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K-9 officers bonded by dangers of their job

It’s easy to think of a police K-9 as a pet.

There are similarities, of course. A K-9 officer’s patrol dog lives at the officer’s home, plays with the officer’s children and probably eats popcorn on the couch with the family during weekend movie nights.

Also, humans and dogs have a relationship that goes back thousands of years, to a time when humans began to interact with friendlier wolves. A 2013 article in National Geographic hypothesizes that humans didn’t adopt wolves; rather the friendlier wolves adopted us, which led, over time, to the seemingly psychic relationships people have with their dogs today.

Our affinity for dogs, whether natural or evolved, is used by law enforcement to build ties with people today. Ohio Sheriff David Thompson said children will often come over to talk to him at events because they remember meeting his K-9 partner during a demonstration at a school.

“Most important to me is the relationships we’re able to foster with the children,” Thompson said. “It’s another tool for us to break the ice with these children.”

But there’s a difference between a police K-9 and the family dog. At some time in a K-9 officer’s career, the officer may face a situation where he may have to put his partner in harm’s way.

“(Some) officers think, ‘It’s just a dog, it’s another tool to use, it’s disposable,’ ” said Ohio County Sheriff ’s Department Deputy Rodney McMillan. Officers who do not have K-9 partners sometimes expect, unrealistically, that the dog will be sent into a situation, even if the there’s a risk the dog will be hurt or killed.

“A dog has no way to defend itself ” against an armed suspect, McMillan said. “There have been several K-9s killed when they were sent on a suspect. If you’ve got an open area, (a dog) is a pretty big target coming at you.” In situations where McMillan deployed his dog, “had (the suspects) been armed, especially with a gun, I probably wouldn’t have sent him.”

This week, about 40 K-9 officers and their partners will come to Owensboro for combination competition and certification test, when the U.S. Police K-9 Association holds its Region Five trials at Daviess County High School. A public demonstration is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the school’s football stadium.

A large number of police K-9s come from Europe, where dog training is sometimes considered an art. But when a dog is purchased for an officer, the dog and officer must go through an extensive amount of training.

It’s a process that never ends; agencies such as the Owensboro Police Department and Daviess County and Ohio County sheriff ’s departments are required to complete a certain number of training hours each week.

Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain said when Deputy Russ Day retired his last K-9, Abby, department officials debated whether to purchase a new dog.

“When we retired the last K-9, we seriously considered retiring the K-9 program,” Cain said. Department officials looked the cost of the program, such as the purchase of the dog and equipment, and other factors, such as not having a deputy available for duty one day a week when the deputy and K-9 do their mandatory training.

Ultimately, the department decided to keep the program and was able to purchase a new K-9 for Day with a grant from K9s For Cops, a Houston nonprofit that provides funds for law enforcement agencies to purchase K-9s.

The training is partly for the dog and partly for legal purposes.

“Training is the most important part of any K-9 unit,” said Officer Chris Watkins, one of OPD’s three K-9 offi- cers. “Without documented training, there’s case law where officers were found to exceed their authority,” because they used a K-9 for a search or drug detection but later couldn’t demonstrate, through training records, that that dog was reliable, Watkins said.

Weekly training is important because, without it, “they get weak” on their skills, Day said. But the training also helps the K-9 officer learn how to read the dog’s signals. Misreading what the dog is trying to tell you can lead to failure, such as when Day misunderstood why his dog, Jordan, was alerting on a waterfi lled ditch during a track. Later, after the suspect was arrested, he told deputies he was hiding in the ditch when Jordan began barking at him.

“I thought he was just wanting to get into the water, but he was trying to tell me the bad guy was there,” Day said.

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