La Habra has gained a few new members in its K-9 unit


Maybe they can’t quite leap tall buildings in a single bound or outrun a speeding bullet the way Superman can. 

But police K9s can still outrun, out-hear and out-sniff their human partners. 

La Habra Police have had an active K9 program for over 35 years.  At any given time there have been at least two K9s on duty since the 1980s. 

Today, the La Habra Police Department has two K9s, Pasha and Rita, who, with their handlers, Officer Judy Gonzalez and Officer Travis Nelson take police work and community engagement to the next level.

Officer Gonzalez La Habra’s newest K-9 handler and first female handler, partners with Pasha, a three-year old, female Belgian Malinois from Holland.  Pasha is trained for apprehension and will likely begin training in narcotics detection in about a year.

LHPD Officer Judy Gonzalez takes her K-9 partner, Pasha, across the Mitsubishi Motors grounds to a nighttime training session.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Pasha has only been on the job for a few months, but she has already assisted in several apprehensions just by her mere presence, Gonzalez said.

“Having the dog barking is a huge benefit,” she said. “Suspects hear it and they comply. She is another tool that we have to use when dealing with violent criminals and building searches.”

Gonzalez, a veteran of the U.S. Army and six-year veteran of LHPD, sees her assignment as a K9 handler as another way to interact with the public, when on patrol.

“I love every area of Law Enforcement,” Gonzalez said. “This position gives me the ability to get to know the community in a different light and Pasha makes it easy to strike up conversations.

“Community members see Pasha and they instantly want to stop and talk and learn more about her,” Gonzalez said.

 “That gives us a way in,” the officer said. “Children want to talk to you at school. I love bonding with the community and getting to know them. Pasha is a conversation piece, once we can begin talking, I can let them know we’re human underneath the uniform.”

Officer Nelson has worked with his K9 partner Rita for almost three years now.  Rita is a 4-year old Czech Shepard and LHPD’s first ever female K9.  Rita is building up quite a resume since beginning her career with Officer Nelson, she is a very active K9 and is crossed trained in narcotics detection and suspect apprehension. 

Rita was involved in a car stop where she alerted Officer Nelson to the presence of narcotics.  As a result, 12 kilos of narcotics were located inside a car tire.

On another day, while conducting a property search in La Habra, Rita alerted to the presence of narcotics and 22 kilos of narcotics were seized.

Rita is also responsible for numerous apprehensions of violent felony suspects who posed a risk to public safety and officers, said her handler Officer Nelson.

“I like it,” Officer Nelson said of his assignment as Rita’s handler and partner. “It’s a lot of work. It’s challenging. Every day is a new challenge. When you master one thing, there are 10 more behind it that come up.”

Nelson explained, Rita also knows when it’s time for work and time to be a pet, the notion that K9s are vicious all the time is a myth.

“At home, she’s like a family pet. She is good with the kids … good with the family. She gets beat up by our little French bulldog all the time. She is a loving dog.

Police K9s are not all about what people perceive them to be. They are sweet loving dogs who want to please and at work they serve a purpose … to serve the public.”

But when Rita sees the uniform and patrol vehicle, she becomes a completely different dog and is all business, the officer said.

To become a K9 handler at the La Habra Police Department, Officers must show that they are tactically proficient, highly motivated and proactive in their daily duties.  Another much needed quality is excellent report writing skills, as their jobs require meticulous documentation of every action taken by their four-legged partner.  Once an officer is selected they are allowed to help select their future K9 partner.  Visits are made to specialized K9 kennels and once the right K9 is found, the new officer begins the training process.  They spend more time with their new partner then they do their own family for the first few months.

Rita, a K-9 from La Habra PD, follows a command by leaping over a counter to get at the decoy (pretend bad guy) during training.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

All Police K9 officers  and their partners attend a six-week K9 school to become certified. After successfully completing the K9 school, the California Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission recommends that a K9 and its handler complete at minimum 16 hours of documented training monthly to maintain basic patrol and/or detection proficiency.  The work is never done and the training never ends.

Recently, in the past decade, the K9 ranks at La Habra have grown to include a comfort K-9 and a non-apprehension narcotic detection K9.