I hear the beast before I see him, his humid, heavy breathing filling the darkness, bouncing off the discarded junk strewn across the factory floor. He’s trying to find me. I’m curled into a fetal ball on a shelf of a musty plywood cage, locked in from the outside, straining to make myself smaller. He’s getting closer, and his panting makes a rhythm with his loping strides as he pads across the floor, his breath and the soft slap slap slap of his paws stopping and starting as he searches for me, smelling the air for my fugitive scent.
I tilt my head to see his shadow, the afternoon sunlight sliding under the metal door, framing his ears, head and neck as he sniffs the ground, the walls and everything else in front of him. The fear’s rising in my chest, and I want to scream for help but don’t. I stay silent and motionless, watching him pace back and forth across the dirty concrete, searching for me, his target.
Seconds ago, I heard a voice shout, “This is the Hillsborough Police Department’s K9 unit. This dog will search this building. He will find you, and he will bite you.” This preamble could have included reference to “Admiral Lollipop from the Petunia Brigade,” and a “my pet unicorn Herschel,” but I was too fixated on that last part – the “He will bite you” phrase - to hear much else. There’s just something about being locked in a chicken wire cell in an abandoned plastics factory in Goffstown while a fanged animal hunts for you to make you reflect on your place in the universe.
There’s no reason for alarm, I tell myself as the dog saunters closer. I’ll just use my safe word if things go sour. Except that when the officer locked me in this cage, he said nothing about words like “bunny” or “potato.” And I don’t know any German except “liverwurst,” and that’s no safe word to a hungry German.
It’s been less than two minutes but feels like forever as the dog continues searching. He slows a bit, sniffs the air, sniffs some more and trots over to my hiding spot. We lock eyes as he sits. I smile and say, “Fanto, you found me.” The dog barks and lunges towards my face, erupting in short, staccato bursts until the lights come on. With one guttural command and the toss of a rubber ball, Fanto stops barking and sits chewing his toy, happy and unimpressed I didn’t cry for my mommy.
Fanto’s been unimpressed with me the entire day, focused far more on his partner’s commands than on my feeble attempts to hide or make small talk. Fanto is the lone member of Hillsborough’s police canine unit, paired with Sergeant Nick Hodgen, Fanto’s partner, trainer and, by all accounts, best friend, and my host for the day. Sergeant Nick invited me to join him and Fanto as they train with Goffstown’s K9 unit on one of the two days each month local departments convene to work on discipline, agility, exercise, searching and biting, lots and lots of biting.
Fanto and his two cohorts – Cyrus and Koa - are muscular, fit German Shepherds with black and brown coats, massive necks and eyes that fill me both with a mix of warmth and abject fear. Nick’s human counterparts, Officers Chris Weeks and Jason Hull, make up the Goffstown K9 unit, and all three men spend every other Wednesday together with their dogs, honing their skills in dual purpose policing – patrol and narcotics – twenty hours a month. “Dogs are not like a piece of equipment that you take out when you need it. Dogs need training,” Nick tells me earlier in the day when we first meet. We’re at a park in Goffstown, minutes outside Manchester, and Nick’s running Fanto through a series of obedience drills. Fanto walks in cadence with Nick, responding to every word and tug on the leash, slight or harsh. Nick raises his arm, and Fanto moves. Nick says, “Down!” and Fanto lies down. Every time Fanto does what he’s told, Nick tosses him a rubber ball on a string. “That ball is the only thing Fanto cares about – it’s his reward,” Chris tells me as Nick puts Fanto through his paces.
“Time for bite work,” Chris announces, and Nick puts on a bite sleeve, a thick fabric tube running from his wrist to his collarbone as Jason preps Cyrus for the attack. Jason utters a few commands as Nick stands, bracing himself for the dog’s lunge. Jason shouts, “Get ‘em,” and Cyrus lashes out at Nick’s sleeve, clamping down hard and letting out a loud whine, which, translated from the German means, “This feels uber awesome.” Jason shouts, “Out!” and Cyrus releases. After a few minutes of this, the team agrees it’s time for me to get bit.
Nick helps me into the suit – a pair of thick pants with suspenders and a heavy jacket, telling me, “You’ll get pinching and bruising,” as he cinches up the pants. “The biggest effect a dog has is as a psychological deterrent,” he mentions as I waddle over to Fanto, eyeing me like I’m a two-legged mega pork chop with thinning hair. As Fanto stares, I’m being deterred psychologically, but I’m in the suit, Fanto’s ready, and I’d never make it if I try running for the woods.
Nick and Chris offer instruction, none of which I remember because Fanto’s gaze pierces my soul, tempting me to confess every transgression I’ve ever committed, and just before I admit to getting two McDLTs and only paying for one in the summer of ’84, Fanto’s jaws clamp down on my forearm, and I can feel the contours of his molars as they search for a better hold. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, I immediately regret this decision as the dog reopens his mouth and clamps down again and again, his mouth filled with healthy teeth and pinpoint fury. Everyone’s watching, including Fanto, and I can’t burst into tears, so we keep going.
Isaac Newton’s little-known Law of Canine Propulsion states, “A body at rest stays at rest; a body in motion attacked by a running dog with fangs will wet its pants.” I’m reminded of this as I jog slowly from Fanto and Jason. Instantly, Fanto barrels into me, his jaw a vice-grip on my bicep as I struggle to remain standing, wincing as the dog’s teeth pinch me through the suit. “Out!” Jason commands and Fanto heels. We finish with some bite work on my leg, and I see blood on Fanto’s gums as he engages. It’s forty degrees outside with a bitter early Spring wind, but I’m in a full sweat and out of breath. It’s Fanto’s world, and I’m just his chew toy.
Soon after we’re at the highest point in Manchester, standing atop the massive landfill next to the highway, along with the Manchester PD’s K9 unit, at least six dogs strong. This is a meeting place of sorts for police officers and their hirsute partners as everyone gets ready for the annual certification tests in June, a weekend where cops and dogs gathers to test each other’s mettle in feats of strength, speed, agility, sniffing out would-be ne’er do wells, and, one presumes, late-night beer and/or water bowl drinking contests. I watch Nick, Jason and Chris lead their dogs through an obstacle course and play a game of hide and seek that always ends with a dog biting someone in a bite sleeve.
During a break, Nick shows me his specially-outfitted K9 police cruiser. The back seat is one large metal dog pen with a small water bowl bolted to the floor, automatic fans for extreme summertime temperatures and doors Nick can open with a remote-control he wears on his belt. “If I’m out of the car and need Fanto, he can come find me.” It’s like having an on-demand superhero – one push of a button and salvation arrives.
Over lunch, the officers explain the commitment this job takes. The dogs live with their partners year-round and require constant attention. “It’s like having a four-year old on a sugar high,” Chris says. They talk about the economics of a K9 unit, and how the upfront costs of a well-bred, well-trained dog and a special cruiser are offset by the fact that a dog will go places humans won’t and the presence of a police dog is often enough to stop a suspect in his tracks. “Most of the time just the sound stops people from running,” Nick says. He tells me of an unfortunate duo suspected of pilfering copper piping from an abandoned house one night in Hillsborough. “All I had to do was pull up and let Fanto bark. They both surrendered immediately.” Jason concurs wistfully. “They all give up when they see the dog. I just wish someone would run. They always give up before the bite.”
As I rub the swelling on my arms from Fanto’s brand of justice, I silently agree to do the same thing if and when I find myself breaking the law in Hillsborough, Goffstown or the handful of other New Hampshire cities and towns with their own Fantos. The alternative is too terrifying.