we’re really behind the times in dog tracking,” says Deputy Burt Quick, the chief trainer for the sheriff’s department, which has twenty dogs. “In the rest of the country and in Europe, tracking is the main thing dogs are used for. Bite work and protection are secondary.” What really brought this home to the sheriff's department was the incident last year in which an entire Girl Scout troop was lost on the west side of Mt. Palomar. The daughter of a sheriff’s deputy dog handler was part of the group (which eventually made it back safely), but the deputy’s dog was of no use in the search because it wasn’t trained in tracking.
After the dog learns to locate hidden suspects, the rest of his training concentrates on honing his skills and learning more of the subtleties of his new job. He learns when to attack without having to be called by his handler, as, for instance, when a suspect jumps the cop suddenly. The dog must also learn to differentiate between numerous suspects and to act upon the biggest threat. For this Johnson uses two agitators, whom the handler pats down as if arresting them while the dog watches intently from the back of the mock squad car. The agitators purposely escalate their activity and begin yelling, but the dog is trained not to attack at this point. In the real world most people who are arrested are loud, abusive, but can be handled by the police. But as the dog watches, one agitator bolts and runs away while the other attacks the handler. The dog must fight his natural inclination to chase the runner and instead come to the aid of the cop. This and similar exercises are practiced over and over until Fon Johnson feels the dog is ready for limited duty on the street.
Johnson acquired his dog sense the same way police dogs get their fearlessness: he was born with it. He grew up on a sheep and cattle ranch in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin, near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Dog country. As a child he had a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin that used to pull him around on a sled in the snow. The ranch had cattle dogs that worked the herds. “Ranchers trained their own dogs,’’ explains Johnson, whose father was absent much of the time because of his sheep shearing business that took him to other ranches throughout Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and California. “Once you got a good dog, you’d throw the young pups in with him, and he’d teach the younger ones how to herd. With your help, of course.” Johnson says these ranch dogs weren’t really pets, but they would protect their masters. “They were independent, free, not close and loving, but they were still good companions.” In that way they were similar to Johnson’s current ideas about what makes a good police dog.
As a youngster Johnson didn’t really notice that he had a talent with dogs; his main passion was basketball, and the game has remained a major part of his life for more than fifty years. In his spacious home overlooking Mission Bay are displayed the trophies and commendations of a championship basketball player and coach, not an accomplished dog trainer. The dog trophies, of which there are many, are at the kennel.
Johnson was an excellent athlete, winning selection three times in high school to the All-Wyoming football and basketball teams. He played basketball for the University of Utah until 1939, then came west to play for Clifton ’s Cafeteria and 20th Century Fox’s AAU-sanctioned teams. He helped Fox win the national championship in 1941. After playing on various Navy teams during World War II he was discharged in San Diego and joined the semipro San Diego Dons of the American Basketball League, the forerunner of the NBA. Johnson was coaching as well as playing, and for a living he had begun his own dog kennel in Rose Canyon. It was going well for him in both areas. He coached the U.S. team in the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City, and won it all. The next year he hired on as the University of San Diego’s first athletic director, but he still managed to play regularly (on other teams) until 1960, when he was forty-four.
In the mid-Sixties, while working seven days a week, 365 days a year at the kennel, Johnson became basketball coach at the Naval Training Center. For thirteen of the seventeen years he’s coached there, NTC has either won the league or the Eleventh Naval District championship, and some years both. His team won the All-Navy championship in 1976. This is a difficult thing to do anyway, but NTC’s situation makes it quite a feat since most of Johnson’s players are transferred every eight weeks. “We have an eighty percent turnover every season,’’ he says with a mixture of ennui and pride.
