Dog days are always David Capetillo Jr.’s favorite. In fact, due to persistence and some persuasion, every day is now dog day for him.
Capetillo, a K-9 officer for the Oviedo Police Department, loves working with dogs so much that he requested a demotion to be able to, even when his chief said he was barking up the wrong tree.
“I [said] I want to be a K-9 handler,” he said. “And it was like he was kicking me out of his office.”
After 26 years on the force — the last 15 in the K-9 unit — Capetillo is set to retire Jan. 6. During his service, he has worked with three dogs from three different countries: Flash, from Holland, Nero, from Germany, and Duke, from Czechoslovakia.
Born in New Jersey, Capetillo’s career began not in law enforcement, but in the military. While his father and brother served in the Army, Capetillo’s love of airplanes and jets drew him to the Air Force, in which he enlisted at age 19 in 1982, serving as a mechanic. But it didn’t take long for him to find his true path.
“While I was in the Air Force, I was looking for something related to police work,” he said. “I’ve always had this thing for the police.”
After 13 years of active duty in the Air Force, Capetillo entered the police academy, while staying in the reserves, and was eventually hired by the Oviedo Police Department.
Call to action
Beginning in the patrol unit in 1996, Capetillo moved through the department quickly, advancing to the Commuter Response Team on a bicycle before everything changed in an instant.
“While I was in that unit, 9/11 came around, and I was activated, called back to active duty [with the Air Force],” Capetillo said.
Less than three months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Capetillo was deployed to Kuwait and assigned to a rescue unit that was part of the maintenance team for rescue helicopters and C-130 aircraft.
While Capetillo was honored to be able to serve in Kuwait, it wasn’t an easy deployment.
“That sucked,” Oviedo Deputy Chief, and Capetillo’s wife, Heather Capetillo, said of his year-and-a-half deployment, which left Heather at home with their three children while also working for the department.
Back on the force
After returning from Kuwait, Capetillo was approached to further advance his law enforcement career by becoming a detective. It didn’t bring the excitement that promotions normally do.
“I’m thinking, ‘No way’,” he said. “I don’t want to sit behind a desk and do detective work. [But] I said, ‘Yes, sir, thank you, I appreciate it.’”
On his first day in the role, however, he asked how long he would have to be a detective, and was told they would revisit it in a year, which he did, exactly 365 days later.
“The year came back, and I want to transfer to patrol,” Capetillo said. “I want to get on the street and do some work on the street. [Detective work] is just not for me.”
“He’s a boots-on-the-ground street cop,” Heather said. “He didn’t want to go through the admin track.”
Moving on up
Following his year as a detective, he was promoted to corporal, a role he served in for less than half a year before being promoted again, this time to lieutenant.
Despite earning regular praise for his work as a lieutenant from higher-ups, he just never felt it was the right role for him.
“I just couldn’t get away from [the paperwork],” he said. “I still wanted to get out there and stop people [on the streets].”
About two years into being a lieutenant, Capetillo had a conversation that would change his life.
Who let the dogs out?
Despite not knowing it, Capetillo was always destined to be a K-9 officer.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I have a picture of me, probably about the age 4 or 5, and I am standing next to a German shepherd, and look how I ended up. In K-9.”
In 2007, while helping then-K-9 handler Lt. Danny Sacco, he learned that there would be an opening coming up in the K-9 unit, and Capetillo was ready to pounce.
Moving to K-9 from lieutenant would mean a demotion, with a cut in pay, but the idea of working with the police dogs was too enticing.
“I didn’t even think about that,” he said. “All I knew was that, man, this is the coolest thing.”
Then-Chief Jeffrey Chudnow didn’t agree.
“[Capetillo] went to the chief three times to demote him,” Heather said. “The chief kept kicking him out of his office, saying, ‘You really need to re-think this.’”
The third time, however, was the charm for Capetillo.
“He finally realized this is what I want to do, [even] understanding that I was going to get demoted back to an officer,” Capetillo said.
The Oviedo Police Department currently has two K-9 teams, Capetillo with Duke, and Officer Joe Bologna with Kass. The dogs are “trained in the detection of several types of drugs and narcotics, area searches for evidence, building searches and suspect apprehension,” according to the Department’s website.
Because the K-9 units are in the field so often, and for so many different purposes, handlers must be fluent in all of the rules, regulations, statutes, ordinances and case law about K-9 work “so that you don’t make a mistake in deploying your dog when you shouldn’t have, and end up getting sued or hurting somebody really bad,” Capetillo said.
In 2008, he began his training with Flash, a German shepherd who was trained using Dutch commands, which led Capetillo to learn commands in a new language — a theme that would continue throughout his K-9 career.
When Flash retired from police work in 2010 due to an injury, Capetillo began working with Nero, learning German commands, while also learning how different his dogs could be. While Flash arrived nearly fully trained, Nero was not, and Capetillo had to teach him everything, starting with sitting.
“Flash was more of a ‘suit-and-tie’ kind of dog,” Capetillo said. “He went to work, did his thing. His tracking was on spot. If he could read and follow rules and things like that, he was very by the book.
