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Can I pet an NYPD K-9, other questions about NYC's 'ruffest' hero dogs, answered: NYCurious

Det. Wayne Rothschild gives us an inside look at the training process and daily job of an NYPD K-9.

Det. Wayne Rothschild of the NYPD's Transit Canine

Det. Wayne Rothschild of the NYPD's Transit Canine Unit patrols the subway platform at Queensboro Plaza with his canine partner Cowboy. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

This is part of our NYCurious series, in which we answer your questions about the city. Submit your burning question here.

When Det. Wayne Rothschild’s K-9 partner is on the prowl, commuters peer from behind the subway steps. Other, more obvious animal lovers, gather an arm’s length away, letting out the hard-to-hold back, “aw!”

“It’s pretty common,” Rothschild, the lead instructor of the NYPD’s Transit Canine Unit, says as he walks his K-9 Cowboy through the Queensboro Plaza subway station.

People pass the occasional complement — “he’s a beautiful dog” — and smile, while others ask what most are thinking — “can I pet him?”

The answer isn’t exactly simple.

While spotting Cowboy may have momentarily brightened the trips of passersby, the 5-year-old German shepherd sees those New Yorkers as a part of the job. Standing close to Rothschild, Cowboy’s concentration on his surroundings doesn’t break: His eyes are wandering and nose sniffing, as he demonstrates an indestructible bond with his human partner.

“We create the bond during training and it only gets stronger and stronger once they graduate,” he says. “Going into the field, it’s a whole different level and the bond grows even stronger.”

That bond is a big reason why reaching out and petting an NYPD K-9 isn’t the best idea.

Can I pet an NYPD dog?

Yes, and no. Your first reaction before showing a K-9 some love should always be to engage with his officer. “Obviously, most people love dogs,” Rothschild says, “but because you don’t know what the dog is trained on,” you should always ask the officer first.

No matter how adorable you may find the dog, his first responsibility is keeping New Yorkers — and his handler — safe, so reaching out without permission is never a good idea.

“If a bad person went up to the handler and is going to assault him, the dog is trained to automatically help that handler, so the public should approach by asking, ‘is your dog friendly? May I pet him?’”

All NYPD K-9s have “do not pet” vests, but it’s up to the handler to decide whether or not their dog needs to wear one. If a K-9 is not as friendly as others, handlers will slip the vest on their dogs and keep an appropriate distance.

Do NYPD K-9s interact with other dogs?

Depending on their area of expertise, these working dogs are used to keeping focused in crowded spaces. But will spotting a civilian puppy get in the way?

“Even being in the unique situation of [patrolling] the subway, there are a lot of dogs,” he says. “Some dogs aren’t dog-friendly at all.”

Part of the training process for NYPD K-9s includes keeping the pups away from other dogs, so you won’t find a four-legged hero at your local dog park. “What we’re really teaching them is their job: you stay close to me and we work that way. There is play time, but it’s separate from work.”

So, when is playtime?

S K-9’s individual needs differ, but a typical shift in the Transit Bureau includes lots of stops for bathroom breaks, water breaks and the occasional play break. Cowboy has his favorite toy, which Rothschild uses to reward him after a job well done, but the officer says affection and praise is generally avoided during the workday. Most K-9s live with their human partners, so there’s plenty of opportunity for praise at home.

That translates to avoiding the use of the dog’s name while training, and in the field, and keeping one’s voice at the appropriate tone.

Cowboy, for example, has become so in tune with Rothschild, he’ll only respond to certain commands depending on the pitch at which he hears them in. So, your efforts to get an NYPD K-9 you don’t know to sit and stay, probably won’t work out.

“We obviously show affection just like everyone else, it just might not be what the public is used to,” he says. “A simple ‘good boy,’ might just be sufficient for them because dog training is all about tones and how you present them. Too much praise or tone might send the dog into a different drive.”

No over-the-top, squeaky-voiced demonstrations of love on the job. Got it.

What makes a dog right for the job?

Aspiring NYPD K-9s are typically born overseas (due to health reasons) and brought to the NYPD’s kennel system at 10 months old. Basically, they’re born into their positions, but some factors help set them apart from the rest. Dogs, in particular, have an exceptional sense of smell, making them the perfect fit for searching out explosives, narcotics, and missing people and items.

“Probably 95 percent of what we use them for is their nose,” Rothschild says. “We could put them in a completely dark room and they're still going to find the same thing whether the lights are off or on.”

The NYPD employs four different breeds, each with their own unique strengths. The German shepherd is the traditional choice, while the Belgium Malinois is smaller in frame and may have a slightly higher drive. The labradors and the newest of the breeds, the German shorthaired pointer, make for excellent searchers.

What does the training process look like?

At the foundation of every canine graduate is a strong bond with his or her handler, and that begins the moment they enter this new police-dog world.

“We’ll introduce them to their new handler and start the bond right away, starting by brushing the dog, giving him a bath, feeding him and then three days into it, taking the dog home,” he says.

Being the primary caregiver of the dog from 10 months on helps create an unwavering loyalty. “From that point, it’s a 24 hours a day process,” he adds. The initial stages of training can last 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the area of expertise. From then, the duration of training depends on the pup.

Dogs at varying stages of training process will run simulated drills with their handler until the desired outcome is met. For a patrol dog, like those found in the NYPD Transit Bureau, drills include searching boxes for explosives, and learning visual and auditory commands that go far beyond "drop it." 

Inside the Transit Canine Unit headquarters in Queens, three K-9s in training show off their skills, running between nine cardboard boxes and sitting when they’ve sniffed out something suspicious. The newbie, naturally, has a little more trouble finding his mark. 

For NYPD dogs, class is always in session. Even graduates are required to return for training two to three times per month because dogs change as their experience in the field grows.

“I always tell my class, the dog you have today is not the dog you’re going to have tomorrow.”

How are NYPD dogs named? 

All members of the NYPD Academy's classes are awarded their badges at the graduating ceremony. At this time, they get their names, too. All graduating dogs are named in honor of fallen officers (OK, Cowboy is an exception to the rule). The tradition started in 2006, when Rothschild was partnered with his first K-9, Danz, a German shepherd named for Officer Vincent Danz, who died on 9/11.

When is it time to retire their badge?

A K-9’s duration of service depends on their health, but typically ranges from six to 10 years.

What happens to dogs that aren’t cut out for the ruff life?

Not all pups are right for the K-9 lifestyle, but the NYPD will do everything possible to help them acclimate. If a dog is falling behind on his training process, he’ll stick around until meeting the certification requirements.

Some dogs  that pass certification may become spooked out in the field and regress, which may help them score an early retirement at home with their assigned officer. 

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