The Canine Unit is one of five special patrol units within the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD).  It was founded in 1964 in response to an upswing of local business robberies in Babylon. Proving to be an effective crime-stopping tool, word spread amongst criminals in the area, and within a week’s time, incidence of robbery decreased by 90 percent. Since then, the Canine Unit has become a most coveted position within the SCPD. It’s a difficult and physically rigorous job, which requires chasing perpetrators on foot and seeking out danger to protect the lives of others. When talking with these officers, it’s clear their work is gratifying. “This unit is physically and mentally demanding,” Officer Ralph Fuellbier remarks. “But you only do this job if you love it.”

A typical Canine dog is a male German Shepherd, between the ages of one and 10. They’re small and jocular, weighing between 70-80 pounds, and the dogs typically engage in 9-10 years of service. The Unit has 22 dogs on the force and 23 officers. The SCPD uses almost exclusively German Shepherds, which, coincidentally, are not from Germany; the dogs are usually transplants from countries like Holland and Slovakia. Before joining the ranks of the SC Canine Unit, a dog can have up to five handlers. They are carefully chosen and purchased for upwards of $7,000 per dog. The police force is able to afford this expense through something called ‘asset forfeiture.’ Asset forfeiture is the unaccounted money acquired in busts and raids in Suffolk County.

These dogs are not intended as house pets. “They’re not going to sit by the fireplace and watch you eat bonbons all day,” Officer Ralph jokes. “You need to give them outlets to direct their energy. This is what they were bred for.”

Training is rigorous and requires a great deal of strength for both the officer and dog. The commands are taught in German, as the tonality of the language is more conducive to rapt attention and responsiveness.

The officers provide opportunities for community members to observe demonstrations of the trainers and their dogs. We met Officer Ralph and his dog, Angus. The dog was in rapt attention, eagerly awaiting each command, tail wagging enthusiastically. While this is serious work, it’s clear that the dogs are having fun, motivated by positive affirmations.  After graduating into the Unit, the dogs become part of the Patrol Unit. This includes tracking, which is what Officer Ralph calls the “bread and butter” of the Canine Unit. Tracking includes following scent for missing persons and suspects. Scent is what makes these dogs the perfect partners for SCPD officers; their astute noses are able to track and detect scents that are imperceptible to humans.

Each dog is trained for different uses, such as ground and building searches, evidence recovery, vapor (explosives) and cadavers. The patrol dog at MacArthur Airport, trained specifically to sniff out explosives, is the only Labrador Retriever in the Unit.

The patrol dogs stay with the officer and their families for the duration of their lives. This often results in a bond that transcends the workplace. The officers speak about their dogs with loyalty and love. The partnership requires a lot of trust on both ends. It is critical that the officers pay attention to every subtlety during training and work to understand the dog’s behavior. This Unit is regarded as highly dangerous. The dogs often lead their owners directly into dangerous situations that may not be evident to the officer. One particular case happened only years ago, when the canine was sent to investigate an armed, suicidal individual at a train station in Riverhead. The man shot the dog as he approached, then shot himself. “There’s no being stealthy when the dog is tracking,” Officer Ralph remarks.

Since the SCPD Canine Unit’s inception in 1964, no officers have lost their lives in the line of duty. However, two dogs have passed in service. While the sacrifice is grave and palpable, the service these dogs provide allow our officers to return safely to the force and their families.