Deputy’s best friend: Learn all about the K9s in one of SC’s largest police dog units

K9 Bali, a 10-year-old Belgian malinois, crouches in the grass, waiting for his handler’s command.

He knows that if he’s patient and obedient, he’ll get his reward. But it’s not treats or toys Bali’s after. He’s waiting for a chance to achieve what his handler, Sgt Josh Newsom, says is the ultimate reward for a K9 apprehension dog like Bali the chance to bite and hold the arm of his target.

Bali and Newsom are part of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s K9 Unit, which is made up of 26 dogs and their handlers, Newsom said. It’s one of the largest law enforcement K9 units in South Carolina.

“We are, if not the largest, probably in the top two,” Newsom said.

Having such a large K9 team allows the sheriff’s department to hold long manhunts, even on hot summer days when dogs may get tired quickly and can be relieved by other dogs. Investigator Drake Cobia said many criminals wouldn’t have been apprehended if the sheriff’s department didn’t have as many dogs as it does.

The sheriff’s department’s team has two dogs to detect explosives; five to detect human remains; and one to detect electronics, which is commonly used in child pornography cases. The rest of the dogs are full-service, which means they are trained in multiple skills, including tracking, apprehension, article search and narcotics detection, according to Newsom.

Bali is a full-service dog. In a recent training session, he practiced article search, where he was tasked with finding hidden objects based on human odor, and apprehension bites.

At Newsom’s command, Bali lunged from the ground and latched onto the arm of Deputy Zaid Abdullah, who wore a bite suit, a protective garment used in training.

K9s are taught to bite a suspect’s right tricep, which often disarms someone holding a gun in their right hand. Newsom said the goal of an apprehension dog is not to hurt the suspect but to hold them in place until the officers can reach them.

If the suspect is compliant, they will usually not suffer trauma from the bite. Newsom said the suspect will be left with a bite mark two small holes on the top and bottom of the arm. In Bali’s case, it would be three holes because he’s missing a tooth.

During the recent training session, Newsom called out commands to Bali in Dutch, the language Bali was trained in. Many of the K9s are trained in foreign languages, as the sheriff’s department purchases dogs from Holland, France, and the Czech Republic. It also has a German shepherd from Germany. The department’s labradors and one patrol dog were born in the United States, Newsom said.

The sheriff’s department has moved away from using American-bred German shepherds in favor of the Belgian malinois, which are less prone to health problems and have thinner coats that are better suited for sweltering South Carolina days. Malinois also tend to have more drive than German shepherds, Newsom said.

The cost of a K9

An innate, controlled drive is essential in a police dog, according to Newsom.

In addition to handling Bali and another K9 — a yellow lab named Beans — Newsom leads the sheriff’s department’s K9 unit. He’s been responsible for training new dogs and leading team training for the last six years.

When screening dogs for the K9 team, Newsom said he looks for qualities like confidence and a desire to stay busy. He needs a stable, controlled dog willing to fight when needed but not aggressive toward people who don’t pose a threat.

All of the sheriff’s department’s K9s live to work, Newsom said. Some of them become so excited to go to work that they refuse to eat. Newsom had one dog that sometimes needed to be fed in the back of his patrol car. He said that’s the inherent desire to work he wants in a K9.

“We can channel drive, we can focus it, but you can’t manufacture it,” Newsom said.

That’s part of the reason the sheriff’s department is highly selective in choosing dogs to join its team. It’s also partly why the dogs are so costly, Newsom said.

A certified, trained full-service dog typically costs around $17,000 to $17,500, he said.

Richland’s team has mostly moved away from training dogs in-house because of the time and manpower required, but Newsom said even dogs that have been purchased with training still need an additional few weeks of in-house work to meet the sheriff’s department’s standards.

In addition to the initial cost of a K9, the equipment costs another $2,000 to $3,000. That’s before factoring in the cost of the protective vests K9s wear, which cost $3,800 each, Newsom said.

The sheriff’s department’s K9 unit is almost 100% funded by donations and fundraisers, according to Newsom.

A non-profit called the K9 Godmothers does much of the fundraising for the team, he said.

