Dog Stars: Sheriff’s K9 Program

Friday, January 1st, 2010 @ 3:04PM

By Benji Feldheim
Courtesy of the The Daily Chronicle. Original article published on 3/26/2008.

Maverick is a sociable dog – even when he’s working. The 8-year-old German shepherd strutted through the DeKalb County Legislative Building in Sycamore, panting heavily as maverickhe sniffed to find a marijuana pipe during a citizens’ police academy class March 13.

Maverick started barking and clawed at a floor panel, under which the pipe had been hidden earlier in the day. After a quick instruction from Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Sullivan, Maverick’s handler, the dog sat calmly at attention and remained at ease when class attendees petted him.

“He goes home with me at night and stays with my family,” Sullivan said. “I have three kids and I don’t have to worry about Maverick being aggressive towards them.”

While K-9 dogs are trained to chase people down who are fleeing law enforcement officers – and to grab a person with their teeth if he’s uncooperative – the dogs working for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office must be social enough to interact with kids.

“Today, very few are trained mostly to attack,” DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said Friday. “Their job is primarily using their nose to find drugs or people lost or hiding in buildings. We want a dog to do those things and get along with people and walk around schools, not just traditional attack dogs.”

The sheriff’s office maintains one of the oldest K-9 units in Illinois. This year, there are two canine units with the sheriff’s office, one handled by Sullivan and the other composed of Sgt. Gary Dumdie and his dog, Enjo.

The program started in 1974 when Scott – who was then a sergeant with the sheriff’s office – was the first K-9 handler in the county. Since then, 11 dogs and seven handlers have continued the trend of a police unit with a variety of functions.

On Oct. 27, 1977, Scott was called out with his dog, Rex, to a find a gun taken in a burglary. The weapon had been thrown into a cornfield off East Airport Road three days prior to the call – and the farmer had since cut down the corn and plowed the field.

Rex found the gun under dirt and some cut corn stalks within 15 minutes, Scott said.

“It’s one of the most cost-effective programs we have,” Scott said. “It’s expensive at first, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.”

Maverick’s nose has also led to significant finds.

In summer 2003, Maverick signaled that he smelled something on the passenger side of a vehicle during a traffic stop on Interstate 88. Deputies found a small amount of cocaine under the passenger seat and $22,000 in cash, Sullivan said.

Search warrants were granted after the traffic stop, which led to a larger sum of money found in a house in the Knolls subdivision – for a total of $191,405. The DeKalb house was being used as storage for drug dealers, Sullivan said.

“The biggest factor for how we choose K-9 dogs is the retrieve drive,” Sullivan said. “Eight years old, he still goes nuts for tennis balls. He’ll run until he can’t run anymore just to find a ball.”

Police work is supposed to be fun for the dogs, Scott and Sullivan said. Dogs selected are eager to play fetch and should be confident and athletic, Sullivan said.

Sullivan and Maverick spent eight weeks training intensively at the Illinois State Police Academy in Springfield. For eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, the two started to form their bond, which is key to the success of the unit, Sullivan said.

“It takes a lot of time, a couple years to truly form a bond,” Sullivan said. “He’s with me all the time. Some days we don’t have a K-9 call but we still train, whether it’s hiding some dope for him to find, or we’ll get out the biting sleeve.”

Encouraging the dog and playing tug-of-war with a piece of rope or having a simple game of fetch are essential to make sure the dog stays well-trained, Scott and Sullivan said. K-9 dogs have to stay interested in police work or their skills will subside.

“My level has to elevate so he wants to please me and find something or someone,” Sullivan said. “I’m holding that leash, if I’m in a bad mood it all goes down that leash. He can tell if he’s done something wrong and the ears droop. Or if he did well, he’s prancing around like a parade dog.”

The dog’s sheer presence often convinces people to cooperate with officers, Sullivan said. In Maverick’s seven years as a police dog, he has not bitten anyone, Sullivan said.

“People tend to do what they’re told,” Sullivan said. “I’ve sent him on a couple instances and recalled him because the people stopped running or stopped fighting. They are told what will happen if they don’t.”

Know more

  • Dogs that qualify for a K-9 unit often cost between $8,000 and $12,000 to purchase and initially train. The dogs are in service for about 10 years before they retire.
  • More than $1.2 million in evidence has been collected from 1974 to 2007 with assistance from the 11 dogs that have taken part in the K-9 program of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office.
  • From 1974 to 2007, K-9 units have assisted in 137 apprehensions, 369 field searches,766 searches of buildings and 257 evidence finds.

(Source: 2007 DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office Annual Report)

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