JERSEY CITY — The graduation ceremony had just begun, but the students were already getting antsy.
Their handlers — four officers from the Port Authority Police Canine Unit — struggled to keep their new four-legged partners calm in front of the department brass, which gathered Friday morning at the police Technical Center on Erie Street to welcome the dogs to active duty. The K-9s, which had just finished a rigorous three-month program at the unit’s training center, were about to get their shields.
“We took one handler, one canine,” said Sgt. Thomas Hering, the canine training supervisor. “Two hearts. Two personalities. And we rolled them into one.”
But the four dogs — Kuna, Yoda, Donna and Mexx — had little interest in speeches or certificates. They yipped and cried instead, tossing their rubber chew toys and then barreling through their boss’s legs in pursuit. They celebrated the end of the formalities with a chorus of barks, and the chiefs laughed.
The K-9s, which are certified in bomb detection, join the Port Authority’s 42-dog unit as it patrols the region’s bridges, tunnels, airports and terminals in search of drugs and explosives. Last year, the unit performed more than 5,000 explosive searches and nearly 1,000 narcotic searches, said Michael A. Fedorko, the Port Authority Police superintendent. And now that its newest members have badges, they could be called out as soon as this weekend, if needed.
Kuna, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, had no training when Officer Angel Alejandro began working with her months ago. But she sat quietly at Alejandro’s side for much of the ceremony, her sharp eyes combing the room.
“This dog is very alert — she sees what’s going on,” Alejandro said. “That’s what I need her to be. I need her to see what I see out there, I need her to be sometimes the eyes behind my head.”
The two bonded heavily during training, Alejandro said, and are now very close.
The sacredness of that relationship was not lost on Fedorko, who said in his speech that the police and military have used canines since the 19th century. The dogs' toughness, loyalty and ease of training makes them ideal guardians, he said.
“K-9 partners help our officers do their jobs faster, and — in many cases — save lives,” Fedorko said.
When searching for prospective K-9s, police look for dogs with a good nose and a strong “play drive,” said Officer Evan Weinberg, a department handler and trainer.
How much does the dog love to play? Will they work to find a favorite toy if the trainers hide it? And if so, do they rely on their sense of smell during the hunt?
“That’s usually a good indication that they’re going to be a good working K-9,” Weinberg said.