MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On the east side of town not far from the Mid-South Fairgrounds, the soft wail of anticipation gives way to an abrasive, bold call of the wild.
The Memphis police K-9 unit is chomping at the bit to get to work.
Memphis police search far and wide for some of the best-trained dogs in the world — German shepherds and Belgian malinois — taught to go over and through an obstacle instead of around it.
“It’s a vehicle extraction scenario. What I’m going to do is show you how I want y’all to do it when y’all get y’all’s dogs out,” said Officer Carl Craig, one of the police K-9 unit instructors said.
He’s training new handlers because Memphis police learned a long time ago these dogs save lives.
“One of the reasons we got the K-9 unit is an officer went into a building. Didn’t know the suspect was in a closet. The dog would have smelled him if we had a dog at that time. And the guy came out and killed the officer,” Craig said.
That was more than 50 years ago. Now, there are 18 dogs in the unit and 16 handlers.
“They’re capable of apprehension and tracking,” Lieutenant Officer Beth Hyman said.
They can sniff out drugs and bombs, and Hyman leads the team.
“And they’ll put their lives on the line for you,” she said.
The dogs go home with the handler, Hyman said. “There’s a bond between the dog and the handler that’s indescribable.”
Their “fearlessness” is also indescribable. Today they’re practicing vehicle extraction, as a guy in green plays the part of the perpetrator.
The puffy suit is protective gear and he’ll need every inch of it.
It’s a scenario that easily plays out on the mean streets of Memphis and many times the dogs help defuse a volatile situation.
“Usually when we holler out that the K-9 unit is here and they hear the dog barking some people give up. We tell ‘em to come on out and they come out when they hear that dog,” Hyman said.
“That’s one of our training situations that we’ll do during the school,” Officer Craig said. “To show that the dogs will go through the window and apprehend.
“So I don’t have to go up to the car and get the guy out. we’ll send the dog, and it puts the officer in a safer situation,” Craig said.
Believe it or not, it’s safer for the suspect too.
The bite leaves a mark, but nothing compared to a bullet wound.
Interestingly, there’s only one way to know what this is like. This reporter put on a suit to find out.
In seconds, you are face to face with a hundred-pound dog with teeth as sharp as talons.
About an inch of fabric is the only thing between you and about 500 pounds of bite pressure.
It doesn’t take long to realize the fight is over because when the dog is locked and loaded you’re not going anywhere.
It’s terrifying, intense, it’s intimidating but also extraordinarily effective.
The weight of the dog along with the pressure of his grip can easily bring a man to the ground and more importantly, it’s also one of the best nonlethal ways to take down a violent suspect.
It’s training that’s been proven on the streets.
Like when Officer Craig and his dog Reno were tracking a robbery suspect into a heavily wooded area.
“He tracks and tracks through and I never would have never seen him if it wasn’t for my dog. I’d have walked right by him because he was hiding in a big bush,” Craig said.
These dogs can do what an officer can’t: They can smell a suspect.
“I’d have never seen him. He smelled him right away latched on to him took him into custody,” Craig said.
That’s an advantage that can keep a dangerous situation from turning deadly and in a dog eat dog world that’s good news for everyone.
And not just for the officer, in fact, since dogs have been used in police forces nationwide, there hasn’t been a single case where a suspect was killed.
Over the years, they’ve lost three dogs in the line of duty but most will go on to retire with their handlers.