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SPECIAL REPORT: An inside look at South Bend’s police dogs-- On Duty, Off Duty

WSBT 22

They chase down suspects, search for drugs and visit children in local schools. The South Bend Police Department K9 Unit is highly trained and multi-talented.

The snarling teeth of a police dog is not what you want to see coming toward you-- but Sgt. Bryan Miller of the South Bend Police Department gladly put on a bite sleeve to give WSBT 22 an inside look at what it takes to train their K9s.

We watched Bacca, a 6-year-old German Shephard, and his handler Patrolman Larry Sanchez work. During the training the officers would simulate what Bacca might encounter on the streets of South Bend.

Miller hid behind a wooden door while Sanchez held his barking dog.

"Police K9, come out before I send the dog," Sanchez yelled.

Once Sanchez lets go and gives the command, Bacca uses his nose to sniff out Miller, finding him in seconds and barking at the door. When Miller comes out, Bacca bites Miller's arm and holds on. Miller is yelling and brings his hand down on Bacca's head as if he is going to hit him, but instead pats him gently.

"So, everything we do is to simulate what the dog is going to encounter in real life," Miller explains.

In real life, a suspect would be screaming and likely hitting the dog. The officers need to prepare Bacca so that when that happens, he doesn't let go of the suspects arm until he is given the command by his partner.

Bacca has chased down and captured a lot of suspects. Officers say he is fearless and obedient. In fact, he is so well behaved he can be called off in an instant.

"Our dogs are very balanced," says Miller, who helps train each dog when they arrive at the department. “So what we want is that social dog that we can take into a kindergarten classroom and they can pull on its ear and tail and the dog not so much as even growls. But then at the same time it needs to switch gears and two hours later go track down a guy who just robbed a 7-11 and bite him."

Bacca is 1 of 7 dogs in South Bend's K9 Unit. Most of them have the dangerous job of tracking down suspects with their nose and taking them down with their teeth.

On October 2, our cameras captured Vader, a large black German Shepherd, and his handler Patrolman Adonis Joseph on the hunt. At the time, they were looking for a missing suspect after two men pulled out guns and attempted to rob people inside a home on Oakside Street.

Vader is not only able to smell human fear and track down a suspect on the run, he can also sniff out drugs.

WSBT 22 followed the pair to a training building where they practice sniffing out drugs. Officers hide drugs in various locations and then the dogs and their handlers can practice the hunt.

You can tell Vader has found what he is looking for when he sits and stares -- something that doesn't come naturally to this breed of dog, making it obvious to the handler that they have discovered something.

The reward: a tennis ball.

"Just the ball, he goes crazy for the tennis ball," says Joseph.

For them, work is play.

8-year-old Justice and his partner Patrolman Paul Strabavy are assigned to the St. Joseph County Drug Investigation Unit. Justice doesn't do suspect apprehension, but he does search for drugs.

"He is like a best friend. I'm very fortunate and privileged to have that opportunity because the bond with him is unreal," says Strabavy.

That bond has helped the pair find drugs like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana, plus, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

While dogs like Justice have an important job to do on the streets, there is another side to them.

They are representatives. They visit schools and daycares. They are able to turn off the intimidation and turn on the charm.

"Usually everybody likes dogs but not everybody likes the police. As soon as they see the dog and listen to us talk it bridges a huge gap that we have sometimes," says Strabavy.

It is not all work and no play, though.

8-year-old Dex and Patrolman Jeff Chamberlain drive the streets by day and Dex chews bones and plays with toys by night.

"You get to go to work with your best friend, your best bud," says Chamberlain.

Dex is nearing retirement. While he still has what it takes, Chamberlain knows all too well his time is limited.

"The one on the far right is my first dog Arko," says Chamberlain as he points to a stone marker on the grounds of the South Bend Police Department's training facility.

The stone marks the grave site of Arko. There are other graves there -- reminders of the "good dogs" who came before.

"They are the unsung heroes of the police force I think," says Chamberlain.

"You live with that dog, you work with your dog, no one knows your dog the way you know your dog," says Lt. Steve Spadafora who leads the K9 unit for the department and has a dog of his own.

Spadafora's dog is 9-year-old Lupo. Lupo will retire soon and live out his days with Spadafora.

He is unaware of the "couch time" he is about to get. It will be a big transition for him as Spadafora says he enjoys working.

Lupo and his K9 colleagues on the force are leaving their mark on the community they serve and protect and the hearts of the officers they work with -- even if they don't ever realize the difference they are making.

"A police officer is still just a person when it all boils down to it and a police dog is still just a dog," says Spadafora.

Several of the South Bend Police Department's K9s are nearing retirement. They will live out the rest of their lives with their handlers.

There has never been an officer in the unit who didn't keep their dog after retirement.

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