The K9 Unit of the Sarpy County Sheriff's Office is comprised of Deputy Vail, with K-9 Staack, and Deputy Illuzzi, with K-9 Jazz. The K-9 handlers are assigned to the Road Patrol Division.
Questions and Answers -
Q. How does the department obtain its K-9 dogs?
A. We received our current dogs from an organization in Alabama. The dogs originated in Europe. The organization in Alabama has highly experienced staff who are specialized in being able to select dogs who would work well as police dogs. They bring them back from Europe to be available to police agencies in the United States.
Q. What is involved in the selection process of obtaining the dogs? Does the Sheriff's Office get to choose them, or are the dogs assigned to the department?
A. The organization in Alabama selects them for us. They look for the drive of the dogs, select dogs who are not gun shy, will protect their handler, and can be used as a dual-purpose dog. The dogs are trained to work as narcotics dogs and as search dogs.
Q. What breed of dogs are selected for police work, and why? What breed are your dogs?
A. The breeds most used as police dogs are Belgian Malinois (pronounced MAL-IN-WAH) or Dutch Shepard. The reason to use these breeds are they are highly driven, are not fearful and are very trainable. They are smaller than German Shepherds, so they can fit in tighter spaces when doing searches. The Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd typically have a longer life span, with not as many health issues. One of our dogs is a cross between the two breeds, and the other is a Belgian Malinois.
Q. What is the age of the dogs that are trained for police work?
A. The average is around two years of age.
Q. How did you become a police dog handler?
A. We attend K-9 training before submitting our names for consideration to know what will be involved as a dog handler. We then apply for the position and go through a panel interview. After our appointment as a dog handler, we attend the Nebraska State Patrol Service Dog Training Course, which runs 15 weeks.
Q. What type of work do the dogs perform for the department?
A. The dogs are trained to find narcotics, property, or people.
Q. How often do you train the dogs, and where do you do the training?
A. We train the dogs 8 hours each week. We don't have a training facility, so we have to find somewhere that is available. Sometimes we use the fire stations.
Q. What makes a good police dog?
A. They need to have a good drive to get the task completed and also be obedient to the handler. The dog needs to react appropriately, depending upon the situation.
Q. How does your dog know how to react? Do they wait for your command before they do a task?
A. The dog will work based upon the instructions of the handler. The dogs are trained to auto engage to protect the handler if the handler is injured.
Q. If the dog is looking for narcotics, do you have to worry about them ingesting the narcotics or being harmfully exposed?
A. When doing a narcotics search, we are working in close proximity with the dogs to minimize the possibility of harmful exposure. When entering a situation where narcotics could be found, we take precautionary measures, if possible, to reduce harm to the dogs.
Q. Can people approach your dogs to pet them?
A. Generally, when working the dogs, we don't allow people to directly interact with the dogs. We do participate in school demos, and if the dogs are social, we allow the students to pet them at that time.
Q. How does the dog act with members of your family or co-workers?
A. When at home, the dogs interact very well with the family, and are like family members. The dogs interact very well with our co-workers.
Q. Does the dog know when it is working and when it is off duty, or does the dog always feel that it is working?
A. The dogs know when we are getting ready for work and see us putting on our uniforms. They get excited that they will be going to work. When they are home, they are able to differentiate that they are 'off duty.'
Q. When the dogs are off duty, do they like to be inside or outside?
A. The dogs are inside the home when not at work.
Q. How many years can the dog work for the department?
A. Generally, the dogs can work until about the age of 9, but it can vary, depending upon the health of the dog.
Q. What happens with the dog after it retires from the department?
A. I am happy to say that our office has a policy that when the dog retires, it goes to the home of the handler.
Q. Can you use another handier's police dog, if needed?
A. The dogs are trained with their handler as a team, and are very connected with their handler. As such, handlers cannot switch off using dogs; the dogs can only be used with the handler they are trained with.
Q. What challenges do you have working with a dog as your partner?
A. The biggest challenge is relying on your dog and trusting them. Obviously, they cannot speak. When there is not verbal communication, it is trusting the dog when it is reacting. It is knowing through extensive training that the dog is taking the right action. The dogs are amazing with their instinct and use of their training.
Q. What do you like about working with the dog?
A. It is very rewarding to see the dogs when they successfully complete the task and use the training we give them, whether it is evidence recovery, human tracking or narcotics searches.
Q. What special equipment do you have to accommodate the dog?
A. We have a K-9 vehicle that is configured for the dogs. A very valuable piece of equipment we carry is a Canine Emergency Medical kit. This kit can provide valuable medical assistance for the dog if it is injured. We use muzzles for the dogs during training exercises. We have a special harness for tracking that allows us to lift the dog, if needed, to get where they need to go when they are doing searches.
Q. Are there any laws that protect the police dogs if they are assaulted?
A. In the State of Nebraska, there are laws regarding animal cruelty, but those laws are not specific to any harm or injury to the police dogs as a result of being assaulted while performing their duties. In some states, there are laws that protect the police dogs with tougher penalties if someone causes injury to a police dog.