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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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To serve and protect: Madison's exceptional police dogs help keep the city safe
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Credit:Rataj-Berard

The Wells Fargo Bank near East Towne Mall was robbed in February. When Madison police officers arrived at the bank, the thief had already fled the scene on foot. Witnesses described him as bearded and white.

The profile matched that of a man who had robbed a number of banks previously. When told the suspect had been standing on a mat in front of the bank counter, Madison Police Officer Henry Wilson got his partner involved. Boris, a 3-year-old shepherd police dog, sniffed the mat and the chase was on.

Boris led officers to an apartment building about a half-mile away. Along the way the dog found a jacket and pair of sunglasses the robber had discarded as he fled the scene. Officers located the alleged thief in the bathroom of an apartment in the building, shaving off his beard to change his appearance. He was arrested.

"What's amazing to me is that the bank is open all day and maybe hundreds of people had stood on that mat," Wilson says. "Yet, when I presented the mat to the dog at the place the suspect had last been seen, Boris was able to pick up on this one guy's scent. I think that without Boris, that guy would still be out there robbing banks."

Researchers estimate that a dog's sense of smell is at least 10,000 times more acute than a human's. Boris was able to follow the bank robber based on just a few molecules of scent dropped on the mat during the holdup. And dogs trained to find weapons, drugs and bombs can tell where these things were even after they've been removed.

The Madison Police Department has used trained canines for about 10 years to help prevent and solve crimes. In that time they've become an invaluable part of the force, says Sgt. Chris Boyd, who heads the unit and whose K9 partner is Imus.

"They are a tremendous asset," she says. "They make police work much more effective and much safer for the officers."

From the German shepherds who became icons in Hitler's Third Reich to the police dogs used in the Deep South to keep civil rights protesters in line, the use of canines in law enforcement has been controversial. In recent weeks the images of barking police dogs at the protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, have stirred up old fears about canine enforcement.

But Boyd says that is not how Madison employs its dogs.

"We do not use our dogs for crowd control or to intimidate people," she says. "It just escalates a situation and is not an appropriate use of dogs in policing."

Boyd also notes that the techniques used to train the dogs rely on positive reinforcement, not fear, which causes canines to attack.

"Our dogs are not vicious, and they are not trained to be aggressive."

'Effective and sustainable'

Madison's K9 Unit was formed in 2004. For several years, Boyd had assisted the Dane County Narcotics Task Force with her sniffer dog, Arno, whom she had also trained to find and recover cadavers. Boyd's experience working with Arno convinced her that dogs could be a great benefit to the police department. She began to research other police departments that used dogs and found a variety of models. She was most impressed by what she learned about the K9 program in Anchorage, Alaska.

"An officer there had been shot and killed while searching a building for a suspect," she says. "That incident made police, city officials and citizens realize that, if the officer had a dog to assist with the building search, the officer probably would not have been killed."

A group of concerned citizens in Anchorage decided to create a nonprofit organization to fund a police dog unit, and that became the model for Madison's K9 Unit.

"We had gotten approval from the chief to use dogs, but we had been unable to get our plan through the budgeting process," Boyd says. "An independent nonprofit, like the one in Anchorage, looked like the solution."

Boyd contacted several people who had experience in creating and maintaining nonprofit organizations, including Boris Frank, executive director of the Madison Youth Choirs, and Carol Grob, a partner with the firm of Cullen Weston Pines & Bach.

Grob says Boyd brought Arno to their first meeting, where she laid out a clear vision for creating an "effective and sustainable" K9 Unit in Madison.

"She wanted dogs bred for the work and expertly trained to do it," recalls Grob. "In addition, she wanted dogs that were sociable so they could do community outreach. And she wanted to have officers who were dedicated to working with dogs, not just doing it in their spare time."

At the end of that meeting, Grob says, Arno got up and went to each person in the room, put his head on their knees and gazed up at them as if to say, "Please?"

The group was won over and agreed to start working to create the nonprofit that is called Capital K9s.

"Several of us offered to donate services and money," says Grob. "We got some seed money from the police union, and we were off."

When Capital K9s' articles of incorporation were finalized, Arno was listed as a founding member.

