MTA K-9 unit has selective progress for dogs, handlers
Metro-North customers are protected by more than just the Metropolitan Transit Authority police; riders are also protected by the roughly 50 canines that patrol the facilities.
Those dogs make up the MTA police K-9 force. And the process to become a dog, or a handler, on the force isn’t an easy one.
Recruiters will test about 30 dogs — which typically come from Europe — before choosing one to serve on the K-9 unit, said Capt. John Kerwick, who oversees the K-9 division.
German shepherd and Belgian Malinois are the breeds that make up the unit. They are picked to join the unit when they’re between 12- and 14-months-old.
“That’s when they’re most teachable,” Kerwick said. “It’s the best age to select them. We want the dog to have confidence and be able to do his job.”
The handlers who will ultimately be taking their canine partner home with them every night are carefully picked as well.
“The environment we work in is so tricky,” Kerwick said.
MTA is the largest public transportation network in the U.S. It serves about 15.3 million people within the 5,000-square-mile area from the five boroughs of New York City, through Long Island, southeastern New York State and Connecticut.
In Connecticut, there are K-9 units stationed in central locations of New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford, Kerwick said.
The MTA dogs have to be focused, especially among large groups of people. Kerwick said the dogs cannot be too aggressive or too timid, because a dog without a balanced personality will never be 100 percent on the job.
To ensure the dogs are focused, they undergo 12 weeks of training with their handlers before officially joining the unit’s ranks. The training facility they use opened in Stormville, N.Y., on June 8, 2016.
“The dogs are trained to recognize all explosives that are known to man,” Kerwick said, including improvised, or homemade, explosives.
During training, classes are provided for officers to better understand how to work with a four-legged partner.
It’s a big commitment on the human side, Kerwick said, since officers bring their partners home with them. The dogs even join them on vacations.
“It’s a very detailed selection progress for them (the officers),” Kerwick said. “They have to show an interest in terrorism and be willing to work very hard. It’s a very demanding job.”
The way the MTA police dogs are trained is through play-motivation.
“We offer them a toy to play with,” Kerwick said. “(It will be) something the dog is very, very fond of. We make sure they’re toy-driven — almost crazy for a toy.”
With this type of motivation, the dogs likely view their job as playtime rather than work, he said.
“We use our voices a lot — a playful voice,” Kerwick said.
He said the change in voice and inflections on certain words or phrases can completely change the dog’s behavior.
And when it’s time to search, the dogs know it.
“These dogs know whenever they’re told a certain word, they’re going to play — or search — and get a reward,” Kerwick said. That reward is most frequently their favorite toy.
“They’re fun junkies,” Kerwick added with a laugh. “These dogs default to the work mode. And it’s not really work, it’s play (for them).”
How they track
Most of the calls the K-9 unit responds to aren’t too serious, Kerwick said.
“A lot of times people just leave things on trains that are just innocuous, unattended articles,” Kerwick said. “But in today’s world, nothing is simple anymore.”
He said every call that comes in is checked — after all, the MTA police work 24/7.
“Our mission is to make sure the transit passengers are safer than they are anywhere else,” Kerwick said. “(MTA police) create good barriers between the people that are trying to do us harm and the people that don’t deserve to be harmed.”
“A dog’s nose ... is about 3,000 times more sensitive than yours and mine,” Kerwick said.
When searching for people, the dogs can easily distinguish between different scents. Kerwick said the sensitivity of their noses helps them pick up on the subtle difference in a human’s scent.
“The basics are similar, but everyone has a specific scent,” he said. “A dog can differentiate between all of us. We just have to teach the dog how to do that.”
The K-9 unit also has cameras that can be strapped to the dog’s back when responding to a call. The cameras can even be used in the dark, since there is an infrared setting.
“The handler is close by to help the dog and people back in the command post can see real-time feed,” Kerwick said.
See Something, Say Something
Kerwick said attentive Connecticut residents have been proactive in calling in suspicious activities or unattended bags.
“I think it’s mostly because of ‘If you see something, say something,’ ” Kerwick said.
Anyone traveling via Metro-North who sees something suspicious can call the emergency number at 888-682-9117. More contact information is at web.mta.info/mta/police/request.html