They leap tall barriers in a single bound, tower above their surroundings, moving swiftly over rough terrain while their partners search for signs of trouble, and even use a powerful sense of smell to detect tiny drops of gasoline submerged under water.
And these superheroes do it all without a cape.
These are the dogs and horses of the Howard County Police Department and Department of Fire and Rescue Services. Every day, the animals work with their handlers to protect citizens and keep the county safe.
Howard Magazine caught up with the four-legged friends (and their human partners) to learn more about their training and life on and off the job.
K-9 Support Unit
On a warm June day in Centennial Park, a man pulled a woman’s pants down as she walked on one of the many paths, according to police.
She screamed, and the man fled. But he didn’t get far.
Howard County police officer Robert McKnight arrived on the scene with Marco, a Dutch shepherd and member of the police department’s K-9 Support Unit. Marco, who is trained to detect human scent and fresh-crushed vegetation, pushed his nose to the ground at the man’s last known location. Then he started to track.
Marco followed the scent until officers saw a man matching the assailant’s description in the distance. The suspect ran again, and again Marco tracked him.
“When he saw the dog, he didn’t want anything to do with it,” says Cpl. Joseph Gummo, training coordinator for all nine dogs in the K-9 Support Unit.
The suspect lay on the ground, and officers moved in to arrest him.
Trained in tracking humans and detecting explosives and narcotics, the K-9 Support Unit dogs are used every day throughout the county to help officers enforce the law, Gummo says.
In addition to Marco, the unit includes Raven, a brown Labrador retriever; Nero, Arco, Marleen, Rik and Ares, Belgian Malinois; Barry, a Dutch shepherd; and Brutus; a German shepherd. Each is paired with a handler, a police officer trained to work with the crime-fighting dogs.
Training starts before the dogs even arrive in Howard County. Gummo travels to vendors across the country to select dogs with high drive, intelligence and a strong physical build. He even considers whether the dog’s personality will fit with its new handler.
“We try to test them for everything under the sun before we bring them back here” for additional training, Gummo says.
Here, dogs refine their extraordinary sense of smell with “scent work.” Using tennis balls as rewards, officers teach the dogs to detect drug odors ranging from marijuana and cocaine to crystal methamphetamine and heroin.
“Dogs can smell eight odors at the same time,” he says. “When I make stew with meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic and corn, I can pick out two scents. I can’t smell the others because they meld together. Dogs can pick out all of them.”
K-9 Support Unit dogs are trained to sit and stare at a spot where they’ve detected a scent until an officer rewards them with a tennis ball.
They also complete tracking training, building search training and obedience and agility training on an obstacle course, where they learn to climb ladders, jump through windowlike frames and scale 6-foot walls.
“Everything on that obstacle course tries to simulate what we might have to run through in the real world,” Gummo says.
All dogs in the K-9 Support Unit live with their handlers. When they’re not working, the dogs are usually resting or playing at home like normal pets, officers say.
“They’re very well-trained dogs, and they’re part of the family,” Gummo says.
And whether on or off the job, they are always eager to please.
“If you see us, we’re there to help you,” Gummo says. “Unless you’re the bad guy.”
Volunteer mounted horse patrol
Several summers ago, when people were illegally swimming at Savage Park, police knew just who to put on the case: Chance and Susie.
Chance, a 14-year-old Belgian cross horse, and her owner/handler Theresa Rodrique, along with Susie, an 11-year-old quarter horse, and her owner/handler Linda Reed, are part of the department’s volunteer mounted horse patrol.
The volunteer patrol is made up of five horse-and-human pairs. At least once a week, the pairs patrol county open space and parks like Savage as police department ambassadors.
“They’re our extra set of eyes and ears where we otherwise may not be able to be,” says Sherry Llewellyn, police department spokeswoman.
Reed, a Woodbine resident, says the horses’ height and ability to navigate rough terrain give their handlers an advantage.
“You see so much,” she says. “It’s easy to scan.”
Reed and Rodrique, a Millersville resident, always patrol together. If they observe suspicious activity, they immediately contact police.
Potential horses and handlers go through an initial assessment, where trainers test their responses to noises like barking dogs and police sirens. The duos need to withstand the noises to move forward. If they pass, they participate in a four-day training academy. There, handlers learn everything from their approved riding locations to basic first aid and CPR.
In addition to regular patrols, the horses and handlers participate in community events, including the lakefront concerts in Columbia and the annual Howard County General Hospital Dazzle Dash run.
“They’re great for community relations,” Reed says of the horses. “[Through them] it’s easy for a child to walk up and make contact with the police department. Horses are memory makers in that way.”
It’s training time for Horton, the county Department of Fire and Rescue Services’ accelerant detection dog.
His handler, Lt. Carlton Saunders, walks the 3-year-old golden retriever/black Labrador mix toward a concrete pad outside the department’s Laurel station.
Moments earlier, with Horton out of sight, Saunders placed a drop of gasoline on the pad. It’s now Horton’s job to find that drop and alert Saunders.
Saunders straps on a food pouch, waves his hand across the top of Horton’s nose and says, “Seek.”
“That’s throwing a target,” says Saunders, a Frederick County resident. “That’s a signal to him that it’s time to go to work.”
The normally bouncy and exuberant Horton immediately transforms into a dog on a mission. He move his head back and forth as he quickly sniffs the ground.
In less than two seconds, he finds the drop and sits. This tells Saunders he’s found the potential accelerant. Horton will not budge until Saunders rewards his efforts with kibble from the food pouch.
“His reward is food, but he thrives on praise,” Saunders says.
As an accelerant detection or “arson” dog, Horton sniffs out ignitable, hydrocarbon-based fuels like gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel. He trains every day to keep his detection skills sharp.
Horton is called into action whenever fire investigators cannot determine the cause of a fire or to confirm investigator findings on suspicious fire sites, Saunders says.
Like his K-9 counterparts, Horton has mastered scent discrimination. He can smell a can filled with burned paper, burned wood, burned plastic, burned carpet padding and one drop of gasoline — and differentiate among them all.
Horton and Saunders began their training in 2013 at a six-week program sponsored by State Farm Insurance.
“Arson is one of the most difficult crimes to solve because it’s the only crime where the evidence burns up,” says Heather Paul, State Farm spokeswoman. Dogs like Horton can quickly and efficiently locate evidence, saving both time and money, she says.
Since Horton is one of only a handful of arson dogs in the state, he and Saunders often travel beyond Howard County to investigate fire scenes in and around Baltimore and as far as Western Maryland.
But when the work is done, Horton bounces back to his exuberant self and just wants to play with Saunders by his side.
In 2020, Saunders is scheduled to retire. If all goes well, Horton will, too, so they can enjoy retirement together.
“He’s my partner,” Saunders says. “Wherever I am, that’s where he wants to be.”