Georgia officer shares how he and his K9 partner won a national TV competition
by Jeff Kahn
A fascinating new television program called America’s Top Dog started airing in January, featuring police and civilian canines and their handlers. They compete in a series of obstacle challenges, much like the contestants on American Ninja Warrior. The action is fast and “furrious” and provides viewers with a great deal of insight into the skills of these highly trained dogs, including speed, agility, scenting ability and teamwork.
I have had the privilege of getting to know one of the participants in the program and would like for you to get a chance to find out a little bit about him, his K9 partner and his experience with the show.
Sergeant Mark Tappan is a K9 officer with the Alpharetta Police Department, located in a suburb of northern Atlanta. Like most of us, Tappan began as a patrol officer but has had several different roles during his career. His dog, Mattis, has had a highly successful career as well, including receiving a Purple Heart after he was seriously injured while assisting in the apprehension of a fleeing suspect.
Tappan and Mattis were victorious in the January 29 episode of America’s Top Dog, defeating two other K9 teams and two civilian teams in three rounds of competition to win the $10,000 prize, plus $5,000 to be donated to an animal charity of their choice. Tappan selected the Georgia Police K9 Foundation, which provides K9 teams with training and equipment such as ballistic vests, heat alarms and first aid kits, as well as educating the public and law enforcement agencies about the importance of K9s to communities.
Please tell us about your background and how you came to be a police officer.
I grew up with a strong sense of justice. I have always felt strongly when weak people could not defend themselves. I went into the Marine Corps in order to further develop my senses of discipline and responsibility, and then into the ministry for 10 years. These experiences all helped me to realize that the only thing I really wanted to do was become a police officer.
What was it that made you become interested in becoming a K9 handler?
My father trained Labrador retrievers when I was a kid. I have always been fascinated with what dogs could do and how they communicate with their handlers. I have always seen this role as one that is a great bridge between law enforcement and the community, and I am passionate about being able to help make that happen.
Can you tell the readers what the selection process was like? What about the ongoing training?
In order to become a K-9 officer I had to submit a packet with my resume and recommendations. In addition, there was a physical test which involved, among other things, carrying the dog! I also had to go through an oral interview process. The training with Mattis never stops. While all of our K9s complete a base level 22 weeks of training, we train in some capacity every single day. As the commander of the department’s K9 unit, I expect this from myself and all of the other K9 units.
How did you come to be associated with the America’s Top Dog show, and what was the selection process like?
My social media platform is large and sometimes I put training suggestions on it. Somebody who saw this reached out and recommended us to the show. We interviewed and the producers of the show liked our passion, statistics and Mattis’ Purple Heart. Out of 800 submissions, we were selected to participate.
Did you specially train for the program? If so, was it hard to manage while still maintaining your normal duties?
I was given some vague ideas about what the tasks would be in order to prepare. Interestingly, my dog had little exposure to water and initially did not like it. We spent a great deal of time in the pool overcoming this. The training for the show was in at least one way a little confusing for Mattis. The day before we began the show we were on a SWAT call in which I sent him to bite and detain a suspect, while we had spent considerable time training for a part of the show where he would bite and release. He initially released the bad guy, but with a quick correction did what he was trained to do.
What was your experience on the show like?
The experience was such a high honor for me and the best partner I’ve ever had. I’m very competitive and really enjoyed the challenge of showing everyone what a good dog he is. Of course, I also wanted to honor my family and the police department by demonstrating the superior quality of my partner.
Was it hard performing in front of an audience?
I love pressure situations and thrive in them. It gives me an opportunity to prove myself, and I like that a lot! Mattis is so focused on his assigned task that crowds do not bother him at all. He has been deployed in a busy shopping mall and never deviated.
Would you do it again?