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Long IslandCrime

LI cops praise their canine partners' police work

Talk about taking a bite out of crime.

When an ex-con suspected of a New Cassel robbery lunged at the Nassau County police officer questioning him earlier this week, the officer's German shepherd, Thunder, had a fierce reaction involving his teeth and the suspect's thigh, authorities said.

It wasn't Thunder's first, ahem, collar of the week.

Just about 24 hours earlier, Thunder led the way to a fleeing assailant suspected of slashing a man in the face. The suspect had eluded cops by hiding in a shed in Island Park, but he gave up without a fight - or a bite - when Thunder found him. McGruff would be proud.

That's the kind of loyalty, bravery and restraint police canine units in Nassau and Suffolk look for when scouting for dogs tasked with searching for drugs, explosives, hidden suspects and more, say the cops who handle them.

"The suspect - he dictates if he's getting bitten or not - not the cop, not the dog," said Sgt. John Hill, the supervisor and trainer of Nassau's canine unit.

Hill's unit has nine dogs, all German shepherds who hail from Europe. The canine team patrols the county and monitors police radio frequencies for incidents where a police dog might be able to help. They also do VIP assignments: It was Hill's canine unit that helped sweep Hofstra University for explosives before last year's presidential debate.

In 2008, the teams went on 2,464 assignments, including 354 for narcotics, and 55 for bombs and explosives, and located 18 suspects, Hill said.

The Suffolk County police canine unit has 20 dogs, said Deputy Insp. Stuart Cameron, commanding officer of the Special Patrol Bureau, which includes the canine unit.

Cameron said the dogs are trained to "bark and hold," a technique where the dogs hold the suspect without continually biting. In the past, he said, suspects have hit, stabbed and fought with the department's dogs.

Dogs and officers alike are specially selected for the units. Hill said cops in Nassau undergo a four-month-long training program at a department facility in Bethpage.

But the close relationship the dog and his handler will enjoy begins with a getting-to-know-you period of sorts, said Police Officer John Larson, Thunder's handler.

When he first got the dog, Larson bonded with the dog, brushing him, walking him, giving the dog "probably his first bath that he's had in some time," Larson said.

Larson, an avid hunter, named Thunder after a brand of hunting supplies and picked the name before the dog joined the unit.

"My daughter thought it was a great name, drew a picture with the dog and the name, so that was it," Larson said. "Once she did that, I knew."

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