Camp Mabry's American Heroes Celebration this year brought together diverse groups of people from various backgrounds and professions. Uniquely suited to feature a massive gathering of departments and organizations, the weekend-long event combined the related efforts of two offices that have never before worked together, the Austin Police Department Search and Rescue Dog Team and the Travis County Sherriff's Office Dog Team.
During three separate demonstrations on Saturday, these teams came together to educate and entertain the public on the challenges, rewards and techniques of working with trained dogs.
"We start training our dogs the minute we get them," said Matthew W. McDermott, K-9 team head for the Austin Police Department's Search and Rescue Team. "Training is simply a matter of rewarding the [behavior] you want to keep and ignoring the stuff that you don't."
Though a part of the Austin Police Department and found within the 15-man Search and Rescue Team, the three-man K-9 team is not made up of police officers.
"We're an all volunteer team," said McDermott. "We're not sworn officers."
Contrastingly, the officers of the Travis County Sherriff's Office use their dogs in official police situations.
"My dogs are bomb dogs," said Jo A. Carson, a K-9 handler with the county office. "We also search for suspects who may have committed criminal acts."
The demonstration included the APD office describing training techniques and taking the audience step by step through the reinforcement process. McDermott led his Golden Retriever, Ruby, through search games and recognition exercises to highlight the dog's refined skills.
The county office followed with a discipline presentation about how obedient and focused the police dogs are. Darren Jennings, dressed in a protective suit, allowed Hutch, a German Shepherd, to subdue him as he played the role of a suspect. With perfect accuracy, Hutch subdued Jennings on command and immediately let go when the "suspect" began obeying the orders of the enforcing officer, Mike Stanley. True to training, the dog's actions never threaten the life of the suspect, they only serve to detain the individual.
Often misperceived as a violent attack dog, police dogs rarely engage their targets with biting or clawing. The handlers of both offices train their dogs especially for tracking, taking advantage of dogs' naturally heightened sense of smell.
A fan delight by children and adults alike, the search and rescue dog demonstrations brought to the American Heroes celebration a wonderful glimpse into specialized law enforcement.