Jason Dukes was 16 the first time he was tackled and bitten by a police dog. He asked for it.
“I fell in love,” Dukes recalled this month. “From that moment on, I knew I wanted to become a police K-9 handler.”
It was at a 1994 police conference, during a presentation from a Reno K-9 officer. Dukes attended the conference as a Metropolitan Police Department “Explorer,” a participant in a program designed to give young men and women — ages 16 to 20 — a chance to explore a career in law enforcement.
The officer, holding up a padded sleeve, asked if anyone wanted to “take a bite” from his police dog. Dukes was the only one in the group brave enough to volunteer.
“While my friends in high school were still looking for what they wanted to do, I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than chasing down bad guys and having a dog with me to do it,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Dukes graduated from Metro’s police academy five years later, spending the earlier part of his career diversifying his skillset. He knew he was competing with some of the best in the department for a spot in the K-9 section, so he worked as a patrol officer in the northeast valley for years, and then in Metro’s plainclothes unit and on a federal task force before finally, in October 2005, landing his dream job.
Today, Dukes is the senior K-9 handler on Metro’s day shift.
The Review-Journal spent three days, between late August and early October, with him and his team to gain an understanding of an average day in the life of a Las Vegas K-9 officer.
For Dukes, that means getting up while most people are still asleep, at 3:15 a.m.
“Alarm clock goes off, get up, and first thing I do is check on the dogs,” he said.
It’s been a little more than two hours since the start of Dukes’ shift when a burglary report is broadcast on the police scanner.
“More often than not, we have calls waiting for us when we log on,” Dukes said. “We have 24-hour coverage, so a lot of the graveyard guys and gals are logging off right at 4 or 5 in the morning, so we go to relieve them on any calls that they’re on.”
But this particular Wednesday morning is abnormally quiet. Dukes had spent the better part of the morning driving around the valley, as he usually does on mornings like this one. “Proactive policing,” he calls it. More often than not, he’ll end up in east Las Vegas, an ode to his days as a patrol officer. He loves this part of town, he says, for its diversity.
Dukes assigns himself to the call, flips on his lights and sirens, and drives toward a storage facility in the central valley. As the sirens blare, his patrol dog, Argos, and bomb detection dog, Darko, perk up with excitement. While in the car, the two Dutch shepherds sit in large steel cages, replacing what would be a standard back seat.
Minutes later, Dukes pulls into the parking lot of the storage facility. But it’s a false alarm, according to the patrol officers already at the scene. An employee set off the alarm by mistake.
Burglary calls are standard for K-9 officers between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., according to Dukes, although the section’s “bread and butter” is foot pursuits, barricades and search warrants. Still, they are an asset to the department on patrol-level calls such as burglaries.
“One of the keys to using a canine is we can clear a building, a large building in particular, more efficiently and more accurately than officers who go and search it by hand,” Dukes later explained. “So what would take an officer about an hour to clear a large business, we can do it in about 15 to 20 minutes with the dogs.”
A woman calls 911, screaming that she had just been stabbed in the head by her adult son. Now, a dispatcher relays to officers, her son is barricaded inside his family’s home on the 6500 block of Mocha Brown Court.
Dukes and another K-9 officer, Remi Damole, head to the southwest Las Vegas neighborhood. Patrol officers and crisis negotiators have already surrounded the house but wait for the K-9 units to arrive.
“Every barricade you’ll have two to four dogs,” says Dukes, who gets there first.
Damole and his patrol dog, Dasco, are close behind him and take what officers call “rear containment.”
Damole, Dasco and a patrol officer — who will act as Damole’s “cover officer” — set up in a backyard adjacent to the home, in case the woman’s son tries to sneak out of the back of the house.
The cover officer is there to watch Damole’s back, “because I’m not working my gun. I’m working my dog,” he says.
At the same time, Dukes and Argos, the patrol dog, are in front of the house, attempting to take the woman’s son into custody. He eventually surrenders without either of the K-9 dogs being deployed.
“Sometimes the mere presence of the dog, they will hear that loud bark, and it’s enough to get the bad guy to surrender,” Dukes later says.
Time for training.
Dukes meets four other day shift K-9 officers at a large vacant office space in the Spring Valley area that most recently had been an eye-care center. One of the K-9 handlers is friends with the building’s owner, who’s given them permission to train inside the space before renovations begin.
Metro’s day shift K-9 squad trains together on a daily basis, usually in the morning, to get it out of the way. On this particular day, the dogs practice searching for a hidden “bad guy.”
Officer Rafael Camacho is working as the decoy for this training session. Officers who want to test for a spot in Metro’s K-9 section must do decoy work for at least six months, so Camacho steps into a large padded suit designed to absorb most of the pressure from a dog’s bite, and then hides inside a large room in the west side of the building.
Damole and Dasco go first.
Rounding the corner at the end of a dim hallway, Damole cracks open a door that leads to another hallway and kneels down. Camacho, the “bad guy,” is hiding behind another closed door.
Dasco sits in front of Damole, ready to charge. Panting, he barks and barks. The sound reverberates through the empty one-story building.
“That’s a real dog, not a police officer barking,” Damole yells. “I’m going to send a police dog in there. When he finds you, he will bite you.”
Camacho is silent. Damole lets Dasco off the leash, and he sniffs several doors. When he barks at the right door, Damole opens it for the dog, who finds Camacho and bites his arm, taking him down to the floor.
“Stop fighting my dog, bad guy,” Damole yells at Camacho, who is pretending to get out from under Dasco. The dog growls, showing teeth, and bites down firmly into the padded suit. Dasco does not waver. He does not let go.
