For the Santa Monica Police Department’s K-9 unit, a dog is much more than a man’s best friend.

The animal is a crime-fighting companion that smells and senses what its handler often can’t, keeps suspects in check and assists on a wide variety of investigations. The dog also becomes a part of its handler’s family, living with its supervising officer when the two are not on duty.

“You spend more time with the dog than you do with your family,” said Sgt. Roberto Villegas, the head of the unit. “At the end of the dog’s career, you understand and look back and think of the times you came home safely because of the dog.”

That somber reflection will continue in the unit in the coming weeks and months following the loss of Pavo, a Belgian Malinois who died of medical complications earlier this month after 7 years of service in SMPD.

The passing of Pavo means a shift in responsibilities for Officer George Mendez, who will take on different patrol duties after being partnered with Pavo for the duration of the dog’s time in the department.

It’s likely that Mendez will keep Pavo’s cremated remains, a longstanding custom in the unit. But it won’t be easy for the officer to adjust to police life without his four-legged friend.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Villegas, who has handled police dogs in the past. “I know exactly what it’s like. I’ve had dogs all my life, and most of us who are handlers are big dog lovers. The unique thing is the bond you build with them.”

Now it’s up to the department to find a replacement for Pavo, who was trained in narcotics detection as well as standard patrol operations.

The size of the Santa Monica police K-9 unit has decreased over the last decade, dropping from six officer-dog teams in 2005 to four a few years later to three a few years ago. The unit is hoping to add a fourth team, Villegas said.

Officer Greg Kapp and Boris make up one of the current teams. And Officer Louis Marioni is currently matched with Rambo, one of Villegas’ former dogs. An experienced officer will be chosen to work with Pavo’s replacement, Villegas said.

“The handling of the dog is a huge responsibility,” he said. “It will definitely be someone who has a good amount of basic patrol experience and good working knowledge of the law and case law. To add a dog in, it’s another whole set of decision-making. So it has to be someone with police experience. We never bring a brand-new person into the unit.”

The unit is also highly selective when it comes to its dogs.

Villegas recently contacted Dave Reaver of Riverside-based Adlerhorst International, a police K-9 import and training company, to inform him that SMPD is in the market for a dog. Reaver’s animals typically come from countries like Germany and the Czech Republic. Pavo, for example, came from the Netherlands.

“It really has to do with the bloodlines,” Villegas said. “When it comes to breeding, here [in the U.S.] the focus has been on the look. We generally go to Europe because they’ve had more focus on the athleticism. It’s not to say they don’t exist here, but that’s why we generally go to Europe.”

Police officials will test several dogs and choose one to keep based on their needs.

Then the training begins. Already boasting a foundation in the kinds of skills necessary to work in high-pressure situations, the dog goes through a rigorous 6-week training course with the assigned officer. Specific training sessions for narcotics, explosives or suspect location require additional time for the K-9 team.

“And the training never ends,” Villegas said. “There’s individual training the handler does with his dog on a daily basis, and the training continues as long as the dog is in service.”

Because of their olfactory capabilities, the dogs assist police on drug busts and searches for suspects, explosives or missing children.

In 2009, Pavo was involved in the search for suspects following the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Richard Manuel Juarez at Virginia Avenue Park. In 2010, Pavo helped authorities comb the area around Pico and Lincoln boulevards after a suspect shot at Officer Benito Seli.

“It’s such a game-changer for suspects,” Villegas said. “Most decide to comply and not be unruly because of the presence of the dog. It’s really a result of the work that the dogs do.”

Police dogs are also asked to assist on patrol operations and maintain a presence in public, including at the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade.

They typically stay in service until they’re about 10 years old, Villegas said.

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