He knows it sounds odd, but Johnson says that coaching winning basketball teams and training dogs and handlers aren’t all that different. “There are a lot of similarities,” he insists. “The organization of training, the continuity of learning, of building on acquired skills, the importance of intensity. You have to be good and bad with players and dogs; raise hell, then praise ’em. And the procedure. I'm a great one for procedure, for having a precise way of doing thihgs. The way to pass a basketball, and shoot, the way a dog heels, and how he comes off a bite. The one basic difference is that all dogs require discipline as well as praise, while some ballplayers need a lot of discipline and almost no praise, or a lot of praise and no discipline. The real basic difference is that ballplayers can think and reason, and they’ll argue with you sometime, but with dogs it’s cut and dried.”
I wanted to see some of Johnson’s handiwork in action, so Oceanside officer Curt Milam arranged for me to ride along with him and his dog North one recent evening. North is a storied veteran who may have gotten a bad rap in the past for being a vicious, uncontrollable biting machine. “Yeah, North took a chunk out of me one night,” Oceanside officer William Cramer told me over the phone. “If I’d have had a gun. I’d have killed the dog. He’s uncontrollable.” The officer walked by the open back window of the squad car in which North was waiting behind the Oceanside police station, and North bit him on the left forearm. The injury required ten stitches, and though it happened a year ago, Cramer says he’s still having trouble with the arm. Johnson scoffed at North’s being tagged as uncontrollable, and he showed me a videotape of the dog at a recent exhibition that took place at the Del Mar Fair. North was led around the arena before the demonstration by officer Milam, and the dog allowed himself to be petted, pulled, and handled by dozens of children and adults. Then he put on a flawless performance of disciplined aggression, after which he was again led around the crowd to be petted. This was meant as a demonstration of the ideal police dog’s dual personality.
“North’s just very protective of his car,” Milam told me as we headed toward the vehicle. “He’s not overly vicious. A police dog tends to reflect the personality of his handler. I’m introverted, quiet, and North’s like me; he’s not the kind of dog that goes out there and makes a lot of noise.” Fellow officers have told Milam that North has changed. They can approach the dog now, whereas before, due to a different style of handling, other cops couldn’t get near the animal. Milam tells North to hop in the back seat of the squad car, and immediately the dog I was just petting starts barking wildly at me. The officer slides in behind the wheel, reaches behind him, and grabs North’s collar; after I get in the car the dog is civil once again.
We head out east of town to the police firing range for a training session of the K-9 detail. Each Friday and Monday some of Oceanside’s five dogs and handlers gather at the training site for exercises and obedience work. “North loves working,” Milam says. “He lives for it. He gets real pumped up when he sees me putting on the uniform.” North is at his customary post, pacing enthusiastically back and forth across the folded-down back seat. He pauses at one point to drink from a spill-proof bowl of water built into the back seat. “He has two distinct personalities,” Milam continues. “When he’s home, he’s off work and he’s like any other neighborhood dog. He likes to lie around and play. But when I put that collar on him and he gets in the car, it’s like clocking him in — he’s at work.”
Out at the range there’s just one other dog, Zachery, and three handlers, including Zachery’s: Jack Resner, John Ratcliff, and Reggie Grigsby. All four of the men are young, close to thirty, and, in police parlance, motivated. They all lift weights and run, and it shows. Still, when the one-hundred-pound dogs get a running start and tear into the arm pad held by the sturdy Ratcliff, they’re able to knock him back and jerk his arm around. The dogs respond almost without hesitation to the handlers’ orders, and their bites, which have been measured at about 800 pounds of pressure per square inch, are allowed as a kind of payoff for their obedience. Milam decides to show me North’s reaction to the sound of handcuffs. He walks Radcliff, who’s wearing the heavy arm pad, over to a chain link fence and pulls out the cuffs. Their distinctive rattle sets North agog in anticipation, and it seems it’s all the dog can do to remember his training and not leap from the squad car. As Ratcliff plays the belligerent suspect and Milam the firm cop, North barks himself hoarse. Finally Ratcliff struggles free and lets out a war whoop, and North goes for him, knocking him against the fence. The dog’s worn teeth disappear with malice into the burlap arm pad. He shakes his head violently until Milam calls him off, and the dog returns to the car. “Now let’s show the reporter how we get confessions,” cracks one of the other officers. Tee-hee.
