GOLETA, Calif. - Since the 1980s, dogs have played a vital role at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. The deputy and dog develop a special bond, and the canines truly show why they're man's best friend.
NewsChannel 3 was given an exclusive look at the specialized training the SWAT team and the K-9 unit have together.
Deputy Ken Rushing learned firsthand the importance of a four-legged partner when he pulled over a car with his first K-9, Zeus.
"When I brought him out as I was approaching the driver's side door, he sat. His sit indicates that there's an odor that he's been trained to smell. He wouldn't let me go any further. And as I checked the driver's side of the car, right between the seat and the center console was a loaded handgun. I feel he saved my life that night," said Rushing.
Zeus is retired, and Rushing now has Aco, a nearly all-black German Shepard he's been training with for a year.
The pair is part of the K-9 unit along with Deputy Michael McNeil and Betti and Deputy Pat Hayes and his dog, Gango. The team partners spend nearly every waking moment together.
"It's not a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 job. It's an every day job that I really take pride in to the point where even when I go on vacation, it doesn't end there. She goes with me on my vacations," said McNeil.
"You know, we work day-in and day-out together. I feed him, I take care of him. So the bond between us is so tight," explained Hayes.
The K-9s are taught to sniff out drugs and bombs, and they also train with the SWAT team.
"It lets both sides, both the SWAT aspect and the K-9 handlers, learn the tools that are available to each of them. So it makes each unit that much better, that much more versatile, and it's a win-win situation for both of our specialty units," said Lt. Butch Arnoldi, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.
The dogs are known for their bite, but it's their noses that are the greatest tool for the department, whether it's sniffing out suspects or even checking on school campuses at night.
Rushing and Aco are often called to the county jail to search for drugs in the cells. During the NewsChannel 3 ride-along, no drugs were found, but that doesn't mean they weren't there.
"A couple of the areas that I walked with Aco and his barking, we could hear toilets flushing and sinks are running, which for us is a strong indication that people are trying to get rid of whatever illegal substance they shouldn't have in the jail," said Rushing.
The dogs still like to have a little fun, whether it be a game of catch or just a nice scratch, but they also know when it's time to get back to work.
"He's got a badge, just like me. So he knows, 'Hey, if I'm wearing this badge, I'm on duty and I'm working,'" explained Hayes.
All three dogs were hand-picked in Germany and cost just under $20,000 apiece with training costs. Most of the money comes from donations.