The situation was tense.

A pair of armed robberies in less than 16 minutes at a convenience store and a gas station.

Two suspects in custody but one still on the loose. The third suspect, on foot and considered armed and dangerous, had disappeared into the darkness in the early morning hours of Sept. 28.

But Merlin was on his scent.

With Joey Gonzalez hanging on, Merlin was tracking.

Gonzalez kept his full attention handling Merlin, a Dutch shepherd, with other officers following at the ready if the situation turned dangerous.

"We had been following the incident that night," Gonzalez said. "Two suspects were apprehended rather quickly by Mesa County Sheriff's, but one got away.

"So Merlin was brought in to track his location. We tracked him into a yard and found that he had scaled a wall onto a roof and jumped into a storage unit facility."

The suspect was located and arrested in that facility, thanks to Merlin's nose.

Gonzalez is one of two K-9 officers for the Grand Junction Police Department. Trevor Hawkins is the other, along with his dog, Nero, a German shepherd.

Merlin is a barker and is nearly non-stop as he emerges from the police vehicle to put on a training demonstration. Nero is calm and subdued when it's his turn.

Both animals appear to be regular dogs, but these two are highly trained and are the only two multi-purpose K-9 police dogs in the region.

"They are trained to detect the odor of narcotics and trained to track (suspects or missing and/or endangered people), and they are also trained in patrol work, also known as bite work," Gonzalez said.

Most of the time, they are just regular dogs.

"He's a very friendly dog until it's time to work, and it's my job to direct him to know when it's time to work," Gonzalez said. "Otherwise, he's just another dog."

Merlin goes to birthday parties, schools, retirement homes, and is a family dog when he's not working.

"Him and I are together almost 24/7, so the bond has to be stronger than anything else, for the sheer factor of the trust between us," he said.

Gonzalez, a five-year Police Department veteran, said he and Merlin have been together for one year.

Because of the special training of Merlin and Nero, the department's K-9 team is often used by agencies around the region.

The perfect partner

Hawkins, who has worked with Nero since 2015, said it's a great job.

"What better gig than having a partner back there that's a dog," he said. "He doesn't complain, he doesn't ask you to turn on certain music, as long as he's cool and you let him out to go to the bathroom, he's really pretty happy," Hawkins said with a bit of a grin.

But it's the work they do that makes the job special.

"They are incredible animals. To watch them work, they are a special animal and a great tool for us, to see what they can do," Hawkins said.

Looking back to his first tracking incident with Nero, Hawkins said he learned an invaluable lesson about trust.

"We got called out to Clifton to help Colorado State Patrol and Mesa County Sheriff's Office to help find a guy who tried to steal a couple of cars," he said. "The guy was armed and took off running."

The area around Front Street was packed with law enforcement and vehicles of all kinds, lights flashing.

Nero sniffed the suspect's discarded backpack and went to work, pulling Hawkins with him. That's when Hawkins became confused.

"We started tracking and Nero wants to take me back toward Front Street. Looking down there, it's lined full with law enforcement. I say 'there's no way this guy ran this way.' "

Hawkins, 39, smiled at the memory.

"I let my dog do his thing, and sure enough he goes and finds him hiding in a thick hedge," he said.

A skunk, raccoon or other animal probably burrowed a hole in the hedge, and the suspect had doubled back and crawled in there just a few yards away from all the vehicles.

"That guy was tucked back in there, you couldn't see him at all," Hawkins said. "Nero went in there and was face to face with the guy."

It's obvious what happened next. The guy eagerly gave up and was arrested.

"I was so excited, it was my first track," Hawkins said. "Originally, I thought my dog was wrong, so from that point on I was like 'Just trust your dog.' He's trained to do this, he can't tell us what he's doing, so just trust your dog."

Gonzalez, 28, said that the Sept. 28 incident was very rewarding.

"That night, we were heavily relied on to find that suspect," he said. "Tracking is one of the most dangerous things we do. The suspect has the upper hand on us, so we're dealing with armed suspects, at night in an environment he knows better than we do because he's ahead of us."

'Respect for a dog'

Neither of the K-9 officers have ever had to engage a suspect and use the bite training for their animals.

Hawkins said many times the mere presence of the dog is all that's needed.

He remembers another incident when an uncooperative suspect threw things at the police vehicle.

"He isn't listening to me. I keep telling him to stop and get on the ground, and he just won't listen," Hawkins said. "I pulled Nero out and as soon as he came out, he didn't bark, he didn't do anything, and the guy immediately went to the ground."

Hawkins glances at Nero. "There's respect for a dog."

Gonzalez agreed: "There have been several incidents where (Merlin) was brought out for that, but people usually give up without incident when they see him."

Hawkins said the crime, criminal and situation dictates when a dog will be used in that scenario.

"We're pretty cautious when we deploy our dogs for that," Hawkins said. "There are alternatives that we can use a lot of times that are safer for the suspects and safer for the dogs."

A Central High School graduate, Gonzalez joined the Marines out of school, then joined the Police Department.

He got on the scent to become a K-9 officer not long after joining the force.

"Everyone has their own little niche in police work, and this happened to be the one for me."

It wasn't like the early days were all that much about training — well, maybe a little.

"For three years, I volunteered my time, to be in the bite suit, to be the decoy," he said. "It was more about learning how to do the job."

After this day's training refresher course, Merlin and Nero head back to their vehicles, where their names are painted on the side.

They will wait until their services are needed again, then they will join forces with their human partners doing important and sometimes dangerous police work.

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