A man in an SUV fleeing the police turned down a narrow dirt road the cruisers couldn’t navigate last October in Fryeburg.
Officers pursued him on foot and found the vehicle empty. It was past 2 a.m. and too dark for the police to track him, but not for Caro, the trained police dog.
The keen German shepherd, with Maine State Police Trooper Adam Fillebrown in tow, picked up the man’s scent and was hot on his trail, leading him to the suspect.
Then it was play time. As a reward for Caro’s good work, Fillebrown pulled out the dog’s favorite Kong toy – a sturdy, red piece of rubber on a rope.
On the job, Caro is trained to track suspects, find victims and sniff out drugs. He’ll bite or attack if he has to, either to stop a culprit or protect his handler.
When Caro’s successful, Fillebrown treats him to a romp with his Kong.
“Everything he does is for toy reward,” Fillebrown said.
Off the job, he’s another family pet, lounging on a futon and playing ball with the kids. When he hears the phone ring and sees Fillebrown put his uniform on, however, he’s ready and eager to work.
“He’s pretty easygoing,” Fillebrown said. Caro, who was lying down at his feet, made a noise and Fillebrown scratched his ears. “He follows me around, he’s attached to me by the hip.”
Born to serve
There is a very simple test to see if a dog is capable of joining the police force, said Sgt. Michael Kaspereen, who works as a dog trainer for the state police.
Throw the dog’s favorite toy into some tall grass. If the dog searches for a long time, then it’s got the right characteristics.
State police officials train dogs for their troopers, as well as for county and municipal departments, in a facility adjacent to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. Dogs are trained in patrol, drug searches and explosive detection.
Patrol and drug dogs work for toys, Kaspereen said. Explosive detection dogs work for food rewards. During training, the dogs are shown scents hundreds of times, until it becomes second nature to react to them.
“It’s got to be crazy for some type of toy or reward,” he said.
They also learn aggression techniques, “how to bite, and when to bite,” Kaspereen said. They need to protect their handler and stand their ground.
Most trained dogs are German shepherds, though some are Belgian malinois. The dogs usually come from breeders overseas, reaching the academy by local brokers, Kaspereen said.
Follow your nose
Fillebrown said he got started with Caro three years ago, when he was selected to be a canine officer. The duo went through 12 weeks of training so Caro could learn his patrol duties, and then eight weeks of training to learn to sniff drugs.
The dog is trained in “suspect apprehension,” or biting, Fillebrown said. Caro knows to get angry when his handler gets angry, and knows to attack when his handler tells him to. He is able to sense when people are afraid of him, Fillebrown said.
“When I get fired up, he knows to get fired up,” Fillebrown said.
Fillebrown said Caro is also good with people. Having the dog in the car sometimes helps calm those who get arrested.
Fillebrown’s cruiser is specially designed to carry the dog. The back seat is removed, leaving a hollow area for Caro to ride in, and with a water bowl built in. Any prisoner riding in the car sits in the front.
Fillebrown also carries a bulletproof vest for the dog and a harness for when Caro is tracking people.
The relationship between a handler and a trained dog is very close, Kaspereen said. They become pets when they’re not working – but they’re not subject to boredom.
Because trained dogs typically love to work, “some dogs don’t do as well sitting around the house doing nothing,” Kaspereen said.
Fillebrown said the one downside to his job is that he’s never really “off work.” After work, Caro still needs to be fed, walked and groomed. Since he is the only trained dog in the county, Fillebrown could be called out anywhere at anytime, but he said he doesn’t mind.
Caro has many success stories, Fillebrown said. Last summer in Norway, a suspect took off running. The chase ended with the men and Caro running through a swamp. Another time in Norway, an officer stopped a car believing that the driver had cocaine. It was Caro who found the drug stashed under the seat.
A police dog usually serves until he is 10, and then he’s retired and keeps living with the handler. Canine officers, however, can choose to retire their dogs after three years.
“I could never give him up,” Fillebrown said. “I spend more time with him than with my family.”