LIMA — When the heads of Allen County’s two largest police agencies are big supporters of K-9 officers, it’s clear the departments are going to rely on furry friends for help.
"As far as for a handler’s protection, you couldn’t ask for better backup,” Allen County Sheriff Sam Crish said. “There’s a lot of reasons.”
Crish has his own dog, Alk, thanks to a generous donation. Alk is just one of seven dogs at the Sheriff’s Office paired with deputies. Dogs are used for a variety of tasks and usually have more than one job.
The Lima Police Department has four K-9s, all German shepherds. Chief Kevin Martin is a former K-9 handler and a big supporter of the program.
“The dogs are an incredibly great tool. They are not going to replace police officers but have a very important place,” Martin said.
A K-9’s nose has a 100,000 times stronger sense of smell than a human, which is why dogs can locate hidden drugs so easily, Martin said.
Two dogs at the Allen County Sheriff’s Office are strictly bomb dogs. One is cross-trained as a bomb and patrol dog, which means it also goes with the handler on calls and can be used for tracking, protection, building searches and chasing suspects, Crish said.
“They’re trained to bite and hold until the officer releases the dog,” Crish said.
The other dogs are cross-trained for patrol and drug work, Crish said.
“If someone breaks into a building we just let the dog go and find the bad guy. It’s a lot less chance of the officer getting injured,” Crish said.
Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon said his agency has one K-9, Vegas, who is assigned to Deputy Mike Peterson. Vegas is trained to detect drugs and perform various searches including for people. Vegas often is used to assist other agencies when needed, Solomon said.
“It’s not only used for crime but Mike and Vegas give demonstrations,” Solomon said. “The dogs are great with kids.”
Peterson and Vegas also are part of the Special Response Team, which works with the local crime task force, Solomon said.
Dogs arrive at police agencies pretrained but there also is a training period for officers with their dogs and state required certification.
Dogs are matched with officers who would be good handlers. Officers must apply to be a handler, complete an interview and selection process, officials said.
“We try to find somebody who likes dogs, to begin with. It’s a lot of work having a K-9. It’s got to be somebody willing to put in a lot of extra time on their own,” Crish said.
Lima officers go through an additional six weeks of training with their dog to make sure the officer and dog understand each other. The officer and dog then complete the state required certification process, Martin said.
K-9s live with the officers to whom they are assigned.
“From my experience as a K-9 handler that was one of the best experiences. On duty, he was all business but at home he was the world’s biggest lap dog,” Martin said.
Crish said K-9s are a law enforcement tool, first. While some people see the K-9s as pets, he said that is far from the case. The dogs are highly trained and are not aggressive but will bite when ordered.
“If the handler is with the dog, the handler can allow anybody to come up and pet the dog and the dog is fine,” Crish said.
K-9s cost $3,000 and up. Local agencies use seized money from drug stings or other busts to purchase the dogs.
Dogs can be used up to 10 years, rarely longer but the average career is six to eight years, Martin said.
Police work is a physical and rigorous job for a K-9, just as it is for a human, Martin said.
“It’s one of the things that keeps them in very good shape but just like a person, over time, it can take a toll on them,” he said.
Crish said the dog’s handler will keep an eye on the dog looking for signs the dog is slowing down or struggling to do the job, physically.
“If we feel they are unsafe we will just retire them. We don’t want them getting hurt,” Crish said.
Ptl. John H. Dunham Jr. with K-9 Bern