Concord police officer Eugene Ramos Jr. watched as his partner ran into a thick patch of kudzu, becoming barely visible. Through the dense green growth he could see glimpses of the partner, rooting around for a minute and then halting abruptly. After a few seconds, Ramos saw his partner's head poke out, staring directly at him.
A dispute between two men moments earlier at a nearby minimart had ended badly. A homicide suspect was on the run, and Cello, Ramos' partner, a German shepherd with the city's K-9 unit, had found him.
"The dog picked up his air scent," said Ramos, who gave Cello the signal to pull on the suspect until Ramos could put on handcuffs.
Citizens may not know just how protected they are by the four dogs that make up Concord's K-9 Unit. Not only can Cello, Udo, Brex and Fed, flush out suspects, but they have been well-trained to find missing children, lost elderly, evidence and well-hidden narcotics.
Concord's K-9 Unit began in 1990 with one dog, Boots, a Labrador retriever picked up from the Humane Society. Back then, handlers looked for large, healthy dogs with enough drive to follow their commands. Boots fit the model. Two years later, she foiled a drug operation in Wilmington that resulted in the state's largest drug seizure on record.
Today Concord no longer chooses dogs from shelters or the pound but from breeders in Europe, at $6,900 a pup.
"It's because of the purity of the animal," said Patrick Merritt, master trainer for the unit. He says down breeding in America has led dogs to not have the drive needed to be a police dog.
Since Boots, 15 dogs have been on the force, all undergoing intense training in obedience, aggression control and tracking. German shepherds make superior police dogs because of their intelligence and highly sensitive noses.
Merritt and his team, officers Mike Drake, Ricardo Rodriguez, Lennie Rivera and Ramos Jr. have seen the dogs track with amazing results.
Last year, they found two special needs children and an elderly woman who had wandered from a home in the Carriage Downs neighborhood.
As a Salisbury police officer in 1990, Merritt remembers when 75 volunteers fruitlessly searched for two days to locate a missing elderly man. Once he was given the go ahead, his dogs found him in 20 minutes. He had fallen into a thick briar patch, previously unnoticed by the volunteers.
Police dogs usually retire before the age of 12 and frequently live out the rest of their lives with their handlers.
Officer Drake's last police dog, Kai, is retired and now roams his backyard freely with the other pets, a Jack Russell terrier and a Chihuahua.
"He still wants to come," said Drake, of Kai's eagerness to jump into the patrol car when his shift begins.
I guess you can't teach an old dog new tricks.