Along with his handler,
Deputy Sheriff Craig Walker:
Bullet, The Valley’s New Best Friend
A couple of weeks ago, I drove ‘over the hill’ to Ukiah and headed for the County Sheriff Department’s training center on Low Gap Road. As I pulled into the parking lot primarily used for holding impounded vehicles that are there either as a result of drug seizures or as part of an ongoing crime investigation, waiting there for me was Anderson Valley’s Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff Craig Walker, standing alongside his Sheriff’s K-9 Unit vehicle.
I had spoken to Craig off-duty a few days earlier over a beer and some chicken wings at The Buckhorn, Boonville and he informed me that he and the long-awaited Valley police dog were in daily training in various training centers around the area — Willits, Napa, and occasionally Ukiah. With my lifelong interest in dogs, specifically border collies of which I have six, coupled with my regular ‘gig’ doing the Valley Folks interviews, I thought this might be a unique opportunity to combine the two. At the same time, this would provide the many people who contributed towards getting the dog in the first place with some updated information, as the dog’s arrival on the Valley scene is imminent. Craig arranged the whole thing with the trainer, and a couple of phone calls later here we were on a warm, yet windy Thursday afternoon in Ukiah.
The trainer’s name is Chip Johnson and he has been doing this for 24 years, since he was 16 years old in fact. He had grown up in Marin, lived in Willits for many years and was currently back in Marin, although has plans to once again return to Mendocino County. He trains dogs for assignment to a number of law enforcement agencies all over this region, including Napa and Sonoma counties, San Francisco, up to and including Oregon, and the CHP. On this particular day, another sheriff’s deputy, Brian Smith from Lane County, Oregon, was being trained with his dog but they stood aside as Bullet was brought out from the side of Craig’s vehicle.
Bullet is a somewhat skinny. (He is being worked a lot at this point and has boundless energy that burns off more calories than can be replaced it seems), 18-month old Belgian Sheep Dog, or Belgian Malinois, brought over from Holland by Chip about three months ago. Chip gets all of his dogs from Europe where the breeding of these dogs is done at a very high level and he went over to get a few dogs but came back with just two on this most recent trip, one of which was Bullet.
The dogs have been completely checked-out for all health issues, including rigorous examination of joints, elbows and hips, before coming here. “We love this breed for this kind of work,” said Chip. “They can have a working life of 12-13 years whereas many German Shepherds, while they are great dogs for doing this also, tend to have a working life of seven to eight years. The Malinois are the perfect size to be picked up by their handlers, while still being able to attack their enemies, and their shorter coats and fair and neutral colors make them less prone to heatstroke. Bullet has tons of energy — the breed generally does, but he is particularly active and really wants to work. His training will be for about five weeks here to get the initial accreditation and we are about halfway through that with him and Craig. They are doing very well.”
We walked over toward a number of cars in the lot and Craig was instructed by Chip to walk over to one of them and let Bullet sniff around. Actually, it was Bullet who led Craig as he pulled and pulled to get to the rear of the car. He sniffed the trunk and back tires and went around to the right side and then the hood and front. When he reached the driver’s side door he clearly had smelled something as he sniffed and sniffed at the crack between the door and the front end. Craig still had him on the leash but now instructed him to sit. “Halt,” he said with a strange accent. Bullet sat down immediately and stared at the crack.
Apparently Bullet had worked briefly in Belgium and had been taught using some local words or dialect. He will respond to ‘halt’ for ‘sit’; ‘los’ for ‘drop’; ‘blithe’ for stay; and ‘ney’ for ‘no’. Craig seems to have these in his repertoire already and Bullet responds well most of the time, even if a couple of instructions do have to be repeated to enforce the command.
