By Estella R. Fullmer
For Hometown News
New Smyrna Beach's K-9 Officer Bruce Holcomb and his partner K9 Buddy won the highest honor at the North American Police Work Dog Association seminar in Titusville recently.
The annual competition is sponsored by the KVD (Koninklijke Vereniging Diensthonden) Royal Association of Service Dogs of Wellen, Belgium. Officer Holcomb and Buddy were awarded First Place Team (1st place handler and 1st place K9) out of 35 competing teams.
"I had no intention of entering," he said, "but Abe urged me to compete."
Officer Holcomb was referring to last year's winner, K-9 Officer Abe Diffin and K9 Dux, who also are from the New Smyrna Police Department. "I am glad I did though," he said.
So, what makes New Smyrna K-9 officers and their dogs such great teams?
"It is the weekly training that we do," Officer Holcomb said. "We have regular training that prepares us for our job. Winning the competition was just a bonus and I only won by a single point. It was very close."
Participants may enter the competition upon successful NAPWDA recertification for the year at the end of the seminar. Teams are judged on agility, control, courage, aggression control, tactics, obedience, and how the handler and K9 work together. To certify as a NAPWDA team, handlers and K9s must complete the seminar and are then tested on obedience, building search, area search, article search, tracking and aggression control at a minimum. Some teams are also tested in specialized areas such as explosives, cadaver search or accelerant detection, which hold additional certification.
"Search and rescue teams are a whole different 'animal' and are often done privately," said Officer Holcomb, when asked if he and Buddy perform those duties.
"Buddy isn't trained for that, but he loves to play hide and seek. There is no better reward for him than when he finds a suspect," he said with a grin. "He loves his job and to him it is all a game. He loves coming to work."
Officer Holcomb said his most memorable incident was their first capture. "The first person I caught with him -- it was a vehicle pursuit and the car crashed. The suspect took off on foot and Buddy located him hiding outside in a gazebo."
Although he and Buddy have not yet had to face a situation where their lives are on the line, Officer Holcomb said, "Buddy would do whatever he could to protect me. He loves what he does and wants to do anything to please me."
Officer Holcomb and Buddy were teamed up when Buddy was two. A command team from New Smyrna Beach picked out Buddy from among several dogs at the Metro Dade Canine Services in Miami. Buddy, a Dutch Shepherd, came from Holland and already had some training as a police dog. "I had applied for the job, but didn't know I had gotten it until after they had already selected Buddy. Then I got the call," Officer Holcomb recalled fondly.
The three-day seminar was filled with hands-on training workshops and lectures from top trainers around the country. They cover a variety of topics such as problem solving, helper techniques, peroxide-based explosives search techniques, aggression control, K9 health, FBI training and narcotic detection.
As a member of NAPWDA, officers receive a variety of training aids and information to keep them in top working condition. NAPWDA strives to enhance the performance of police work dogs through seminars and workshops across the country. The workshops are designed to prepare handlers and their K9 partners for certification and ultimately provide higher performance, safety and effectiveness among officers during their daily duty on the job.
Officer Holcomb and K9 Buddy, and Officer Diffin and K9 Dux owe at least part of their success to Officer David Williams, New Smyrna Police Training Instructor and Sgt. Eugene Griffith who helped them prepare for the seminar.
Becoming a top performing team takes more than just months of training and drilling, according to a NAPWDA seminar. Human and canine must have excellent communication but also must build a relationship of trust. The bond between them must be developed to its fullest to achieve the highest performance.