Law enforcement officers are skilled, well-trained, and driven. They thrive in challenging environments where teamwork is necessary for the safety of the public and other officers. Perhaps one of the more interesting relationships on a police force is that of K-9 officer and handler.
For thousands of years, dogs have been used by the military and police forces. Hieroglyphic records dating more than a thousand years before Christ detail the use of canines in Egyptian armies for carrying messages and guarding encampments. Documented history between this earliest recording and the 14th century is scarce. However, in the early 1300s, the French began using dogs to guard the docks at St. Malo. This is the first known use of dogs in a police force. In fact, the effort was so successful that the French used dogs in service into the 1770s.
One of the more famous instances of police dog use was the attempt made by two bloodhounds to track Jack the Ripper in 1888. Eleven years later, in 1899, police forces in Ghent, Belgium began formally training dogs for police work. For more than a hundred years, law enforcement agencies around the world have utilized the special skills a dog has to offer. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the United States made K-9 units a regular component of police forces.
“Half the reason I got into law enforcement was to become a K-9 officer,” said Officer Cody Siebert of the Babbitt Police Department. “It has been a very long process, but worth it.”
Those on the East Range know Babbitt is rich with mining history and is known as “The Home of Taconite.” The double entendre extends to K-9 Officer Siebert’s partner, Taconite, a Dutch shepherd from the Czech Republic.
Officer Siebert brought Tac home in May 2018. With the generous donations of the Boundary Waters Drug Task Force, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, and community support groups, the Babbitt Police Department was able to purchase Tac from McDonough K-9 in Anoka. McDonough specializes in high-quality police dogs and state-of-theart training for law enforcement, narcotic detection, explosive detection, and personal protection.
“The first couple of months were basically a bonding period between me and Taconite,” Siebert said. “In September we began the 14-week training to become certified to work on the streets.”
Mornings at the training facility in Blaine began around 5:30 a.m. with an hour of physical training, but the days were never exactly the same, Officer Siebert explained. Siebert and Tac, along with other officers and their K-9 partners, received instruction in obedience training, article searches for particular items, or scenario-based training, which included anything from building searches to removing a suspect from a vehicle. They also worked as a team to detect narcotics and practice alert work, where Tac and the other canine trainees would alert their handlers to the position of a suspect.
“I have to admit, it was pretty cool watching all the dogs progress. If you could have seen all the handlers (myself included) with their dogs from day one to the last, you would truly be amazed at the difference in performance. I do have to give a lot of credit to our trainer, Mac, as he is one of the best in the states and we are truly lucky to have him in Minnesota,” Officer Siebert said.
At the conclusion of their 14 weeks in training, the pair passed the United States Police Canine Association test. The test covers several phases: obedience, an obstacle course, criminal apprehension, a suspect search, and an article search.
Taconite took to the streets in December. Officer Siebert shared that winters are slow, so Tac has not seen much action. The team has, however, responded to a few calls which turned out to be false alarms, but it was good practice for them both. He feels having Tac on the force gives everyone on a call a sense of security.
Officer Siebert has also noticed Tac plays an active role in the demeanor of the people he interacts with on the job. A juvenile in trouble for illegal narcotics was cheered a little by Tac’s presence, despite the circumstances. “You could tell he was kind of sad and in a low spot,” Siebert said. “When I came back to the squad car and took the juvenile out of the vehicle, his exact words were, ‘Ahh, but the dog is so cute.’ He has also worked the exact opposite way.”
Siebert and Tac were on a call where the party was agitated, on the edge, and he wanted to fight the responding officers. “He saw that there was a K-9 on scene and his demeanor immediately changed.”
A trained police dog can take down a suspect, sniff out illegal narcotics, and comfort a child all in the course of a shift. In many instances, K-9 officers will put their lives on the line to protect their human partner. Such a partnership requires training, trust, and daily hard work.
