Czech Mates: Why So Many of the Best Police Dogs Hail From Overseas

A Czech police officer trains his dog, named Darekz Chodskeho Kralovstvi, on May 19, 2014 in Folmava, Czech Republic. Matej Divizna/Getty

In the city, where crime is never far away, four-footed cops are coming to the rescue. But be warned: Their English is pretty shaky.

Officer Jon Low stands in the middle of Lakeside Park in downtown Oakland, California, and calls to his 6-year-old German shepherd, "Knoze!" Kaiser, as his canine pal is named, immediately rushes over and obediently stands to Low's right. Then comes another command, "Sedni." Kaiser sits, wide-eyed, awaiting further instruction. Low says, "Stekej," and Kaiser happily barks.

Stekej? Ano (yes), Kaiser doesn't understand English, so Low must talk to his pal in Czech. Heel, sit and speak are just three of the 15 words in Low's Czech vocabulary, but there is no hello or beer. The dogs aren't here to party.

Sergeant Christopher Sansone, who is in charge of the Oakland Police Department K-9 handlers, says the department buys German and Belgian shepherds from the Czech Republic because they have the best genetic makeup and temperament. The price for a professional dog usually ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, but Sansone says with a smile, "In fact, they are priceless."

'Huge Tradition' in Breeding Dogs

Kaiser was trained in Smirice, about 100 miles from Prague, where Jitka Pospichalova has been breeding dogs for 21 years. Among her customers is Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis; the billionaire bought a short-haired Belgian shepherd. This particular breed, known as Malinois, is very popular among dog handlers worldwide, perhaps even the most popular. Pospichalova sells 30 to 50 of them a year. "Paramedics, police and armed forces from Russia to Germany to the USA buy them from my kennel. My dogs are doing everything you can think of: from search for drugs, weapons or ivory to sporting dog handling," Pospichalova says, enthusiastically showing off honors from the Moscow police and several world championship titles from rescue dog competitions.

"We have a huge tradition in the breeding and training of dogs," she explains. "During the Communist era, there was a great tradition of guarding the borderline so nobody got in or out."

Oakland is not the only American city using Czech dogs. "Around half of the German shepherds that police forces have in the U.S. either directly come from the Czech Republic, or they have some connection to it. These dogs are strong and intelligent workhorses," says Corporal Heath Marshall of the police force in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., which has two German shepherds.

In Oakland, Sansone would like to add more Czech dogs but cannot afford them because of the city's tight budget. He says this while standing in stables that used to house the department's horses. The city no longer has money for horses, so the dog handlers now have their office, pens and training facilities in the stables. On the wall of the dark stables hangs a chewed and dirty harness that Kaiser and others use to test out their fangs, as well as a bulletproof vest for dogs.

In fact, Oakland can't afford the dogs it already has by itself. Donors and sponsors usually provide the money for them. (Kaiser is named after Kaiser Permanente, the Oakland-based insurance company that paid for him.)

Bark and Bite

Police dogs in American cities must meet fairly stringent admission criteria. They are evaluated in particular for their ability to manage in a variety of stressful situations. "We test how they respond to dark spaces, loud noises, a passing train, fire, gunshots, or how long they will keep searching before they get bored," says Sansone.

The majority of police interventions that involve the dogs usually end before the canines are let loose. Apparently, most suspects surrender after hearing the barking and the police officer's final warning that a dog is about to be unleashed. "Our dogs look sharp, but in fact they are really nice," says Low, stroking Kaiser's neck.

These two are inseparable on duty and off. Kaiser goes home with Low and has a special place in his living room, next to the couch. Low spends some of his own money on food and equipment for Kaiser, and he always gives the dog leftovers from his lunch. "As a police dog, he must have special premium food and veterinary care," he explains.

Low and his colleagues have learned to pronounce their 15 Czech commands almost like Czech native speakers. They found the words on the internet, used Google Translate to figure out how to correctly pronounce them, wrote them down phonetically on paper and carried the list with them everywhere. "Over the time, I learned all of the instructions," Low says. "It wasn't so difficult."