Partners in crime

After more than 10 years in the department, Paul Mandiak has mastered the U.S. Capitol Police face: unemotional, constantly discerning and analyzing his surroundings. But he eases the look one Friday afternoon as he squints and raises his cheeks into a broad smile, and an 8-year-old German Shepherd bounds out of her backseat kennel past the name —“Niko” — emblazoned on the rear door of Mandiak’s police cruiser.

Mandiak and Niko, partners for almost seven years, are one of the 45 teams that make up the Capitol Police K-9 unit.

More than partners in law enforcement, Mandiak and Niko are like Turner and Hooch; they go everywhere together, even when they’re not on duty. If Niko could talk, one could imagine them completing each other’s sentences.

In a way, they do.

“Paul knows how to read Niko incredibly well,” says Lt. Michael Spochart, the canine commander of the Capitol Police K-9 unit. “They balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses wonderfully. The personality matching is perfect.”

When pairing a dog with a handler — as the K-9 technicians refer to themselves — both personalities are taken into account. The goal is to find a mix that works both off-duty for the handler as well as in the field, where they serve as the first line of defense against possible explosive attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

“The dog is not going to tell you, ‘Hey, I have TNT sitting here, it’s in this drawer right here.’ ” Spochart says. “But there’s a trust and confidence building between the canine handler and his partner unlike anywhere else in any area of law enforcement.

“These handlers spend more time with these dogs than they do their families or significant others, 24-7, every day of the year,” he adds. “And they usually stay together for about a decade.”

For security purposes, Capitol Police authorities would not specify whether the K-9 unit had ever discovered explosives on Capitol Hill. But a K-9 team was recently brought in to inspect the pickup truck driven by a man arrested for carrying a shotgun on Capitol Hill grounds.

Once a freshman class of canines arrives, the 12-week-long training course begins by identifying a motivating factor for the dog. The Capitol Police K-9 unit uses a Kong toy as a reward for the dog, whereas the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms K-9 unit uses food.

One reward is not better than another, Spochart explains. The problem with food is that it comes down to the practical matter of being on Capitol Hill all day, where food bins would undoubtedly spur an increase in rodents, not to mention additional dog waste.

While the motivation is being established, dogs are exposed to a variety of explosive odors and trained to sit when they smell the odor. The dogs are rewarded with a toy if they make the association properly.

Meanwhile, the handlers are trained to read the dog thoroughly, paying attention to the minute differences in the dog’s reactions, such as one that shows merely a “high level of interest” versus a “distinct indication.”

 “There is a distinct difference between a canine investigating a high level of interest of a trained explosive odor versus a canine that provides a clear, trained and distinct indication,” says Spochart. “Regardless, both are investigated thoroughly.”

Dogs have more than 40 times the number of smell receptors that humans do. While a human may walk into a restaurant and smell one or two overpowering aromas, a dog will smell the hundreds of ingredients that go into making those aromas. But this acute sense of smell can sometimes cause a dog in the training process to mistake a non-explosive smell for an explosive one.

“We have to be really cognizant because sometimes the handler can create an error in the canine,” Spochart says, explaining that when the handler exposes the dog to odors, it picks up on several odors at a time and the handler must home in on specific odors to train successfully.

“So that’s why … when you pair up the canine with the canine technician, it’s very important to match the personality of them and seek some sort of balance where one can read the other very well,” he adds. “You might have a weak handler, but a very strong canine, and they balance each other perfectly. On the flip side, it could work the other way.”

About five dogs retire every year from the unit for a variety of reasons, and most serve an average of nine years in the field. As they grow older, many develop arthritis in the rear hips.

When a dog retires, he or she is usually adopted by his handler, who then continues to care for him as Mandiak did for his first dog, Blacky, who died from cancer of the spleen in 2000.

The match must be perfect, Spochart explains, because there is no greater liability in any police department than the K-9 unit for one simple reason: Dogs bite, and you can’t always control that natural tendency.

But Mandiak and Niko have clearly found the ideal chemistry. As he attaches a leash on her, he turns a playful, tail-wagging dog into an intensely focused partner within seconds. They begin to circle an SUV outside of the K-9 facility in southwest Washington. After going once around, Mandiak lets out low whistles and points Niko to the lower half of the vehicle, but she gives no indication of any suspicious odors. They move on to the car parked directly behind it. They begin to circle it as usual, but when Niko gets to the trunk, she sniffs intently at the seam between the trunk and the bumper and promptly sits, looking up at Mandiak for her reward.

“See, what you didn’t know is that there’s five pounds of explosive materials in that trunk,” says a grinning fellow K-9 technician, Charlie Abernathy, as Mandiak tosses Niko’s Kong in the air.