Whether he’s scaling fences in pursuit of a suspect, visiting schools to spread the word about police work or getting his belly rubbed at home, Ajax, a Belgian Malinois trained to work with the San Mateo Police Department, has an acute sense of work-life balance.
The five-year veteran of the department’s K-9 unit has trained his whole life to be able to distinguish between the verbal commands delivered by his handler, Officer Angelica McDaniel. At 7 years old, Ajax has years of experience detecting narcotics, apprehending suspects and tracking people and items, and still receives training twice a month to be able to maintain his skills, said McDaniel, who has been partners with him for more than three years.
In the last couple months, the K9 is responsible for detecting 23 pounds of methamphetamine in the car of a suspected drug dealer at Los Prados Park and 35 pounds of meth in the car of two men believed to have been transporting drugs from Southern California to the Bay Area when they were arrested on South Norfolk Street Oct. 10, according to the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office previously.
And though he seems to enjoy the portion of his work that involves meeting people of all ages, Ajax is in tune with any signals that he needs to put his nose to work, noted McDaniel.
“Typically, we’ll take him out and do social meetings with people at schools or [doing] passing checks,” she said. “When somebody requests him for either building search or a narcotics search … he knows it’s work mode.”
With a sense of smell estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than human senses, Ajax is capable of distinguishing between different ingredients in a stew, explained McDaniel. She said he is able to detect the scent of suspects, firearms and narcotics he has been trained to identify and alert police about them in the hopes of receiving the ultimate reward — a chance to play with a toy.
McDaniel said Belgian Malinois dogs are known to be motivated by toys, and Ajax is no different. She noted he takes great pleasure in playing tug-of-war with a tug toy, which McDaniel uses for obedience training. She said he is also trained to understand when she uses a specific leash, he is going on a narcotics search.
“Anything he does, whether it’s locating narcotics or locating a suspect, it’s all based on reward,” she said. “At the end of the day, that’s what he’s looking for … so everything to him is fun.”
McDaniel said she and Ajax are dispatched to incidents throughout San Mateo to assist other officers in need of help with narcotics or building searches, but they have gone as far as San Francisco to assist. She could recall an incident in which four suspects had been held for some 40 minutes in a San Francisco building with a marijuana grow, and Ajax was able to locate them minutes after arriving on the scene. Even though he is trained to identify the scent of marijuana, Ajax knew from her verbal commands he was tasked with searching for people, she said.
Ajax has the longest career of the four dogs in the department’s K9 unit, which also includes a Dutch shepherd named Hero, a Belgian Malinois named Zigi and the unit’s newest addition, Henry, who is a mix between a German shepherd and a Belgian Malinois. Though K9s typically spend four to five years working with police officers before they retire and live with their handlers, Ajax is still more than capable of carrying out his physically-demanding tasks, said McDaniel.
“If they’re healthy, if they’re willing to still do the job, and there’s no issues, we just continue,” she said. “That’s kind of what he’s done.”
According to police spokesman Officer Michael Haobsh, the officers in the department’s K9 unit spend at least an hour each day in training with the dogs on obedience, protection work and narcotics detection. Including everything from alarms to suspect and narcotics search requests, each K9 responds to an estimated 10 calls for service a week, noted Haobsh.
Working in the community
Having served with the department for more than six years, McDaniel said she began dreaming of becoming a police officer when she met a police dog visiting her school as a 5-year-old. She said he stays right by her side during her work shifts, and continues to stay near her when she’s at home, where she said he acts just like a normal dog. She said he knows exactly where the snack drawer is and is always up for a jog.
“His nose is always going, you can never hide anything from him,” she said. “He requires a minimum walk of 2 miles a day, and if you forget he’ll remind you.”
Though Ajax is trained to apprehend suspects on command, McDaniel said he naturally has a gentle temperament and loves people of all ages as well as school visits and other community events. Haobsh said the dogs in the department’s K9 unit do demonstrations in the community monthly, and noted it’s not uncommon for their handlers to be called in while they’re off duty to assist other officers.
He said the dogs not only help the department meet the demands of its call volume, but they also help officers be proactive and root out crimes before they take place.
“Dogs like Ajax can go into a classroom and play with children … and be the bridge between a law enforcement officer and the community,” he said. “But then they can also go out there and apprehend bad guys and locate firearms and drugs.”
Haobsh said many of the bulletproof vests the dogs wear and other equipment the officers use with the dogs has been donated by community members, something for which the department is very grateful.
McDaniel said Ajax hasn’t been injured on the job, but noted that having the option to have him search a room instead of an officer provides a safer alternative because he can detect people and firearms and also alert officers about what’s ahead. McDaniel acknowledged working with a dog does require commitment to their training schedule, and said the responsibilities of a dog like Ajax are many.
“We never expect to harm someone,” she said. “Are we trained to be able to protect people? Absolutely. And the same with him, he trains every day … and ultimately, we all go home safe at the end of the day.”
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