Right on the nose

Officer Colin Duncombe and his K-9 partner, Zoran

Officer Colin Duncombe and his K-9 partner, Zoran, corner a suspect during a practice run. Tracking human scent is but one facet of a K-9 unit’s training. JOHN BIONDO PHOTO

New center provides K-9 teams real-world training


Police training has gone to the dogs in Port St. Lucie. Six K-9 dogs and their handlers now have a real-world course that will keep them in top form, thanks to a $60,000 grant from the Ronald J. Woods Charitable Trust to establish a training center.

A grand opening and dedication ceremony was held in February. During the event, Chaplain Frank Smith blessed the field and police officers demonstrated K-9 tactical defense techniques to showcase the maneuverability of the course.

The site at the McCarty Ranch Preserve on Range Line Road features amenities including a large building for workshops or classes. It offers every conceivable scenario to put a police dog through its paces, from jumping through windows to sniffing out bombs and narcotics. Until now, there has been no dedicated training center or agility course for these canine cops.

“We had a location near Bayshore in an industrial area that was just thrown together,” says Master Sgt. Frank Sabol, public information officer for the police department, “but it was badly damaged when a driver lost control and ran into a gas line. It messed up the whole area.”

Police service dogs have been on duty in the city since the 1980s. Of the six that serve the city, one is a bloodhound with special powers: The ability to track a scent that may linger over the course of days or weeks, like that of a decomposing body. Bloodhounds excel in deep woods engagements when hunting fugitives, lost children or hikers.

The training course, which is a work in progress, was designed with input from the handlers. “There is a need for night lights, due to blind spots,” Sabol says. “They are not the kind you can go out and purchase, they need to be manufactured and installed.”

The new features provide the best in joint training for other agencies, too. The facilities are available to municipalities throughout the state. In March, Port St. Lucie competed with more than 40 other cities at the South Florida Police Canine competition in Boynton Beach, earning fourth place. “The officers dedicated six months of their own time, applying the high energy of their K-9 dog and a strong work ethic to make it happen,” Master Sgt. Mike Beath says.

Initially, a minimum of 500 hours of training is needed to qualify for patrol. The handlers work with their dogs a minimum of 10 hours a week. Annual qualifications must be met for two certifications from statewide agencies and a physical exam.

Of course, not all canines are well suited for police work. Since dog breeds vary, training depends on individual character traits. Certain breeds have intrinsic abilities and tendencies that adapt better to the specific tasks required of K-9s. There are many scenarios where these working dogs must be ready to respond when under fire or work an active crime scene. The dogs often search vehicles for drugs, track suspects for long distances or detect cell phones, firearms, currency, human remains and even bedbugs.

The K-9 handlers have their own training regimen. Officer Michael Colton has 30 years of experience in police work, beginning as a K-9 master deputy with the St. Lucie Sheriff’s Department. He is an in-service trainer and was an adjunct K-9 team instructor at Indian River State College. A regular contributor to Police K-9 Magazine, he wrote and developed a K-9 field training program and K-9 guidebook for patrol officers and has trained in Brazil.

Known nationally and internationally as a certified evaluator and trainer, Colton is recognized as an expert in training law enforcement and protection dogs. Attesting to his level of service, Sgt. Kyle Ingebritsen, president of the Police and Fire Benevolent Association in Palatine, Ill., wrote on Colton’s LinkedIn page:

“This training is truly a labor of love for Mike. His vast array of knowledge when it comes to all aspects of police K-9 training is awesome. He is not a 9 to 5 trainer — we trained with Mike from sunup to well past sundown each day — we were lucky enough to have him train our canine teams. Likewise, our teams certified shortly after this training and absolutely walked through the certification process without any hitches.”

Creating a zone of comfort using proper techniques bolsters the dog’s socialization skills, which are necessary when appearing in public or at schools. The police department conducts K-9 goodwill demonstrations throughout the year at a variety of locations.

“Agency training has enhanced so much that the dogs can go into schools and children are able to pet them,” Sabol says. “It shows the versatility of the dog’s ability and teaches the importance of police work.”

When it comes to simulations, the handlers replicate real-life situations, going to great lengths to achieve authenticity.

“We use cadavers, money, wild game — even lobsters to teach scents,” Beath says, “anything a criminal is willing to steal. We engage in confrontations, riot control, building searches and explosives detection. The dogs who specialize in narcotics can detect up to six or seven illegal substances.”

Building trust between partners is vital. The K-9 teams are expected to perform in many situations — some dangerous, some routine. Dogs on patrol are trained to protect their handlers and locate crime scene evidence. They respond to hand gestures and verbal cues — some in foreign languages, depending on the origin of the animal.

Last year, during two days of training with the Port St. Lucie Police Department, K-9 handler teams from as far as California attended the Tactical Canine Casualty Care Course. The officers participated in mock emergency events to learn how to medically treat their K-9 dogs when injured on the job. Dr. Janice Baker of the Veterinary Tactical Group, a consulting agency in Vass, N.C., facilitated the officer training.

K-9 officers face physical risks on a daily basis — just like their handlers. Potential dangers to the dogs are being kicked, punched, shot, stabbed or worse by fleeing suspects including blunt force trauma such as being assaulted with a weapon or other dangerous objects like a baseball bat or tire iron.

Teams working in apprehension, search and rescue, tracking or explosive detection are at greater risk of injury due to environmental hazards like severe weather, wildlife, sharp objects, visual impairment or the potential for an explosion.

The training exercises were designed to equip handlers with the skills necessary to provide immediate emergency treatment to their animals with veterinary-type interventions, while addressing major traumatic injuries or life-threatening conditions that are common to law enforcement K-9s such as heat exhaustion, bloat and poisoning.

In many jurisdictions, the intentional injury to or killing of a police dog is a felony. These highly trained K-9s dutifully protect the public and, just like their human counterparts, need protective gear while on duty. State-of-the-art items manufactured for police dogs range from ballistic and stab-proof vests to oxygen masks that prevent smoke inhalation, cooling vests to protect from summer heat and first-aid field trauma kits that contain necessary supplies to treat a dog for injuries ranging from snake bites to knife and gunshot wounds.

Some law enforcement agencies classify K-9s as equipment or city property, but to their handlers, they are family. At the end of the day, they go home and behave just like any other dog.


K-9 Officer Blek, German shepherd – Narcotics – Officer John Fazio
K-9 Officer Dany, Shepherd – Narcotics – Officer Mike Colton
K-9 Officer Dingo, Belgian Malinois/shepherd mix – Narcotics – Officer Robbie Gibbins
K-9 Officer Nash, Bloodhound – Tracking – Officer Will Harris
K-9 Officer Oliver, Belgian Malinois – Explosive detection – Officer Will Harris
K-9 Officer Zoran, Shepherd – Narcotics – Officer Colin Duncombe