The dogs, Dukes later explains, are trained to hold the bite until their handlers command them to let go.
“These dogs are so tough,” Dukes says with a hint of pride. “We’ve had our dogs shot, stabbed, and they’re still fighting. We’ve had dogs hit in the head with crowbars, their skulls fractured in the middle of a fight, and the dog still holds on.”
These dogs are so tough. We’ve had our dogs shot, stabbed, and they’re still fighting. We’ve had dogs hit in the head with crowbars, their skulls fractured in the middle of a fight, and the dog still holds on.
K-9 officer Jason Dukes
Just last weekend, a day shift patrol dog, Hunter, was stabbed repeatedly in the neck while helping take an armed suspect into custody during a barricade situation. The Belgian Malinois, who has been working since 2012, was rushed into surgery and was expected to make a full recovery.
The radio crackles to life. A 911 dispatcher puts a call out for backup. Officers are running after a stabbing suspect near downtown Las Vegas.
K-9 officer Scott Murray beats Dukes and Damole to the punch and takes the call. He turns his sirens on, and his patrol dog, Beer, barks and spins in his cage. As they inch closer to the scene, the dispatcher broadcasts a description of the suspect: shirtless white adult male, late 20s to early 30s, long brown hair, red-and-blue shorts and black shoes.
Just outside the Shields Apartments, near 11th Street and Bonneville Avenue, a man matching the description dashes by in a panic. Murray slams the brakes, hops out of his patrol car and lets Beer out. He’s barking and tugging on his leash.
At the same time, other patrol units close in. The suspect sprints into the gated complex, and the officers lose him. Murray thinks he might bag “a running bite” today — until the suspect re-emerges at the back of the complex, where he is taken into custody.
Murray leads Beer back to their car. The patrol officers can take it from here.
It’s not often that a police dog gets taken off its leash to chase down a suspect during foot pursuits. In fact, according to Murray and Dukes, it’s so rare that the K-9 officers keep a running tally of which dogs in the section have chased down a suspect. Some have yet to tick that box off their list.
Dukes and his dogs head home for the day.
Approaching his corner-lot home in Henderson, Dukes reverses his patrol SUV over a curb, the sound of gravel crunching under his tires as he carefully parks the vehicle in front of a brown gate that leads into a side yard.
The K-9 handlers are responsible for the dogs’ care, grooming and medical needs. So unlike other officers, after a long day at work, Dukes still has to feed and groom the dogs. On some days, he’ll also take them to the park or a remote desert area to run around and “blow off some steam.”
Dukes hops out of the SUV and opens the brown gate, revealing a patch of homegrown watermelon and kennels specially designed for his K-9 partners. Along a cement wall are three kennels padded with horse stable mats. Dukes turns on a hose and waters down the mats and fills two large water bowls.
Darko and Argos wait inside the running SUV, barking in excitement, according to Dukes, because they know they are minutes away from eating and sleeping.
Dukes walks around to the front of his house, unlocks his front door and is greeted by Maddie, his 14-year-old retired narcotics dog. After the dogs retire, Metro sells them back to either their handler or a retired K-9 officer for a small fee.
That’s because even though their aging bodies tell them they physically can’t handle the police work anymore, their minds tell them that they still can. “So they could still bite,” Dukes said.
But aside from liability reasons, Dukes said, K-9 officers often will buy their retired dogs from the department “because they’re family.”
“I spent the last 14 years of my career with two patrol dog partners and one detection dog partner, and I’ve grown attached.” Dukes said. “I love each dog that I’ve been blessed to work with.”
Maddie, walking slowly because of her bad hips, follows Dukes through the living room and into the kitchen, where Dukes scoops food into her bowl.
While Maddie eats, Dukes takes more food out to the side yard for his K-9 partners. Opening the car doors for the dogs, Dukes removes their collars and steps aside, allowing them to jump out of the SUV and run straight to their kennels.
Dukes shuts the gates to their kennels, and Darko and Argos slurp their water and eat.
“Oh, you guys are so happy, aren’t you?” Dukes says in that voice people use when talking to animals and babies.
Darko and Argos briefly look up from their food bowls, and as if performing a choreographed dance, the two spin in circles, wagging their tails.
Dukes and Darko will retire together in December 2020. Dukes, 42, is excited to spend more time with his wife, two kids and the dogs that kept him alive while on duty.
As for his K-9 partners, “I owe it to them to give them the best retirement that I possibly can, and let them be a dog for the last few years of their life,” he said.
By then, Dukes will have 23 years as a Metro officer under his belt and will have worked with three patrol dogs, including Argos, and two detection dogs, Maddie and Darko. His first patrol dog, Boy, died in 2010 from natural causes. Max II, who took Boy’s spot as Dukes’ patrol dog, died unexpectedly last year of cancer.
Argos, who is almost 2, will be passed on to another K-9 officer when Dukes retires.
Dukes took Max’s death particularly hard. It was sudden. After, Dukes asked himself, “Do I have another dog in me?”
“But I knew that my obligation to the section was to build a dog to the best of my abilities, so that dog can continue on in our K-9 section and be a great partner for someone else,” Dukes said. “I had a different mindset going into this new partner.”
Still, Dukes has grown to love Argos. He said he has been preparing himself, and his kids, as best he can for the day he has to give Argos to a new handler.
“I’ve been so very fortunate, very blessed to be able to work with such animals,” Dukes said. “Every time you get a new partner, you get a new challenge — a new relationship. But that’s the big decision you have to make when you go between partners, is that decision to continue on. And each time I’ve had to make that decision, it was the right decision.”