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Expert: Bond Between K-9s, Handlers Strong

As thousands gathered to remember slain Galt, Calif. K-9 Officer Kevin Tonn in late January, one of the mourners in attendance stood out.

Tonn's partner, a German shepherd named Yaro, could be seen near his coffin, whimpering throughout the memorial service and during the burial.

The bond between a police dog and its human counterpart is a deep one, forged over countless hours of training, working and living together.

Rick Ashabranner, a former handler with the Jeffersonville City, Ind. Police Department and the President of the North American Police Work Dog Association, told the relationship is much like that of a owner and a pet, but with an added sense trust.

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"As a handler, you carry the dog every day, go through the training classes with the dog and work together. That becomes a day-in, day-out thing," he said. "Most officers today keep their dog at home with them and it basically is a part of their family.

"You spend as much time with that dog, and maybe more, than you do with your own family."

He said that along with the unconditional love shared with the animal, the trust built during time spent training and while on patrol only strengthens the bond.

"I think any time you start putting your trust into a dog with not only your life, but the life of citizens and other officers, that bond becomes very strong."

K-9 Units and Budgets

Ashabranner said that the popularity of police dogs among law enforcement agencies has grown over the last few years.

"They make things safer for the officers, they are a lot quicker and search things faster and more efficiently," he said.

Despite the progress K-9 programs have made, tightening budgets have stymied some of that growth.

"We've all seen what budget crunches can do," he said. "Something has to give and unfortunately, even though there are a lot of things dogs can do that officers can't, there are some things they can't do that officers can.

"Departments have to make a very tough decision on who is going to be cut if it's going to be dogs from the program or the officers themselves."

He said that there have been some agencies that have cut back or haven't replaced a dog that has been injured or retired due to age.

Trends in K-9 Policing

Ashabranner said that even though budgets have been cut, police dogs are still a very valuable tool utilized everyday by agencies across the country.

He said that over the past few years there has been a change in both technology and tactics that has increased in safety for both the officers and the dogs.

"There are a lot more tactics and a lot more off-leash capabilities," he said. "You'll get into a standoff with a suspect or during a search of something where there is some distance there for the officer's safety."

There is also more equipment involved, including cameras and headsets the dog wears and GPS devices used to track the dog's location.

Ashabranner said that the ability to track and communicate with the dog increases the safety of the animal and keeps the officer out of possible danger.

Keys to Starting a K-9 Unit

There are many things departments must consider before starting a K-9 unit, according to Ashabranner.

"There is a lot more to starting a unit than just going down to your local shelter and picking up a dog and putting him in the hands of a trainer."

He said that departments must consider the quality of the dog and must find a reputable vendor to purchase the dog from.

Department must also consider who will train the dog, who will train the handler and what organization the department will certify the dog with.

"Make sure you certify with a reputable national organization that is recognized by the courts," he said. "When you go to court over something, you want to make sure you have that in your hand."

He said there are a lot of other things including equipment, training and budgetary considerations including veterinary care, cost of feeding the dog and reimbursement for the officer taking care of the K-9 that may not be taken into consideration.

"A lot of people don't think of that and then they get the dog and all of the sudden they realize they are invested in the dog and it quadruples in cost from what they originally thought it would be."

NAPWDA, which has been in existence since 1977, was established to help assist police and law enforcement around the world with K-9 units.

"We just want to make sure that every K-9 unit out there has the ability to be certified to a standard that is recognized throughout the country in court and that they are getting the most up-to-date and latest technology and techniques that are out there," he said.

Ashabranner reiterated the strong bond held between an officer a police dog -- a relationship he says differs from that with a human partner.

"You feel like no matter how bad your day is, that dog can seem to bring your day up," he said.

"You might have had a bad day at work or a bad day with the family, but as soon as you see that dog, you see that unconditional love and all he wants to do is put his head on your lap and wants you to pet him and wants you to play ball with him.

All of the sudden you just forget about that bad day and think, 'Here's my partner, here's my buddy right here. No matter what happens, he always loves me.' "