Dogs are uniquely suited to perform tasks necessary to a police force. They can be fierce when needed, and calm at a command from their handler. Canine officers are loyal, and work hard to please.
In addition to the mental aspects are the physical ones. A dog’s nose has approximately 225 million scent receptors, versus a human’s five million. Thus, a dog can sniff out narcotics, explosives, spent shell casings, accelerants used in arsons, and cadavers. Canines also play an active role in search and rescue efforts, wildlife detection, and evidence retrieval.
Much like with human personalities, some dogs are better suited to police work. The five most common breeds of dog used by police departments are Belgian malinois, German shepherds, bloodhounds, Dutch shepherds, and Labrador retrievers. They are known for their incredible work ethic, a desire to cooperate with their handlers, and tenacity.
Taconite is a Dutch shepherd. “He is a very friendly dog with high drive. He will do anything for food and a toy,” Offi- cer Siebert commented. He recalled that some of his peers in training remarked that they thought Tac was too friendly, and that he might not make it as a police dog. “Approximately halfway through the training they came up to me and admitted they were completely wrong about Taconite. They all watched him do bite work, and he quickly earned the name Junkyard Dog.”
On patrol or off, an officer and their K-9 partner remain a team. The dogs are family, and live at home with their handlers. Man’s best friend, in and out of a Kevlar vest. Officer Siebert says Tac is still learning how to relax at home. He is always on the move and looking for things to get into.
“I will be watching TV and since he must always be doing something, he will often leave the area and come back with something. What that something is often is a surprise to even me half the time. A couple times he decided I needed my phone and took it off the charger in the wall and brought it to me.”
What does Officer Siebert like the most about achieving his goal as a K-9 officer? “I get the opportunity to go out there every day and go to work with a friend that has my six all the time,” he said.
“Another thing I find very interesting is that the dog is always trying to have fun and enjoys what they are doing. If you don’t make the activities something they enjoy or have fun doing they aren’t going to do it. You must always keep them interested and be excited even if you the handler aren’t having the best time, or are starting to get frustrated, you still have to put on a good fake smile. The dog will see right through that fake smile if you aren’t amped up enough and that can affect the dog’s performance in a big way.”
In essence, Tac is like most dogs in that he can sense, and sometimes mirror, a person’s emotions. This is where discipline and proper training for both the dog and its handler come into play. Tac and other K-9 officers are more than well-trained family pets. They are working members of the community, loyal to their handlers, and obedient. The safety of the handler, responding officers, bystanders, and the community in general depend on it.
Babbitt Police Chief Chad Loewen has taken note of Tac’s friendly manner. “His training didn’t change his personality at all. It strengthened the good that was already there,” Loewen said. He went on to say that his effectiveness on the police force has yet to be truly tested, since he has only been on active duty for a few weeks. The biggest benefit Chief Loewen has seen has been the encouraging community support. After all, Taconite was named by the students at Northeast Range School in Babbitt, and the department has benefited from several generous fundraisers.
In Eveleth, Police Chief Tim Koivunen has noticed extensive community support of their K-9 team, Sergeant Brandon Elias and Bear, a German shepherd.
“The community support has far exceeded our expectations,” Koivunen said. “Officers had approached myself and Deputy Chief Jesse Linde a few years ago and inquired about establishing a K-9 unit. The department did a great job in getting all the information and costs to the mayor and city council. The mayor and council gave their unanimous support. Since starting our K-9 unit, we have received in excess of $30,000 in donations.”
“I feel our department and other departments with K-9s work well with each other and continue to complement each other in times of need. I am very satisfied with our decision to start a K-9 unit and look forward to the future to keep updating, training and keeping the department and communities safer,” Koivunen added.
Bear is also a dual-purpose K-9 officer, with drug-sniffing abilities in addition to his other duties in tracking, evidence recovery, and apprehension. Sgt. Elias and Bear train hard to keep them effective and proficient. The road hasn’t always been easy.
