Any given day for Springfield police officer Ryan Carter ’93 and Cairo, his German shepherd K-9, might find them assisting officers on the scene of a shooting or a robbery, tracking a suspect through the woods, meeting community members, or driving around in the patrol car while Cairo barks at other dogs and gives Carter nose punches when he wants more attention.
“He likes attention,” Carter laughs, following one such nose punch. “K-9 units are high-drive, high-energy, alpha-male dogs, because we want them to always think they are the biggest and the baddest, that they will always win the fight. This carries over into the normal dog stuff, so they don’t particularly play well with other dogs. All day long, he sees other dogs and he barks at them.”
After twenty-one years on uniform patrol, Carter, who grew up with family dogs, joined the K-9 unit and became Cairo’s handler in 2014, after fellow Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose was shot and killed during a domestic disturbance call. Ambrose had arrived first to the call, alone. Carter, also in a one-man cruiser, arrived second. “I was the first to him,” Carter remembers.
He says the tragedy, in part, influenced his decision to become a K-9 officer: “Kevin [Ambrose] was a one-man car. As a K-9 officer, I would always have my partner with me.”
Considered a use of force, Cairo is trained not only to track but to clear buildings, pursue suspects on foot, find missing people, and protect Carter and other officers if they are being assaulted. Depending on the time of year, Carter and Cairo can also be found performing demonstrations for elementary school children.
“Part of his job is public relations,” says Carter. “Cairo’s a little more friendly than most of the K-9s we have, so the kids can come up and pet him. The K-9s feed off the handlers, so if I’m amped up and ready to go, he picks up on that. But he’s done enough of the school demos over the years that he realizes what’s going on there. Some kids come up to say they want to be a police officer. A lot of them come up and compare their dogs to our dogs.”
Carter knew he wanted to work in law enforcement by the time he graduated from high school because he wanted a career that involved helping people and that changed from one day to the next. He earned a bachelor’s in criminal justice from AIC and started at the police academy a few months after graduation.
His academic advisor was a former Springfield chief of police who, Carter says, helped steer him in the best direction for the next steps on his path: “Going to the academy already having a thorough base of knowledge was definitely helpful.”
Carter and Cairo were invited to AIC to give demonstrations to current criminal justice students. “It was a little bit of a flashback, and I was glad to be able to give back to AIC,” Carter says.
Although Cairo lives with Carter, being a K-9 handler is not much like having a pet. “It’s tough to keep a line drawn on that,” he says, “but, unfortunately, I have to . . . because he has a job to do.”
Except for times of extreme weather, Cairo spends most of his downtime outside, which is better for his health, Carter explains, as it helps him develop his full coat—with the oils it needs to stay healthy in wet conditions—and acclimates his feet to the weather.
The initial K-9 unit training for dog and handler lasts between three and four months, depending on how well they bond. From then on, K-9 units train twice monthly to keep up-to-date and are certified yearly, which involves picking up an hour-old track and following it to its source.
“When I first signed on, I was surprised at the drive and the dedication the dogs have to do their work and how long and hard they’re willing to do their job,” Carter says. “We did over an hour-long track on a really hot day in July one time, through the woods, and he got the guy. He was going to go until he couldn’t go any more.”
Cairo, who is seven, will stay on the force as long as he is healthy and willing to keep doing the work, but if the time comes for Cairo to retire, Carter, like all handlers, will have the first choice of adopting him. As to the question of whether Carter thinks he would like to adopt Cairo: “Oh, absolutely. He might become a little more of an indoor dog at that point, definitely.”
By E.C. Barrett :: photos by Leon Nguyen ’16