ALPENA, Mich. – “Good boy, Ryker, good boy.”
Jed Avery, a deputy with the Osceola County Sherriff’s Department, Reed City, Michigan, tussles the Dutch shepherd’s neck, offering a bite at his favorite chew toy.
Only seconds ago, the canine had lit into action, dashing from asphalt to the rear seat of an SUV, where he met an officer in padded protective gear to complete the high-risk traffic stop scenario. Now, the animal melts at his handler’s side.
“I like to be at the front,” says Avery. “That’s why I wanted to be a K9 officer.”
From Sept. 29 to Oct. 3, Avery and Ryker are one of more than 330 K9 teams participating in the National Association of Professional Canine Handlers’ annual training seminar at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Michigan.
The Alpena complex provides a year-round training facility for premier support, instruction, airspace, and multi-domain innovation to Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, coalition, and emergency responders to meet the mission requirements of combatant commanders and civil authorities.
According to Terry Foley, NAPCH president, teams have traveled from 23 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces to take part in the organization’s sixteenth annual event at the Michigan Air National Guard facility. In the past, K9 teams from Belgium and the Netherlands have also participated.
Foley says this is the premier event of its kind in North America.
“We have all aspects of training: tracking, searching, and aggression control. We have police chases, narcotics detection, explosive detection – anything that the officers will be utilizing a dog for on the road is what will be offered and practiced here,” Foley said. “The officers are very busy with their dogs.”
Not far from where Avery and Ryker are practicing traffic stops, the voice of Constable Michael Anderson, a master K9 trainer with Peel Regional Police, Ontario, can be heard over a steady din of barking. Anderson is working with other officers and their dogs on a piece of equipment he calls a “combat table,” which trains dogs to control aggression in a stressful environment.
“The facility here in Alpena is awesome,” Anderson says. “There are so many training venues here and we can do so many different things during the day without distraction. If a handler is having some problems, we try to troubleshoot for them and fix whatever issue they may be having. It’s good team-building for us.”
In addition to the myriad on-base training environments normally utilized by military units, K9 handlers also have access to several off-base training sites in the city of Alpena, including a former elementary school. With so many handlers from so many backgrounds present, the knowledge-sharing that takes place is crucial in strengthening professional capability, especially for officers from small departments with only one or two K9 officers on staff.
“We come back here every year because of the experience of the handlers,” said Christopher Topacio, a master K9 trainer with the Oakland County Sherriff’s department in the greater Detroit area. “The Alpena CRTC is set up perfectly for this kind of work. We can have stations set up and keep them away from other working areas and move people through in progressions.”
Col. John Miner, Alpena CRTC base commander, is quick to point out that the seminar holds mutual benefit for the Michigan ANG as well.
“Our mission here at the Alpena CRTC is to forge lethal warfighters. Principally, that means training for federal contingency operations – but we are also charged with readiness for natural disasters, emergency response situations, and other domestic operations we may be called to conduct,” Miner said. “Any time we interface with law enforcement and other agencies we are likely to deal with in a domestic situation, the better and more functional the Michigan ANG’s response can be.”
Miner points to several instances where the Michigan ANG has leveraged its relationship with the NAPCH to assist with operational requirements, including K9 sweeps prior to air shows and key leader engagements. During previous NAPCH seminars, handlers have assisted with real-word situations in the community of Alpena, including a missing person case that K9 teams were able to quickly solve in 2018.
This year, participating K9 teams responded to two separate calls in the local area: one at a high school to identify and stop a drug dealer, and another to locate a missing child. The K9s and their handlers were successful on both occasions.
Miner describes the relationship between the Michigan ANG and the NAPCH as pure synergy, with a common mission to serve homeland and community, whether their members have two legs or four.
“I just can’t say enough about the value for us in terms of what our partners with the NAPCH bring, what we get to learn from them, and what we get to see,” Miner said.
“In terms of domestic operations, it all adds up to increasing public safety through a more timely and coordinated response.”