Biting techniques

In addition to tracking criminals and missing people, Madison's seven police K9s assist in drug busts and building searches for criminals or contraband. If necessary, they also help apprehend a suspect who is not cooperating with police.

"If we are searching a building for a suspect, we can send a dog in first to search the building room by room and locate the person we are looking for," Boyd says, noting the dogs wear bulletproof and stab-proof vests in a scenario like this. "Because the dog tells us where the bad guy is, we are less likely to be ambushed. And just having the dog there means we are less likely to get into a physical confrontation with a suspect."

Jim Donnel was one of the first two members of the dedicated Madison police K9 team. His first dog, Johnny, a Belgian shepherd, 11 years old and about to retire, has been joined at home and at work by Krahnie, a 3-year-old German shepherd who started working about a year ago. Donnel says that working with a dog can eliminate the need for officers to use their deadly weapons.

"I remember one time I had to apprehend someone, and when the guy saw the dog coming at him, he stopped in his tracks. Johnny was already in midair when I called him off, and Johnny just dropped. That's how obedient he is."

Even when these dogs bite they don't do nearly as much damage as a bullet. The dogs do not bite repeatedly -- just take hold and hang on. Officers regard this kind of apprehension as an excellent alternative to using a weapon, and say they rarely have to give the "apprehend" command because the dog's mere presence is a deterrent.

"Usually, the bad guy is more afraid of a dog than of a gun," he explains.

The high cost of K9

The dogs' training is rigorous -- a month of intensive work at Tarheel Canine Training in South Carolina and three days every month of training for both humans and dogs. The training is constantly reinforced by the handlers, who stress obedience and drills throughout their shifts and in their off-duty hours.

Maintaining the canine unit is not cheap. It costs more than $50,000 to purchase a dog, pay for the month of initial training at Tarheel and obtain a specially equipped squad car and the necessary equipment. All this money is donated through Capital K9s. The only public funds for the K9 Unit are officer salaries and benefits. Capital K9s sponsors a popular fundraising event, the annual Dog Paddle at Goodman Pool at the end of each summer. This year's dog swim will be Sept. 7.

Capital K9s also finds ways to cover ongoing expenses for the dogs.

"We have veterinarians who donate their services, and pet stores and dog food companies are providing food," Grob says. "We want to be able to continue to provide medical care for the dogs after they are retired. These dogs have worked hard for years, and sometimes that means they have special medical needs, which can be expensive for the handlers, who keep the animals in their last years."

Madison's first two dogs were sponsored by Midwest Family Broadcasting, which operates seven Madison radio stations. The company raised $60,000 with radiothons soliciting donations from listeners. As a thank you, the company got naming rights for the dogs, who became known as Johnny and Greg, after the popular WJJO disc jockeys Johnny Danger and Greg Bair.

Special dogs

Since the K9 Unit was formed, Capital K9s has raised money to fund 11 K9 teams. All the dogs have been German or Belgian shepherds. Currently, six officers and eight dogs are on active duty, including Boyd, Wilson and Donnel, who has two dogs.

Rose Mansavage's dogs are Falko, 3, and Martie, who is still working at age 7 despite developing a rare form of day blindness. Carren Corcoran goes to work with Slim, 6. Theresa McKenzie is paired with Josh, 6. The newest members of the unit are Nick Eull and his dog, Frees, who recently returned from the month-long training at Tarheel. Arno has died, but Boyd brings Imus, her personal dog, to work every day, and he does tracking when no official K9s are available.

Not every officer is suited to partner with a dog, says Chris Boyd.

"One thing we look for is an officer's desire to train and work with a dog," she says. "It's one thing to like dogs, but you really have to enjoy the training part. We have very high standards for dogs, and training takes a lot of time. The officers also need excellent communication skills because they have to be able to work with other officers and other agencies. They need to be confident but not have too big an ego because they need to be willing to learn from other handlers, their dogs and their own mistakes."

The dogs have to be special, as well. Most of Madison's dogs come from European breeders who specialize in police and military work. In addition to intelligence, strength, endurance and eagerness to work, the department looks for dogs who are friendly with people and other dogs.

