Quiet Warrior: How a famous Calif. K-9 takes a bite out of crime
K-9 Puskas, whose heroics captured the world’s attention earlier this year, lives to serve and protect his community
Sponsored by 5.11 Tactical
By Cole Zercoe for PoliceOne BrandFocus
Santa Ana Officer Luis Galeana knew he couldn’t get to the suspect in time. The parolee, wanted for trying to run over a cop, had just crashed into multiple vehicles and violently carjacked a woman during an afternoon rush-hour pursuit through several cities. He was now on foot and heading toward an office complex. Galeana believed he was armed. People were still inside the building. He couldn’t get there in time, but he knew Puskas, his K-9, could.
The police dog quickly closed the gap, rushing up the long driveway of the complex and taking down the suspect with a running jump. When the pair fell backwards, Puskas hit the curb. The K-9 lost all of his incisor teeth from the impact and let go of his grip for a brief moment, allowing the suspect to temporarily gain the upper hand. As the suspect grabbed Puskas’ throat and tried to strangle him, the dog managed to free himself and grab his attacker by the arm. Puskas didn’t let go again until Galeana took the suspect into custody.
News footage of Puskas’ heroics in February quickly went viral and made the 9-year-old police dog from Southern California an international star. But for Puskas and Galeana, the dramatic capture seen around the world was just another day on the job. It was what Puskas trains for every single day. Like all K-9s, it’s what he lives for.
“He did great despite the injuries he sustained. He stayed in the fight. All of our dogs would have done the same thing,” Galeana said. “Maybe not as dramatically. I will brag about Puskas a bit; he's very athletic, so I don't know that all our dogs would have leaped 15 feet for a bite.”
PASSION TO SERVE
Galeana and Puskas – named after the famous Hungarian soccer player Ferenc Puskás – have been partners for three years. For Galeana, working every day with Puskas is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade law enforcement career in which he’s worn many hats, including patrol cop, motor officer and FTO.
“When I was growing up, officers used to stop in our neighborhoods to say hi and hand out baseball cards, which left a good impression on me. Ever since then, I wanted to be a police officer – to get out there and help the community,” Galeana said. “My ultimate goal was to be a K-9 officer. I grew up around dogs, so I’ve always been comfortable with them. Early in my teens, I had a German shepherd that I trained, and it’s something I always enjoyed doing. It’s just rewarding to see what you can teach a dog to do.”
Puskas, like his handler, has an unwavering passion for the job. Under Galeana’s command, the dog has had 10 apprehensions – from domestic violence suspects to wanted parolees. That’s on top of the bites – Galeana estimates around three or four – Puskas had under his previous handler, who retired before Puskas was eligible for his own move to civilian life.
“Our dogs get a lot of work,” Galeana said. “Puskas has done really well with us.”
ONE TOUGH PUP
Behind all of the successful police work is an intense level of training, which is where Puskas’ dedication to the job is most evident. Despite being the oldest of the seven K-9s in the Santa Ana Police Department, Galeana says Puskas is the most agile. Like all of the PD’s dogs, Puskas came from Europe having already received some training in control, obedience, agility and bite work. From there, he underwent a five-week training course with his handler to mold what he’d already learned into police work.
Those five weeks got him into the field, but the work didn’t stop there. Puskas formally trains with Galeana four hours each week in addition to an eight-hour session with the entire K-9 team per month. And that’s just the formal training.
“If I'm going out in the field to just toss the ball with him, we work on control,” Galeana said. “We're constantly training and making sure our dogs are up to par for when we need to use them on the streets.”
Anyone with a dog knows that training isn’t always easy. In addition to the difficulties that come with training a "normal" dog, getting a K-9 where it needs to be presents its own set of challenges. As high-drive dogs, it can be difficult for K-9s to obey commands in the middle of activities such as chasing a ball. Bite work and directional training can also be difficult, and require regular refresher sessions, Galeana says.
“We train every week to make sure we keep that up, because once you have the dog where he should be, where he listens to you, you've got to keep that and maintain it, otherwise the dog is going to think, ‘Oh, I can do whatever I want today,” Galeana said.
Some dogs are more stubborn than others. Galeana considers himself fortunate that Puskas is a good listener.
