Inglewood Canine Officer John Bell relaxed between competitive events for law-enforcement dogs, analyzing the performance of his partner, Welz, musing over his own ego, and extolling the work of police canines statewide.
Bell, who became one of the first canine officers in Los Angeles County 10 years ago, said Welz always obeys his verbal commands and hand signals perfectly. Except, that is, during the obedience trial held last Saturday by the Canine Corps of the Redondo Beach Police Department.
Welz hesitated on a few of the signals, Bell said, "and then he freaked out because he wasn't sure" what to do.
The dog redeemed himself, however, in other tests, and he and Bell were the overall winners of Saturday's competition, one of about 10 similar statewide events each year.
Welz's hesitancy, he said, was just a reminder that on-going training is necessary for police canines.
"These trials are not to see whose is the best dog," Bell said. They are held so law enforcement agencies can demonstrate their canine programs to each other and to the public, to offer other officers support, to reward those who have done well and to give the dogs confidence, he said.
But the dogs, Bell and other canine officers agreed, can sense the handlers' stress during competitions and become up-tight, too.
It's part of the rapport that develops between the dogs and the officers they work with.
When he is depressed, Bell said, Welz puts his head on his partner's knee "and that means more to me than some guy coming up to me and saying, 'Tough luck, John.' "
And Bell said he can tell how Welz is feeling by his posture and the position of his ears, head and tail.
The dog, Bell said, takes on its handler's personality. A highly aggressive dog is usually found partnered with a cocky cop, he said, and a happy, tail-wagging canine with an easy-going officer.
"I used to be a real big, macho, introverted cop. I had an image," Bell said, " . . . but my dog made me break out of that shell because I had to be honest."
A dog could sense his dishonesty, he said, and canines need praise and affection when they do well to reinforce their training. "They work for that touch and that voice tone that says, 'Hey, I did it. I'm a good boy and my dad's proud of me,' " Bell said.
A police dog is "no longer just a leash attached to a bunch of teeth," he said. "This dog will give his life for you without question . . . but the trust is (that) I'll be there. I'm not going to send out my dog as a piece of meat and let him take all the brutality and just stand back."
Bell has spent a lot of time helping other officers work with their dogs, sometimes at the expense of preparing his own dog for a competition, said Kenneth Greenleaf, a Redondo Beach canine officer.
He and Bell train their dogs together, which paid off Saturday for both officers. Besides winning the overall competition with 337.3 points out of a possible 350, Bell and Welz were the high-scoring team in the box-search and attack competitions.
Greenleaf and his German shepherd, Boris, won the open division--for teams that have competed in three or more events--with 336.2 points. The two also scored the highest in the obedience and agility tests.
Sam Cohen, another canine officer from Inglewood, and his German shepherd, Max, won the novice division--less than three competitions--with 326.9 points. The Inglewood Police Department was rated the best canine team in the competition. The third pair of that team was Officer Errol Ty Cobb and his German shepherd, Alk, who will retire this year.
Sheriff's Deputy Cecelia Marie Pezzati of Santa Barbara, one of about 10 women canine handlers in the state, was the only woman who took part in Saturday's event. She and her German shepherd, Sancho, placed third in the open division. She said her gender was an issue with her dog when she first got him 2 1/2 years ago.
"There was a real battle between him, being a male, and me, being a female," she said. "He thinks I should be subservient to him."
The event got under way when 34 law-enforcement canines, from departments from Oceanside to Merced, were paraded onto the Redondo Union High School football field to crawl through tunnels, leap over obstacles, attack "bad guys" and otherwise show off for hundreds of spectators.
Most of the dogs were impressive, releasing their vise-like jaw holds on the decoy's well-padded arm on command. But some were too aggressive, refusing to let go of the decoy's arm until they were pulled off by their handlers. Some even disobeyed orders and bit the bad guys.
A few of the dogs were comical.
Some canines, unaccustomed to wearing muzzles, became distracted during the first phase of the attack trial, and paid more attention to the equipment than the bad guys they were supposed to apprehend.
Arco, a Bouvier paired with Brad Kloepfer, a canine officer from Redlands, started chasing the decoy, but tripped when he tried to get his muzzle off with a paw. Arco rolled on the ground and the bad guy got away.