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Always Together

 Officers and Bend K9s team up to save and protect lives

You’ll have to forgive Bend Police Officer James Kinsella if his uniform isn’t perfectly tidy. He spends 24/7 with Haras, a 60-pound Belgian Malinois police dog whose furry coat has a particular affinity for clean, pressed uniforms. But Kinsella isn’t bothered by the constant need to brush off dog hair. “I love him, and he loves me,” Kinsella says.

Of course, Kinsella can’t truly speak for his companion and co-worker’s feelings, but the dog’s nose pressed against the backseat window of his patrol car, ears up and eyes fixated on Kinsella, leaves no doubt about the dog’s devotion to his master.

The tight bond is crucial—more rides on this relationship than the typical person-animal connection. Kinsella and Haras will spend years working and living together, relying on each other in innumerable ways. Haras, 7, has been under Kinsella’s command for four years, and when the two aren’t on patrol, they go home to Kinsella’s family, where Haras has his own kennel. Kinsella explains that in the United States, all police dogs go home with their handlers. “Our bond, and being able to figure out what our dog is telling us, is of utmost importance,” he says.

Despite the affectionate connection, Haras’s life is much more structured and defined than average, pivoting entirely around the fact that he’s a working police dog. “He’s a tool, and the bottom line is that even though I love him, I would sacrifice his life for another officer or citizen,” Kinsella says.

Luckily, no police dog has lost its life in the line of duty since Bend’s K9 unit was created in 1992, according to Sergeant Ron Taylor, who supervises the unit. Still, just like all of the officers at the Bend Police Department, Haras is trained to be in the line of duty.

K9 training starts at birth

Bend’s K9 unit currently consists of three Belgian Malinois, a medium-size breed similar to German Shepherds. All three were born in the Czech Republic, and as soon as they opened their eyes, the breeders started testing them for aptitude in European sporting dog competitions, to include degrees of obedience, agility, tracking and handler protection (bite work). Czechs breed for performance only, so the dogs have better temperament and balance; aggression is also bred out of the animals. If they don’t become champions, their handlers may sell them to American vendors, typically between the ages of 14 months and three years. Those vendors in turn sell them to police departments who may do some testing before purchasing a dog. The cost of a police dog is $9,600, plus about $400 a month for food, medical check-ups and equipment.

When the police acquire the dog, its training isn’t complete. “We have to tweak their training to fit our needs,” Kinsella says. Police and military around the world rely on dogs’ superior sense of smell to detect drugs, weapons, explosives and track humans, and dogs natural drive to protect their “pack” to keep police handlers safe in dangerous situations.

To reach this level of teamwork, the police handler and his canine partner spend seven or eight weeks in school all around Oregon until the pair becomes certified through the Oregon Police Canine Association. After that, they spend a minimum of four hours a week in training, keeping their skills honed and remaining physically fit for the duration of the dog’s working life.

For dog lovers, being a police handler might seem like an ideal job. But Taylor emphasizes that it’s not for everyone. It’s a long and intense commitment for police officers, who spend far more time with the dog than their families, and who can take longer than their dog to make the most of the partnership. “Humans are hard to train but dogs get it,” Taylor explains. “A dog will reach peak performance after training, but human handlers typically don’t get it until their second dog.”

As head of the K9 unit and a veteran officer of 25 years who once had his own police dog, Taylor says the job is filled with stress and physical exertion. “We have to be able to carry the dogs up ladders, lead them into crawl spaces and other activities that challenge us. It takes a toll on officers and animals.”

The common perception is that police dogs are aggressive. In fact, during a police dog’s work, the animal regularly comes into contact with crowds, children and other officers, so an overly aggressive dog would be difficult for a handler to manage. “If a dog bites, it’s not because he’s mean or aggressive,” says Taylor. “Rather, he’s like other canines and associates it with retrieving a tennis ball, only with in police dogs, they’re trained to fetch a human.”

Interestingly, because of their birthplace, the dogs learn their first commands in Czech or another European language. Consequently, American handlers must learn these foreign language commands. The dogs are highly intelligent and eventually pick up English, and it’s not uncommon that some handlers give commands in two languages. However, one thing remains constant—police dogs respond only to their handlers.

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Bend’s K9 force

Two of Bend’s police canines, including Haras, are patrol dogs, which means they can track lost individuals or criminal suspects through disturbances in the ground or by scent. “People blow off a lot of odor [in these circumstances],” Kinsella says. Training consists of exposing dogs to scenarios they’ll see in police work. “We teach them to track and trail, search a building, find articles, deal with gunfire and stay controlled and obedient amid chaos, such as yelling, screaming, lights and sirens,” he says.

Kinsella and Haras deployed about 300 times last year. In the four years Haras has been his partner, the dog has saved at least three lives in deadly-force situations. “The dog is so fast, athletic and powerful,” he says, citing instances of subduing suspects armed with knives or guns and suicidal or homicidal people threatening to kill officers. In the case of a man who kidnapped a family and its car, Haras located the suspect, and Kinsella was able to take the kidnapper into custody with no injuries to officers or civilians.

“When an officer has to use deadly force, the incident is far reaching,” he says. “Not only is the suspect’s life taken, but there are so many other tragedies along the way. I think about the suffering that so many people haven’t had to endure because we had the ability to utilize Haras,” Kinsella says, adding that a police dog is the only tool that can’t be taken from an officer and used against him, and also the only tool that an officer can deploy and call back if a situation changes.

The third dog is trained to detect narcotics—methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and marijuana. But because of Oregon’s recent legalization of pot, Taylor says that the Bend police department hopes to locate a “three-odor dog,” one that hasn’t been trained to sniff out marijuana. Zoey, the current “four-odor” dog, will probably retire and then it’s the handler’s choice whether to keep her or seek an adoptive family, according to Taylor. Either way, she’ll go to a good home.

When Haras’s service comes to an end, probably around age 10, he’ll go home with Kinsella as a family pet. “No one gets him but me,” Kinsella says.

Kinsella’s loyalty to Haras is demonstrative of the unique relationship between a K9 and his handler. “Our jobs tend to lead us from tragedy to tragedy,” says Kinsella. “When something bad happens, Haras is like a therapist to our co-workers, and I have someone to lean on. He cheers me up.” At the end of their shift, the partners head home for well-deserved rest and down time. By the next shift, they’re ready for work and always together.

 

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