Rookie Makes The Collar

Thomas MacMillan Photo
Xander had just jumped over a 7-foot fence on the trail of a man who escaped from state police. He found himself in an overgrown backyard in Fair Haven in the middle of the night. He stood frozen, his nose fixated on a scent coming from just over the next fence. His partner had his doubts.

Xander, a Dutch Shepard on the city police force, had the right instinct: The fugitive was crouching on the other side.

After six months on the force, the rookie police dog had made his second successful “track.” The hunt netted a gun and a suspect—and gave Xander and his trainer, Officer Lars Vallin, a valuable lesson in teamwork.

After owning the dog for six years, Vallin is now learning how to work with Xander on the police force—including taking cues from subtle body language while the dog is chasing a scent. Vallin has been training Xander since he was a puppy, and brought him onto the force six months ago as part of a reconstituted K-9 unit.

On Thursday, in the second-floor cafeteria at police headquarters on Union Avenue, Officer Vallin (pictured) recounted a recent chase, and how the pair have learned to work together.

The chase took place at 2 a.m. on Tuesday through backyards in Fair Haven.

Just 20 minutes before, Vallin had been fast asleep in his home in Hamden. He was awakened by a call: His partner’s talents were needed. The pair arrived at the corner of Chatham and Poplar Streets.

Police had secured a perimeter around a one-block area, where they had spotted a man who was wanted for escaping from state police custody.

The suspect was seen with a gun and wearing a bullet proof vest, indicating he was expecting a shootout, either with police or someone else, Villan said.

“I knew this was a pretty serious call.”

A cop pointed out where the suspect had been seen running alongside a house on Chatham Street. Vallin gave Xander the command to track, from the German, “Such!” (pronounced “Sook!”). The dog took off.

“Xander was like a bullet,” Vallin said. “He’s a very eager tracker. He almost goes too fast.”

Vallin, who’s 40 and has 15 years on the force, grew up in Hamden with a Swedish dad and Panamanian mom. He always had dogs—“from Boxers to Pugs to mutts”—and he developed an interest in training them.

That interest came in handy this year when the department decided to reconstitute its K-9 patrol unit. The department has had bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs, but patrol dogs like Xander—who sniff out people and drugs—are a recent addition. Patrol dogs went out of style with the advent of community policing 20 years ago, Vallin said. “People were very afraid of them.”

“Now they’re being integrated with the idea of community policing,” Vallin said.

The K-9 patrol unit was revived under former Chief James Lewis. Vallin signed up with his dog Xander as one of three cop/dog pairs.

This week’s chase was Xander’s second successful track. Xander would lead his trainer to the gun and the suspect—though Vallin didn’t realize it at first.

Vallin followed Xander alongside the house, leash in one hand, flashlight in the other. No more than 15 or 20 feet in, Xander suddenly slowed down, looked down to one side, then kept moving.

“Had I been more aware, I would have looked down,” Vallin said. “That’s where the gun was.” Another officer spotted it there later.

Vallin said he’s still learning how to interpret all the cues Xander gives him. He can communicate vital information in the way he moves his tail or his ears, Vallin said. “It can be so subtle.” The lesson he keeps learning from Xander, Vallin said, is that “everything he’s doing, he’s doing for a reason.” You need to trust your dog, he said.

Xander led Vallin through a backyard, straight to a 7-foot-tall chain-link fence. That wasn’t an obstacle Vallin and his dog had encountered in training. Like a lot of K-9 police work, it required some improvising, Vallin said. “I pushed up a trash can and got him to jump over.”

Xander made it, but he landed a little rough. At the next fence (“this neighborhood was nothing but 7-foot-fences”), Vallin decided to risk losing the trail by finding a way around. Three or four circumvented fences later, Vallin was pretty sure Xander had lost the scent.

They ended up in an untidy backyard, with piles of chopped wood everywhere. “He wanted to pull me to yet another fence,” Vallin said. Three times, Xander pulled Vallin over to the fence.

“He’s frozen, looking straight ahead,” Vallin recalled.

“There’s got to be something to this,” Vallin thought. He looked through the fence and saw two cops near a house on Lombard Street. Xander must be picking up their scent, he thought. “I’m assuming it’s got to be another cop.”

Vallin said it’s very important that police don’t enter an area that’s going to be tracked by a dog, because it can confuse the K-9. Vallin thought Xander must have been picking up on the trail of an eager cop who had come into a backyard looking for the suspect. He decided to call off his search, even though Xander was totally fixated on the fence.

“Had I just simply shone my light to where he was looking, I probably would have seen the guy,” Vallin said. As he walked away, the two officers decided to check the yard Xander had been so intent on. Sure enough, they turned up the fugitive. He was crouched near a bulkhead in back of the house.