All handlers trained by Fon Johnson are quick to say they use their dogs only as a last resort and not for any funny business, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be cunning sometimes. Two weeks ago a man barricaded himself in a house in Oceanside and started firing shots at police and assembled reporters. After trying to talk him outside, the cops put a creative plan into action. They told the man, who was armed with both a knife and a gun, that they had a getaway vehicle available to take him to the airport for a flight out of the country to freedom. He agreed to come out if the cops stayed clear while he headed for the getaway car. But as the man walked away from the house. Curt Milam sent North in to take him down. While he was struggling with the dog, the police moved in and apprehended him. “If we hadn’t had police dogs,” figures Sgt. Mike Poehlman, head of the K-9 detail, “we’d have probably had to rush the house.”
The conversation out at the range turns to the closeness of dog and handler. The cops believe that their dogs either already have or may someday save their handlers’ lives, and the camaraderie between dog and officer is as strong as that between two old police partners. They say that when Les Lang lost Fritz to the mental case who kicked him in the belly, it was extremely traumatic for the officer and for the whole K-9 detail. “I’m very, very, very attached to my dog,” admits Reggie Grigsby, whose dog Sarge has just completed his training. Apparently so is Grigsby’s wife. A couple of weeks ago, when Grigsby came in at 7:00 a.m. and told his wife that Sarge had inflicted his first bite earlier that morning, she jumped out of bed immediately and started checking the beloved dog’s teeth and gums for damage.
Bites aren’t uncommon, averaging two or three per month for the entire K-9 detail, and they often require stitches. A couple of the officers pull out photographs of bite victims who were arrested. One shows severe bite damage to the hand and leg of a suspected PCP user. The man’s face says that he feels nothing but the drug, but the bloody bites say that he’s in for long weeks of pain. Another picture shows a stout woman’s leg with a gash in it not unlike a nip from a shark. Officer Resner says the woman attacked him during a disturbance in which about forty other people were involved. I ask if he could not have overcome her attack without calling in the dog, and he admits he probably could have, “but what would those forty others have done?’’ It becomes clear that, to the Oceanside K-9 detail, the price of attacking an officer is a good honest bite from a ferocious dog.
This of course leads to ethical questions that all police departments with K-9 details must face. Dogs are handy in a lot of ways, most of them having nothing to do with biting, but it is undeniable that police dogs would generally just as soon bite you as bark at you. Ultimately, no matter how the police soft-pedal it, police dogs are a weapon of intimidation. Whereas the public psyche knows that cops will exercise restraint and won’t indiscriminately use their authority and its implements, the general reaction to dogs is one of uncertainty. People just aren’t sure that a police dog is judicious and fair with its weapons. You see the difference in their reactions to patrol cars carrying dogs. Suddenly the cop isn’t just another citizen who happens to be wearing a uniform; he’s lost a little benevolence and gained a measure of fearsomeness. Some would applaud that in this crime-rich age, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that everyone, not just criminals, tastes good to a dog. And everyone feels the primal fear of a dog bite. The presence of the animals puts us all a little bit more at the mercy of the police, and their good judgment.
I yelled, and the instant North slackened his grip on my forearm, I withdrew it. The accident scene returned, the sirens, the broken motorcycle, the injured rider. Officer Milam knew from the look on my face that North had gotten me. He asked if I was all right and saw that the accident victim was much worse off. He attended to the young Marine, whose right foot was badly hurt. North barked and drooled out the open back window of the squad car, and my arm went numb and then began throbbing. Through my jacket the dog’s fangs had barely broken the skin, but the bruises were deep and would last for days. It was to be North’s only real action all night. When we got back into the car Milam said he was feeling bad about the bite, and he scolded North in gentle tones. “See, he feels bad too,” said Milam, and it did seem that North was wearing a hangdog expression. He leaned over and gave me a wet lick on the ear.