K-9 cop: Le Mars Police dog sniffs out success
Even though Pike, a German shepherd, lives and spends most his time with Le Mars Police Officer Mark Reed, Pike is not like other families' dogs.
"He's never just a pet. He's my partner," Reed said.
The duo just competed in a U.S. Police Canine Association detector dog competition in Des Moines, and Pike proved his skills, helping earn a first place team finish for sniffing out narcotics.
In the April 11 contest, Reed and Pike teamed up with three other police K-9s and their handlers to seek out hidden drugs in cars and buildings.
They were competing with a total of 73 dogs.
Reed explained that each dog and its handler start out with 200 points, and judges deduct points for things like walking past the hidden drugs the first time or handler errors, like controlling the leash poorly.
Pike and Reed scored 195 out of 200, and with the other dog and handler duos on their team, that added up to a winning score.
Reed and Pike have also placed in individual competition in previous years, once going to the national competition, which was hosted in Des Moines that year.
"He's a solid dog, a solid performer," Reed said.
Reed has served with the Le Mars Police for 23 years and started working with police dogs in the late 1990s.
Pike has been his partner for about five years, although Reed started training the 6-year-old German shepherd when the dog was 10 weeks old.
"When he was young, everything I did with him was geared toward the work," Reed explained.
Reed got Pike from Holtgrew's German Shepherds in Merrill.
To be a good police dog, Pike had to show he was confident and outgoing, balancing stability and drive -- even as a puppy.
Today, Pike is able to hunt down four different types of illegal drugs: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. He can track and apprehend suspects -- biting on command if needed -- and can help recover evidence.
At the core of the training is agility and obedience, Reed said.
At a single word, Pike will stop everything and lay down at Reed's feet. At another command, he will jump up and start sniffing for drugs. He will sprint into action or freeze immediately if Reed tells him to.
To Pike, the work really seems more like play -- Reed explained the dog has no idea the narcotics are bad, and if he is commanded to bite someone, the dog is not angry.
Pike is very good-tempered and great around children, he said. The German shepherd loves a good scratch and makes friends with newcomers if Reed is OK with it.
"But if he goes out to apprehend a suspect and he gets hurt, then it's personal," Reed added.
Pike would only be asked to apprehend or bite a suspect if it involved a felony crime, a suspect fleeing custody, or to stop an assault on a person or an officer, Reed explained.
With the Le Mars Police, Pike has never had to do that, but a few times a month he is used for a building or vehicle search, and he also has helped track people and evidence.
"In the home invasion out in the country the winter before last, Pike was instrumental in knowing where to look for the guys," Reed said. "It was a cold night, and that's one of the things that made the track difficult. When it's cold and windy on snow, it's hard to scent a suspect."
In that January 2009 attempted burglary, which involved five suspects, three fled on foot and were eventually tracked down by Pike and police officers using thermal imaging units.
"It's a team thing," Reed said. "Pike helped the guys be where they needed to be. He was just part of the team."
In between police calls, Pike is never allowed to get lazy.
"I train him almost every night," Reed said.
Sometimes, that involves Pike hunting down actual narcotics or scented items Reed hides.
"I'm constantly proofing to make sure I'm not training him to smell something else," Reed said, explaining that at one time officers would hide narcotics in PVC pipe, and the dogs actually were sniffing out the glue used to close the pipe rather than the narcotics.
The canine nose is extremely sensitive, Reed added.
"When Pike walks into a room where stew is cooking, he smells cooking onions, he smells cooking meat, he smells cooking carrots," he said.
That's unlike humans, who usually just smell the stew combination.
Training also involves obedience work, tracking work and apprehensions. Reed has special padded coverings he or others can wear so Pike can practice his bites.
But Pike also gets downtime. He likes playing fetch in Reed's back yard.
Police dogs usually live with their handlers, Reed said.
In many cases, a police department will own the dog, but it will still go home with its handler after the day's work.
"It makes it a lot easier to take care of the dog, and it has a sense of family," Reed said.
However, Reed, not the police department, owns Pike.
"He's my dog, but I'm assigned as a K-9 handler at the department," Reed explained.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"For me, it's a dream job," Reed said.