Sheriff’s Office K9 units on the world stage

Next to the Olympic Games, the World Athletics Championships is the biggest track and field stage on the planet, held in the United States the first time for 10 days in July on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.

A few statistics:

  • More than 1,700 athletes from 179 countries participated.
  • Team USA broke the record for the most medals at a single World Atheletics Championships, earning 33 in total.
  • 1,583 volunteers gave their time to help in all areas of the event.
  • K9 units from multiple agencies and states, including two from the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), were on hand providing security.
K9 Luna at the World Athletics Championships

At an event with such global importance, ensuring the safety of everyone involved – athletes, coaches, volunteers, workers, audiences – is the top priority. This requires bringing in specially trained bomb sniffing K9 units, which are in very limited supply. To pull this off, the Eugene Police Department put out a request for teams that might be available to provide services for a few days.

Like any other profession where there are only a few specialists, reaching out for assistance is common. There were teams from Seattle to San Diego to Texas to South Dakota, representing local police, sheriff’s offices, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). From the KCSO, Deputy Kristi Bridgman and K9 Luna, of the Sound Transit unit, and Deputy Jonathan Akiona and K9 Indy, of the Metro unit, were given the assignment. (KCSO is reimbursed for their time on the job.)

Ambassadors to the world

According to Deputy Akiona, Bomb K9s were stationed at every gate as the first line of defense to clear all vehicles and their contents before entering. Deputy Akiona and K9 Indy’s assignment was as a roving relief team at each gate to give K9 teams breaks and to respond to unattended items. There were no serious issues, besides “a few unattended bags that K9 Indy screened before turning it over to lost and found,” Akiona said, and one individual who attempted to access the event without a ticket under the guise of wearing an “unofficial bomb tech hat” one day and as a driver for a vendor the next day. Both attempts were repelled. “It was all safe, we think he was just trying to get in for free,” he said. But mostly it was “four days of hot work with Indy, a lot of searching, and networking with other handlers and bomb techs from across the region.”

K9 Indy’s ‘baseball card’

“It was good interaction with the public,” Akiona added. “You got great vibes from participants and the public thanking us for our work.” In situations like this, people understand that the K9 units are there for protection, not because there’s already a bad situation. Comments are typically very positive, and the dogs are more like ambassadors for law enforcement.

Deputy Bridgman and Luna’s last day there was primarily checking in athletes and media. “Luna is a show-stealer,” she quipped, “she knows when the camera is on her.” But Bridgman said Luna “won’t stop working because she got petted.” She knows that doing her job is how she gets her reward. Which, surprisingly, is not a treat, but getting to play with one of her favorite toys.

A personal relationship

The officer and dog that make up a K9 team work strictly with one another. They’re required to have 400 hours of training together to be a certified team. Plus, they have four hours a week of best practices training, to make sure the dog is at peak performance. And it’s not that they just work together, they also live together. The relationship is more than one of simply coworkers. That level of relationship means the officer can tell a lot about from the dog’s behavior.

Deputy Bridgman, who has been with KCSO since 1999, got her first dog in 2011 as part of a drug force task team. She has worked with Luna in the bomb detection division since 2017. Getting to know your partner is essential. She said, “Dogs are easier to train for this kind of work than humans, who come with preconceived ideas. For dogs, it’s simple. Reward the dog with what’s most valuable to them whether it’s food or a toy.” For Luna, that happens to be a tennis ball. When Luna comes across the odor she’s trained to detect, she gets the high value reward of playing catch.

Deputy Akiona, who also started with the K9 bomb unit in 2011, said “Bomb K9s are working out in the public in a proactive approach rather than reactive after an event. We’re creating a sense of security. It takes a very special relationship and balance with your dog protecting people and being public ambassadors.”