About 30 police dogs and their handlers will show off their crime-fighting skills Saturday at the 26th annual "Best of the West" Police K-9 Competition held at Big Valley Grace Community Church and High School in north Modesto.
The event's purpose has always been to sharpen the police dogs' skills and to expose the K-9 teams to the public. But organizers have expanded the event this year, offering spectators more to see, learn and experience.
"We've combined the K-9 competition with a safety fair, which opened up a lot of opportunities for law enforcement," said Lt. Ron Cloward, one of the event organizers and supervisor for the Modesto Police Department's K-9 unit. "We want to offer a hands-on experience to the public, especially the kids."
The event will be held at the church at 4040 Tully Road at Pelandale Avenue in Modesto. The K-9 competition begins at 8 a.m. The safety fair and police demonstrations begin at 10 a.m.
Along with the K-9 competition, spectators can watch demonstrations from SWAT teams, police equestrian units, bomb squads, dive teams and motorcycle units, Cloward said.
The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department helicopter is scheduled to land at the event about 9 a.m. and then go on display. Cloward said they are inviting the public to get up close with all members of the law enforcement teams.
"There's always a barrier between officers and the public -- it's the police car," Cloward said. "These type of events break down that barrier. You get the officers out of their cars and meeting citizens."
The Modesto police K-9 unit will be competing as it does every year with officers from agencies throughout Northern California. Cloward said the event will test police dogs' abilities in searching, obedience and agility.
The event has been held in recent years at Tuolumne River Regional Park in southwest Modesto, but the organizers were happy to hear Big Valley Grace Community Church wanted to host the competition this year.
"There are three baseball fields at the church's school, so we can have the competitive events going almost simultaneously," Cloward said. "Nothing will slow down all day long."
Plus, the organizers wanted to make it easier for spectators to find the event. Cloward said audience size has dwindled in recent years, so they are working to attract a larger crowd.
"I would be ecstatic to see 1,000 people at the competition," Cloward said. "But I would also be happy to see 500 people there."
The Modesto Police Canine Association and Save Mart are co-sponsoring the event. Cloward said Save Mart has put together 400 emergency packets with instructions on what to do in various emergencies along with several goodies inside for children.
Several vendors will set up booths at the event promoting and selling items for dog lovers. The Modesto police Explorers will be selling grilled hot dogs and hamburgers.
In addition to the competition and demonstrations, there will be several informational booths at the event offering crime prevention tips along with free child safety seat inspections. The American Red Cross will be on hand to answer questions about disaster relief efforts.
Saturday will be the second part of the competition. The first phase is the narcotics search held Friday evening. But that part of the competition is never held in public because under- cover officers also handle police dogs.
One of the more popular portions of the competition is the protection phase on Saturday, in which the dogs are tested in their ability to perceive an attack on their officer and to defend them. Cloward said this test highlights the bond that is created between the officers and their four-legged partners.
Modesto police officer Dwight Miller and his partner, Bass, a 2-year-old German shepherd, are working hard to develop that bond. They've been working on patrol together since November, so they aren't quite ready to compete in Saturday's event.
"It's still a little too early for him," Miller said about his dog. "He's still got to get used to the street."
Miller and Bass are training to head to their first competition later this year.
Modesto police officer Daniel Phillips and his partner, Chuck, a 3-year-old German shepherd, have formed that tight bond as competitors and as crime fighters. They participated in three K-9 competitions last year, and they've been on patrol together since July 2006.
"They're never going to let you down," Phillips said about police dogs. "They're always there for you."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.