By Alex Lippa
---- — When there’s a 911 call in Salem, there’s a good chance police Officer Rob Nelson and his partner will respond. The pair catch runaway suspects and track down missing children.
But when they go on patrol, Nelson is always behind the wheel, his partner in the back.
Nelson patrols with Trigger, a 4-year-old German shepherd. Trigger is one of two police K-9s on the Salem police force.
“There’s quite a bit that we go after,” Nelson said. “I feel our job is a little bit more exciting because we don’t go to calls like shoplifting or a prisoner transport.”
Instead, the pair go after the big crimes.
“Usually, the dog comes out of the car when there’s a felony,” he said.
Salem isn’t the only local town to use police dogs. In Londonderry, they have used dogs for more than two decades.
“It’s been an outstanding asset,” Londonderry police Chief Bill Hart said. “At least a couple times a week, we put the dog to use.”
The town has gone through several dogs over the years, but currently has Mingo, a Belgian Malinois.
“Having it makes a quantifiable difference in two situations in particular,” he said. “When folks go missing and when we have a suspect who has eluded our grasp.”
But it’s not just catching crooks for the canines. Each dog has to complete regular, extensive training to stay on the squad.
“Our dog is required to do two eight-hour sessions per month,” Plaistow Deputy police Chief Kathleen Jones said.
Jones said they send their German shepherd, Kraken, and his partner to the New Hampshire State Police Academy for the mandatory training. Those sessions are run by N.H. State Police Sgt. Mark Hall.
"We train any department who chooses to come with us, free of charge," Hall said.
The academy runs for 14 weeks; both the handler and the dog go through the training. The dog will learn obedience, tracking, criminal apprehension, bite work and evidence gathering as part of the training.
"The dogs are very green when they come to us," Hall said. "It's an intense process and it's hard work."
Hall said German shepherds used to be the primary breed for police dogs, but he now sees the trend moving toward the Belgian Malinois.
"We have found they have less issue with hip dysplasia than the German shepherds do, so we are more likely to take them," Hall said.
Police K-9s typically work for eight to 10 years, he said.
There is a screening process which all dogs must go through before they are accepted into the training program.
"They need to have specific characteristics," Hall said. "They need to have a drive to work, and they need to be social. Many are specifically bred to be working dogs."
While local police dogs are trained primarily for patrol, state police dogs have different specialties. The state police have 16 dual-purpose dogs, trained in narcotics and patrol duty. They also have three dogs on their bomb unit and one dog trained to search for bodies.
Nelson said the dogs are trained in subtle ways to be able to track humans.
"He knows to look for the human scent," he said. "Humans are like snakes in a way, as they shed tiny pieces of skin all the time. He's able to smell that and is able to track them."
Nelson said the dogs also are able to tell where a person has walked based on the distortion of the ground.
But not every department has a K-9.
Pelham police used a dog two years ago, but when its handler went to another department, the dog left as well.
“Canine programs are very expensive,” Pelham Lt. Brian McCarthy said. “It’s something we’ve looked at returning, but we have put it on the back burner as time has gone on.”
McCarthy estimated buying the dog and having it trained would cost the department more than $10,000.
Instead, Pelham has mutual aid agreements with New Hampshire State Police and the Salem Police Department, to use their dogs if a situation arises.
“That will vary in our town,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes you get a rash of them and other times we don’t have to use them."
Windham and Derry are among the other local departments that don't have a K-9.
Nelson said he is amazed at just how efficient Trigger can be.
“There are times when I have a gun pointed at the person and they still run away,” he said. “But once they realize the dog is after them, they surrender right away.”
But while the suspects are worried about being bitten, Nelson said that’s rarely happened in his four years on duty.
“I think there’s only been two times when someone actually got bit,” he said.