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A Breed Apart: Local K-9 handlers see job as a way of life

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Just after midnight, Cpl. Paul Corso and Deputy Jason Cotton were letting their K-9 partners, Rocky and Johny, stretch their legs in a Snellville schoolyard when a call came from the radio.

They didn't have all the details and they didn't wait around for them; Someone in Norcross had dialed 911 and needed help.

Piling into two Chevy Tahoes, Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department SOK-91 and SOK-92 sped across the county, all lights, sirens and adrenaline.

Rocky, a 4-year-old German Shepherd, knew exactly what all the fuss was about. He barked, whined and circled in anticipation of doing what he was trained -- and bred -- to do: police work.

Corso and Cotton, along with their four-legged partners, make up the department's K-9 Unit. Patrolling Gwinnett's streets until the wee hours of the morning, the team stands ready to assist any law enforcement agency within earshot should they need it.

"We're backup. If they need assistance, we're there, plain and simple," said Corso, a dog handler of 18 years and former SWAT team leader.

But the unit serves as much more than backup. The dual-purpose dogs can sniff out illegal drugs during one call and track fleeing fugitives on the next. They help maintain order in the county jail and courthouse, and sometimes the team's mere presence helps defuse potentially nasty situations.

An 85-pound Shepherd with a big bark and bigger bite is tough to argue with, so wanna-be tough guys with bad intentions often rethink their course of action.

"There is definitely a psychological factor involved when the dogs come out," Cotton said. "Most of the people we deal with are ready to run, fight or hide."

The officers have worked together for about eight years with the K-9 unit and neither can imagine doing anything else. They are proud to be cops. They are more proud to be GCSD dog handlers. It's specialized work that requires a certain level of fitness and training, and a willingness to be on-call 24/7, ready to mobilize at a moment's notice and crawl through sewers or briar patches when situations dictate.

Not much for paper pushing (Corso still uses a typewriter) or hanging around the office, the two deputies -- who share the camaraderie of old war buddies -- are more likely to be found patrolling the county or training their dogs in the yards and hallways of a local church or school.

Corso is a certified master trainer who believes all local K-9 teams share the same mission and are sworn to protect the same people. He works with K-9 officers in Norcross, Snellville and Lawrenceville, teaching what he called "tactics, teamwork and street survival." The frequent training sessions, along with numerous seminars authorized by Sheriff Butch Conway, help keep both man and beast sharp.

"People don't understand the work that goes into molding these dogs," Corso said. "You talk about taking your work home with you, we do some serious bonding. They live with us, work with us ... we are responsible for their feeding, their grooming."

"I got a wife and three kids and my dog is with me more than they are," Cotton added.

Training a good police dog is done in baby steps, Corso said. When buying a dog, which generally range from $6,000 to $36,000, Corso and Cotton look for one with good bite work -- "We don't want no typewriter biting, we want one who's been trained to bite and hold," Corso said -- but otherwise a blank slate. Both men share their own ideas about how a K-9 should be trained and would rather start from scratch than try to correct what's already been ingrained.

They don't want a "sport" dog and they don't want a man-eater. They want one that has the instincts to track people and the courage to fight a lion. They want one that will "run fast, bite hard and fear nothing."

And ultimately, that's what citizens want, too.

"For the felon who's just done whatever, you want one of these going after them," Corso said. "You want the best service we can give to find the person who violated your rights."

Training sessions don't just benefit the dogs, but also the officers. Cotton said not everyone is cut out to be a handler. Just like everyone isn't cut out to be a cop. Or a school teacher or an entertainer.

Joining a K-9 unit for the novelty of it -- for the T-shirt or windshield sticker -- isn't recommended.

"You've gotta learn to read the dog ... the little things," Cotton said. "In our line of work, it might save our lives. Things can go south real quick in the woods when the only thing between us and the bad guy is the dog."

The use of police dogs in Europe goes back to the 1800s, though the practice didn't gain a foothold in the U.S. until the 1970s.

Several breeds are used within law enforcement, often depending on the required duties, though Shepherds are the most popular. Because Corso believes the best come from Czechoslovakia, he only deals with an Arizona-based importer he's known and trusted for years.

The owner, a native Czechoslovakian, understands dogs and provides the sheriff's department with what it needs to protect Gwinnett's citizens, Corso said. For the foreseeable future, barring anything unforeseen, Rocky and Johny, who turns 3 in May, will fill that role.

While the career of a police dog varies, dependent on several factors, 9 is a good age to retire a dog, Corso said.

Corso described Rocky -- or "Rock Star," as he's affectionately called -- as a "grumpy bastard." Johny is more laid back (though wandering too close to his truck may not bolster that argument), but just as dedicated to his profession. The adage "A dog is a man's best friend" rings truer nowhere than it does when talking about law enforcement partners.

"The police dog, he ain't gonna hide. He would take a bullet or a stab for us," Corso said.

When recalling a particular day in 2007, the bond is all too evident.

In October, Corso discovered his then partner, 6-year-old Blek, dead in his kennel from an apparent heart attack.

He immediately called Conway, a known animal lover who called his K-9 unit a "valuable resource," to break the news to him.

"It was the worst call I've ever had to make," Corso said. "You will not understand the bond until you work with these dogs. I'd never had a dog die on me ... 30 minutes before that, he was running up and down the fence, chasing horses."

Conway invited Corso to his home and asked him what he wanted to do.

"I told him I gotta get another dog and that I could get one faster than he could write the check," Corso said. "I said, 'I gotta get back in the saddle, Sheriff.'"

Corso and Cotton truly love what they do. The joy of having K-9 partners, the sorrow of losing them. They live for the hunt and, when the day is done, for playtime with their faithful friends.

For them, being a dog handler isn't a 9-to-5 job. Not even close. It's a way of life that they hope to preserve by continuing to grow and by sharing that knowledge with others.

"Training a police dog is an art, and it's dying," Corso said.

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