Keeping K-9s Close to the Vest

Jan. 9, 2024
While police departments struggle to find funding for protective K-9 gear, nonprofits are ensuring the dogs stay safe.

It was five hours into the standoff that Gabo was deployed.

The K-9 was part of the Jonesboro, Arkansas, Police Department’s response in December 2018 to a 56-year-old woman who had shot and killed a maintenance worker performing a wellness check. She had barricaded herself in her apartment and refused to surrender to police. For hours, negotiators talked to her, trying to coax her out peacefully. When negotiations broke down, though, Gabo was sent in to apprehend the woman.

This article appeared in the July issue of OFFICER Magazine. Click Here to view the digital edition. Click Here to subscribe to OFFICER Magazine.

As the K-9 entered the apartment, the woman opened fire. Gabo was shot five times, with one bullet piercing his liver. But despite such a grizzly and violent attack, Gabo survived, and he returned to duty two months later.

While remarkable, it wasn’t Gabo’s ability to heal that saved the dog’s life. It was a protective vest that bore the brunt of the gunfire, a vest he wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for a generous donation.

“That dog is my hero. Gabo is my hero,” says Sandy Marcal, the woman behind the Massachusetts-based Vested Interest in K9s, which donated the vest that saved Gabo, who returned to duty before passing away in 2020 at the age of 7.

Founded 22 years ago, Vested Interest has outfitted more than 4,700 dogs with vests. As attacks on police increase, K-9s are facing more and more dangerous conditions on the street that make protective gear essential. But even though K-9s face the same threatening situations as their human counterparts, some departments are financially handcuffed and forced to use older, outdated vests that don’t provide the same protection of newer vests.

“At the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office (in New York), we strive to provide the best service and protection to our community at the most efficient spending possible,” Sheriff Daniel J. Zimmerman stated in an email to OFFICER Magazine. “With this in mind, one area of funding that has historically been difficult to cover, is personal protection equipment for our canines. However, there should be no confusion—the protection of our canine deputies is a high priority.”

That’s why nonprofit groups like Marcal’s Vested Interest and Brady’s K9 Fund can be literal lifesavers for a police dog.

“(Handlers) do feel helpless when they reach out to their department, and their department can’t help out,” says Leah Tornabene, the president of Brady’s K9 Fund, which has been donating protective vests since 2018. “And this is their last hope, for nonprofits like ours to help.”

Niagara County has received two donated vests from Vested Interest, with one dog receiving a vest in 2019 and another this year. A third K-9 also is awaiting a vest from a private donor, according to Zimmerman. “With so many resource needs to protect both our employees and the people of Niagara County, we are genuinely grateful for organizations like Vested Interest in K9s and our caring citizens for their support of our canine deputies,” he says.

Born from a question

Brady’s K9 Fund grew out of a child’s question: Are police K-9s issued protective vests when they join a department. That’s what Tornabene’s son, Brady Snakovsky, 12, asked when he watched a reality-based TV show in which a police dog wasn’t wearing any protective gear. When confronted with the answer—no, they aren’t—the Strongsville, Ohio, boy founded the nonprofit that bears his name in 2018.

“A lot of people—citizens—don’t realize vests aren’t automatically given to (K9s),” says Tornabene. “We try to educate them about it. This is not automatic… It’s paramount that they know this.”

So far, Brady’s K9 Fund has donated vests to roughly 630 dogs. The organization also has a waiting list of around 35 to 40 K-9s. At one point, the list was in the 50s.

“Brady’s main goal is all K-9s have the ability to have vests,” says Tornabene.

One of the nonprofit’s biggest achievements occurred earlier this year when it helped the Sacramento Police Department. Ranger, one of the department’s K-9s, required emergency surgery after he was stabbed while trying to apprehend a suspect late last year. Brady’s K9 Fund wanted to make sure Ranger was protected when he returned to duty, but the nonprofit didn’t stop there.

“We couldn’t just give Ranger one though, all of his K-9 partners at Sacramento deserved one, so the entire team of seven now has protection as they patrol the streets,” the organization stated in March.

Built strong

By the nature of running their nonprofits, Tornabene and Marcal keep on top of advancements in protecting K-9s in the field. For instance, older vests don’t always provide protection for all of a dog’s vital organs. They also can be heavy and hot to wear.

Created by Line of Fire Defence, the vests donated by Brady’s K9 Fund are made of interlaced kevlar that is five times stronger than steel and able to diffuse the kinetic energy of a bullet. Not only is it able to adjust to temperature conditions, but the vest also doubles as a tracking harness and is floatable. The nonprofit also has begun a providing an even stronger vest, usually used for K-9s in SWAT units.

“That’s something new this year,” says Tonabene, adding that she believes Line of Fire Defence knows how to continue to adapt. “We’ve donated three so far.”

The custom-fitted Vested Interest in K9s vests are manufactured through an exclusive agreement with Survival Armor in Fort Myers, FL and come with National Institute of Justice-certified ballistic panels. The vest is made of a lightweight, wicking material, and it protects a K-9’s vital organs.

One of the vest’s other features, says Marcal, is the ease at which a handler can strap it on a partner quickly. In fact, she’s heard of some handlers getting a vest on a K9 in roughly 10 seconds.

Helping K-9s in other ways

Although dedicated to providing vests to K-9s, both organizations have worked in other ways to keep four-legged law officers safe on the job. Marcal began providing departments with Narcan for their K-9s in 2019. So far, the nonprofit has provided the medication that reverses opioid effects to 500 dogs annually. Those donations are coupled with first aid kits and medical insurance for K9s.

Marcal hopes to expand its K-9 medical trainer program. Eventually, she would like to use a state-of-the-art simulator to train handlers—at no cost—on how to medically treat a police dog in the field.

Besides vest donations, Brady Snakovsky and the organization he founded works to help the police dogs around his northeast Ohio home. Recently, they helped refurbish a dog park in nearby Brunswick so that it would include a K-9 agility course.

“Each year, we try to give back to the community,” says Tonabene. “For the most part, we’re just trying to make sure K9s get vests.”

Vested Interest in K9s and Bray’s K9 Fund have helped keep countless law enforcement dogs safe, and  Marcal believes that nonprofit assistance will continue to be necessary to make sure that K-9s have the proper protection. “I think now more than ever, police departments are still going to keep having these financial issues.”  

This article appeared in the July issue of OFFICER Magazine

About the Author

Joe Vince

Joining Endeavor Business Media in 2018, Joe has worked on the company's city services publications. He began working at as the assistant editor. Before starting at Endeavor, Joe had worked for a variety of print and online news outlets, including the Indianapolis Star, the South Bend Tribune, Reddit and

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