Railroads & Locomotives History Amtrak police dogs

Amtrak police dogs

By Nastassia Putz | August 21, 2023

Dutifully trained to serve and protect the rails and its passengers

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Amtrak police dogs

canine police dog in station
Officer Bobby Williams’ canine partner Diesel is one of many dogs protecting New York Penn Station and Moynihan Train Hall. APD/Emily Moser

More than 50 police dogs serve and protect Amtrak’s trains and stations throughout the United States. From birth to adulthood, these canines are trained to work with their human counterparts, protecting them from threats such as bombs. A few of the dogs are solely trained to detect narcotics.

In fact, when Amtrak’s canine program began in the 1980s, it started with narcotics detection dogs. By 1996 the Explosive Detection Canine program was born, with then-officer Captain Kevin O’Connell and his yellow lab Charlie as the first EDC team.

With a sense of smell estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than a human’s, these dogs are the next level in policing airports, malls, schools, and in this case, Amtrak stations. Their main job is to keep us safe, and as a bonus, they look cute doing it — but don’t pet them. These dogs patrol for a reason and distraction won’t up their pay grade.

So what is it like working around big, noisy trains and brilliant, law enforcement canines? Robert Smith, K-9 unit police captain for the Amtrak Police Department in New York, explains their vital importance. From having his own K-9 partners as a handler to now managing other K-9 teams, Smith has 40 years of police  experience — approximately 16 with Amtrak. He started from the ground up as an Amtrak police officer who was promoted to sergeant, then administrative captain, and now oversees the explosive and narcotics detection K-9 teams across the country.

 K-9 units: A public service role

officer and dog screening passengers
Amtrak Police Sergeant Micah Jones and his K9 partner Bonnie screening passengers at Washington Union Station. APD

According to Smith, Amtrak’s K-9 explosive detection teams are deployed nationwide to detect potential explosives threats and to act as a highly visible deterrent. However, they are non-intrusive to the public. They are one of many tools used to deter crime and terrorism for Amtrak. Their added benefit is positive customer relations. These dogs fill a unique role.

Canine teams throughout the U.S. work at various security levels. This includes the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, other federal, state, and local law enforcement, and emergency management agencies — all part of a collaborative interagency initiative to keep the public safe.

Amtrak’s K-9 explosives detection teams are divided between standard EDC teams and those with Person Screening Capability (PSC) detection dogs. An EDC with PSC is a dog specifically trained to react to explosives on the move. So, rather than sniffing out an explosive device that is stationary, like in an abandoned piece of luggage, these dogs can track a device that is on a moving body by targeting the odor still lingering in the air. As a private vendor, Global K9 Protection Group works with Auburn University to procure both EDC and EDC with PSC dogs for Amtrak.

The Transportation Security Administration’s National Explosive Detection Canine Team Program provides Amtrak with dogs, training, and certifications. As a partner, Amtrak complies with the requirements of the NEDCTP and receives explosives used for training, called Canine Explosive Training Aids, and the “magazines,” the term for the building, storehouse, or structure where the aids are stored for training purposes. Amtrak also provides space on some of its properties to house TSA explosive magazines used to store training materials for TSA’s airport dogs, according to Smith.

Amtrak currently has the most K-9 teams with person-screening capabilities in the railroad industry. The railroad additionally has two working K-9 narcotics detection teams. At a glance, the dogs look quite similar, and telling them apart is impossible for the average rail passenger.

Again, the dogs aren’t deterrents, but rather a customer-relations tool with the function of being an explosive (or narcotics) detection dog, confirms Smith.

When the program was revamped in 2007 under the direction of then-Amtrak Chief of Police John O’Connor, the explosive detection program expanded from a dozen dogs nationwide to more than 50.

If the railroad has a situation, like an unattended bag, the dogs are trained to detect and alert their handler to a potential threat. However, the canines are not permitted to search an item that has been deemed suspicious.

It’s not ideal for Amtrak to shut the railroad down unnecessarily. That is why these dogs are essential for daily operation. Since bomb threats and criminal activity are frequent, a shutdown because of a threat may be imminent.

Sink or Swim

Looking at the depth of the involvement in training helps to shed light on these dogs’ expertise.

