Before starting another day at the Petaluma Police Department, Rico stretches and goes for a walk. Being middle-aged, he tries hard to stay in working shape. After exercising he climbs into his own police sport utility vehicle — personalized with his name on the side in bright, white letters — and heads into work.

The 7-year-old Holland-born Belgian Malinois is partnered with Officer Mike Page, who has had the dog since late 2006 and controls him with a small array of Dutch commands he learned to make Rico's adjustment to American life easier. Despite the language difference, Page said he has the utmost faith in his partner.

"If he learned how to drive, I'd be out of a job," Page joked.

The Petaluma K9 unit has received some attention recently, with Rico's associate, Kilo, being in the news for assisting in the arrest of two suspects earlier this month. Rico himself has been involved in numerous narcotics searches, suspect apprehensions, search and rescues and even the occasional preschool visit. Page says he's also been the perfect assistant to children during the local Easter egg hunt.

Rico is one of three police canines in the department and just like the others, he lives with his human partner. He was bred from a long line of law enforcement and tracking dogs, and chosen for his keen ability to smell and good temperament.

"They were originally herding dogs, and are taking the place of German Shepherds as the &‘it' dog in law enforcement for their nonstop energy," said Page. "But their energy makes them a tough house pet unless you're prepared for them."

Fortunately for Rico, the Pages have been more than happy to have Rico stay at their home. "He is better behaved than my other dog, my kids love him and my wife mostly loves him," Page said while grinning.

Rico's training began when he was 18 months old, which Page said is the typical age to start this type of work. At that point, he said, they have grown out of puppyhood but still have plenty of energy.

At 18 months, Rico and Page began the first of two five-week, 200-hour training sessions. The first session is designed to establish obedience, along with apprehension, tracking and searching skills. After they completed their first course, they hit the streets for one year.

The pair spent that year patrolling together, which helped familiarize the handler and pup with riding together. Rico also spent this time learning the city. After the year on patrol, the partners returned for another five-week training session, this time in narcotics.

"All of our dogs are trained to place their nose on the location they smell narcotics," said Page. "Some units train their dogs to scratch and paw at a site, but we have chosen this method to avoid property damage."

Sure enough, during a practice search demonstration for a reporter last week, Page placed a baggie of marijuana in the trunk of a car and Rico raced over and rested his nose on the bumper, leaving not a single scratch on the vehicle.

Since completing his training, Rico has aided in patrolling, narcotics searches and alarm-responses to commercial buildings on a regular basis. Officer Page says that the two of them can cover more ground than a partnership of two human officers and are often used for ground-coverage calls where vehicles are not permitted to go and the searches are expansive.

"We are subject to call out anytime, day or night, and we are not assigned to a particular beat," he said. "Those are some of the differences that we have from regular patrols, since Rico has such specialized skills."

He said that they usually work an average of two extra days a month and are constantly training.

"Sometimes to train him I throw my keys into an open field and have him find them," Page added. "I haven't lost a set yet. That's how good he is."

As for his "killer instincts," Page says that Rico is not the scary, harsh police dog that people think he is. He said that when Rico attacks, he is really playing — a point which Rico proves when he showed his goofy side after an attack-exercise by laying on his back and letting his tongue flop out the side of his mouth as Page rubbed his belly.

"People think he has to have a mean side to bite people, but to him it's just a big toy," said Page. "He's having a blast when he's biting a suspect."

Officer Page says that the average career of a police dog is about 9-10 years. While most specialized positions in the department have a lifespan of seven years, K9 officers work that position for the entire career of their dogs. After retirement, the city typically sells the dogs to their handlers for a reasonable $1, said Page. He hopes the city will continue that tradition with Rico.

"This is the best job in the department," Officer Page said as he reached back and lovingly patted Rico's head through an opening behind the seat. "You get a great partner and you're never lonely. Plus, he does more listening than talking. When he's done serving the community, he'll come home and live with me permanently. What's better than that?"

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)