The Chula Vista Police Department's newest K-9 team, Officer Thomas Luhta and 15 month-old German Shepherd Bob, is currently attending a highly rigorous K-9 academy to prepare for patrol duties.
"Bob knows how to do everything that we're doing (at the academy), but it's up to me to learn how to control it," said Luhta. "That's the hardest part, knowing when to give him the right command at the right time, or when to use him for a certain job at a certain time."
The team is working with Manuel Villanueva, training director and owner of Man K-9. Villanueva has been training police K-9 teams at local agencies for 34 years.
"The dog is not created to be a police dog. You can't develop a police dog. The dog is already born like that. What we test is the genetic makeup of that dog," explained Villanueva.
"We will test the dog's stress level, courage level, confidence and the hunt drive as well. The dog has the ability to locate certain items. Based on that he either passes or fails. It's very clear. Most dogs fail the test within a minute, a minute and a half."
During the 5-week academy, the team trains at numerous locations around San Diego County. Villanueva starts by teaching handlers the psychology of the dog and animal behavior.
"We need to teach the officer how to read the dog and how to be realistic of what the dog is thinking at that moment or what he's associating," said Villanueva.
The training then focuses on various skills crucial to patrol duties, including searches, tracking and trailing, and suspect apprehension.
"Unfortunately, many people believe, or think, that these are nasty, mean dogs but they're not. We select the dogs based on their sociability," explained Villanueva. "These dogs like people."
The exercises are often conducted at empty lots and abandoned buildings, to create different environments that challenge the dog and handler, such as dark hallways, stairs and slippery floors.
"The drill itself is a motivational tool to him. It's fun for Bob to find something in a building, to sit, stay, walk, run," added Luhta. "All those things are things he wants to do anyways, he's just doing it in a more controlled environment now. So the reward is doing the job. He loves it."
The training also acts as a way for Bob and Luhta to learn each other's language.
"Here in training, I'm able to pick up on cues and body language that he has. He's able to pick up on my cues and my body language. We're kind of getting into each others' heads a little bit and figuring out what one another is thinking."
Luhta, who is also a sniper on CVPD's SWAT team, said the primary goal of a K-9 is keeping people safe, whether it's officers, citizens or suspects.
"Anytime you have to walk into an unknown situation, I think it's a lot safer to use a dog to put him in an unknown situation, as long as it's safe for the citizens involved and the officers."
Luhta's supervisors said the 4-year CVPD veteran was selected to become a K-9 handler partly because of his leadership skills, aptitude for writing thorough reports, and ability to make good decisions independently.
Supervisors also consider Luhta an effective communicator, a necessity in a position that often interacts with the public.
Once Luhta and Bob begin patrol duties, their training will be continuous. They'll participate in several hours of drills each week, alongside other members of the department's K-9 unit.