Outside the U.S. Capitol, Gus impatiently sat at the ready in the Senate parking lot, eyeing the tennis ball in his handler’s right hand.
The chance to play with K-9 Tech Charles McGuire enticed the 5-year-old black Labrador retriever, but work comes before play for this member of the U.S. Capitol Police canine unit.
“You ready? I’ve got the ball, you have to get ready,” McGuire scolded before he launched Gus into action one recent afternoon.
In a matter of minutes, the pair swept around a row of parked cars – a red Ford Focus, a silver Saab sedan and a black Ford Explorer among them – with Gus eagerly sniffing tires, trunks and hoods. The dog kept moving, a sign that he had not found explosives.
Sniffing cars and abandoned purses, along with inspecting the Capitol’s busy hallways and offices, is part of a new life for Gus. But these are tasks he learned well in his former job with the Marine Corps.
Many men and women who serve in the military find second careers with police forces back home – and so do some of the canine veterans who served alongside them.
In war zones, Gus and other dogs hunted for makeshift bombs, facing serious danger as they worked off-leash, sniffing as far as a half mile ahead of patrol units. In Washington, they bring their skills to ensuring the safety of events planned for politicians, dignitaries and the public – assignments that take on new significance in the wake of this year’s Boston Marathon bombings.
“Much of what they did overseas is classified, so we don’t know the details,” said Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Cpl. Scott Allen, who has partnered with a black Lab named Slick since February.
Allen knows that Slick served two deployments in Afghanistan and that the dog’s medical chart shows he suffered eye damage from a makeshift bomb. He also knows that Slick is good at his job.
The canine veterans, mainly German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labradors, arrive back in the states with a knowledge of what to sniff, a willingness to bond with officers in uniform and a heavy drive to work in all sorts of environments.
Most of the dogs have shown no awareness of the dangers they faced, officials said, although one dog washed out of the Capitol Police program because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
About a year ago, Klieah showed great promise as a friendly, eager worker, said Technician Charles Hill, a Capitol Police training instructor. But when Klieah was faced with large trucks, she tucked her tail in fear and became skittish. Hill worked with her for weeks, but something during her tour of duty left her spooked around semis.
“Dogs are affected just like people are,” Hill said. “If you slam a dog’s tail in a door, the dog is not going to want to go near that door.”
The school building in Hyattsville, Md. was mostly empty, but dangers were hidden inside.
Slick and Zeva, another Prince George’s black Lab, had work to do. As part of a training session, their handlers had put a detonation cord and water-gel explosive in the former Concordia Lutheran School.
Cpl. Geoffrey Brown led Zeva, a calm soul, into a gymnasium filled with cardboard boxes and unleashed her. “Hunt it up,” he said.
Within 20 seconds her wagging black tail disappeared behind stacks of junk, and she stuck her nose in the box that had been stuffed with the orange detonation cord.
Slick, burly and hyperactive, dispatched his challenge with equal speed as he bypassed a hallway of discarded three-ring notebooks, barreled into an empty classroom and lay down in front of a wooden cabinet that held the water-gel explosive.
The Prince George’s unit uses a variety of dogs to track suspects, guns and drugs, and a bloodhound to find missing people. Dogs trained in explosives detection help determine whether a barricaded suspect has a bomb, for example, and work at Washington Redskins games at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. and big events at National Harbor, Md. that could be targeted.
“In today’s world, it’s everchanging,” Allen said. “But the endgame is all the same – detecting explosive odors. They have cut their teeth on the battleground.”
The dogs found their new jobs through the training company K9 Solutions, which brought them home and partnered them with the police departments, officials said. Officers praise the company for its dedication to the animals and for making them available to police agencies for a $5 processing fee. The cost of a fully trained dog can range from $15,000 to $20,000, officials said.
Zeva is a pleasant lap dog at home, Brown said, but more important, she is eager to work. And handling the 5-year-old veteran of two tours in Afghanistan has special meaning for Brown, who spent 12 years in the Army and served in an airborne unit.
“There’s a connection there,” Brown said. “It’s an honor to have a dog that’s done some of the same things I have in the military.”
On Capitol Hill, detection dogs perform a wide variety of tasks, including sniffing more than 2,000 vehicles a month that come through security checkpoints or park along the Capitol complex. Not a week goes by that an unattended backpack or purse doesn’t raise concerns. The K-9 unit often gets the call to make sure such items are safe.
The dogs also work off the Hill. On a recent assignment, Gus cleared the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater to ensure the safety of first lady Michelle Obama.
“Every day is different. It’s not like a routine environment,” said McGuire, Gus’ handler.
Most military dogs live in kennels and are used by multiple soldiers or Marines. But on a police force, humans and dogs work as partners, with handlers making the dogs part of their households.
“We spend more time with these dogs than our own families,” said Capitol Police Technician Jason Burnett, a Marine Corps veteran who partners with Giena, a non-veteran German shepherd.
At a training facility near Blue Plains in Southwest Washington, Capitol Police are training six more combat veteran dogs to join Gus, an Afghanistan vet, and the department’s other canines.
For the dogs, the reward is a ball or a toy; for police, it’s peace of mind.
“Making people safe every day is a game to the dog,” said Capitol Police Sgt. Juan Cobbin, who has worked K-9 for five years. “He doesn’t even know how many lives he’s saving every day.”