Upon opening the door Craig produced a small package — I assumed it contained some sort of illegal drug — and immediately rewarded Bullet with a piece of fabric, actually a piece of a small wallet. Bullet grabbed this and shook his head with it in his mouth. He was very happy. Apparently this is his favorite toy and he loves to play tug with it. On this occasion it turned out that he had found a small amount of cocaine but he is also trained to sniff out methamphetamine, heroine and, of course, marijuana.
We walked a little further into the lot and Craig was instructed to walk Bullet towards a huge raised-up truck. Chip informed us that this had been seized in a recent drug bust and when pulled over the driver had offered the cop $10,000 and the keys for the truck to let him go. Needless to say the guy is in jail and the truck was sitting here. Bullet led Craig around the truck and Craig opened the door at one point. Bullet immediately leaped about five feet in the air and jumped inside to check it out. After also leaping into the bed of the truck he eventually stopped at the side of the vehicle where a small compartment was situated. He sniffed and stared and would not move on. Bullet knew that there was something he was supposed to find in there and he was telling Craig that.
However, he would not sit upon command and Chip insisted that Craig got him to do this before going on with the search. “We want him to be obsessed with finding the drugs but he should also know when he needs to sit and ultimately Craig must be in control. Bullet is being taught a ‘passive alert’ method in which he should sit and stare at the place where he believes the drugs to be. We have been asked to do this instead of the active alert style where the dog frantically scratches at the vehicle or whatever.” Bullet sat and watched intently as the compartment was opened. Sure enough, inside was a small bag of marijuana and Bullet celebrated with leaps and lots of tail-wagging and was rewarded with his ‘piece of fabric’ toy. Chip and Craig made a fuss of him and Deputy Smith and I were encouraged to do so too. Bullet was only too happy to have all of us telling him what a ‘good boy’ he was.
The third test was for Craig and Bullet to enter another area with several cars and assorted bins and containers. They were not told in what direction to go. Chip, Deputy Smith, and I watched as Craig and Bullet worked around the vehicles etc. After about two minutes, Bullet seemed to become fixated with an area next to a large container where there were a couple of bins also. However, he was not sure about exactly where he wanted to stop and sniff further. It was a windy afternoon and suddenly a gust blew a small bag off the top of the container. Bullet pounced on it immediately. This was the marijuana that Chip had hidden up there. “He is still learning but he definitely was in the vicinity of where this was before the wind blew it off. This would be a situation where the handler has to work out the wind direction and then point the dog into it from downwind. Bullet would have got even closer and may well have found the bag before it blew off. He is coming along very well.”
A dog that is trained to be so obsessed with his work does not care about being around people or food when there is a job to do. This is certainly the case with many border collies if there are sheep to be herded. Similarly, Chip informed me that I could try to feed Bullet steaks or sausages to tempt him away from the work at hand and he would ignore them until the job was done and he had been called off. “He is only looking for drugs at that point. Bullet is very active, strong, friendly, protective, hard-working, a great jumper, and enjoys being challenged with new tasks. However, once the job is done, he is very affectionate with people, adults and kids, and is also easy-going around other dogs. His overall boisterousness comes with still being a puppy — he’s like a 16-year-old teenager who thinks he can do everything and have fun all the time. He may seem a little out of control at times at this stage of his training but he is very smart and is going to make a great police dog.”
We now moved on to the other aspect of training that Bullet and Craig have been working on over the past few weeks — the ‘bite’, necessary for patrol work and when a suspect needs to be apprehended. Trainer Chip put on a padded arm protector and stood about 30 feet from Craig and Bullet. Craig was instructed to go into his ‘warning speech’ — “Sheriff’s Department Canine Unit — give up! I’m sending the dog!” At that point he released Bullet who was on the ‘suspect’ in a flash, grabbing his left arm and hanging on until told to let go. This was repeated a few times, and each time Bullet was there on the arm immediately, even when the ‘suspect’ was on top of a vehicle, Bullet leaped up there and did his job. Chip explained that the dog will generally grab any part of the suspect but most go for the left arm having been trained that way. Some will bite the other side of the suspect and work their way around, biting the neck and back before holding on to the left arm. They are utterly fearless and pay little regard to any danger they may be in. Earlier this year, Dutch, arguably the department’s best dog, was stabbed in the throat when tackling a suspect and nearly died. He survived and went on to play an important role in the recent manhunt for murderer Aaron Bassler in the woods around Fort Bragg.