“He’s a very senior dog and understands the game, so he listens well,” Galeana said.
It’s hard to overstate the intensity of K-9 training, and it takes a tough pup to be a successful working dog. Of the three injuries Puskas has suffered in the line of duty, two of them came during exercises. In the middle of his initial five-week course, he fractured his jaw during a takedown and lost one of his canine teeth. Years later, during a desert session with a neighboring agency’s SWAT team, he was bit by a rattlesnake and required two days of hospitalization.
“Poor dog’s been through quite a lot,” Galeana said. “He’s cost my department a lot of money,” he added, jokingly.
When Puskas was injured in February, he needed surgery to pull out his broken teeth, get the roots removed and take bone fragments out of his gums.
For a handler, seeing your partner injured can be extremely difficult. But Galeana wasn’t worried about the dog’s physical pain – Puskas didn’t even seem aware he was injured. What Galeana feared was his partner’s ability to continue working in law enforcement.
“What I didn't want to do is retire him because of the injury,” Galeana said. “I want to retire him because he's completed his service and he's done his job to the best of his ability. I want him to continue to work because our dogs don't do well with retirement.”
THE WORKING DOG’S STRUGGLE
Thankfully, Puskas’ injuries were not career-ending. Besides being a little impatient to return to work, his recovery went smoothly and he was in fighting shape a couple of months after the incident. But Puskas will eventually have to retire. For an animal so eager to serve, transitioning from working dog to pet can be difficult – sometimes disastrous. Galeana has seen what can happen to a K-9 when they have to become a house pet when all they want to do is work.
With Puskas’ retirement fast approaching (Santa Ana K-9s normally hang up the badge at age 10 or 11), Galeana has worked with the dog over time at learning to be a pet and letting go of the law enforcement side of his life that he loves so much.
“I don't want to shock him when he suddenly doesn't come to work, because they lose their mind. That's all he knows. So, I've been steadily breaking him into the house so he can get accustomed to being a pet,” Galeana said. “Puskas is very well tempered, which is great because at home he understands he's off work and doesn't have to be on the lookout. He’s not destructive, so he doesn't chew on anything. I got lucky that way because he has no interest in doing any of that. He's doing really well inside the house.”
COP’S BEST FRIEND
For Galeana, Puskas is both partner and family. He spends more time with him than anyone else in his life. On the beat, Galeana knows Puskas will always have his back. When they’re not tossing a ball, training, or responding to a call, they’re out in the squad car looking for crime.
“If there was a hidden camera in my car, people would think I'm crazy because I talk to Puskas all the time. If someone cuts me off I'll say, 'Can you believe he just cut me off? Should we stop him? Should we not?’ Just like it's another person in the car,” Galeana said.
When they’re not protecting the community on the beat, they’re making an impact inside the classroom.
“He's been a great ambassador to our department. We do a lot of demonstrations for schools,” Galeana said. “He loves being in the spotlight and the kids love him.”
At the end of a long shift back at home, Puskas is a guardian and companion for Galeana’s wife and his two teenage kids.
“Puskas loves them dearly,” Galeana said. “These dogs are mostly single-person – they don't respond to anybody else but the handler. But Puskas listens at home. If I leave a room, of course he'll get up and follow me, just because that's what he does – he follows me everywhere I go. But if I'm not home, he follows my daughter.”
Ultimately, Galeana can’t imagine a better partnership, or a stronger friendship, than what he has with Puskas.
“It's a good feeling to know that every time I get out of the car, he's always looking at me – always – and I know he's got my back. All I gotta do if I get into any kind of trouble is push a button on my belt and he'll come out running to defend me.
“Even though he's a really tough dog, he'll lay down and give me his stomach to scratch. That's a sign of domination, so most police dogs won't do that. But Puskas is OK with it. He's a sweetheart of a dog and I trust him to protect me, my family, my fellow officers, anybody. So I have to make sure that he's safe and he's well taken care of so that he can continue to protect all of us. I would do anything for that dog.”
About the Author
Cole Zercoe is the senior associate editor of PoliceOne, responsible for writing and editing news articles, original columns, product articles and trade show coverage. From the latest police technologies and innovations to the emerging threats cops face in the digital age, his features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.