"Back in the day, dogs trained to bite were considered vicious, but our dogs are not," Boyd says. "We want them to be friendly because we use them for community outreach, demonstrations at schools and other events, and just on the streets."

"Even when a dog does an apprehension -- latching on to an arm or leg when a person is not complying with the officer or trying to run away -- the dog is not being mean," she adds. "We have trained them to approach an apprehension as a game. For the dog, he's playing tug of war, and it's fun for the dog. His tail will be wagging the whole time. And, while they are trained to protect their handlers, if an officer is in a fight with a suspect, the dog will do nothing unless he is told to."

Searching for drugs

I met up with Carren Corcoran and her dog, Slim, a little before 8 p.m. on a Saturday in June for a ride-along. About an hour later, Corcoran got a call to check into a suspected drug deal outside a Main Street bar.

When we pulled up, a small group of men was standing on the sidewalk talking and smoking.

"I don't think it's a drug deal," Corcoran told me. "They saw me. If they were dealing they'd be gone by now."

We watched for a few minutes. One of the men sauntered off toward the Square and another went back into the bar. Two others loitered on the sidewalk for a few more minutes.

We got out of the car without Slim, who seemed a little disappointed that his game of Find the Drugs wasn't going to happen. Corcoran talked with the bar manager briefly and we returned to the car. We drove to a nearby empty lot where Corcoran planned to let Slim out to take a break, but almost immediately there was a call for backup at the Meriter emergency room, where a very drunk person was in a fight with security guards and police.

By the time we arrived, a female officer had pinned the drunk, a man who must have been six-and-a-half feet tall and more than 300 pounds. The confrontation continued for 30 or 40 minutes before the officers finally got the man into a squad car and took him off to jail.

Again, it was not a job for Slim.

But shortly before midnight, officers called for a dog to do a drug sniff in a north-side apartment building. They had received a tip that a major dealer lived on the second floor of the building and wanted a K9 to identify the apartment where the drugs were stashed.

When we climbed the stairs to the second floor, Corcoran gave Slim the command to locate drugs. The dog went from door to door, sniffing and lying down at several doors, which is what he's been taught to do when he smells drugs. Corcoran and Slim made several passes, and Slim lay down most quickly each time at one of the doors. Corcoran pulled a worn chew toy from the back of her waist and tossed it for Slim. That chew toy is his reward for doing a good job. The other officers made note of the apartment number so they could get a search warrant the following day, and we left the building.

"I had to give Slim several opportunities to alert at the right door so I knew for sure that I was reading him right," Corcoran explains later. "I think there was a lot of drug odor in that hallway. Probably there were drugs in more than one apartment, or there might have been so much scent in there that it took us a while to be sure we had the right door."

Learning to trust

The officers in the K9 Unit are enthusiastic about their assignments and say they have the best and most challenging jobs in the department.

"I think the most interesting thing about working with dogs is trying to figure out how the dog thinks," says Mansavage. "The dog can't tell you in words what he's thinking, so you have to learn to interpret the dog's behavior and body language. That's a challenge, but the longer you work with a dog the better you get at it."

She says she's also learned to trust her dogs to keep her safer on the job and to be a valued member of her family, which includes her husband, three children ranging in ages from 2 to 13, two other dogs, some cats and chickens.

"They all get along great," she says.

Mansavage had hoped to join the K9 Unit since she was hired in 2005. She says she loves animals and always wanted to work with dogs.

After probation, she attended trainings "to watch and learn" and volunteered to be a decoy -- the officer who puts on a bite sleeve and poses as a bad guy for training the dogs to apprehend a suspect. When a position on the unit opened up after about a year, she applied and got the job.

Donnel also loves his job, but he says it's not easy duty.

"Sometimes people will say, 'Wow, you get to play with your dog at work,' but it's not all fun and games. At times it's very trying, and it's always a big responsibility. You're always training the dog, and you're always on call even when you're off-duty."

Donnel says his most memorable experience was one of his first times working with Johnny. A woman with a mental disability had wandered away from home. Officers had been searching for her for an hour.

"Then they remembered we had dogs and called for Johnny. Johnny sniffed her pillowcase and found her in about 10 minutes. It's just one of many times I've been so proud of him."

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