According to Smith, canine training builds proficiency in both the handler and the dog. Amtrak’s contracted dog trainers build upon the basic handling and detection skills taught in canine school to help create a stronger team. “If deficiencies in the team are observed, the trainer can quickly provide corrective actions to facilitate improvement,” notes Smith. “We’re fortunate because a lot of our training takes place operationally.”

Amtrak’s unique operational environment cannot be replicated in a classroom. Each real-life scenario presents its own challenges that daily training helps to overcome. Thus, operational training takes place in locations such as crowded stations, on board moving trains, in occupied office space, and in large, open vehicle lots. Running a successful canine program requires increased training time for canine teams, Smith says, and officers can expect to see this nationwide.

officer by car with dog in it
Officer John Petrosky with canine partner Jewel outside of Amtrak station in Wilmington, Del. Courtesy of Officer John Petrosky/APD

“A mall or stadium doesn’t compare to being at New York Penn Station or Chicago Union Station,” Smith says. “The volume of people that come through, the noise, the sounds, the trains, the elevators, the escalators — there’s so much going on and the thousands of people that traverse through and across the area where our dogs are working, that can’t be replicated.”

Within six weeks or less, the officers can typically see if their dogs are getting acclimated to the environment.

For Amtrak passengers, it’s not unusual to see a police dog on a train searching for explosives while in transit, or to see a dog in the station as they travel.

In 2015, Officer John Petrosky felt fortunate enough to join Amtrak’s K-9 unit. He has been stationed in Wilmington, Del., since. Petrosky and Jewel — his canine partner — patrol territory that extends as far west as Pittsburgh. “It’s been a blessing,” says Petrosky.

Petrosky left a small-town police force, which had a dog, to join the Amtrak K-9 unit. He favors this job, and after patrolling the Mid-Atlantic metropolitan area for as long as he has, Petrosky can’t help but notice that Jewel’s training is far superior to other agencies’ dogs. Jewel receives training Monday through Friday, and Petrosky says it shows in her performance.

Officer Jonathan Kalnicki is still relatively new to Amtrak. He joined the K-9 unit three years ago; it was exactly what he always wanted to do. He grew up with dogs in his home and, of course, is no stranger to the TV series Cops from the late 1980s. He says his first canine partner, Ash, is by far his best friend. They spend countless hours together. Ash even has an Instagram page (k_9_ash) with approximately 1,300 followers.

After patrolling the Washington metro area, he agrees with Petrosky on the expertise of the Amtrak dogs due to the extent of their training. Trainers will work on specific things with each dog and handler based on the different needs of each station.

Conventional EDC teams and EDC with PSC teams also have different training methods. “They utilize each team to maximize the benefit of the dog and the handler,” says Kalnicki.

police officer holding his black lab
Officer Jonathan Kalnicki is on duty with Ash, his canine partner, by his side. Courtesy of Officer Jonathan Kalnicki/APD

Work/life balance

Although the dogs play a vital role in a passenger’s safety, they are also valued family members to their handlers. The police officers are with their canine companion seven days a week, 24 hours a day. This becomes a seven- to 10-year-long bond.

At the beginning of a dog’s Amtrak service life, it is typically 2 to 3 years old. A dog comes out of basic training with a high-calorie diet and routine that is immediately tweaked to Amtrak’s standards. This new recommended diet comes from the first vet appointment. Dogs are assessed right away, as weight affects their overall health.

On the home front, when the police officer is not working, the dog is resting and eating. The excitement of doing their job is play and fun for the animals. Smith shares that his dogs knowingly take on the posture of, “Hey I’m off duty now, I am going to go in my crate, I’m going to eat my dinner, I’m going to play a little, and then I’m going to go to bed.” He continues, “It’s phenomenal how smart these dogs are.”

The typical Amtrak career for a dog is roughly five to six years. Amtrak’s dog trainers begin watching the dogs more closely around age 8, assessing them medically and operationally. “We’ve had dogs literally just stop working and get sick one day,” says Smith. The dog is then taken out of service and retired.

Police dogs vary in their peak performance age. At 8 to 10 years old, on average, they are reaching retirement. It’s a very small window when the dog can perform at its best, according to Smith. “It’s hard,” he says. “The hard part is having to make that consideration.” These dogs are at least a seven-year investment and bond closely with their handlers. The hope for retirement is that the dog gets to live for a few years just as a dog — running in the yard, eating what it wants, lounging, and not having to get up for work every day.

