It's a job these police officers say they have always wanted. The four officers who recently graduated from the Basic K-9 School at the Prince William County Criminal Justice Academy with their dogs also say the work they put in to become part of a K-9 team was worth the effort.
Prince William Police Officer Katybeth Strobel, the first woman in Prince William County to become a K-9 officer, is one of the recent graduates who went through the intensive 16-week course with her K-9 partner, Abrams.
Strobel, a 10-year Prince William Police Department veteran, said hitting the streets with Abrams will fulfill a goal she has had for years. "I've always wanted to be a K-9 handler. It was always my career aspiration. So, it's finally great to be able to achieve that."
Strobel said the intensive training to earn the title of K-9 Team was as hard as any other training she's experienced. "I went through our basic academy, which was six months. This course was a four-month course, but it was right up there with the original six months. It was definitely a brand new experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Prince William Police Officer Shaun Barrett and his K-9 partner, Kane, were recently recognized at the academy along with the other teams. After the graduation ceremony, Barrett echoed Strobel's feelings about the coveted assignment. "They don't come along very often," Barrett said of the K-9 team billets. "It's a touted job assignment. It's something I've always wanted to do. It's one of the hardest things I've done and most rewarding at the same time. All the hard work has paid off."
Prince William Master Police Officer and K-9 Officer and team trainer William F. VanAntwerp, Jr., said the department looks for dogs with a steady disposition and experienced police officers to pair with the dogs to form a K-9 team. "We're looking for a very stable dog. Contrary to popular belief, we're not looking for the real aggressive dogs. We want the dogs that are very even-keeled, but highly motivated. We're looking for people that can think on their feet. We want them to be proficient patrol officers. We're just teaching them how to use a different tool."
VanAntwerp told a room full of colleagues, friends and families of the graduates that the dogs begin their training when they are between 12 and 14 months old. The dogs must learn how to find and apprehend bad guys, learn to sniff out illegal substances, search buildings, pass obedience requirements and prove their agility. As young dogs, the K-9 candidates had no training or experience in any of those areas, VanAntwerp said. "We had to teach them everything, and they accomplished everything we threw at them."
The dog handlers also had a lot to learn, VanAntwerp said. "This is not an easy school. Not only are these guys training their dogs, but ultimately, learning how to work a new tool on the street. At the end of the day, you end up, hopefully, with an efficient K-9 team that's fully prepared to work."
Prince William Deputy Chief of Police, Barry Barnard, said that the K-9 teams are important to officer safety, safety at schools, protecting community and catching bad guys; and that patrol officers are happy to have them around. "We find ourselves always grateful when K-9 units arrive on the scene. It's a tremendous asset to law enforcement throughout the region and really throughout our profession."
VanAntwerp said the German Shepherds that the police department typically trains usually have an eight- to nine-year career. After they're retired, they go home to live with their handlers.
Sgt. Bryan Morrison, with the Arlington Police Department, also graduated with K-9 Jax; and Officer Vann Sayasithsena, of the Fairfax County Police Department, graduated with K-9 Valor.