MARION COUNTY, Fla. – K-9s, police dogs, whatever you want to call them, are highly trained animals that can save lives.
But how do these special pups learn to do their work?
Some of them are trained right here at a 32-acre facility in Central Florida.
You could say dog training is in Raul Hernandez's blood -- his father and grandfather both trained dogs. In fact, Hernandez said he started training dogs when he was 16 years old in Cuba.
He also is a former sergeant for the Monore County Sheriff's Department, where he was a part of the K-9 unit.
He was assigned to the FBI Task Force and completed searches with several major U.S. agencies.
Now, he's the current K-9 unit trainer for the Key West Police Department and the Monroe County Sheriff's Department.
He's combined that passion for German shepherds with his law enforcement experience to create FTI K9.
"We're a training facility, breeding, importing facility," Hernandez said.
He and his wife, Colby, lead a staff of trainers who train everything from police K-9s to drug-sniffing dogs to search-and-rescue dogs to service dogs.
They also work with and train dogs for basic obedience so they can be great pets.
"The key is just to find the right dog for the right home," Hernandez said.
That's his mantra.
"Not every puppy is developed to do the same thing," Hernandez said. "Every dog is a little different and it's just being able to see what makes that dog special."
For instance, he said a police dog naturally has the instinct to work. Often, he said, the dogs he chooses for this sort of work happen to be males, but certain females can make exceptional police dogs, as well.
"I look for a dog that has the drive, that has the hunt drive (and) the nerve to be able to carry his task," Hernandez said. "I still want a great temperament. I always use my dog as an example. My police dog lived in the house with all my kids and he loved them all. I could take him to a school and do a demonstration with 50 five5-year-olds. Five minutes later, (he could)go out find a bad guy, apprehend the bad guy, come back and he could be loose with the kids and that's the idea."
If you're looking for a bomb dog, those qualities are necessary, plus a few extra.
"When you're looking for a bomb dog, you don't want him to miss. You want a dog that has extreme drives and normally, they are not the best pets because they have so much energy, looking for that ball or that reward system that we're going to use, that they end up being a little hyper inside the house," Hernandez said.
Hernandez brought out several of his trained protection dogs to show us some of the training drills they use with dogs that can go on to be everything from personal protection dogs to working with law enforcement.
"He's doing what I ask him to do," he said. "The idea is for him to be able to capture the bad guy no matter how hard he tries to escape. Then the slap stick is here just to show the dog actually is not afraid of anything that is happening. He'll stay on the bite no matter what we do, you know? Even if I pick him up completely off the ground, his idea is he only stays there unless I ask him to let go. We want him to bite nice and calm, but full mouth, all the way as deep as possible. He's not growling, he's not upset. It's like martial arts, he. He's not upset at him."
The dogs all get very excited when it's time for training -- they can appear to be aggressive, but that's not actually the case.
"I like to create protection as an imagined self-defense, like taking your kid to do martial arts," Hernandez said. "So I want the dog to learn how to protect us, how to protect itself, but not to be crazy."
A News 6 producer who is pregnant, went over to pet one 5-year-old pup named Dasty after his demo, and Hernandez was right-- Dasty was just as friendly as could be and enjoyed a good belly rub, despite how agitated he got while training.
With another dog, Hernandez showed us how the dogs are trained to read the actions of the suspect.
"The idea is for her to be able to come here," Hernandez said, referring to his wife. "She can hug me, she can kiss me. The only thing I'm not allowed to do, I'm not allowed to hit her."
The dogs are trained to stay on guard and move only when a threat is presented to their handler. As soon as Hernandez mimed hitting his wife, the dog ran to protect her at full speed.
Hernandez said another big part of the training --- desensitization. That's what a tool called a slap stick is used for.
"It doesn't hurt the dog, it doesn't really hurt," Hernandez explained. "We want to desensitize him completely, to the point where if something happens, you don't want the dog to be afraid. We don't want anything in the person's hands or body or noise or scent or odor to distract the dog on what the original task is. His original task is to apprehend the person, immobilize the person."
The dog will then bark to alert his handler, or officer, as to where the suspect or threat is coming from.
Hernandez said once he trains the dogs, it's up to whatever law enforcement agency is requesting a dog as to which they want. Sometimes, he said, they want a dog that's just had basic training, while other times, they prefer the animal to be more advanced.
"We are able to do as basic to as more advanced as you can imagine," Hernandez said. "So some departments want a little more advanced, so that that way we know the dog can get there and it's just making the human be able to keep up with the dog. They can do tracking, they can do obedience, they can do protection, area search, they can do building searches. They can go into a building and they can clear a building a lot faster than a SWAT team can, because they're using their nose. They can look for drugs, they can look for money, they can look for bombs, they can look for cadavers. So they have so many uses that the same breed, the same dog could go in many branches."
He said different states have different requirements, and the level of training may also depend on the experience of the officer who will be handling the K-9 and how much schooling is required for the two to have together.
Hernandez said the key is remembering proper training comes down to proper communication from the human.
"A lot of humans believe that the dog is like a computer, that he will do exactly what you want. We can't forget that they're animals," Hernandez said. "You have to be able to communicate with the dog exactly what you want in a way that he'll understand."
If a dog isn't right for police work, Hernandez said in some cases, being trained as a service dog may be a better fit.
"For a service dog, I want a dog that is super calm, but attentive, that wants to do the task at hand that he's been asked to do," Hernandez said.
Training for service dogs is different every time, he said, because exactly how the dog will be trained will depend on the need the person who is requesting the dog has.
"What is the need the person has? Is the person in a wheelchair, needs a dog to open the door for them?
The dog might need to pick something up and some service dogs they just need to be pet, loved and be there for the owner, so it's just finding out what that dog needs to do so we can pick the right dog that can do the job.
I don't want to pick the lazy dog to be hugged and kissed if the owner needs the dog to open the doors and pick up the keys, that dog's going look at the owner and say, 'You go get it,'" Hernandez said.
"So we have to start with a dog that actually likes to do the task. It's a lot easier, so if you force the dog, some people force it to retrieve and do it over and over, what happens, the dog doesn't like it.
And if the dog doesn't like it, what happens is when you give it to the person who needs the service dog, the dog's not going to do it."
He's trained dogs for people who have all sorts of needs -- and some of those pups have been able to save the lives of their owners. Hernandez recounted a situation where a dog that was walking with his owner kept her from hitting the ground when she passed out in the middle of the street.
"Those stories is what makes me keep doing what I do," Hernandez said. "We can go on and on about how many wonderful things they do that have nothing to do with protection."
"A great dog is a great dog. Iit doesn't matter what breed he is," he said.
If you’re interested in one of Hernandez’s dogs or having his team train your dog, contact FTI K9 for more information.