“The goal is that they live a full life with their families [handlers],” says Smith. “My dog Jake has changed a great deal after retirement.”

On-the-job injuries or sicknesses are also something to be aware of, and happen more than you may think. Each officer is equipped with a police K-9 vehicle that has some type of kennel in it — in fact, the newest vehicles come with cages installed. If a dog is injured on the job, the handler, alongside another officer, will get it into the vehicle and rush it to the nearest emergency vet. Cruisers in the Washington, D.C., area, Kalnicki says, are equipped with devices that alert the handlers if the temperature inside the vehicle rises too high or drops too low for the dog’s safety. There are also policies for how long a dog can be left alone inside a vehicle.

Smith’s dog Jake, for instance, accidentally ingested a paper bag full of turkey on Thanksgiving Day and by evening was in distress. All handlers are trained in first aid and emergency vehicle operation to get to the nearest hospital, Smith says. If the dog is shot or intentionally injured, each state has different laws regarding animal cruelty — ultimately resulting in either a misdemeanor or a felony for the offending party. Police dogs are becoming widely viewed and accepted as police officers by the legal system, which leads to harsher punishments more reflective of the crime.

Smith notes Amtrak recently reinvigorated the K-9 Badge Project that began in 1996. The dogs now have a badge similar to those worn by Amtrak police officers, placed in a leather holder. It’s something to look for next time you see one of these canines in a station or on a train.

Crystal clear expectations

Besides aging out of the program, some dogs are unable to acclimate to Amtrak’s unique operational environment. There are instances when dogs successfully complete basic training, yet underperform once on the job. These dogs are returned to the provider — as stated in the contracts — so that other dogs can be sent in as replacements.

One of Smith’s dogs that was previously trained in airports and subway stations came to Amtrak, and lo and behold, needed to work through certain issues. The dog would get startled, Smith says, and if a dog gets frightened it can become permanently skittish in that environment.

Another expectation of duty is canine deployment. This is subject to change on a case-by-case basis. As the Chief expands the coverage area, passengers may begin seeing more dogs and police officers in areas that don’t normally have them. For instance, if there is a specific need in one part of the country because of an event, dogs may be redeployed from their normal territory.

From the Northeast Corridor to the Midwest to California, each one of these canines is a real-life hero. “They come out every day, and we put them through the rigors … a dog’s life is very different than the life we put them through,” says Smith. He believes that if these dogs knew what they were really doing, they probably wouldn’t do it. Imagine the officers; their hearts are beating; their blood pressure goes up … With humor, Smith says most dogs would probably just choose to go lie down in their crates and take a nap.

However, what is amazing and truly special to understand is “we are putting them in harm’s way, yet they do it with love and joy,” says Smith. During training he has witnessed these dogs excited, jumping up and down when they find a bomb. “That’s what they live for … Their No. 1 job is to find that bomb, find those drugs, etc.,” he says.

The next time you visit an Amtrak station, consider acknowledging the K-9 team for their rigorous service on the rails.

3 thoughts on “Amtrak police dogs

  1. 2 dogs and out. No accountability for lazy handlers. No training with outside agencies. Just a hope and a dream the program will get better under new management.

  2. I agree Jorge. How good can the program be if they give dogs to people who fail their re-teaming process? Favoritism at its finest.

  3. The article fails the mention several important pieces of information:

    1) The K9 officers now report to the patrol division. Dogs are often left in vehicle or told to leave them in crates so officers can respond to calls involving homeless and other low level crimes.

    2) None of the Amtrak owned dogs from Global K9 or the now defunct VWK9 are certified by a third party annually. These dogs haven’t been properly trained and is unacceptable for a large organization tasked with protecting the public.

    3) TSA handlers are asked to fudge the numbers and over-inflate their training hours so that they don’t get decertified. This is mainly due to the same problem as above; officers are tasked with patrol calls when they should be a separate command structure that they once were.

    This article is misleading; leading people to believe this once great program still is. The truth is that trainers are recycled every few months, dog quality has decreased significantly, and officers are spending more time dealing with homeless than actually patrolling with dogs to protect the traveling public. Instead the commander seems more preoccupied with badges than fixing problems.

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