Dave Newhouse: A vested interest in police dogs

October 20, 2011

Oakland Tribune, Dave Newhouse

Charity is a means to an end, notably when it's for the public good. And public safety does a whole lot of good, namely in crime-stressed Oakland.

Pet Food Express recognized the need three years ago to provide Oakland Police Department canines with specially designed bulletproof vests.

Oakland's soaring homicide numbers cry out for public safety. And Pet Food Express, with three stores in Oakland, is doing all it can to protect our citizenry.

"In the search of a building," said Mike Murray, a Pet Food Express spokesman, "one dog can take the place of about 10 police officers. Pretty amazing."

Talk about amazing, in addition to outfitting every Oakland police dog with vests, Pet Food Express has raised money to buy the dogs to wear them.

This is one benevolent pet food store chain. And there is, seemingly, no end to its largesse, also having raised $1 million annually for pet rescue services.

This weekend marks its latest canine-vest fundraisers. Pet Food Express hopes to raise a combined $100,000 in donations at 38 of its 40 Northern California stores, which range from Carmel to Roseville. Only the Castro Valley store and Stonestown in San Francisco won't participate.

Oakland has three stores: 5144 Broadway in the Rockridge Shopping Center, 6398 Telegraph Ave., and 2220 Mountain Blvd. in the Montclair district. Sunday is the last day to donate.

"We've raised enough money for all the police departments in the greater Bay Area," Murray said of the canine-vest cause. "And we've increased (funding) to include trauma kits and oxygen masks for the dogs, heat alarms for the cars that carry the dogs, and a medical fund for the dogs."

Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff Steve LeCouve and Peninsula resident Louise Tully cofounded the "Cover Your Canine" program.

"Police departments didn't have the funding, especially in this economy, where things got cut," said Murray. "And to send a dog into a life-threatening situation with no protection is a horrible thought."

The Rockridge store offers three vest-buying options: A $15 pet wash for 20 minutes; a $15 token for a future dog wash, or a donation at the cash register.

"Last year, a new vest cost $1,200," said Murray, and five people donated money to buy vests for five dogs.

Pet Food Express is co-owned by Michael Levy, of Mill Valley, and Mark Witriol, of Oakland. Last year, they moved the company's corporate headquarters from San Leandro to Oakland (500 85th Ave.).

Pet Food Express has come to the rescue like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. The chain is into a number of pet humanitarian projects. This is evident at the Rockridge store, just looking at the variety of pet posters hanging on two walls from the very front of the store to the very back.

"We're not a big national corporation, so we can't fund this ourselves," said Murray. "So we get the community involved. The Oakland community has felt ownership in helping get those dogs into the police department."

This weekend may lead to the purchase of the 100th canine vest. And the newest vests are lighter, stronger, more flexible and less restrictive to a dog's mobility, which the animal needs for training jumps and maneuvering through tunnels.

Phong Tran, a 14-year veteran of the Oakland Police Department, is assigned to its canine operation. On Monday, he visited the Rockridge Pet Food Express with Kaiser, his trusty German shepherd.

"It definitely means a lot," Tran said of Pet Food Express' sense of charity, "in terms of the safety of the dogs, when we're deploying them at high-risk. As officers, we want the dogs to have protection."

If the dogs are better protected, our police officers are better protected as they strive to protect citizens.

And all because Pet Food Express cares.

"It's a lifesaving service," Tran said.

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