Oakland, Calif. - Jason Luna, deputy of the Alameda County sheriff’s office, looks down at his new partner and says “Chapess,” approximating the Hebrew word for “search.”
In an instant, Rex — a 2 1/2-year-old German shepherd/Belgian malinois mix — is nosing around the edges of the parked car. Seconds later, he signals Luna that he’s found something, and Luna throws Rex a chew toy before pulling a short length of explosive cord from one of the car’s wheels.
It’s only a demonstration this time, but Luna and Rex represent America’s dawning, grim knowledge that the real thing probably isn’t far away, and that Israeli expertise might be just the thing to help stave it off.
Luna was one of eight California law enforcement officers who recently returned from a two-month session in Israel. There, each officer trained with two new canine partners under the auspices of Pups for Peace, a West Hollywood-based not-for-profit that has been funding and training anti-terrorism dogs for use in Israel since 2002. Luna’s class — at a $411,000 cost, paid for by the California Governor’s Office of Homeland Security using federal grant money — marks the first time that Pups for Peace dogs have been deployed in America.
Luna, 26, said that the training in Israel felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Going there, I didn’t have a correct idea of what I’d come back with,” said the five-year veteran of the sheriff’s department. “There’s no restaurant, hotel, supermarket, shopping mall you go into that you don’t get searched.… It would take a generation and a half to teach Americans to live like that. As someone said to me, they do their best to live a normal life in an abnormal situation.”
Luna and the other officers who trained in the program — from the Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Mateo sheriffs’ departments as well as from the San Francisco Police Department — learned not only dog-handling skills (including how to say “search,” “sit,” “drop” and “lie down” in Hebrew) but also were educated in martial arts, use of explosives and Israeli handguns, and terrorism-awareness methods.
The idea is to create “a first preventer as opposed to a responder once the terrorist has already hit,” particularly to stop suicide attacks against civilians, said Pups for Peace’s board chairwoman, Annette Rubin of Los Angeles. Americans still don’t live with the same degree of terrorism awareness that Israelis do, she said, but “there isn’t a person I know here who gets on a plane or a train and doesn’t wonder, ‘Is this safe?’”
The idea for Pups for Peace began with Glenn Yago, an economist at the Milken Institute think tank in Santa Monica. Although he’d begun thinking about security issues in the abstract after the September 11, 2001, attacks, it was the March 2002 Passover bombing in Netanya that spurred him to action: He and a group of likeminded Southern California volunteers raised money to train several bomb-sniffing dogs near Los Angeles and then send them for use by the Israeli military — a rapid-response, grass-roots effort to address a shortage of dogs that could save lives.
Pups for Peace opened a facility in Israel in 2003, and since then the organization has been training dogs there for deployment to civilian transportation hubs and shopping sites. Pups for Peace is supported by philanthropists big and small; a Stamford, Conn., girl raised $10,000 for the program as a bat mitzvah project.
Governor Arnold Schwarzeneg- ger’s office and Pups for Peace inked a deal late last year, and Luna and seven cohorts flew to Israel last February, returning in early April. They were joined there for their last week of training by an executive from each of their law enforcement agencies — in Luna’s case, Rocky Medeiros, who commands the bomb squad of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s a total package,” Medeiros said of the program. “They come back here well prepared to deal with any type of terrorist situation.”
Medeiros was impressed enough for his department to enter into talks with the governor’s office and Pups for Peace, seeking to have the department’s new canine-training facility — still under construction — designated a regional Pups for Peace academy so that more California officers can get the training without having to go abroad.
Meanwhile, Rubin said, other states are clamoring to do as California has done and send officers to Israel for the training; further efforts are in the works.
Luna and Rex have a few more weeks of training to finish back at their own department, and then they’ll be out on patrol, dispatched to hotspots or on call should a suspicious person, package or circumstance appear. After hours, the duo will be living together at Luna’s place.
“I’ve never even had a dog as a pet… and now I think he’s my firstborn son,” said Luna, as Rex demanded attention. “I’m proud to be a part of it, but I know it’s going to be an evolving game,” he said of joining the anti-terrorism effort.
One more terrorist attack anywhere in America, and “you’re going to see a lot more dogs like this,” he predicted. “It’s not an ‘if’ but ‘when’ it happens, and it’s going to take a lot of rewiring on the public’s part.”