Today, when K-9 teams are being trained to attack and capture active shooters and deal with mass-casualty situations, it may be difficult to think back 50 years to 1969, when California State Parks first added the canine rangers.
That time span and a half-century of accomplishments were celebrated at Hearst Castle Friday in a media event and demonstrations involving eight K-9 teams from all over the state. State Parks has 17 K-9 teams statewide.
Five of those K-9 units are based in San Luis Obispo County — at Hearst Castle, officers Iain Beveridge with Storm, Daniel Gant with Bodie, Brett King with Artos and Jason Rule with Khan, plus Officer Chris Hendricks with Janko at the Oceano Dunes.
Those may be their primary assignments, but the highly trained teams go all over the state to provide skilled assistance and protection at major sporting events, large university commencements, large-venue music concerts, protests and multiple dignitary events requiring detection sweeps. For instance, Gant said one of the most intense assignments he and his canine have worked was the two-week Super Bowl 50 festivities in Santa Clara in 2016.
At Friday’s get-together, information was shared about the history of K-9 programs, and individual teams demonstrated obedience handling, bomb/drug detection and suspect apprehension.
According to canine handlers and other officials at the event, in 1969, dogs were trained primarily to protect their law-enforcement handlers and be a deterrent to suspects who might be considering brute force attacks.
In February 1976, after a bomb exploded at Hearst Castle, State Parks added K-9 units to the staff. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, demand rose sharply for canines trained to sniff out bombs and/or drugs.
Sadly, the need has grown far greater since then.
State Parks gets its pedigreed German shepherd K-9s from Witmer-Tyson Imports in Menlo Park. Most of the dogs are imported from Europe.
Each dog costs approximately $10,000 to buy, and its training begins in puppyhood, Hendricks said. The handler begins bonding with the dog when the prospective K-9 is between 1 and 2 years old. After that period, the team goes to a monthlong patrol school. Additional, more specialized training follows after the team has been on patrol for from six months to a year.
The dogs live with their handlers, oftentimes even after the they transition from working K-9 to pet status.
For instance, Gant’s first dog (Pedra, a female) retired in May 2016 at age 8½. Bodie joined the family in October.
And Pedra? She now goes to her more casual, occasional work assignments with Gant’s wife, Holly Gant, at the Piedras Blancas Light Station Association.