In his 17 years as a canine handler for the Border Patrol, Agent Ramon Lemos has had to travel far and wide to train with his new canine partners. So when he got the opportunity to do training in Yuma for his fourth and final canine partner, he was thrilled.
Although Lemos was able to start his canine career with training at his home sector of El Centro, California, he had to travel to the Canine Center in El Paso (CCEP) for his subsequent two canine partners. With 23 years of service in the Border Patrol, Lemos expects his newest partner, a German shepherd, to be his last before he retires.
Lemos is one of eight handlers in the “export class” hosted by the Yuma Sector Canine Unit, which is a training class specifically for returning handlers.
“CCEP is not conducting any classes [due to Covid],” said Mark Sims, special operations supervisor for Yuma’s canine unit. “They are [still] training dogs there and exporting the classes.”
Sims said the export class is for agents who are already certified as handlers, which means they have gone through the certification course and taken a written test.
Although the Yuma Sector Canine Unit has conducted canine certification training here in the past, to include training handlers from other law enforcement agencies, Sims said this is the first time they have hosted handlers from other sectors.
There are three returning handlers from Yuma Sector, two from El Paso Sector, one from Spokane Sector and two from El Centro Sector, he said. The class started at the beginning of the month and will run five weeks, at the end of which handlers will go through the certification process with their new canine partners.
Mike Lopez, a CCEP course developer instructor and supervisor, came to Yuma from El Paso, Texas, to be the lead instructor for the course. Lopez said this is the second export class he has instructed. The first class was in Tucson, and he will travel to Laredo for the next class. Lopez worked with most of the canines during their initial training at the canine center.
“Dogs are trained for seven weeks at CCEP before they are assigned to a hander,” he said, adding that he brought the canines with him to Yuma from the canine center.
Lopez said at the canine center the canines are exposed to concealed humans and five trained odors – marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Once the canines complete the initial portion of the training, they are paired with a handler and the team learns how to work together.
“We are exposing the teams to various environments that they may encounter in the field and exposing them to all the different types of searches they’ll be expected to perform during their certifications,” Lopez said.
BPA Dan Parrott, who is assigned to the Metaline Falls Station in Spokane Sector, had the furthest to drive for the canine training class; however, he said it is still much closer for him than the first time he attended canine training in Front Royal, Virginia. He is also no stranger to Yuma, having started his Border Patrol career here as a northern border intern. He was part of a temporary program that hired agents for the northern border but required them to complete 10 months of training along the southern border before reporting to their official duty station.
Besides the shorter drive, Parrott said another advantage of the export class is the smaller class size.
“There’s more one-on-one with the instructors,” he said.
Parrott, whose newest canine partner is a German shepherd, has been a handler for over four years and said he mostly works at the port of entry and with other law enforcement agencies.
Most of the handlers will be working with their canine partners at their sector’s checkpoints, as well as assisting at the ports of entry and aiding other law enforcement agencies during vehicle stops and when serving warrants as needed.
David Birmingham, a supervisory canine instructor assigned to the Blythe Station, is assisting Lopez as an instructor for the export class.
Birmingham, a handler for 15 years and instructor for 12, said he usually has to spend three months away from home when he teaches a class at the canine center.
“I’m closer to home; and it’s five weeks,” he said of this class.
Birmingham said bringing in seasoned handlers from other sectors can be a good learning experience for everyone involved.
“Returning handlers [get to] meet new instructors and possibly get a new perspective,” he said.
During their five weeks of training, the handlers spend four weeks learning how to read their canine partner’s alert and respond accordingly. They are then tested on those abilities in the last week.
“The goal is to put out a productive team to their respective stations,” Lopez said.