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From taking bites to saving lives

The tale of one officers journey from constable to Durham’s top K9 officer 

Det. Const. Jason Dickson, along with his partner Police Service Dog Brock, was named K9 Handler of the Year for 2016 by his fellow officers. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

At first, he thought it was a false alarm – that is, until he saw the guy with the 12-inch butcher knife standing in the gas station.

Det. Const. Jason Dickson ripped the wheel around and pulled into the lot, immediately jumping from the car and getting Brock from the back. The police service dog was ready for action, immediately tense and sensing that something was wrong.

Other officers were already trying to reason with the man standing a few short feet away from people pumping gas, the knife dangling in his hand.

“There’s people pumping gas and this guy is literally as close to these people as he is to us and it was one of those crazy hectic calls that you see on TV,” Dickson recalls.

A female officer with her gun drawn seems to be the man’s target. His gaze never leaves her as he plods forward, his eyes vacant.

Dickson, in cover behind his truck, fires Brock’s leash out to about 15 feet, letting the guy know the dog means business.

The knife, the vacant eyes, and the man’s feet keep coming. It was almost decision time.

Training is a constant practice for the K9 unit. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express)

Taking Bites

The Durham Region Police Service’s K9 unit has been using dogs in the field for over 25 years, and now includes eight handlers and 10 dogs. Even before his time with DRPS, Dickson coveted a spot on the exclusive team.

Growing up in Whitby, Dickson, now 37, remembers watching the K9 unit doing training at the agility field at Garden Road and Rossland Road near the old Whitby police station.

“I always saw the dogs doing work there,” he says. “I had an interest in K9 pre-policing.”

If it had been an interest before his policing career, it bloomed into a full desire after doing ride-alongs with the unit early in his career. Yet, spots on the small unit are heavily desired by DRPS officers, and it can take years for a new spot to open up.

So, Dickson bided his time, putting in the training and sacrificing his days off to come to the station and help the unit with training the dogs – a part of the job that is not as glamorous.

The German shepherd, the preferred canine of the DRPS, has a bite force stronger than a pitbull, enough to break bones, with 238 pounds of pressure between their 42 teeth and scissor-like jaws.

The officers use heavy protection, obviously, and taking bites from the dogs was part of the process Dickson accepted, and perhaps a sign that he possessed one of the qualities that the DRPS K9 unit desires above all others.

“It’s kind of an unwritten rule in the K9 unit that none of us really give up that easily. We’re all pretty determined when we do get the call,” Dickson says.

That call for Dickson came almost five years later, following time with the 16th Division.

That was three years ago.

Now, his fellow officers have handed him the top honour as K9 Handler of the Year for 2016. Even with the work put in to get to this point, Dickson remains humble about his accomplishments.

“I had a very successful year with regards to deployments and just getting those calls,” he says of the particularly memorable (and successful) calls that got him the honour.

“I don’t think any one person in our unit would have handled them differently, they all would have had the same outcome, but I luckily got the calls and it just worked out that way.”

The DRPS have been using dogs in the field for over 25 years. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express)

The Woman in the Woods

The DRPS K9 unit responds to thousands of calls on an annual basis, sometimes four to five in a single night. While the unit’s success rate is respectable, there are times when you’re just not going to find the person.

“You’re not going to find someone on every call,” Dickson says.

For a while, it looked like that’s how it was going to be on that summer day when a senior went missing in the woods. The day was smouldering, and heat stroke was rampant.

“People were dropping like flies that day on the radio,” Dickson recalls.

Yet, the husband was frantic as it was apparent his wife, who suffered from dementia, had wandered off and could now be in danger of heat stroke herself.

Dickson and Brock started with the ravine and the wooded area where the woman was known to walk by the creek. They picked up the trail from where the woman had exited her senior’s home nearby, and working with the wind, Dickson attempted to ensure Brock could stay on the trail.

After about 10 to 15 minutes of searching, Brock veered off the path.

“His head snapped and he started pulling really hard and I just kind of followed that,” Dickson says.

Brock pushed on, nearly 600 metres through thick brush and hilly terrain. It was there that Brock found her.

“I couldn’t even see her, she was in amongst the trees, it was a kind of marshy area,” Dickson says.

Save for a rolled ankle and a bit of fright, the woman was in stable condition.

“If we hadn’t been in that area, things could have gotten a lot worse for her,” he says. “The majority of our work is catching bad guys, but it’s a call like that that you just work for 12 hours and that’s it.”

Police Service Dogs can stay on the job for as long as 10 years. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express)

Partner vs. Pet

As hard as they work together, when the two go home, it’s relaxation time.

DPRS K9 handlers care for their partners 24/7, and for Dickson, he’s set out his garage and portions of his backyard just for Brock.

“When we’re at work, it’s work, and when we’re at home, you kind of let the dog be a dog,” Dickson says. “You let them do their thing. He kind of has a routine of what he does when he’s at home and he sticks to that.”

Growing up with dogs at home, Dickson is an animal lover, and while at times it can be hard to keep the clear distinction between pet and partner, he knows that it’s best for Brock to keep him on the work side of the equation, for now at least.

