Muscles tensed, eyes firmly focused on its target, the police dog leaps over the low mesh fence into a scrap yard of junk cars. In a single bound, it covers the stony terrain and clamps its jaws around the arm of the suspect.
It is not until Constable Laura Hicks gives the signal that the dog, a Dutch Shepherd named Athena, releases its vice-like grip on the man’s arm.
In this case, the “victim,” PC Kieron Davies, has the benefit of a padded suit, which the dog gleefully carries away as a reward for a job well done.
“For the dog, it is like a big game,” says Constable Davies, who has been training Ms. Hicks and Athena to be part of the expanding police K-9 unit for the past month.
“Everything we do is about positive reinforcement; if it does the right thing, it gets a reward.”
For any suspect that meets the K-9 unit in a real-life scenario, it will feel less like a game. The dogs can cause life-changing injuries and are second only to firearms in the arsenal of weapons at the police’s disposal.
“We always give a suspect two clear warnings to stop running and to give themselves up,” Constable Davies said. “In the same way as a firearms officer only shoots as a last resort, we only use the canine as a last resort.
“We give them an opportunity to be taken into custody and dealt with properly rather than the dog biting and detaining them and them having to go to hospital.”
Until recently, PC Davies and his dog, a Belgian Malinois named Shadow, have been the entire K-9 unit. The arrival of PC Hicks and Athena has doubled the size of the department.
According to Superintendent Brad Ebanks, who runs the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service specialist units, two more new dogs and officers will be arriving in the next year. One of those dogs will be a “passive dog” that is not trained to bite and can be used on beach patrols or at the port, sniffing out drugs.
Supt. Ebanks added, “The aim is that at any time of the day or night if an incident happens and a canine is needed we will have an officer on duty.”
Athena and Shadow are “general purpose” police dogs. They can be used to back up officers on dangerous raids, to chase down suspects and to sniff out drugs and guns.
The dogs are also able to follow human scent. In one recent incident, Shadow followed the trail of suspects who had fled from a stolen vehicle, and located a mobile phone and a lock knife the men had dropped as they ran from police.
In other cases, the dogs have located drugs hidden in a drain or stashed between a line of trees and a fence.
“They can locate items that officers would never be able to find,” PC Davies said.
“If somebody stabs someone and they throw the knife into a field, the dog will find it in five minutes.”
To demonstrate, he throws his keys in the car park, and orders Shadow to “track.” Nose to the ground, the dog follows a winding route through the lot, pausing to investigate a couple of vehicles before its nose picks up the scent of recent human contact on the keys. It sits next to them, eyes fixed on its handler in anticipation of a reward.
One day a week is kept free for training. Small quantities of cocaine and ganja are checked out of the evidence locker and the dogs play hide and seek.
For PC Hicks and Athena, the training started with learning to search for a ball and graduated to finding drugs stashed around the police compound.
“When she is looking for firearms and drugs, as far as she is concerned, she is just looking for her ball,” PC Hicks said.
“She has no idea in her head, other than if I do this, I get to play ball.”
Over the past month of training, the dog and handler have developed a close bond.
“It has taken a bit of getting used to, having a work dog at home and not a pet, and really establishing the difference,” PC Hicks said.
The dog comes home with its handler at night, but is required to stay in a kennel in the yard. The relationship is different, but in many ways stronger than with a family pet.
“We are together all the time, we work together for 10-hour shifts and we walk for about four miles a day.”
Dog and handler have to be able to depend on each other in extreme situations.
In a simulated scenario, an officer in a padded suit feigns as if to attack PC Hicks and the dog comes immediately to her defense, jumping to attack her assailant and refusing to let go until she gives the order.
There’s a flip side to the job, however. PC Davies acknowledges that there are inevitably times when an officer has to put his dog in jeopardy. A veteran of the U.K.’s West Midlands police force, he has seen dogs stabbed in the line of duty.
“It is understandable that you do get a really close bond with the dog, but you have to realize that it is there as a piece of equipment,” he said. “If it comes between the police officer getting injured and the dog getting injured, unfortunately, the dog is the one that has got to take the brunt of it, because it is there to protect officers and the public.”