“I nearly fainted,” Vallin said. “I was so angry with myself.”

Vallin’s next thought however, was to be proud of his dog. Xander had known just where the guy was. He led his fellow cops right to him.

Xander’s success rate is just going to get better, Vallin said. It takes about two years of working together before a police dog and its handler really “gel,” he said. The city police department is helping to speed that process with weekly training sessions for all three patrol dogs. “No other department in the state has trainings that often,” Vallin said. “That will make the difference in our success rate.”

Before he joined the police force, Xander was more than just a pet to Vallin. He was a working dog. Vallin had been training him to do search and rescue work for FEMA. On his own time, he went to seminars and lectures on dog training. He dabbled in European dog sports like Schutzhund and Belgian Ringsport, teaching Xander tracking, protecting, obedience, and agility. With some additional training, he was able to convert Xander into a police dog.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Vallin said. “I’m absolutely amazed by what a working dog is capable of.” Having a dog as just a pet is fun, but it leaves so much potential unmet, Vallin said.

Now that he’s put his dog to work, Vallin has a chance to see that potential met in Xander. As a dog handler, he’s called in whenever police have to search an area they think a suspect might be hiding.

“We respond to the more serious calls,” Vallin said. That includes incidents with weapons or gunshots. For burglar alarms where it’s unclear if the burglar is still in a building, Vallin and Xander might be sent in to find out. Partly, that’s because Xander can sniff people out. But it’s also better to put risk a dog than a human in a potentially dangerous situation, Vallin said.

That means Vallin and Xander end up being the first to enter places where people may be armed and hiding. “It can be nervewracking,” Vallin said. “To search a building, that’s intensive enough, but I also get called when someone is chased into an area and we know they have a gun.”

In such situations, “I have every faith in Xander,” Vallin said. He said he knows Xander would sacrifice himself before letting his master get hurt.

In addition to weekly training with a group, Vallin trains Xander every day for at least an hour, outside of work.

He’s also taken on a new student.

A week ago, Vallin picked up a Dutch Shepherd puppy. He’s training the youngster to be a police dog, too.

“I love doing it,” Vallin said.

Speak! Good boy.

Outside the police station, Vallin let Xander out of the cruiser where he’d been waiting during his partner’s interview.

“Fuss!” said Vallin. Xander fell in next to him and looked up expectantly.

“Platz!” said Vallin. Xander lay down.

Vallin then acted as interpreter for Xander, who fielded a few questions from the press.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
A: Chasing squirrels.

“He caught one and he’s hooked on it,” Vallin said. Xander also enjoys relaxing quietly at home. At 6 years old (about 45 in dog years), he’s no longer bursting with energy.

Q: What’s the best part about your job?
A: Working with my partner.

He loves having a purpose, Vallin said. “He would be very unhappy if he were a pet. He’s always eager to go to work.”

Q: What’s your favorite food?
A: Steak. I eat raw steak, chicken, or fish mixed with organic kibble twice a day. It keeps me healthy and my coat shiny.

Q: What’s your take on Rin Tin Tin?
A: He’s a poser. People shouldn’t believe what they see of dogs on TV. You’d think we were telepathic, telling people Timmy’s down a well. It’s all fantasy.

Vallin pulled out a rubber ball on a rope and Xander enjoyed a few minutes of tussle. Then: “Fuss!” And: “Load up!” Xander launched himself into the open window of the cruiser, ready to work.

More Xanders On Tap?

Capt. Leo Bombalicki, who oversees the K-9 unit, said Xander and his fellow patrol dogs have been “absolutely fantastic.”

“The dogs are far exceeding the expectations,” he said. “The dogs have been making numerous, numerous narcotics arrests.”

He said he’d like to add a supervisor and expand the unit with more dogs.

“You just can’t beat a dog’s nose. That’s the bottom line,” Bombalicki said.

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

Shafiq Abdussabur
Lloyd Barrett
Maneet Bhagtana
Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Sydney Collier
David Coppola
Roy Davis
Joe Dease
Milton DeJesus
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Bertram Etienne
Paul Finch
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
Marco Francia
William Gargone
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Derek Gartner
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Robin Higgins
Ronnell Higgins
Racheal Inconiglios
Hilda Kilpatrick
Peter Krause
Amanda Leyda
Anthony Maio
Steve McMorris
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
Luis & David Rivera
Salvador Rodriguez
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
Stephan Torquati
Gene Trotman Jr.
Kelly Turner
John Velleca
Alan Wenk
Michael Wuchek
David Zannelli
David Zaweski

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posted by: J. Cochran on September 10, 2010  3:06pm

Keep up the good work guys. I met Officer Vallin a few years ago. It was a life altering event. The conversation we had revealed to me what my purpose in life was. It is because of him that I am pursuing a law degree.