In many ways, Jaxx is just a typical German shepherd puppy.
He likes to chew on things, he loves to chase his rubber dog toy and he’s easily distracted by birds.
But unlike most 13-month-old puppies, Jaxx is training for a career in law enforcement. He officially joined the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office team this month. And this year, he’ll become a full-fledged patrol dog. He will help deputies locate criminals and evidence.
Jaxx is teamed up with Deputy Rod Ditrich, who has been a K-9 handler for the Sheriff’s Office for the past seven years. His current K-9 partner, 8-year-old Rex, is nearing retirement, and Jaxx is being trained to take his place.
For now, both dogs ride in Ditrich’s patrol vehicle, and they both come home with him every night. He said the dogs get along well — well enough that they even spent a weekend together in an RV.
“Jaxx is so submissive that he gets along with everyone,” Ditrich said. “He’s just such a puppy that they all like him.”
As of Wednesday morning, Jaxx was only six hours into his official training. He’s learned only the basic commands, such as sit, stay and heel.
Jaxx will need 400 hours to complete the training program and Ditrich said he’ll continue to ride with both dogs after that. The plan is to send the more experienced Rex after the really tough suspects, allowing the younger dog to build up his confidence.
“There are some really tough guys who will do just about anything to stay out of jail,” Ditrich said. “And that’s how you ruin a new dog, by sending him after those guys. It’s kind of like a 16-year-old kid who just got his license. He’s legal to drive, but he’s still got a lot to learn.”
By starting Jaxx’s training before his predecessor’s retirement, Rex has a better chance at a happier, pain-free old age. Traditionally, police departments only retire K-9s when they’re physically unable to do the job, Ditrich said.
“We wouldn’t do that to a human, we wouldn’t do that to a deputy,” Ditrich said. “So I talked to our administration, and they were receptive to making some changes.”
Jaxx came along at the perfect time to implement the plan. He was donated to the department by Shelton-based dog breeder Crystal Lejeune. A dog like Jaxx would typically cost about $10,000, but seeing the dogs happy and working hard is payment enough, Lejeune said.
She said that both Ditrich and Officer Duanne Hinrichs of the Olympia Police Department are skilled trainers who will help Jaxx reach his full potential. Local law enforcement agencies work together to train their K-9s, and they occasionally invite Lejeune along to see how the animals are progressing.
“I know they can do all the work that goes into it, and I’m sure they take great pride in that,” Lejeune said. “I love seeing the dogs making so much progress.”
Breeding successful police dogs isn’t a matter of chance, Lejeune said. The dogs’ pedigrees are planned, and light, agile animals are most desirable. But even perfectly matched parents won’t yield the ideal police dog. In a litter of puppies, there might only be one or two dogs that fit the bill.
When the puppies are 8 weeks old, they’re tested for a set of characteristics. They need to be intelligent, have a high prey drive and crave attention from humans.
“They need to be very social,” Lejeune said. “They need to be OK with being petted and picked up. And there’s a certain amount of motivation that they need. A good police dog will want to play for hours, he’ll sit when he’s commanded to sit, then he’ll want to play some more.”
There are times, however, when a dog will hit the genetic jackpot by change, Lejeune said. One of the Sheriff’s Office’s newer K-9s, Marko, is a stray found wandering on Steamboat Island. He was taken to Lejeune’s kennel, Excelon K9 Camp, where she recognized the attributes of a good police dog. Marko recently completed his training and works with Deputy Chris Packard.
If all goes well, Jaxx should complete his own training in three to four months. But for now, he’s still a puppy learning basic obedience and getting used to his handler.
“He’s still a little immature,” Ditrich said. “He still gets distracted by birds and squirrels. But that’s why we practice in busy areas. It’s his job to ignore those distractions and do what he needs to do.”