Bullet’s training session was complete for now and Craig put him inside the K-9 vehicle where he sat quietly and content with some water as Craig and I continued our conversation.
Deputy Walker was in law enforcement for ten years in the East Bay, initially at UC Berkeley and then the police departments of Oakland and San Leandro, before taking a 13-year sabbatical from police work during which time he graduated with a political science degree from UC Berkeley and spent several years in the world of finance. Then almost exactly three years ago, in the fall of 2008, he returned. “I was ready for police work again but in a very different environment. I was hired essentially as the resident deputy for Anderson Valley. I spent a few months on duty in Ukiah, where with increased exposure to crime, I could get back to scratch more quickly than in the Valley following my long lay-off. Not long after that, Sheriff Tom Allman suggested the dog idea. He likes his resident deputies, if they wish, to have dogs. I am certainly a dog person and have been around dogs all of my life and at the time of my hiring I had two at home.”
The money needed for a dog to be trained and maintained was an issue but it was here where the community of Anderson Valley stepped in. Under the leadership of Beverly Dutro and others in the Unity Club, the planning and fund-raising began. “If there is one person who should be singled out it would be Bev Dutra, although obviously many others helped too, including Colleen Schenk and the Community Action Coalition and the AV Elementary School which did a fund raiser specifically to get a bullet/stab proof dog vest. Also, Omar Ferreyra, a high school senior, decided to raise money for the dog as his Senior project and that was a big financial success.”
The amount needed to buy the dog, train him, and provide him with the vest, was $12,850, more than half of which would have to come from the community — a demanding task given the current economy. Nevertheless, over a period of less than three months in the spring of 2010, the local community came together and raised an amazing $8,700, with a further $7,000 coming from the Sheriff’s drug forfeiture finds, as promised. Add to this the $4,500 from out-of-Valley donors for a grand total of $20,200. Bullet’s purchase, together with his training and the vest, cost $7,000, leaving $13,200. At this point there is $8,700 in a special trust account for Deputy Walker to use for dog-related expenses such as housing, advanced training, and equipment. The remaining $4,500 is in an account for any major medical expenses that may be incurred. The AV Unity Club oversees all of these funds.
Unfortunately, after the fundraising had been completed, the Sheriff’s budget problems became significantly more acute and for the next one-and-a-half years this severely impacted the plans for the dog. However, the money that had been raised was held in a separate account by the Unity Club, specifically for this project, ensuring that this is where it would go at some point. “About six months ago, Chip had gone to Europe to get a dog for us and I had even started training with the dog he brought back, but the budget issues got significantly worse and so we had to stop the project and that dog went to the CHP.”
“Earlier this summer, I had actually received a lay-off notice as things seemed irreversible in terms of cutbacks in our department. As many people will remember this was a big topic of conversations over several weeks, in and around the Valley. In fact, with money being so tight, for a short time we were not even allowed to drive around the Valley. There was talk of disbanding the whole Canine corps and it was not even clear that the deputy positions themselves were safe so a new dog was certainly out of the question. Then, not long after my notice, and over a relatively very short period of time, Sheriff Allman seemingly ‘pulled a rabbit out of his hat’ as it were. Not only was I staying but the dog was going to ‘hired’ too!”
In August of this year, Craig received notice that the dog assignment was to proceed and Chip went to Europe and came back with Bullet. It was decided that unlike many police dogs, he would be a dual-purpose dog — one that is trained both for detection and patrol work — hence both the drug-sniffing and also the ‘bite training’ as this would be far more useful in Anderson Valley than one or the other. Finally, about a month ago, Craig met Bullet for the first time.
