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Antioch police K-9s receive ballistic vests

April 20, 2011

Contra Costa Times, Rowena Coetsee

Antioch Police Officer Matt Harger walks in with K-9 officer Thor, 10, who sports one of the new custom-fitted bullet and puncture-proof vests that were given to the four police dogs at a press conference held at Antioch Police Department on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 in Antioch, Calif. The vests are a gift from a Bay Area nonprofit and Pet Food Express. Last August Thor was shot in the shoulder by a robbery suspect and would not have suffered a bullet wound if he had been wearing a vest, according to Harger. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff)

ANTIOCH -- Four Antioch police dogs modeled their new body armor this week, the first safety gear that officers here have received for their fleet-footed partners.

"Thor is the reason we are all here today," said Lt. John Vanderklugt of Antioch Police Department's senior ranking canine, who took a bullet last summer.

Both bullet- and knife-resistant, the $1,200 vests come courtesy of The Police and Working K-9 Foundation, an all-volunteer organization that also pays for emergency medical care for both working and retired canines.

The pricey canine couteur comprises six panels -- three puncture-resistant ones and three to deflect bullets -- encased in a nylon vest secured by clips and Velcro.

The approximately 5-pound vests were custom-made for each dog, said foundation Vice President Louise Tully, noting that the animals vary widely in size.

Whereas Thor, a Belgian Malinois, is the smallest at 65 pounds, Sirt is a 110-pound giant of a German Shepherd.

A representative from the Sacramento-area company that produced the vests provided two on-site fittings after the dogs received them a couple months ago.

Although they don't cover as much of the body as some other styles, the design enables the dogs to move freely -- and possibly dart out of harm's way, said foundation president and co-founder Steve LeCouve, a sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office and former canine handler.

Including this latest gift, his organization has presented 82 vests to 34 law enforcement agencies around the Bay Area and beyond since it was established last year.

The all-volunteer group is preparing to give away 18 more, LeCouve added.

Many police departments these days are struggling simply to pay their officers and can't afford this safety gear for their K-9 units even though it's a mere fraction of what the dogs are worth, he said.

Add the cost of all the training a police dog undergoes to its hefty purchase price, and you're looking at a roughly $50,000 investment, LeCouve said.

Antioch Police Department has never had a canine killed in the line of duty, but it came close to losing one last August when Thor was shot in a confrontation with a burglary suspect.

The man pumped a .25 caliber bullet into the dog's right shoulder, and although Thor was back on duty two weeks later, police believe the injury could have been prevented if the dog had been wearing a vest.

The incident prompted a flurry of donations from the public, including two individuals who contributed enough to buy three of the vests.

Pet Food Express, which has been donating money from its pet wash proceeds for ballistic vests since 2008, has given slightly more than $160,000 over the past two years to the foundation's "Cover Your K-9" fund.

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