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K-9s in training

Kent Police Lt. Jayme Cole said the department generally buys dogs when they are a year old and have had some basic training from the breeder. The department chooses to buy German Shepherds because officers have had positive results from the breed.

Once the department has a K-9 unit, the dog must live and work with one handler only, Cole said.

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“The whole point of the training process is that they truly have to become a team,” he said. “You can’t just take a dog trained with some other officer and expect them to work with one of our officers well.” ?

Gilliland said this is true and remembers how hard it was to get Felo to listen to him in the beginning.

“Initially he wouldn’t respond to me,” Gilliland said. “I would have to wait until he finally made the decision he was going to come back to me, and it was always a battle for the first four weeks, and then all of a sudden the light came on.” ?

Gilliland said this disconnect is partly because dogs are a year old when the department gets them. Even once he had Felo, the first three months spent together were mostly for bonding. ?

When training did begin, it lasted seven weeks. Felo and Gilliland trained eight hours a day, five days a week during this period. ?

The dogs undergo training in tracking, drug work and area and building searches. Gilliland said the instruction takes place at an old minimum-security youth prison in Hudson.

Here, the dogs and officers have plenty of land for tracking and buildings to practice searches in.

Gilliland said another benefit of training at this location is the fact that “they have a high school there as well, so we are able to hide drugs in lockers and stuff like that so we can make sure they stay proficient on their drug searches.”?

It is a constant process for the officers and K-9 units. ?

“It’s just like a baby learning to walk—little steps at a time,” Gilliliand said. “You don’t throw it all in there at once, so it’s a long process.”?

The training continues throughout the dogs’ careers, and they officially train once per month.

Out on patrol

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Felo works five days a week with Gilliland and is always with him on patrol. Gilliland leaves the driver’s window of his police car open whenever he has to get out of the car, so if needed, Felo can jump out of the window to get to him. ?

While knowing he has Felo to back him up is comforting, Gilliland said he has to stay aware of the dog in crowded situations where he may be pushed. If someone pushes Gilliland, Felo typically jumps out of the car to come to his defense.?

“I have to constantly be aware of that because I don’t want anyone that just made a mistake to get bit because he is going to react to whatever is going on out there,” Gilliland said. “I have to be real careful of that when I’m dealing with parties.”?

Gilliland said he often worries about Filo’s safety too, especially during traffic stops when the person being apprehended is uncooperative. When this happens, Felo typically jumps out of the car. Gilliland said on busy roads Felo could easily get hit by a passing car. ?

Although the dog accompanies Gilliland for routine patrols, he also has a nose for drugs. ?Gilliland said Felo has had several cocaine finds and there have been countless marijuana busts between Felo and Aiko.

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“Since we’ve had the K-9 units here, we’ve seized a lot of drugs—into the hundreds of pounds,” Gilliland said. “They’ve been a great tool.”??

Cost versus benefit?

Gilliland said the department spends an average of $5,000 to $6,000 just on the dogs, as well as nearly $7,000 for the training.

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“It’s the quality of dog you’re getting,” he said. “They are bred for this kind of work.”?

Additional costs include K-9 cars, which are approximately $20,000 each, and inserts for the back of the cars where the dogs ride, which are $3,000 each.

The city picks up the veterinary bill for the dogs, which is usually just for an annual vaccine visit.

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“There is a cost, but once the program is started and the dogs are in place, then the cost is very minimal for the taxpayers,”?Gilliland said.

While prices may sound high, he said the benefits of having the dogs far outweighs the costs. The K-9 unit provides increased assistance when it comes to recovering drugs or apprehending criminals.

“He (Felo) has only had two street bites in the three years that I’ve had him,” Gilliland said. “I’ve had to use him to apprehend somebody physically.” ?

Aiko has also had two street bites. Street bites are when the dog bites a suspect to apprehend him or her.

“That is a last resort. It is a use of force obviously, but it’s a use of force that you don’t just use arbitrarily,” Gilliland said. “You got to have real good reason. It’s not something that happens every day.”?

Having the dogs present also decreases the likeliness that a suspect will act badly, Gilliland said.

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“Most people, when they have their sense about them, will stop when you tell them that you have a dog,” he said. ?

Overall, Cole said the department is pleased about the program and plans to continue it in the future.?

“We are very proud of our K-9 program,” he said.??

The first police dog was a female German Shepherd by the name of Duchess, who patrolled Kent in the early 1980s.

Health and retirement

Unlike most German Shepherds owned in the United States, Felo and Aiko were born in the Czech Republic.

Gilliland said these dogs are “bred for work, not for show.”?

In choosing to purchase dogs from overseas, the department rarely has to deal with dogs with hip or skin problems, he added. ?

But one thing Gilliland does have to keep a close eye on is the dog’s weight. Felo weighs 105 pounds and Gilliland said he doesn’t want him any heavier than that. Extra weight would make tracking and jumping through the car window much harder.

Gilliland said he will also have to watch Felo as he ages to determine when he should retire.

Cole said the amount of time a dog works before retirement is entirely dependent on the dog, but a healthy dog may work from five to eight years. Once the dogs are retired, their handlers are able to keep them.

Gilliland said the choice to retire a dog is a personal one and “it’s not a decision made by anyone else but the handler.”

Contact Suzi Starheim at sstarhei@kent.edu.

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