Antioch Police Hoping to Buy Two More K-9s

May 24, 2013

East County Times

East County Times

ANTIOCH -- Panting and prancing with eyes fixed on their handlers' faces, the dogs welcomed the obedience drill with an enthusiasm that most others reserve for a game of tug. "I think that this is all fun for them," said Lt. John Vanderklugt, who oversees Antioch Police Department's five-man K-9 unit.

The police officers put their partners through their paces, issuing terse commands in Dutch, Czech and German as they walked in straight lines, made crisp turns and had the dogs sit and lie down at a distance.

Bo, Chopper, Donna, Erin and Vera -- they're powerful tools in Antioch Police Department's arsenal, and now the city wants to add two more sets of jaws, one to replace a dog that's retiring this fall and the other so the department can boost its total to six, enough to have a K-9 unit on every shift, every day of the week.

"If we  do not have a dog, we would have to call in a dog that is off-duty or request adjacent agencies for the use of their canines -- if by chance they had one on duty," Vanderklugt said of the need for complete coverage.

He calls the dogs a "force multiplier" because of how much faster they can do a search with their keen sense of smell, time that Vanderklugt says officers can better spend on proactive policing.

The canines also reduce the risk of officer injuries by prompting suspects to give up, he said, noting that the mere sight of a barking dog that's prepared to use its teeth is sometimes all it takes.

Officers' partners don't come cheaply, however; the last three dogs the department bought cost $9,600 apiece. That figure seems even larger considering that last year's budget for all K-9 unit expenses -- training, vet bills, equipment for the dogs and retrofitting patrol cars to accommodate them -- was just over $23,000.

Antioch businesses and individual residents have rallied to the cause in recent years, donating roughly $24,000 in a push that Vanderklugt says was jump-started by a confluence of events.

Antioch Martial Arts Academy in 2010 held a fundraiser that generated $5,200 for the K-9 unit, and the public's awareness of police dogs' contributions was further heightened when Thor, now retired, was injured during a shootout between police and a burglar later that year.

The following spring a nonprofit organization outfitted the dogs with their first set of bulletproof vests, and that summer Pet Food Express' Antioch store donated $9,000 in proceeds from its pet washes.

Whatever canines Antioch Police Department adds to the force will come already trained in obedience, tracking and protection.

The city's Southern California vendor goes to Europe to find the dogs most suitable for police work, which means looking for those that excel in these areas.

They also test the dogs' courage to ensure they don't panic at loud noises or suffer separation anxiety, look for the playfulness an animal needs to enjoy the toys used in training and evaluate the prey drive that must kick in when a suspect runs. Focus and a protective instinct are also on the shopping list.

Dogs that pass muster then undergo an additional month of training once they're paired with their new handlers.

"I also need them to be social because we visit schools -- there's more to it than biting," Vanderklugt added, noting that the K-9 unit doubles as a public relations tool.

Drawn to the animals, people will strike up conversations with officers, which can help dispel misconceptions about police and foster the public's cooperation in solving crimes, he said.

"I don't care how cool your car is, it's not as good as a dog," Vanderklugt said.

During a recent demonstration of that canine coolness, handlers ordered their dogs to flush out another officer who, posing as a suspect, was hiding behind a truck.

Each quickly locked on its target like a heat-seeking missile as it sprinted across the enclosed lot and clamped down on the man encased in a protective bite suit.

Vera, a petite but powerful Belgian Malinois with the energy of a turbine engine, approached the vehicle at such velocity that she skidded around the front bumper in a cloud of dust.

She's one of the success stories, but even dogs that pass the initial vetting occasionally don't work out.

Ford, a German Shepherd, lasted only five months on the job before the department returned him late last year, in part because he twice disregarded his handler's command to stop a suspect, once during a residential burglary and again when the officer was serving a felony warrant.

"I had to fight the guy -- he just stayed there and watched," Officer Chris Valliere said.

The dog also had "bathroom issues," he said, explaining that it would defecate in the back of the patrol car.

And K-9 Unit Coordinator Matt Harger had two Belgian Malinois that washed out last year, one because it panicked at the sound of gunfire and the other because it would bite a suspect only to let go and run off.

"He'd head for the hills, and let me fend for myself," Harger said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her on Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

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