The Delaware State Police held a graduation ceremony on Thursday for 12 new canine handlers and their four legged partners. After a month-long bonding period and 12 weeks of training, the new K-9 units are ready to hit the streets.
These teams will be in state police troops all over the state, with one unit stationed at the Lewes Police Department headquarters. The teams will be responsible for everything from drug detection, explosives detection and crowd control. The 12-week training began on April 8 and included instruction in obedience, confidence, tracking, building searches, area searches, suspect apprehension and officer protection.
“We are proud of each of our handlers for their commitment to the K-9 unit,” said Col. Nathaniel McQueen, superintendent of the Delaware State Police. “In addition to performing their daily duties they’re willing to take on the additional responsibilities and duties required of them.”
Josh Walther and his K-9 partner, Kate, were among the graduating class. Over the time they’ve spent together they’ve developed a close relationship.
“Whenever she’s out with me at home or at work her interest is just on me,” Walther said. “She doesn’t pay much attention to what else is going on except where I am.”
Kate is one of three black labs that were purchased with the help of a federal grant. The Delaware State Police were able to purchase the dogs to be used exclusively for the purpose of explosives detection. The black labs stick out amongst the German and Dutch shepherds that typically comprise K-9 units. A total of five handlers and their canines graduated with explosives detection certifications.
Dogs like Kate are typically selected for the K-9 program by experienced handlers from within the department, Sr. Cpl. Leonard Aguilar. The handlers will travel to a kennel and test dogs. They are looking for dogs that have a strong prey drive. A dog with a strong prey drive will be better at perusing suspects. They also look for dogs with a strong fight drive. The strength of a dog’s fight drive determines how long they will fight and how brave they will be. The age of new dogs ranges from 1 to 2 and a half years, Aguilar said.
Once the dogs are purchased they are paired with a handler and given a one-month bonding period where they live with their handler prior to being trained. The dogs then begin their obedience training.
“It’s a slow process,” Aguilar said, “but these are very intelligent animals. It’s all about repetition.”
As with training any normal dog, the handlers and trainers use rewards and correction to help the dogs learn what is expected of them, Aguilar explained.
Page 2 of 2 - “Once a dog learns where he is supposed to be and gets proper praise or gets a minor correction if it strays out, he realizes that the good spot is by his handler’s leg rather than walking around,” he said.
For Walther and Kate, that system of communication goes far beyond reward and retribution.
“I’ve learned over the past 12 weeks what her little quirks are and she’s learned mine,” Walther said. “We both learned each other. She knows what I want her to do and when she’s doing her searches I know when she’s getting tired, just from looking at her face and seeing the looks she gives me.”
When a handler chooses to take on the responsibility of a canine partner, they’re welcoming a new member into their family. Each canine lives with their handler. The handler becomes responsible for the day to day care of the dog and in most cases the dog will remain with their handler upon their retirement, said Aguilar.
Walther explained that Kate is more than just a tool to aid his police work, she’s family.
“She’s my dog,” he said. “I don’t want anything to happen to her, just like I don’t want anything to happen to my kids.”