Girls rule when it comes to fighting crime in and around Lake Elsinore and Wildomar.
Deputy Kari Cranfill and a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois named Tessa represent the sole K-9 unit at the Lake Elsinore sheriff’s station. The two females have been patrolling the community as a team since November, and despite their smaller statures they are a formidable force.
Deputy Cranfill, petite and fit, explained that 65-pound Tessa, who has a somewhat high-pitched ladylike bark, is just as efficient as any larger, more macho patrol dog.
Tessa, Cranfill said, holds her own against the boys, and she is also trained to do narcotics work.
“She fits my size, and she does the job very well,” Cranfill said with a smile. “The only difference with her is that she squats when she pees.”
In total, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department currently owns 22 dogs that are part of the K-9 unit; 12 of them are patrol dogs like Tessa.
As Cranfill explained, patrol work is a demanding career. It requires a canine temperament that is obedient, skilled and determined. According to Cranfill, the sheriff’s department has had good success finding this unique mix in foreign-born dogs.
“Tessa was shipped over from Holland,” she said. “We get a lot of our dogs there. They breed and train very good working dogs.”
Cranfill, who was sworn into the department seven years ago, said K-9 work has been her dream since high school.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do,” she said.
During her department tenure, Cranfill has been involved with K-9 training in various capacities for four years. She is now Tessa’s patrol partner, handler and after-hours caretaker. But the deputy has also been the recipient of her partner’s ferocious teeth.
The two completed a six-week basic academy together to prepare for K-9 patrol work, which involved Cranfill playing the “person in the suit.”
“I was the decoy – the suspect,” Cranfill said of the six-week training. “We have to train the dogs to chase and ‘apprehend,’ which means bite. I wore pads for protection, but it's still a little painful.”
Despite the training, Cranfill insists patrol dogs are not attack animals.
“If a suspect stops, as he or she is supposed to, the dogs are trained to do a ‘guarded bark,’ but if the person moves the dog is trained to apprehend,” Cranfill explained. “During her training, Tessa wagged her tail the whole time, even when she was biting me. For her, it’s just a game.”
The game, Cranfill continued, involves honing in on a dog’s predatory instinct.
“In nature, they search for prey to eat. We just fine-tune the instinct – we tweak it,” she said.
The canine’s keen ability to search using sense of smell proves invaluable to law enforcement.
“We use them mostly for their noses,” Cranfill said. “With a trained dog, a search takes about an eighth of the time it normally would if there were just human officers.”
Cranfill relays a recent incident in which Tessa helped arrest a suspect who was wanted on an outstanding felony warrant.
“She found the guy hiding in a cupboard,” Cranfill said, noting that Tessa held the suspect on her own. “The guy did what he was supposed to do – he didn’t move.”
Cranfill said having Tessa on patrol with her provides added security.
“If it’s late and I’m doing paperwork in my car, I know she’s going to hear things before I do. When pursuing suspects, she will find them before we do,” Cranfill said. “These dogs save officers’ lives.”
Standing outside Cranfill’s patrol car one sunny afternoon, Tessa, who is on duty, is an obedient public relations ambassador. She sits when she’s supposed to; says “hi” when she’s allowed. No signs of aggression -- everyone gets along just fine
The display highlights Tessa’s diversity as patrol dog and loyal companion.
“At home, she’s just a dog,” Cranfill said. “But when I put on my uniform, she knows it’s time to go to work.”
Does Tessa like her current gig?
“I think she really does,” Cranfill said. “She has a purpose.”