09/10/2007

In Minn., K9s are pricey, yet vital parts of the force

"In the seven years I have been with (a police dog), I haven't had a single physical confrontation," said Officer Jeff Gottstein. "Someone might be willing to fight me, but they aren't willing to fight the dog."

By Bob Shaw
The Pioneer Press

WOODBURY, Minn. Jeff Gottstein runs alongside his German shepherd toward a 6-foot ladder.

"Here goes nothing," he mutters. The dog leaps but stumbles on his way up.

"Good boy, good boy," coos Gottstein, a Woodbury police officer and animal trainer. It will be months of hard work for man and animal before the dog is ready for police work, but Gottstein says it's worth the effort.

Not all city councils agree. Although the dogs are increasingly popular with cops and the public, many suburbs don't pay for canine programs, deeming them unessential for police work.

Other cities are lucky enough to have private police-aid groups to buy what the cities don't pay for such as dogs. Typical is the Woodbury Public Safety Board, which is holding a dinner Tuesday to raise money for two police dogs.

Are the city-owned dogs vital for police work? Or are they crowd-pleasing extras?

Dogs are invaluable when sent into dangerous situations, such as a burglarized store that might still hide an armed robber. And dogs can track escaped suspects or missing children.

But when such a need arises, towns can call in dogs from neighboring areas. Stillwater Police Chief John Gannaway, for example, says the Washington County sheriff's office quickly supplies dogs when needed.

"Whenever some other department has something and you don't, you wish you had it," Gannaway said. "But we have no pressing need to have our own" canine program.

Pricey Pups

Police dogs are expensive. They must compete with other needs from Tasers to bulletproof vests that besiege police departments.

One of Woodbury's new dogs, Levi, was flown from Slovakia, where most of the world's police dogs are bred. The purchase price for Levi and another dog, Niko, came to about $14,000.

And that doesn't include training, which can last more than a year. Police dogs specialize in sniffing out drugs or bombs, or patrol work that includes chasing suspects.

They require full-time handlers, and the dogs live in the handlers' homes. A specialized car is then assigned to the handler full time another extra expense.

That car must be retrofitted with a back seat made for hauling dogs rather than suspects. The cars feature remote-controlled door openers and a sensor that sets off an alarm if the car overheats.

The recurring costs are more than many communities are willing to pay. But in Woodbury, the all-volunteer Woodbury Safety Board raises money to pay for the dogs, plus other extras for the police and fire departments. The budget runs about $40,000 a year.

Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague said officers draw up a wish list every year and give it to the board. Then, like Santa, the group delivers presents. The items make emergency work safer and more effective and show officers that people in the community care about them.

"The fact that we are all volunteers makes it extra special," said Terri Smith, president of the Safety Board. "We truly are partners in public safety."

And police officers feel more appreciated.

"We are very, very lucky to have them," Gottstein said.

Not every town has a police support group. In Lakeville, the 20-year-old canine program is supported by contributions solicited from civic organizations by the canine officers themselves.

Bark Has Bite

Gottstein said the value of the dogs isn't only in the high-profile made-for-TV moments like chasing crooks. The value is apparent every day, he said.

Dogs provide what Gottstein called "psychological deterrence" the ability to scare the pants off would-be attackers.

"In the seven years I have been with (a police dog), I haven't had a single physical confrontation," he said. "Someone might be willing to fight me, but they aren't willing to fight the dog."

A department with its own dogs also can respond to emergencies faster.

Two years ago, a Woodbury police dog tracked a missing child with Down syndrome for two miles.

"I would be hard-pressed to tell those parents the dog isn't needed," Gottstein said.

The dogs also yield an unexpected payoff better community relations. They are often the media stars of a department, making appearances at schools and for civic groups.

Since Cottage Grove began a police dog program earlier this year, the dog, Blitz, has become a bit of a celebrity.

"It may seem pretty fluffy, like a marketing department for the police, but some of it is of real value," said City Administrator Ryan Schroeder.

Children love dogs, which act as conversation starters.

Children "grow up feeling comfortable that police are there to assist them, not just to be some bad guy or gal in blue," Schroeder said.

In addition to crime-fighting functions, Gottstein said, dogs are magnets for public support.

"It's a huge PR thing. It's a feel-good thing. You see it, you can touch it," he said.

Humans are inspired by animals that devote their lives to helping them.

Gottstein recalled the reaction of his previous dog, Andy, to retirement. It was the first day Gottstein drove to work without him and Andy watched as a younger, healthier replacement jumped into the back seat of his beloved car.

"As I left my house," Gottstein said, "I saw Andy sitting in the window, crying."

But in training last week, the short, happy barks of the young Levi seemed to show how he felt about his new life as a four-legged police officer.

"Dogs are essential," said Gottstein, rubbing the dog's chest.

Copyright 2007 Pioneer Press

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