ALDO: DC K-9 Unit" is printed in bold navy blue lettering on the side of the vehicle. Fully equipped with sirens, a police radio, multiple antennae, and a computer mounted on the dashboard, this is Aldo's car. The engine starts and the car pulls out of the D.C. K-9 unit parking lot. Before long a round of agitated barking, whimpering, and growling begins to sound from what should be the back seat of the vehicle.
"Aldo! Be quiet," commands Officer Emmanuel Smith, who is driving the vehicle. "He's just nervous. Aldo's not used to riding with anyone but me," Officer Smith says.
If you have not guessed, Aldo is a canine. He is one of the youngest and smallest dogs currently working in the Metropolitan Police Department's K-9 Unit. The unit consists of about 31 specially bred German Shepherds and their handlers. Only male dogs work in the K-9 unit. Most of them are trained to work as patrol dogs. However, there are a few that specialize in detecting narcotics, bombs, and cadavers.
Each officer has his or her own assigned dog, and though they are the property of Metropolitan Police, officers treat the dogs as their own. Outside of work, the dogs live with their handlers. This strengthens the bond that must exist between dog and handler.
Many people hold the misconception that patrol dogs are vicious animals that should be feared. The reality is they are just like any other dog.
"My kids love Aldo. At home he's just the family dog. He doesn't do anything that [he] isn't told to do," Officer Smith said. Smith has been working with DC's K-9 unit for the past five years. He has been Aldo's handler since Feb. 2002.
The work of a patrol dog is very demanding. On average, patrol dogs are retired after working only six to eight years. They go through 14 weeks of vigorous training before they are certified to work. Afterwards, they are retrained and re-certified on a regular basis.
Only 1 and 1/2 years old and weighing about 60 pounds, Aldo has become one of the shining stars of the K-9 unit. "Aldo is extremely intelligent and obedient for such a young dog. He is only going to get better at his job as he gets older," Officer Smith said.
One patrol dog is capable of doing the work of several officers. Their speed, strength, agility, and keen sense of smell all combine to make them much more effective in apprehending criminals and suspicious items.
"It only takes one handler and his dog to search a building. The SWAT team may need as many as 10 officers to do the same job," said Officer Smith.
The job of a patrol dog differs from day to day. A dog may go for as long as three days with out being called to the streets. Patrol dogs are used only in felonies and other high profile crimes, which include burglaries, shootings, homicides, and barricades. The K-9 Unit also assists in controlling mass demonstrations, performing presidential or dignitary escorts, and providing protection at other events involving high profile individuals.
"I've met many famous people while working with the K-9 unit," said Smith. "Patti LaBelle, Colin Powell, and Bill Clinton are only a few of these individuals."
Besides carrying out their everyday duties, patrol dogs may also compete in competitions on a regional or national level, held by the United States Police Canine Association. "The D.C. K-9 Unit has many dogs that have placed well in competition," said Sergeant Marcos Cobrales, who has been a dog handler since 1989. Officer Smith's first patrol dog Nijer was an award-winning dog. He hopes to win more awards competing with Aldo in the future.
When asked why they joined D.C.'s K-9 Unit, many of the officers said the love of dogs had a lot to do with it. They feel dogs make the best partners.
"I was and am still amazed at what these dogs can do," said Officer Kelvin Dyson.