By Christine Dunn, @VTownCommuter
Otto is an outstanding employee at the San Mateo County Transit District – enthusiastic, detail-oriented, and eager to do a good job. A team player, he is focused on meeting the agency’s goals and objectives. Highly regarded for his loyalty, Otto is often called on to represent the agency in public, serving as an informal good will ambassador.
But Otto is not your typical transit agency employee. In fact, Otto is a K-9 dog assigned to the Transit Police Bureau. The seven-and-half-year-old German Shepherd works with Deputy Brandon Hensel to provide law enforcement and investigative services to SamTrans and Caltrain. Hensel called Otto “the most loyal partner I’ve ever had.”
Otto is a “single-purpose” dog, trained to detect explosive devices. Otto patrols the Caltrain right of way and transit centers served by SamTrans and Caltrain, helping to determine whether a suspicious package is dangerous or just somebody’s forgotten lunch. With heightened awareness about the importance of security on public transportation systems worldwide, dogs with Otto’s training are playing an increasingly important role in identifying potential threats before they can be used to do any harm.
Otto partnered up with Hensel six years ago. Hensel and Otto went through an 18-month orientation period, which included nine weeks of training, before Otto was certified for police work. The pair attend a weekly refresher class along with other dogs from the sheriff’s office where they review basic commands and participate in mock drills to detect explosives.
Being a member of the K-9 unit is a commitment for both dog and handler. In his off hours Otto lives with Hensel’s family. A life-long dog lover, Hensel said, “He is my partner at work but when I bring him home, he is just a member of the family.”
Otto’s temperament allows him to switch from being a working dog, focused on following Hensel’s commands, back to being to a family pet. When working, he wears a special collar. The collar signals Otto that it’s time to go to work. “As soon as he sees the collar, he perks right up” said Hensel.
Off duty, Otto’s favorite thing to do is play. “He is a high-drive dog,” said Hensel. “He’ll play all day. He loves anything that resembles a ball and field. You basically have to tear him off that field.”
Which is a good trait, considering that is how Otto is rewarded. When he completes a task or follows a command, he is rewarded with a toy.
Although the breed can live to be as old as 17, the intense focus required by K-9 dogs can be stressful. The dogs typically retire when they are between six and nine years old. “The objective is for them to have some kind of life outside the job,” said Hensel. “They are under a lot of stress compared to a household pet. At home I just let him completely relax, and chase squirrels and birds and play with the kids.”
Otto demonstrated his skills when he was called on to locate a series of M-80s hidden in the air vents at a school. The loud, explosive firecrackers were going off at night and the sheriff’s office was getting complaints from neighbors. “It was neat to see him work, sticking his nose in every crevice and pinpointing the devices. He definitely did his job,” said Hensel.
Otto’s unique skills also are used to “sweep” hotels and convention centers before important dignitaries arrive. He has worked with Presidential details and helps maintain safety during Giants games and other large public events. Even in a crowd, Otto’s focus is still on Hensel. “It makes me proud to see that the training is working, that I have his attention at all times, which is what I need,” said Hensel.
“People always see the K-9 on my shirt and they ask a million questions and they want to see the dog,” said Hensel. “I love talking about it and I love introducing him to people. I have been with the sheriff’s office for 10 years and working with Otto has definitely been my favorite assignment.”