Carmen Hudson founded The K9 Godmothers after K9 Fargo was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2011.

“I picked up the phone and called the sheriff and said ‘You’ve gotta let me help,’” Hudson said.

She said there wasn’t an organized system at the time for collecting donations specifically for the K9 unit. None of the dogs had protective vests and they lacked other safety equipment.

The group has since acquired vests, eye protection, ear protection, cooling units, trauma and first aid kits, the opioid overdose drug Narcan, a treadmill and other equipment for the team. It also recently purchased thermal scanners after K9 Kobe was shot in March.

“We just love the dogs, so if we hear something or the handlers say they need something, we’re all about making sure they get it,” Hudson said.

The making of a K9

K9s participate in regular training sessions for the entirety of their careers. Newsom said there is some form of K9 training held every day.

Group training sessions are held every Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and handlers spend an hour or more a day in one-on-one training sessions with their dog. A minimum of 16 hours of training is required for dogs and their handlers per month, according to Cobia.

Dogs assigned to special units may have training that looks different from that of full-service dogs. For example, K9 Buddy, a yellow lab handled by Cobia, practices detecting explosive devices. Buddy can detect about 25 explosive odors, Cobia said. Live explosives are used during training, except for products that are too unstable to be handled. For these, an odor print is used that mimics the real thing.

When Buddy finds an odor, he’s trained to sit down in front of it. Then, he’s given a reward, which is often a toy and a few minutes of play.

Dogs and their handlers are required to be re-certified every year. Dogs are tested on skills like obedience, control and their ability to track the odors they’ve been trained in. Dogs are tested with their handlers to ensure the human and K9 work well together, and an outside agency is used for certifications to maintain impartiality.

Human officers hoping to join the K9 unit also undergo an intensive screening process. Newsom said officers need to be motivated self-starters. He looks at body camera footage of potential K9 handlers to review how they’ve handled stressful situations in the past and reviews their reports to ensure they’re articulate.

Officers working with the K9 unit encounter some of the most violent and stressful situations, so potential K9 handlers must be ready for that, Newsom said.

Visits are also made to the officers’ houses to ensure their living environments are suitable for dogs.

The Marriage

Newsom compared the dog-handler relationship to a marriage. When pairing dogs and handlers together, he said it’s important that their personalities align.

“Dogs are like people in that everybody’s got a slightly different personality. And beyond that, how a dog acts with one handler is not how it’s going to act with another one,” he said.

Newsom described Bali as hard-headed and a little grumpy. He wouldn’t be a good fit for an inexperienced handler. Alternatively, a dog that is more easy-going but doesn’t have very high initiative might not work for Newsom, he said.

When dogs and handlers are found to be a good match, the dog lives with the handler at home. Between living with the dogs and spending 12-hour days in training and on calls, Cobia said some days they spend more time with the dogs than with their families. Although that isn’t ideal, it creates a bond that’s hard to describe, Cobia said.

Newsom agreed.

“If you’ve never run a dog that you have absolute confidence in, in a situation that’s extremely dangerous, it’s very hard to describe what that’s like to have a partner you have that much trust, that much confidence in,” he said.

Newsom said the K9 handlers at the sheriff’s department can detect subtleties in their dogs’ body language that others wouldn’t pick up on. It’s a deep understanding that comes from spending so much time together.


In Newsom’s experience, dogs don’t usually retire with post-traumatic stress or heightened levels of aggression. But there’s typically a three-month period when the dogs don’t understand why they aren’t working anymore. They can become frustrated and feel like they’re being punished. But as time passes, they adjust to their new lives.

“Most of them turn into very good couch potatoes after three or four months,” Newsom said.

Dogs are usually retired when they develop health issues that make work difficult or painful for them, Newsom said.

Most handlers permanently adopt their K9s when they retire. Newsom said during his time with the K9 unit, he’s never seen a handler turn down adopting their dog. Cobia and Newsom both plan to adopt their K9s after the dogs retire.

“As grumpy as Bali is, he’s still my baby. I’m going to keep him after he retires. That’s my boy. We’re going to sit on the porch together,” Newsom said.