For Handlers, K-9s Become Part of the Family

June 23, 2014
For a police officer, agreeing to become a K-9 handler means a commitment for the life of the dog.

The canine program in the St. Cloud Police Department had been dormant for a few years when a yellow Lab was found wandering the streets of Sartell.

It was difficult to tell exactly how old the dog was and nearly impossible to tell who its owner was. The only thing known about the dog was that its owner no longer wanted it and it needed a home.

For Matt Gannon, it soon became an opportunity. A lifelong dog lover, Gannon always wanted to have a canine partner to work with as he patrolled St. Cloud's streets as a police officer.

Seven years later, Gannon and the yellow Lab named Chuck are the senior members of a growing canine program in St. Cloud that has added two more dogs and hopes to add more.

"For someone who decided they didn't want him, he's turned out to be a great tool and a great partner," Gannon said of Chuck.

The coordinator of the St. Cloud canine program, Sgt. Jay Salzer, hammered home an even more practical benefit of Chuck's addition to the police force.

"He's taken a lot of drugs off the street," Salzer said.

While Chuck specializes in drug detection, the two younger and newer members of the canine program focus on tracking, searching and apprehension. Ruger and Ramo are German shepherds who are the partners of officers Janelle Graff and Brian Cameron, respectively.

Ramo is the newest addition to the force, just recently earning certification after he and Cameron went through a 12-week training program. Police Chief Blair Anderson hopes to add more dogs to the department's ranks.

"They are a very unique and specialized tool that's valuable for everyone," Anderson said. "As police officers, we're in harm's way all the time, but that kind of mitigates some of the inherent danger of the job."

St. Cloud is in a partnership with the Minneapolis Police Department's canine program, which helped bring Ramo and Ruger here from Eastern Europe. Ruger and Ramo cost about $6,000-$8,000 apiece, Anderson said, and there is additional cost in certification, veterinary services and training. But the dogs will more than pay for themselves in the long run in their service and their public relations value, he said.

"Those canine officers are kind of a force multiplier for us," he said. "Those dogs can do things that humans can't do. They can go and find, let's just call them 'bad actors.' And they're trained to do that, whether they're tracking for miles on end or searching an abandoned warehouse for a suspect. And they can turn right around and you can have a fifth-grader approach him and treat him like a pet."

Huge commitment

For Graff, Gannon and Cameron, they are more partners and family members than pets. Agreeing to become a canine handler means a commitment for the life of the dog -- as long as it serves the department and beyond.

It also means that an officer who has a canine partner is less likely to get a promotion or an assignment to a task force or specialized beat while he or she has the dog.

Gannon, who got Chuck before he and his wife welcomed their son into the world, equated having a canine partner to having a child. Chuck has been a huge part of their family, he said, and factors heavily into their priorities.

"It becomes difficult at times. You have to flip-flop what your priorities are and the canine needs to be a priority," Gannon said. "It's a priority for the department, it's a priority for me as well. But there are times where you have to put your family first."

He said he didn't expect the time commitment that was required and needed about six to eight months to fully adjust to having a partner all day, every day.

"They come to work, they go home. They're always there," Gannon said. "It's not a bad thing. It's a huge time commitment, but it's well worth it in the end."

Cameron said it's like having a second full-time job.

"Your full-time job when you're here is to be a police officer," Cameron said. "And when you get home you're on your other full-time job of taking care of him at home."

But unlike children, who can be cared for by family and friends, it's more difficult to find someone comfortable with caring for a trained police dog. A local kennel helps care for the canines when their handlers want some time to go out of town, but the handlers feel obligated to not leave their dogs for long, they said.

Cameron, who doesn't have children of his own, said he has an attachment with Ramo like a parent to a child. He misses Ramo when he's away from him.

"We don't want to kennel them all the time either," he said.

Graff also was surprised by the time commitment she has with Ruger. This week, the duo will be in Brainerd for their once-a-year certification trials. She has been doing something nearly every day to prepare for that, and follows a strict regimen with Ruger even when they aren't training.

"It's not like a pet where you have them in your house and just kind of hang out. You have to be strict with them all the time," she said. "They don't eat until they sit. You don't just let them go out and play fetch. He has to lay down before you throw a ball around. You have to be so strict with them."

The officers are required to do 16 hours of training a month with the dogs and pass annual certifications. They are essentially on call and are shared with area departments that reciprocate by sharing the canines they have when they can.

"I'm in contact with them almost daily, even on their days off," Salzer said. "Other officers have days off and, for the most part, can check out. These guys on their days off, I'm still emailing them, they're going to kennel time."

Growing program

The drive to be successful is what motivates the officers -- to know that fellow officers trust you and your dog enough to call you in during an investigation because you can do the job well, Cameron said.

"You can have an OK dog that can pass trials and do all right on the street with not putting in as much time," he said. "But (we're) training every day because we want to be the best we can be. And that takes a lot of training. I want my partners to trust not only me, but my dog. The last thing you want is to not have them call you because they don't trust you. That's what drives me."

Graff and Gannon share that drive. And the hard work paid off for Gannon and Chuck recently when they placed second at a trial competition out of more than 80 dogs.

Gannon hopes he can get a year or two more out of Chuck, the stray nobody else wanted. The veterinarian who first saw Chuck estimated that he was 2 or 3 when found, making him 10 or 11 now.

"There's been no performance problems at all," Gannon said. "He took second overall and was the oldest dog at the trials."

Anderson hopes to start a foundation similar to what Minneapolis has to defray the costs of the dogs.

"We're excited to grow that canine unit again," he said.

Copyright 2014 - St. Cloud Times, Minn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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