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Explosives-sniffing dog to be featured at Sheriff's Department event Saturday

Annual chili cookoff helps Special Olympics, offers lots to do, eat

Posted: October 1, 2013 2:24 p.m.
Updated: October 1, 2013 2:24 p.m.
Deputy Guillermo Loza with explosives-sniffing dog Tula, a former IED-detecting Marine Corps labrador. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles County Deputy Guillermo Loza with explosives-sniffing dog Tula, a former IED-detecting Marine Corps labrador. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles County
Deputy Guillermo Loza with explosives-sniffing dog Tula, a former IED-detecting Marine Corps labrador. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles County

SANTA CLARITA - Her smooth black hair and brown eyes are beautiful, but her friendliness belies how serious her job can be.

Despite her pleasant nature, four-year-old Tula, an American Labrador Retriever, has saved hundreds of lives by doing what she’s trained to do: find hidden explosive devices using her keen sense of smell.

Some say that sense is 10,000 to 1 million times more sensitive than a human’s.

Along with her handler, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Guillermo Loza, Tula will put her talents on display Saturday when the department holds its annual “Fun in the Sun Chili Cook Off” at the Jack Bones Equestrian Center in Castaic.

A number of dogs with their handlers from Countywide Services, Transportation Services and Narcotics will be giving demonstrations throughout the day in the Kids’ Zone and before music fans seated in the bleachers during intermissions.

The event will mark a first for Tula, and it represents a departure from her experience and training.

Originally from North Carolina, she served three tours of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan, where she found more than 50 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) before returning stateside for a month of more training at the noted International K-9 in San Fernando Valley.

“Coming from a military overseas environment and coming back to civilian life was a big change for her,” Loza said. “Now she’s dealing with the public, vehicles, homes, buildings, trains and planes — which are very different scenarios from being in Afghanistan.”

As members of Countywide Services, Loza and Tula together have been called on to check suspicious packages left in parks, inspect public hearing rooms ahead of community college and county Board of Supervisors’ meetings, and check vehicles for firearms, her specialty.

“She is a Passive Focus Alert K-9,” Loza said, “meaning she will either sit or lie down and focus her nose toward the direction of the item. She will not scratch at what she finds.

“And she is a “toy reward” dog, meaning she is not given a treat. She gets a toy, usually a chew rope, which she loves to play with.”

At the end of the work day the pair head home, where Tula sleeps in a comfortable dog house and Loza greets his pet Belgian Malinois. When Loza needs to leave her, Tula stays at a department-approved kennel where an on-site veterinarian is available.

“Our (department) dogs have been trained not to be people- or animal-social,” Loza said. “They can’t be distracted by a squirrel when they’re approaching what could be a bomb. But, of course, dogs will be dogs and sometimes they will play with each other.”

One of Tula’s best pals who will also take part in Saturday’s demonstration of bomb searches is another black Lab, a three-year-old named Sstack handled by Deputy Amy Puzio of Transportation Services.

Sstack was bred through the puppy program at Lackland Air Force Base and is named in memory of Lawrence T. Stack, a 33-year veteran of the New York Fire Department who died on Sept. 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers collapsed.
“Sstack is also a focus dog, meaning he sits and stares at the explosives he finds,” Puzio said.

That singular focus was clearly and amusingly evident at a recent exercise when Sstack searched for explosives in a Metro bus as several kittens romped on a row of seats.

Typically, a dog will work between eight and 11 years until it loses its drive to prey, hunt and retrieve. When that day arrives, handlers are given the option of either giving up or adopting their dogs.

Loza intends to adopt Tula.

Being part of the K-9 team has been a career dream, even before I joined the department,” he said.




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