Dedication is incredibly important to law enforcement K-9 units.
It’s not an easy, cushy assignment. Each dog and handler requires massive amounts of training, not just to start out with, but every week.
They usually work nights, because dogs can track much better at night than people, and are expected to be on-call all the time, whenever the department needs a K-9 assist.
It’s a sacrifice — Bremerton Police Officer Bryan Hall, whose partner is a German shepherd named Ando, said a K-9 officer doesn’t get to take vacations on a whim, they have to ensure the dog is cared for. Kitsap County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Baker, whose partner is a German shepherd named Heiko, mentioned that it can be difficult for an officer’s family. Plus, there’s the toll it takes on the body.
KCSO Deputy Joe Hedstrom, whose partner is a German shepherd named Titan, said both he and Baker have broken bones in the course of tracking a suspect. He was actually scheduled for surgery on Wednesday, Nov. 16, to tend to an injury sustained eight years ago on the job.
But, as Baker said, the benefits are “immeasurable.”
“They describe it as the highest highs and the lowest lows,” he said. “It’s the greatest job in law enforcement. Who would not want to go to work everyday with their dog, right? Every day, you get to go to work with your dog, so it’s the highest high.
“I became a cop because I wanted to work with dogs, and I wanted to be a K-9 handler.”
Hedstrom said, “We get to go out there, and when we find those guys, it’s such a sense of … it’s awesome. More than I can explain.
“It beats our body up. (Baker) and I both have broken things searching for people,” Hedstrom added. “(But) ultimately, it’s the best job. I wouldn’t do any other job in this department. You couldn’t pay me more, or promote, or do anything.”
A handler and their dog really are partners. They spend every waking moment together, at work and at home.
“He’s part of my family,” Hall said, of Ando.
That sort of loving devotion to K-9 dogs extends beyond the handler, too. Every one of them has seen overwhelmingly positive responses from the community, in regards to their dogs.
Hedstrom told a very moving story about some community members who stopped by the KCSO Silverdale office to show their appreciation for his former partner, Ajax, who recently had to be put down, a result of his advanced-stage cancer.
“They were so touched by Ajax,” Hedstrom said. “(KCSO) put out a press release with five or six pictures with Ajax and I. This girl took it upon herself, with her mom, to get those pictures printed out on quilting material, and made a huge blanket for me, incorporating those pictures for me in the quilt.
“I took it home, and my wife thought it was awesome. My son immediately saw it and latched onto it because, you know, that was his dog.
“So we get overwhelming support.”
Blankets, photos, dog treats, portraits: those touching gestures are only the tip of the iceberg, really.
“That’s where a lot of our funding comes from for our K-9 program, is through the community,” Hedstrom said. “Both the ballistic vests for our dogs, which are $2,000 a piece, a family from the north end of the county donated that money. There’s another family that has donated probably close to $15,000 to our K-9 unit.”
KCSO, Hedstrom explained, doesn’t have a line item in its budget specifically for the K-9 unit. Any time an expense comes up, it has to be taken out of the general patrol fund. But in 2001, in response to the BPD K-9 Buddy being shot and killed in the line of duty, overwhelming community support led to KCSO opening a bank account for public donation.
Now, whenever there isn’t room in the KCSO budget for things like new gear and veterinary bills, they have those donations to fall back on.
“We’ve never publicly asked for anything,” Baker said. “One of the things we’re very fortunate about is … we’ve had a combination of supportive administration and supportive community.”
Baker said just like KCSO is the community’s sheriff’s office, their K-9 dogs are the community’s dogs.
“Who doesn’t like dogs?” Baker asked. “I think it really brings the community together more than anything else.”
He told the story of a reporter who took a dog to political rallies over the election season, to both major parties.
“Same reporter, same dog, both political rallies, and they found out that there’s one thing that brings people together no matter what age, color, race, agenda, you name it,” Baker said. “Dogs bring people together.”
To learn more about K-9 units, visit www.wspca.com. Donations can be made to local K-9 units by visiting the law enforcement offices. Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office in Silverdale is located at 3951 Randall Way NW, Silverdale. Bremerton Police Department is located at 1025 Burwell St., Bremerton.
Michelle Beahm is a reporter with the Central Kitsap Reporter and Bremerton Patriot. She can be reached at mbeahm@soundpub lishing.com.