At the K-9 training facility located on the grounds of the Training Academy sits a donated tombstone dedicated to the canines that have loyally served the department. The first dog buried at the site was "Tex" the canine partner of Officer Bob Denton, one of the first K-9 officers, with "Bandit" canine partner to Reserve Officer Jim Ewing as the second dog to be buried there. The K-9 unit began as part of the Burglary Prevention Unit in May, 1962 with six handler/canine teams and the first call was to the Williamson-Dickie building on May 21, 1962. By 1969, the unit had grown to nine handler/canine teams.
In 1978, the K-9 unit was disbanded by then Chief of Police A. J. Brown. Although no longer a unit, the officers continued to train with their canines and even assisted Stephenville in searching for two convicts that had escaped from an Oklahoma prison. After 45 days, the citizens of Fort Worth made a strong appeal to the city council to reinstate the K-9 unit, and it has been in existence since that time.
Today, the K-9 unit is part of the Special Operations Division and is located at Police Headquarters at 350 W. Belknap. Each K-9 officer is responsible for a patrol division to assist other officers. The normal duty hours are 2000 hrs. to 0430 hrs., seven days a week, but are subject to call-back. The unit is supervised by a sergeant.
Before being selected for the K-9 unit, each canine is thoroughly tested to determine its natural prey drive, play desire, courage, and socialization. The best age for training is one to two years old. Until 1988, the officers had to rely on donated dogs from citizens or purchase their own dogs. Today, many of the dogs are imported from the Netherlands, Czech Republic or Slovokia and are specifically bred for police work. The handlers assist in the selection of the dog so that the officer can better form a strong bond with the animal. If the officer is new to the unit, the officer will use this bonding time to build a special kennel at their home for the dog and will take 40 hours in an emergency aid and care maintenance course put on by the K-9 unit veterinarian. One of the most difficult facets of the handler's training is learning to understand what the dog is trying to communicate to the handler; the dogs cannot lie but they can cheat, so communication is through body language, and this can be difficult to learn.
Training of a new dog and handler lasts anywhere from eight to ten weeks with two weeks consisting of street-type situations. Besides basic obedience, canines are trained in tracking, building and outdoor searches, narcotics detection, apprehension, and handler protection. Most of the commands to the canines are in German and the canines train around other canines, humans, traffic, gunfire, and any other conditions they may encounter in real situations. Complete control of the dog by the handler is a must. Dogs use their sense of smell for searches and are able to cover a larger area much faster and more efficiently than a team of officers. The training of the dogs is an on-going process that continues as long as the dog is a working member of the unit. The handler/canine team is required to have at least four hours of continuing training each week.
Since the beginning of the K-9 unit, only two handlers have been wounded by a suspect. The most recent was on October 2, 1998, while tracking a man suspected of shooting a Department of Public Safety officer, Officer Brad Thompson and his K-9 partner, Argo, were fired upon by the suspect. Both Officer Thompson and Argo were hit. Officer Thompson was saved by his bulletproof vest. Argo received the best care possible; however, on October 3, Argo died from his injuries. Argo is credited with saving the lives of the other officers that were on the scene. Because of his actions, Argo was awarded the Police Cross and the Medal of Valor.
Another officer, Z.S. Eads would have been shot had it not been for his partner, Ring. Ring was shot and wounded by a burgler but allowed Officer Eads to gain the upper hand on the suspect. Ring was awarded the U.S. Police Canine Association Medal of Honor for saving his partner's life.
Tragedy struck on September 24, 1998, when Officer Ken Robertson's K-9 partner, Canto, was overcome by smoke from a small fire in the patrol vehicle and despite extraordinary efforts from officers on the scene, Canto did not survive. He is buried in the K-9 cemetery on the Police Academy grounds.
These outstanding K-9 partners gave their best to their partners, the department, and the citizens of Fort Worth.
Most officers will agree that when faced with having to search a dark building for a dangerous suspect, they feel a little safer when the K-9 unit drives up on the scene and the dog enters the building first. It is difficult to know how many officers have been saved from possible injury or death because of the dogs. Many times just driving up in a K-9 vehicle is all that is needed to defuse a potentially hostile situation.