Former Keaau woman and her canine, Pele, battle to win ‘America’s Top Dog’

  • Courtesy art A composite photo San Miguel's father created of Pele in front of Halema‘uma‘u.
  • Courtesy photo Tara “T.J.” Mabry San Miguel and her police dog, Pele, will be featured on the TV show, “America’s Top Dog.”

Aformer Keaau resident and her canine partner are competing to be “America’s Top Dog.”

Tara “T.J.” Mabry San Miguel — a 2003 graduate of Keaau High School and a canine handler with the Seattle Police Department — and her police dog, Pele, will soon be featured on the A&E television show, “America’s Top Dog.”

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In each one-hour episode, four police K-9 teams and one civilian team compete for the title of “Top Dog.”

Over three rounds, teams are tested on their speed, agility and teamwork. Among the tasks, teams have to navigate a maze for scented items and apprehend and take down a suspect in a bite suit.

San Miguel said she learned about the competition from her aunt and uncle who saw a commercial for the casting.

“At first, I was like, ‘No way. I’m not doing that.’ … ”

But after reaching out to producers and asking more questions, she realized “that’s something really cool,” and a rare opportunity.

“Our careers are short with these animals — eight, nine years if you’re lucky. Why not experience everything you can? So I went for it.”

Filming took place this summer near Hollywood.

While San Miguel couldn’t share too many details about her participation in the competition, the “whole experience, it was awesome.”

Each week’s winning team will receive $10,000 and an additional $5,000 to donate to the animal charity of their choice.

In the final week, the top competitors will return to the final course to battle for the title of “America’s Top Dog” and an additional $25,000 cash prize.

San Miguel moved to Seattle in 2008 and is now starting her fourth year in the K-9 unit.

Pele, a 6-year-old German shepherd imported from Germany, was purchased from a Washington kennel. San Miguel and Pele have worked together for three years.

San Miguel, who spent most of her early life in Hawaii after relocating here with her family when she was about 4, said she’s always had a knack for animals and dogs.

Growing up, she really enjoyed pets but also knew she wanted to be in law enforcement for “quite some time.”

Her grandmother suggested working with police dogs would be the best of both worlds.

“As soon as she mentioned it, it clicked, and everything started falling into place in my mind … ,” San Miguel said.

San Miguel moved to Keaau after her father, who was in the U.S. Marine Corps, retired in 1999.

She was in the first graduating class at Keaau High and played year-round sports for the Cougars.

After graduating, San Miguel said she attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where she eventually earned a degree in administration of justice. She worked for TSA at the Hilo International Airport, which was her first job and law enforcement experience.

“During my time at UHH and TSA, I was lucky enough to be mentored by many great prior law enforcement and military leaders,” she said.

With their help, San Miguel said, she knew that becoming a police officer was right for her.

She joined the Hawaii Sheriff’s Department, graduating from the academy in 2007.

“I was assigned to the Kona section and shortly after decided to lateral to a larger mainland agency in hopes of becoming a K-9 officer,” San Miguel said. “I chose Seattle to be closer to my family in Vancouver, Canada, and because of the history and reputation of the Seattle K-9 unit.”

Being a K-9 handler is “almost like having two careers,” San Miguel said.

Not only do you have to be an officer “and do the things that encompass being good at that job, on top of that, you have this other thing where you’re an animal trainer, as well.”

It’s difficult, she said, and “you’ve got to put in the work,” study animal behavior science and understand the way dogs work. There has to be a bond between the dog and its handler, she said.

The rewards, though, are “beyond comparable to anything I’ve ever seen in my job,” said San Miguel.

The dogs are able to locate people who could not otherwise be found but also help keep everybody safe while doing that search, she said.

Pele — named after the Hawaiian volcano goddess, in a nod to her handler’s Hawaii roots — is much like her namesake.

In regard to the deity, “we all know she’s there,” quiet in the background but will occasionally explode in eruption, San Miguel said.

Likewise, Pele the canine, “has that on-and-off switch,” and can be social and friendly, but “when it’s work time, it’s a whole other thing. She is going to find somebody and make them realize they need to comply with us.”

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The first episode of “America’s Top Dog” premiered Jan. 8. An air date for San Miguel’s episode has not been announced.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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