Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Police dogs get bulletproof vests


Fund-raisers help protect canine cops

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Officer John Patrick puts a bulletproof vest on his K-9 partner Guese.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Officer John Patrick has a vested interest in his police dog, Guese. When Guese (pronounced goose) goes to work at Caesar Creek State Park's canine unit, he sometimes is dressed in body armor.

        A vest — much like the one two-legged officers wear — is strapped around the 6-year-old German Shepherd's chest to protect him from bullets, stabs or slashes.

        “The risk is there. He has the same risk as any officer,” said Officer Patrick, Guese's handler for five years.

        Suiting up police dogs with protective gear has become a national trend in the past two years, but it's fairly novel in the Tristate.

        When small departments rely on grants to buy protective vests for their human officers, police say they can't afford to purchase the same equipment for dogs.

        “The vast majority of vests that are gotten for police canines are through donations,” Officer Patrick said. “This is something that has a very specialized use, and therefore, departments hate to spend a lot of money.”

        Guese wears his vest only when tracking a suspect believed to be armed. It's hot and cumbersome and raises a risk of heatstroke.

HOW TO DONATE
  Contributions for protective vests for police dogs in Butler County's Union Township and the Cincinnati Police Division may be made at any Fifth Third Bank. Checks should be made out to Canine Foundation and include the account number, 69751355.
  For information on the nationwide Vest-A-Dog program, check out www.dogvest.com.
        The vest was donated this spring after Ruth Owrey's social studies class at Clearcreek Elementary School raised more than $1,200 in a community service project to outfit Guese and Franklin's police dog, Sonny.

        They are the only canine units in Warren County and often are called upon to help other police agencies.

        In Butler County, Sally Akey, a West Chester resident, is raising funds to equip four police dogs in her community.

        When she finishes outfitting Union Township canines, she has offered to do the same for six canines in the Cincinnati Police Division. That agency lost a dog, Bandit, along with Officer Cliff George, in a shooting in 1987.

        “In a situation where they are tracking a suspect with a gun, the risk is equal to ours, if not more. They are out in front of us,” said Cincinnati Sgt. Daniel Hils, who welcomes the vests for the city's four-legged officers.

        The idea came to Mrs. Akey three weeks ago after watching a national television program about Stephanie Taylor, an 11-year-old from Oceanside, Calif., who founded Vest-A-Dog, a fund-raising effort to equip police dogs nationwide.

        The year-old organization has purchased vests for 100 dogs, and has received requests for 100 more since April, when Stephanie received national media expo sure, her mother, Kathleen Ryan, said.

        Mrs. Akey — who is training her own 180-pound Newfoundland, Jakobe, for water rescue — set up a bank account Thursday. She started the fund with a single donation of $800 from an uncle. Vests that resist bul lets and knives can run as much as $1,000, while bulletproof vests cost about $700.

        Russ Hess, executive director of the U.S. Police Canine Association, said the move to protective gear started in 1998 after a New Jersey police dog was shot to death.

        “Since that time it snowballed,” said Mr. Hess, who lives in Springboro and was on Middletown's canine unit for more than a decade. “But, it's a piece of equipment that for most departments it's not a priority. We don't really lose that many dogs to gunshots. But it's always a possibility,”

        He said vests, manufactured by a handful of companies, are so new there's no data to determine if they truly protect a dog. “They've proved effective for officers, so there's no reason they wouldn't protect a dog from a fatal injury.”

        A complete list of police dogs killed on duty isn't available. But independent research by Eden & Ney Associates, a Canadian company that trains police K-9 handlers, suggests that 39 police dogs in the United States and Canada were killed pursuing criminals in the past two decades.

        Most were shot or stabbed by suspects. Some died after falling from buildings during a chase. This March, an Arkansas State Police dog died when mistakenly shot by a SWAT team member.

        In Covington, Ky., Wolf, a 5-year-old German Shepherd, was killed in 1974 when he leaped to save his handler, J.C. Ecton, from being shot by a burglar. Neither officers nor dogs wore vests then.

        Today, officers wear them, and Assistant Chief Bill Dorsey said top brass would consider it if canine officers asked.

        Covington cut its unit from six to two dogs after a federal court forced departments to pay overtime to handlers who care for their dogs at home, Assistant Chief Dorsey said.

        Mr. Ecton, now 54, quit the police force soon after Wolf was killed. The experience was too much for him, he said. Now running his own business in Covington, Mr. Ecton hasn't forgotten that moment or his late partner.

        “It's had a great effect on me. He saved my life,” said Mr. Ecton, who displays pictures of Wolf and his many awards at home, and urges police to equip their dogs with vests.

        Sgt. Brian Rebholz, who heads Butler County's Union Township's canine unit, puts it this way:

        “We know they are there to lay their lives out for us and the public. It's always a working dog,” he said. “But when you get off work at the end of the night, it becomes a family friend. We don't want to lose a friend.”

       



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