“Work dogs are very high drive dogs, they’re very determined,” he says. “He gives his all every single call and that’s his best attribute, and it’s how we’ve been so successful because he’s just so driven.”

Married with three daughters, Dickson admits the dog can be slightly intimidating to his young girls, but his oldest has no issues with Brock, and he says his wife adores the dog. They don’t have any pets.

DPRS Police Service Dogs (PSDs) work until they’re approximately nine or 10 years old. Come his retirement, Dickson says Brock will definitely remain with him, but whether he makes the move from the garage to the house, from partner to pet, is yet to be seen.

As far as human interaction is concerned, Dickson says he doesn’t miss having a human partner too much. The K9 unit responds to calls across the region, and by doing so, Dickson says he gets to work with many talented individuals.

And besides, working with a dog does have its advantages.

“They bring that different edge and that different option because most people don’t want to get bit,” he says. “We’ve come across and met a lot of hardened criminals in our captures and they just say, ‘Man, I’ve been shot at, I’ve been tazed, I’ve been OC’d (pepper sprayed),’ these are some hard gangbangers and they say, ‘I’ll do anything, just don’t let the dog bite me.’”

With that said, in some cases, an extra set of hands can be better than paws.

DRPS K9 handlers take care of their dogs 24/7. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express)

The Cold Goodbye

It was a cold September night, and after sending mysterious text messages to her father, a young girl parked her car at the Pickering Beach and walked off along the sand. It sounded like she intended to hurt herself.

The K9 unit got the call.

“You go into high-gear when you get that call because time is of the essence,” Dickson says.

When he arrived on scene with Brock, they were looking at an area of approximately two square kilometres where the young girl could be. Choosing the priority areas, Dickson and Brock set out.

“We went in and started clearing off this bush area and the next thing you know, boom, snap, Brock snapped into an area and we tracked.”

It felt like a long time after that, Dickson recalls. The two moved across the rocky shoreline of Lake Ontario, flashlight beaming into the night.

Eventually, they came across a backpack, an empty pill bottle and a note.

Immediately, Dickson and his cover officer began scanning the black water, looking for anything that stood out, anything at all.

“Thankfully she had a white shirt on, it was distinct in the water,” he says.

Dickson stayed put, knowing that if he went in after her, Brock would be sure to follow. The other officer swam out to get her. She survived.

“Those are the kind of calls that are true life-saving,” he says.

And in all cases, that is the number one priority, even when that case involves a deranged suspect and a 12-inch butcher knife.

Det. Const. Jason Dickson had an interest in being on the K9 unit before he even joined the police force. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express)

Saving Lives

It’s a tough decision to make, Dickson says, as saving a life becomes the top priority, even if that means risking your canine partner’s hide. Yet the guy with the knife seemed to have no intention of stopping.

“This guy was looking through us, it was very eerie, and you’re looking at the huge knife and he kept walking closer and closer and closer, and you’re like, ‘OK, something is going to have to happen here.’”

With the leash locked, Brock was about 40 feet from the suspect, and Dickson could tell he wanted to close the gap.

“He could sense he’s a threat, this guy does not smell right here,” he says.

Finally, Dickson moved from around the truck. He knew that if things progressed as they were, it wasn’t going to end well.

“I had to make the decision of, if we don’t control this guy, at this point, he’s probably going to be shot,” Dickson says. “You don’t send a dog in to die, but that is the brute reality of this job.”

It was clear Brock wanted to go, and despite the real possibility that he could be hurt or worse, if push came to shove, it would be Brock doing the shoving.

“At that point, I made the decision, if he had come three feet more, I was going to send the dog on him, and there was the possibility that Brock could have gotten stabbed, absolutely, but that’s part of the job.”

Even with Brock, the man kept moving closer, his eyes fixed on the female officer and her firearm.

“You don’t have a choice at that point, we can’t shoot this individual who really is mentally ill and just decided he needed to have an engagement with officers,” Dickson says. “He kept walking and finally I said, ‘Just listen – this is your last chance and then I’m going to send the dog.’”

At that point their eyes locked, Dickson says. It was a challenge of sorts.

“There’s one thing to challenge someone and it’s a formality, and there’s another thing when you’re looking at the person and this is it, this is happening.”

Whether it was something in Dickson’s eyes, or perhaps Brock’s, but the knife clattered to the ground, and the man was taken into custody without incident.

“At the end of the day, our primary role as officers is to preserve life. So, we have to use all the tools necessary.”

And that includes Brock, as hard as the decision may be. It wasn’t until later that the gravity of what Dickson and Brock had accomplished set in. A life was saved that day.

“He said after that if the dog wasn’t there, because he was so intimidated by Brock, that if the dog was not there, he had full intentions of getting shot and killed. Full intentions.”

The Full Photo Shoot

Reporter and photograher Joel Wittnebel visited the K9 unit headquarters ahead of publishing this story, spending time with Dickson and Brock in order to capture their relationship, how they work together and watch them play a little bit too. While some of the photos found their way into the final product, many of them didn’t, a collection of photos from that shoot can be found below.