Considering a career change?
Drool drips from the sides of his mouth. His eyes are fixated on the “bad guy” 25 yards ahead.
On command, California Highway Patrol Canine Officer Spirit lunges forward, hurls his body into the air and bites hard into his target’s shoulder.
“His nickname is Scud, like a scud missile,” said CHP Officer Matt Calcutt, who played the “bad guy” during Wednesday’s training exercise.
Spirit works full-time with the Truckee CHP as a patrol officer, assists with drug enforcement operations, and gets paid in dog biscuits, said CHP Officer Steve Skeen. Human CHP officers, on the other hand, are paid in US currency for the work they do.
Statewide, CHP is recruiting new personnel in order to meet the safety and security needs of a growing population.
But what does it take to be a CHP officer if you’ve only got two legs?
Prospective CHP cadets must be at least 21 years old, have a minimum of a high school degree, no felony convictions, a clean driving record, and a good head on their shoulders, said Skeen. Prior to acceptance into the cadet academy, applicants are required to take a written test, a physical ability test, and a psychological test, he said.
“We need to make sure you’re an even-kiltered person,” Skeen said during discussion of weeding out those who might not be “morally strong” enough for the job.
CHP specifies no height or weight requirements, he said, however, applicants cannot be color blind.
“When you’re going after a purple car and it’s red when you stop them” there might be a problem, Skeen explained.
CHP officers will run an extensive background check of the applicants ” interviewing neighbors, friends, family, and past employers. Everything is checked out, Skeen said, because “we want the best of the best out there.”
Once an applicant is accepted into the academy, he or she will be put through 27 weeks of rigorous, military-style training. A number of applicants drop out before completing the program, Skeen said. At this point, many applicants just decide the career is not for them, he said.
Six to eight weeks before graduation, cadets sign up on a “dream sheet” for their top 10 desired job locations Skeen said. However, roughly 80 percent of new officers are assigned to Los Angeles or the Bay Area because CHP wants to expose new officers to everything possible in the first year, Skeen said.
After graduating from the cadet academy in 1989, Skeen was first assigned to San Jose where he was born and raised, he said.
“I remember the first day, driving off by myself,” Skeen said. “It was exciting and scary at the same time.”
After the first probationary year, officers can then request a preferred assignment.
Often, the decision hinges on whether the officer owns any property in the desired area, Skeen said. The Truckee CHP office has had several local cadets requesting to be stationed in town since they grew up in the area, Skeen said. Truckee is a unique place to work due to an influx of seasonal tourists and weather conditions, Skeen said.
Becoming part of the CHP includes more than just driving a patrol car on the highway and making traffic stops, Skeen said.
Spirit found his niche with CHP Officer Jerry Jacobs in Truckee.
Jacobs saw a need for a CHP dog when he transferred to town five years ago, he said. The town hadn’t had a CHP canine in 10 years because the agency didn’t think the dog would be as useful, Jacobs said. Truckee is a remote, wooded area where a dog would help officers, especially in a scenario where a suspect tries to run away, he said. After submitting his proposal, Spirit, a three-year-old Belgian Malinios, arrived all the way from Holland.
“He speaks Dutch,” Jacobs said.
Spirit and Jacobs have been training and working as partners for just over a year. Spirit also lives at home with Jacobs and his family, he said.
“When he’s at home, he’s a dog,” Jacobs said. “When he’s at work, he’s a police canine.”
Spirit the dog is a tool ” trained as a “bite dog” to capture a fleeing suspect by biting the suspect’s body without severely injuring that person, Jacobs said.
“Dogs are not bullets,” Jacobs said. “You can’t call a bullet back.”
Spirit has never attacked anyone at random, but there is always the potential of a bite because of how he’s trained, he said.
Spirit is also a drug-sniffing dog, trained to alert officers of illegal substances by pawing and scratching at a location, Jacobs said. During a routine traffic stop in October 2006, Spirit alerted Jacobs to a one-half pound stash of crack cocaine in the vehicle, he said. Most recently, Spirit circled the perimeter of Sunset Inn mobile home park when Truckee police recovered three ounces of cocaine and 10 grams of methamphetamine on Feb. 2.
At the end of the work day, all Spirit requires for a job well-done is a scratch behind the ears and a piece of rolled-up jute, his favorite toy, Jacobs said.
At the end of Wednesday’s training exercise, Jacobs tucks the toy inside his shirt pocket and pats his chest, a sign Spirit must be familiar with, as it sends him leaping up into the officer’s arms.
“To me, he’s my partner,” Jacobs said. “I know my dog will come out and help me. He will gladly give up his life to save me.”