Seattle Police Department dog Pele regularly nabs robbers red-handed, but can she chase down the title of “America’s Top Dog” in A&E’s new reality show?
The show, basically “America Ninja Warrior” for dogs (and from the same producer), tests four police or military dogs and one civilian (the “underdog”) on their speed, agility, scenting and teamwork in three timed rounds. The “underdogs” come in every shape and size, from bulldogs to catahoulas.
Contestants race for $10,000 plus $5,000 donated to their favorite animal charity and a spot in the finale.
“America’s Top Dog” premieres on A&E Wednesday, Jan. 8, at 9 p.m., and will feature Pele and her handler, SPD Canine Officer T.J. San Miguel. The first season will consist of 11 weekly episodes.
Pele, named for the Hawaiian fire goddess, is a glossy, black 6-year-old German shepherd imported from Germany that SPD purchased from a Rochester-based breeder called Kraftwerk K-9.
San Miguel applied for herself and Pele to be on “America’s Top Dog” after her aunt heard about the new show and urged her to submit an application. Pele and San Miguel went through a Skype interview and were ultimately selected for the show. Filming took place in June.
Pele and San Miguel have lived and worked together since they trained and certified as a K-9 team in 2016. Now an advanced “Master Team,” their SPD colleagues honored them as the “Canine Team of the Year” in 2017 and the “Application of the Year” in 2018, which honors the best dog work.
In the case that won the pair the “Application of the Year” award, Pele located five suspects who fled a stolen car in a busy Northgate area near a QFC supermarket. Pele is trained to use a “start point” scent to track. Here, all she had were the seats of the car. On a hot summer night, the chase took 45 minutes and covered about eight blocks.
According to San Miguel, Pele has tracked down 41 people, 38 pieces of evidence, and has assisted with more than 100 arrests in which her presence was a deterrent to force and suspects were compliant with police.
When Pele is not tracking suspects, she loves playing tug and swimming.
“There’s never a dull moment,” says San Miguel. “She’s definitely a goofball. If you’re talking to someone but holding a treat, she’ll ‘Woowooo,’ telling you all about it.” Also, snow drives her insane.
In “America’s Top Dog,” dogs knock down doors, climb fire escapes, leap over 5-foot walls, crawl through ductwork tunnels, scale a rope bridge, swim, race to track hidden objects, and finally take down and release a suspect.
The air date for Pele and San Miguel’s episode has not yet been announced, but Pele and San Miguel will compete against K-9 teams from Florida, Pennsylvania and North Dakota and an “underdog” team from California.
Nick White, show trainer and co-host, says it’s the “ultimate K-9 competition.”
“For example, for The Boneyard, we have a 3,000-square-foot maze, and the teams only have five minutes to find five scented items,” White says. “That time limit alone with the number of items that must be found is stricter than any police K-9 competition that I’m aware of. Now, factor in the 3,000-square-foot maze and it’s even more challenging!”
In Pele’s daily police work, the only constant is surprise, but this has made her more resilient and flexible, San Miguel says — and this adaptability serves Pele well on the show.
“The more exposure they get to all kinds of things, the more ability they have to handle new situations,” says San Miguel.
The hardest part for Pele in the show?
“She’s never been the most agile dog,” San Miguel says, laughing. “It’s funny; she’s kind of clumsy. So, for all the agility stuff, I was like ‘OK, girl, here we go.’ ”
While the state only requires team recertification every two years, Seattle’s K-9 teams test critical skills like recall and bite-release every three months, according to San Miguel.
All this training builds an incredible bond between dog and handler.
“Dog handlers spend more time with their partner than anything or anybody else,” San Miguel says. “When you put so much time into something, there’s no mistaking that bond. They pick up on all your cues, like the inflection of your voice, or that you are driving a little faster.”
“It’s the ultimate job. I like to say like 90 percent of the time it’s so much fun — you’re playing hide-and-go-seek with a dog. It’s a blast,” San Miguel says. “The other 10 percent, it’s really difficult. It’s dangerous. You’re chasing people who’ve done really bad things and you are the one to not just find that person but keep everybody safe in the meantime.”
Avoiding spoilers, San Miguel says “[Pele] did great. I’m actually kind of blown away. It’s a little unexpected. … I just keep saying ‘Oh wow, you never stop surprising me.’ ”
“America’s Top Dog”: premieres Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. on A&E
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Pele’s origins.