In September of 2010 Jeff LaLonde of the Buena Vista Police Department in Saginaw, Mich., and Zeus, his K-9 partner, were hot on a track. It began when a neighboring jurisdiction called in a home invasion. As they learned the premises was overflowing with stolen firearms, the suspects fled through the house and out the back.
LaLonde and Zeus began by clearing the building. “Before you send an officer into something like that, you send a dog. The dog is a tool; that’s what he’s trained to do,” says LaLonde. “Right away … I grabbed a bulletproof vest and sent the dog in.” After the building was cleared, LaLonde hooked up a 30-foot tracking line on Zeus and the two began what would become four hours of arduous tracking through cornfields and woods. The temperature rose from 75 to a grueling 95 degrees plus humidity. Finally, while combing the 4 by 4 square mile wood lot, a Saginaw City Police K-9 handler, Officer Wenzell and his dog Kilo joined in.
“We ended up leap frogging for those four hours,” recalls LaLonde. One team would track for 10 to 15 minutes, that way each dog could have a break and some water over the course of the afternoon. Both dogs wore bulletproof vests. “When I got done I was exhausted and the dog was exhausted — he slept for several days,” says LaLonde. “We were done; the track and conditions had pushed us to our limits.”
The suspects were apprehended due to a solid perimeter by assisting officers from multiple agencies throughout Saginaw County.
Wandering through wild areas, K-9 handlers are often left exposed. In this case, LaLonde was at a distinct disadvantage: two backup officers trailed behind him while he and Zeus tracked at the head of the party. “You’re multitasking, your backup guys are multitasking, the first shot that comes out, chances are it will be at the dog or the handler. I am point guy now on this team where, if somebody’s going to get hurt or shot, the national statistics say it’s going to be a K-9 handler or his K-9.”
But don’t think LaLonde wishes it were any other way. As stressful as it can be, LaLonde, currently in his third summer as a handler, says he’s never once complained about the capable partner beside him.
New options for equipping K-9s
Today agencies have more to consider besides leashes and collars when it comes to outfitting their four-legged units. Depending on the type of work these teams will primarily perform, whether that be narcotics (like Zeus), bomb detection or special operations, trainers might look at everything from dog-mounted video cameras to various heat protection systems and of course, ballistic protection gear. The differences in K-9 equipment now compared with the stuff of ten years ago are subtle, yet significant. Lighter materials can mean less fatigue on a track. Better organization means getting to work quicker. These are the types of features handlers will want to sniff out.
Some designers are beginning to look towards synthetics as a lighter alternative to leather leashes and harnesses. Matt Akenhead, product designer for his company Signature K-9 and Ray Allen, experiments with Ramtac MWD. He maintains MWD material works at half the weight of leather, is water-resistant, and will not abrade when dragged over rocks and dirt.
“Strength-wise it’s basically [stronger] than what leather is, or stronger than the overall handler capacity. From there it’s got a textured coating which feels like leather; it has some of the same traits as leather as it’s broken-in, but it stays tacky when wet.
“We use it for leashes and long lines, and it’s definitely becoming one of our more popular tracking line materials … and that’s because of the beating it takes,” says Akenhead.