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New CDCR K‑9 officers graduate academy

K9 officers stand beside two vehicles at the academy.
New K-9 officers graduate the academy.

The first K-9 Academy cohort for 2022 successfully completed their seven-week training at the former Northern California Women’s Facility in Stockton and celebrated their graduation on Monday, April 18.

Canine officer teams are a very select group of handlers who each had to go through a unique process to be selected for this line of correctional officer duties.

“It all begins with an interview process, the vacant position is canvassed and correctional officers interested in this unique opportunity submit a letter of interest. Those selected to interview are asked very specific canine-related questions to ensure optimal qualifications and partnerships,” said Lieutenant Ruben Duenas, Statewide Coordinator for the CDCR K-9 Academy.

(Watch the video filmed during their fifth week of training:)

There were five canine teams in this cohort and the handlers all agree that the toughest part of training is building the bond with the dog.

Correctional Officer Jason Castillo is teamed up with Gunner, both new to the K-9 Program but who will now be joining the team at California Institution for Men, to put their new skills to good public safety use.

“During the academy, the dog is green and the handler is also green…everything is progressive and we’re adapting to how the dog is responding and we evolve to different training scenarios,” said Officer Castillo.

Each of the handlers have been around dogs most of their lives. They’re comfortable with dogs. But this is different, this is a working relationship like any other law enforcement relationship involving a partner.

“Probably the most difficult thing for me was learning a new dog, learning how to be a better handler, I do have a lot of years with different breeds, labs, hunting dogs so this Belgian Malinois breed is a little different to me, super fun, excited to do it, just a new learning experience,” said Correctional Officer Michael Saso from California State Prison, Sacramento who was teamed up with Belgian Malinois Lexi.

The dogs are trained to search out and detect contraband such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, tobacco and cell phones.

There are two canine teams at each institution. The most common breed used are Labrador Retrievers and Belgian Malinois. The dog’s sense of smell is incredible, more than 100,000 times greater than that of a human.

“At the completion of the seven-week academy, every canine team is assigned to an institution depending on the functions and the work for the day. They report directly to the investigative services unit within the institution as well as provide mutual aid to other institutions,” said Lt. Duenas.

The teams also provide assistance to CDCR’s Division of Adult Parole Operations and the Office of Correctional Safety, as well as local law enforcement agencies by conducting searches of suspected drug houses during search warrant operations. Periodically, the teams will provide public demonstrations at schools and kids organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, which are always a hit.

Lt. Duenas says he has great confidence in this new graduating class and knows when the time comes, they’ll be ready to accept the challenge, and make a difference.

Meet the newest K9 teams:
• Correctional Officer Anthony Fernandez and K9 Officer Nala join Ironwood State Prison
• Correctional Officer Michael Rabena and K9 Officer Zoe join San Quentin State Prison
• Correctional Officer Jason Castillo and K9 Officer Gunner join California Institution for Men
• Correctional Officer Christopher Reyes and K9 Officer Nora join California Rehabilitation Center
• Correctional Officer Michael Saso and K9 Officer Lexi join California State Prison, Sacramento (photo currently unavailable)

Story by Joe Orlando, Public Information Officer, and Dana Simas, Press Secretary
Video by Rob Stewart, TV Specialist
Photos by Clarissa Resultan, TV Specialist
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Learn more about CDCR’s K-9 programs.

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