“Nero was kind of the opposite of Flash,” he continued. “Nero was the kind of dog [who would be like], ‘OK, the goal is to find the bad guy. I’ll get you there, just don’t worry about how I get there.”
And it showed in action. Capetillo said that on a course, to follow straight lines to get to the target, Flash would follow it perfectly, while Nero would cut across to get to the target as quickly as possible.
“He did good, that’s all that matters,” Capetillo said. “He may not have followed the right way to the bad guy, but he got me to the bad guy. And he got me to the bad guy plenty of times.”
Capetillo and Nero worked together until Nero had to be put down following a cancer diagnosis when he was 6, leading Capetillo to think about his future at the department.
“Obviously this was a shocker,” he said. “I just really needed to think, because here it was, I only worked my first dog two-and-a-half years, and I was thankful that the chief allowed me to work another dog. And now here I had only been with [Nero] just right at the four-year mark, and I’m done [working] with him.”
Capetillo took about a week off of work to spend time with Nero during his final days, which took an emotional toll.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to ask them, if they allow me to work another dog, I’ll do it, but it’s got to be with a trained dog. I can’t go through all this teaching a dog from the basics again. I want to get out there and get on the street as quickly as possible.”
And then came Duke.
After a trainer sent him a video of a potential K-9 partner, Capetillo knew he had found the right one.
“He said, ‘I have a dog that kind of fits what you’re looking for,’” Capetillo said. “I looked at the first video, and I said, ‘This is it, that’s the guy.’”
Duke, then 3 years old, was fully trained and, in Capetillo’s eyes, a perfect combination of Flash and Nero, and arrived in the United States from Czechoslovakia on the same day Nero was put down.
“I’m looking at this dog, this dog [that] was kind of goofy-looking,” Capetillo said. “I just felt something. I knew this guy was special, and sure enough it worked out that way. He developed that aggressiveness when it was time to have it, and he has that fuel, called an on-and-off switch, he only turns that work mode on when it’s time to work.
“He had a mixture of both [Flash and Nero], that’s for sure,” he said.
A K-9’s “work mode” comes from careful training. When they are not in the field, the handler and dog are working on obedience and simulating live-action situations. Capetillo’s four-legged partners would go home with him at the end of the workday, but couldn’t be treated as a regular pet. Home is for rest and relaxation for a K-9, not playing.
“If you treat this animal as a pet, and you make the home life … a really, really fun time for this canine, why would he want to get in that police car and go to work and go do obedience every day?” Capetillo said. “You basically want the dog to have fun at work. The key to getting a dog that will be successful during his deployments at work [is to have them] understand that [work] is where I’m having fun.”
The bond Capetillo and Duke formed was strong and invaluable. During one search for a suspect, Capetillo was searching in the dark, keeping flashlights off, so as not to give away his location. While in pursuit, Duke’s leash became tangled in a patch of brush.
After freeing Duke, the two were about to continue the search, but danger arose.
“All of a sudden, in the midst of [the conversation with the helicopter team], I feel Duke come back past me on my left side, and all of a sudden I hear this screaming, and it was [Duke] on the guy that was there from the burglaries,” a choked-up Capetillo recalls. “The feeling that a bad guy is real near you [and] can hurt your dog, hurt you, it is really like no other.
“There’s not a handler out there that can say that he has never been worried or even scared for a moment of certain things,” he said. “If they do, then I’ll say that they’re lying.”
Working with three dogs in a K-9 career is rare, as most K-9 officers “work with one dog, and that’s it,” Capetillo said.
Fight of his life
In November 2018, something even more serious arose for Capetillo.
Feeling worn down, and knowing something wasn’t right with his body, he went to a doctor and, following tests, was sent to an oncologist. It was there that Capetillo was diagnosed with Stage 3 multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in plasma cells.
“He’s a warrior, one that he won’t tell you when there’s something wrong,” Heather said. “He didn’t tell me he had cancer [at first]. I found out when he said, ‘Hey, I think you need to come to this doctor’s appointment.’ That’s how I found out. He said, ‘I haven’t been feeling good for like a year,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
He immediately began treatment, first in the hospital for a month, and then a month at home “in a bubble because he had no immune system,” Heather said.
While he is not yet in remission, Capetillo says his numbers are trending in the right direction.
After 26 years on the police force, Capetillo made the decision to retire, along with Duke, who will be 11 in May.
The City of Oviedo approved a resolution on Dec. 5 approving the sale of Duke to Capetillo for $1.
While he won’t be a K-9 officer anymore, Capetillo still plans to be around dogs for a long time. He wants to use his knowledge and experience with dogs to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I don’t want to work for anybody, I don’t want to be on a permanent schedule, I just want to do it voluntarily,” he said. “I just can’t seem to get away from the dogs… the feeling to hunt [suspects] down with your team, the dog, and take them off the street from hurting people is like no other feeling. That’s what I’ll miss. I miss it already.”
Acknowledging that it is retirement, he added, “But first, I’m just going to try to relax.”
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