“For about three weeks now he has been living with me at home in the Valley with my wife Marissa and our two dogs — Jessie a two year old female pit-mix, and Grant, an eight year old border collie. Bullet and Jessie get on well but Grant isn’t too happy with this annoying ‘teenager’ romping around everywhere. It is a work-in-progress. We have used some of the funds to build a dog-run for him behind out house and he seems to be settling down well overall.”
Craig and I walked over to his vehicle and opened the side door to Bullet’s ‘personal space’ inside. With its metal walls and limited size, it wasn’t exactly ‘cozy’ but Bullet is probably the last one to care about that and he was very calm — a marked difference to how he had been when working earlier. He was very affectionate, nudging his master as soon as the stroking stopped, and staring at Craig with love in his eyes.
“We will complete the training in the next few weeks and then have to pass a test to get our initial certification. After that he will be in the field with me but there will also be some fairly intense training for a further nine months during which time we will meet with the rest of the canine corps every other week. There are six dogs currently working in the County, including Deputy Squires’ dog, Brick, also in Anderson Valley of course. On top of this we’ll do various extra sessions with Chip, but much will also be learned on the job. I think an analogy would be that he is just like a young deputy, fresh out of the academy, who has to learn in the real world.”
The first official public appearance in the Valley for Craig and ‘our’ Bullet will probably be at the Elementary School in January when they hope to put on some sort of demonstration for all to see. No doubt that will be an event many Valley folks will look forward to attending as, for the first time, the community gets to meet its new Best Friend.
“They are your best friend, your partner, your defender, and they will always be happy to see you. You are their life, their love, their leader. They will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of their heart.”
* * *
I posed a few questions to my guest. Some from television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When I have the scent of some illegal substance and feel myself getting closer and closer to its whereabouts — now that’s a ‘rush’, I can tell you!”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When the ‘bad guy’ resorts to using some sort of weapon and then I have to get a little bit extra nasty myself to make sure I come out on top. I’m a very nice friendly dog but some people just really annoy me.”
3. What words, sound or noise do you love? “When we have a suspect who will not surrender and my partner Craig announces ‘Canine corps — we’re releasing the dog.’ That’s a magical moment for sure.”
4. What words, sound or noise do you hate? “The words ‘No more work today, Bullet’ — that’s always a real bummer!”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? “A human arm — just joking. A t-bone steak, medium rare, with a bowl of fresh, cold water.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “I cannot choose just one. Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Eddie from the TV show ‘Frasier’ — now that would be a great dinner party.”
7. If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “Craig and the family; my bulletproof vest that the kids at the Elementary School raised money for; and my ‘toy’.”
8. What scares you? “Nothing.”
9. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “My favorite film is ‘Old Yeller’, or the more modern movie ‘K-9’ featuring James Belushi. As for a song, it has to be ‘Who let the dogs out?’ The book would be ‘Call of the Wild,’ Jack London’s masterpiece.”
10. What is your favorite hobby? “Hanging out with Craig, having a couple of beers, watching a game, you know, regular guy stuff.”
11. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “Sheep herder or a guide dog for the blind.”
12. What profession would you not like to do? “Fox-hunting. I like foxes.”
13. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “Meeting Craig for the first time, training with him, and realizing we were going to work together for many years. He is a great guy and a very good Deputy Sheriff.”
14. What is something that you are really proud of and why? “That I am about to be sworn in as the Anderson Valley’s Sheriff’s Office Canine Corps. The local community got together to make sure this could happen and I hope I can repay them.”
15. What is your favorite thing about yourself? “That I am a very loyal and get along with everyone who is law-abiding, whether two-legged or four-legged.”
16. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Great job, Bullet — you did your very best to protect and serve your community.”
To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Retired Gynecologist and leading member of the AV Education Foundation, Lanny Parker.