Not every member of the Colorado Springs Police Department's K-9 unit started as a dog person.

But they are now.

The specialized unit's 17 officers spend more time with their four-legged partners than with their families, forming a unique and fluid relationship that aids in drug busts, searches and seizures, chases, traffic stops and serving warrants.

"It's a bond between you and your dog, almost kind of like a dance," said Officer Brian Kelly, one of the unit's handlers. "You basically learn each other, learn different behaviors."

For its work protecting the community the unit has been honored by the Red Cross of Southeastern Colorado as a Hometown Hero.

The K-9 unit augments the Police Department's SWAT and patrol units, and also frequently works with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Last year, the 10 dogs and their handlers - including Kelly and his Belgian Malinois, Broc - responded to nearly 4,000 calls for services, resulting in 293 felony arrests, 144 misdemeanor arrests and more than $12 million worth of seized narcotics, Sgt. Brian Cummings said.

The K-9 unit also has seven explosive detection dogs, Kelly said. Four are used throughout the city while three are assigned to the airport.

With their senses of smell and hearing, the police dogs can detect what humans cannot, Kelly said, recalling a recent search of a 75,000 square foot building where a burglar was running to avoid the police.

"He was actually leapfrogging through the building as we were searching," Kelly said. "Broc actually took us up to the third floor like 'Hey man, he's in here.' I guarantee we would have missed him."

Sometimes criminals will raid the pantry in an effort to distract police dogs from detecting their drugs, Officer Andy Genta said. But through practice - balancing discipline and rewards - the officers and their dogs work to eliminate those distractions. "They're not going to get rewarded for (finding) mustard powder or coffee grounds. They're going to get rewarded for pot, heroin or coke," Genta said.

The tight-knit unit practices every week, teaching their dogs new places where criminals can hide and how to find them, Genta said. For these exercises they rely on businesses, schools or individuals who volunteer different spaces for the unit to use one night a week and they're always looking for new training locations, he said.

Off-duty, the dogs transition into household pets, Kelly said. He laughs as Broc barks at the mailman outside his home.

"He hates the mailman," he said. "They're part of the family. He comes home, takes his vest off, takes his collar off and just becomes a dog. Obviously if the mailman comes or there's a squirrel in the backyard he's going to let the whole house know there's an invader."

Broc jumps on the bed when he's not allowed, tests his will against Kelly's wife and pals around with his son, he said.

Genta said his dog, Remme, loves chew toys. And Cummings is quick to show a picture of his dog, Diesel, resting on the floor next to his infant daughter.

"It's a great honor and something that we're very proud of, finding the bad guys and making the city safer," Kelly said.

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The American Red Cross Hometown Heroes awards recognize outstanding humanitarian contributions by southeastern Colorado residents, companies and organizations. Recipients will be honored at a fundraising banquet March 15 at The Broadmoor. Visit redcross.org/local/colorado

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