By Dana Simas, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
It’s a beautiful sunny day in El Monte and Kerina Frith, an after-school program instructor at Rio Vista Elementary School, is busy keeping 130 children engaged and occupied for seven hours. Frith and six other instructors are responsible for the children after the short school day through the late afternoon. To also expose the children to different careers, Frith contacted CDCR’s K-9 Unit and requested a team to come out and give a demonstration. CDCR K-9 team Officer Paul Diaz and Scrappy from California Institution for Men (CIM) answered the call.
Officer Diaz and Scrappy have been partners since 2011 and the bond is crystal clear. The 6-year-old Belgian Malinois was donated to CDCR by K-9 Behavior Services Specialists in Fillmore and has been trained to detect the odor of narcotics as well as cell phones and tobacco. Scrappy, originally trained in French ring sport that focuses on obedience and protection, was bred for this type of work and Officer Diaz is the right handler for him.
“He needed an experienced handler because he was trained to be protective,” said Officer Diaz, a K-9 handler for six years. “With a dog you have to always remember that they will forever be like a toddler; they’ll always test you to see what they can get away with.”
To keep Scrappy focused, Officer Diaz uses a variety of toys as rewards for when Scrappy successfully alerts him to narcotics or contraband such as PVC pipe encased in burlap or fire hose material. The toys Scrappy receives at the end of each successful find varies to make sure that he is keying in on the odor of narcotics or contraband and not the toy itself.
The focus and training is clearly working as Scrappy has dozens of successful finds. Some examples include a cell phone inside the padding of an inmate’s shower shoe located on the top bunk above Scrappy’s head, heroin found underneath an inmate’s locker inside a hidden compartment and almost a pound of tobacco hidden inside a closed, sealed container.
The kids are amazed at Scrappy’s energy as Officer Diaz finally opens the back door of his vehicle and the almost 80-pound dog jumps out, ready to work.
Officer Diaz commands Scrappy in Czech to find the contraband hidden inside one of the homemade containers crafted by Officer Diaz for demonstrations and training. Since Scrappy is an “active alert” dog, meaning he barks and scratches at the object he has detected, the container needs to be sturdy.
Once commanded, Scrappy is off and running, reaching the first container and giving it a good sniff before moving on to the second container. He sniffs the second container a little longer and then quickly moves on to the third container, where he finds contraband. He barks and scratches to alert Officer Diaz to the find and is quickly rewarded with his toy. The two play a quick playful game of tug of war as the children giggle.
Today the kids are in for a special surprise, two K-9 teams. Southern California Regional K-9 Coordinator Sgt. Billy Nelson and his partner Zeus, also from CIM, stop by to join in on the demonstration.
Working together since 2012, Sgt. Nelson and Zeus add to the kids’ excitement as Zeus clearly wants to say hello to Scrappy by barking through the window in the backseat of his vehicle.
Zeus is a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois donated to CDCR by a K-9 behavior trainer in the San Diego area. Zeus was initially purchased from a breeder in New Mexico by a disabled veteran who wanted him as a service dog, but Zeus’ high energy meant he would be better suited in a working environment. Once at CDCR, Zeus was positively alerting to his first odor detection within an hour of his training.
Sgt. Nelson asks the children how much stronger they think the dogs’ noses are compared to human noses. The kids take guesses ranging from eight times to 100 times, but Sgt. Nelson explains that the dogs’ noses range from 1,000 to a million times stronger than human noses.
That extra smelling power, Officer Diaz explains, helps officers do their jobs better. “I could search all day and not find anything because I can’t see it, but he can smell it. I can search a lot more and find more contraband with the help of our K-9 partners,” Officer Diaz said.
CDCR has approximately 50 K-9 teams and, as Officer Diaz explains, the group is very “tight knit.” But no bond is stronger than that between handler and K-9.
“(Zeus) is the best partner I’ve ever had. He’s never sleepy, in a bad mood and he’s always happy to see me,” Sgt. Nelson said.
The kids clearly enjoyed all of the excitement of seeing a dog on grounds and being outside to see the dogs run around and obey their handler’s commands.
They asked questions about the “bad guys” in prison and what the dogs do there. Officer Diaz and Sgt. Nelson answer the dozens of important questions weighing on the curious minds of elementary school children such as “do prisoners have money?” “how do they get phones?” or “do you get free donuts?” The CDCR pair politely oblige all of the children’s questions before taking group photos with each class.