Cliff, a chocolate Labrador retriever K-9 dog
Cliff, a chocolate Labrador retriever certified in detecting explosives and firearms, practices his skills by sniffing out chemical scents planted on campus by his handler, UCI Police Department Officer Jordan Leyland. Steve Zylius / UCI

His name’s Cliff, not Clifford. And he’s big, but not red. The newest member of the UCI Police Department is a giant chocolate Labrador retriever with all the energy and eagerness of a newly admitted student.

UCI’s first K-9, Cliff joined the department in July. At 2 years old, he’s a full-grown adult but still has puppy-like spunk. In fact, he’s not keen to sit for an interview and lets his human police partner, Officer Jordan Leyland, know that he’s only interested in going outside and getting to work.

“He’s a big, happy dog,” says Leyland, who cares for Cliff both on the job and at home. “But it’s like taking a 3-year-old to work with you every day.”

Fortunately for Cliff, work is play. He loves using his genetically superior nose to help keep the community safe. With millions more scent receptors than his human companions, Cliff can detect chemicals that the rest of us would consider odorless. After extensive obedience and agility training, he earned a certificate of specialization in detecting explosives and firearms – and continues to hone those skills weekly.

One of Cliff’s favorite activities is sniffing out scents in a courtyard or boardroom that Leyland has planted for practice. When he catches a whiff of a familiar chemical as he works his way through the space, Cliff gets as close to the source as he can. Then he whips his head around and sits down, looking expectantly at Leyland. For a job well done, Cliff is rewarded with enthusiastic praise and a bouncing tennis ball. But if he wants to keep playing catch, Cliff knows he needs to track down the next odor.

Cliff, a chocolate Labrador retriever K-9 dog detects a planted odor during a practice session, the 2-year-old K-9 is rewarded with enthusiastic praise and a highly prized tennis ball.
When Cliff detects a planted odor during a practice session, the 2-year-old K-9 is rewarded with enthusiastic praise and a highly prized tennis ball. Steve Zylius / UCI

The K-9’s first official deployment was a protective sweep of the UCI Health-Tustin medical facility, but going forward, Cliff will check sites before major events as a proactive safety measure. He’s also done a demonstration at the Student Center and started meeting students on Ring Road during Welcome Week.

“I really want people to understand that Cliff is not a ‘bite dog’ or a narcotics dog,” Leyland says. “He’s not trained to chase down suspects or to search for drugs; he’s just here to keep our buildings and venues safe.”

A UC Violent Acts Mitigation & Prevention grant funded the UCIPD’s K-9 program, and UCI’s Public Safety Advisory Committee supported the proposal to bring a police dog to the university. It’s hoped that, in the future, Cliff will be trained to help search for missing people.

If you see the dog around campus, check with Leyland before petting him. When Cliff sniffs you – which he’s likely to do vigorously – it’s because he’s hoping that you, too, have brought him a tennis ball. But please don’t. Since Cliff is a working dog, his rewards, training, exercise and food are all carefully managed by Leyland.

“Having a police dog requires a different style of handling, even at home,” the officer says. Plus, their bond is extremely special, both on and off duty. “The handler is the only person who can reward him,” Leyland says, “because he’s the only one who can be fun.”

At the start of a typical 12-hour shift, Cliff will attend the morning police briefing and then expend some of his energy in obedience training or an odor detection session. He spends the bulk of the day riding around in the K-9-designated area of the patrol SUV, responding to calls with Leyland. In the late afternoon, the pair often do another round of training before wrapping up. On special occasions, Cliff travels to train alongside other K-9s, such as at UCLA or John Wayne Airport.

Using that powerful nose can be exhausting. When he practices sweeping an area for scents, Cliff sniffs so hard and fast that it’s the equivalent of a person running a couple miles, according to Leyland.

At home, Cliff indulges in three or four scoops of his veterinarian-prescribed dog food for dinner and relaxes in his spacious kennel. He enjoys the company of the Leylands’ two other dogs and two young children, but Cliff’s days off are primarily for light training and resting up for the next shift. After all, he needs to be in tip-top shape to perform his important duties.

“We are so excited to add K-9 Officer Cliff to our team,” says UCIPD Chief Liz Griffin. “Cliff is enthusiastically committed to keeping our community safe and will, hopefully, become a beloved member of the Anteater family.”