“The last year has been a great challenge for several reasons,” Elias said. “Bear was sick for a while and needed a trip to the University of Minnesota to get a proper diagnosis, and he was treated for a lung infection. He bounced back pretty well once he got the proper medication and has hence progressed well with his training. The training required is very time-consuming if you want to have a successful K-9, and luckily I have a very understanding family and a supportive department which allow me the freedom to train when I need to.”
Sgt. Elias describes himself as a laid-back guy who, once he gets excited about something he enjoys, goes all-in. His partner, Bear, motivates him.
“Bear definitely has put a fire under me to be at work again. Having a K-9 is a very specialized opportunity, as you can’t replace what a dog can do with what a human can do. All the training that goes into the dog hopefully means that when we are called to assist, we will have success,” Sgt. Elias explained.
Bear is always on his mind, Sgt. Elias added, and it is one of the biggest challenges. Every K-9 officer keeps the physical well-being of their canine partner in mind. What training to do on a particular day? Is my K-9 comfortable in the heat/cold? Is it time for a run, or does he need a bathroom break?
Despite the constant care of his K-9 partner, Sgt. Elias is grateful. “After having Bear for over a year now I can honestly say that it is by far the greatest opportunity of my law enforcement career and am extremely grateful for the opportuni- ty to work with him.”
Most police departments in northeastern Minnesota now operate with K-9 units, all with extensive community support.
Within the Grand Rapids Police Department, the unit has operated for more than 15 years. Officer Gary O’Brien spends his time on and off duty with Radar, who rides along for every shift. Radar’s keen sense of smell was instrumental in removing cocaine, meth, and heroin from the streets, while still performing his job in criminal apprehension, tracking, suspect searches, and article searches.
The Itasca County Sheriff’s Office has four K-9 teams. Two K-9 officers were recent training graduates and are fresh on the force: Sgt. Ryan Gunderson is the handler for Major, and Deputy Derek Peterlin teams up with Kash. The two other teams are Sgt. Bob LeClair and Kruze, and K-9 Max and his handler Deputy Jared Morse. They are actively involved in keeping Itasca County safe, while maintaining a positive presence within their community.
Hibbing Police Officer Joe Burns began training in Blaine in September 2018 with his K-9 officer, Chase. They are the newest K-9 team within the Hibbing Police Department, after the retirement of its last K-9 officer, Buddy. Mark McDonough, of McDonough K-9, generously donated Chase and 12 weeks of training to the HPD last year.
St. Louis County boasts four K-9 officer and handler teams as well. Sgt. Brandon Silgjord partners with Kilo. Kilo excels at sniffing out drugs, but is even better at tracking people through the worst conditions. Deputy Ben Fye and his K-9 partner, Diesel, specialize in narcotics detection, evidence recovery, and suspect tracking and search. (These two teams are based in the southern part of St. Louis County.)
Deputy Tim Officer works with Louie, who has tracked and aided in the apprehension of dangerous armed criminals on multiple occasions. Finally, Smith and Wesson—Deputy Ryan Smith and K-9 Wesson—are proficient at tracking suspects and recovering discarded evidence. (These two teams are based in the northern part of St. Louis County.)
The St. Louis County Rescue Squad also works with talented K-9 search and rescue dogs, Ike and Ted. SAR dogs often push through harsh environments and work in difficult weather conditions to find the lost and bring them to safety.
In Virginia, Officer Nicholas Grivna and his K-9 partner, Teddy, keep city streets safe. Recently, Griv and Teddy assisted St. Louis County officials in the hunt for a male felon considered armed and dangerous. The team worked their way through the residence in question until Teddy alerted his partner to the crawl space, where he was able to apprehend the suspect.
Local police departments and sheriff’s offices are not the only agencies to utilize and benefit from K-9 teams. DNR Conservation Officer Mike Fairbanks partners with Si, a German shepherd. Together, they assist conservation officers throughout the state with tracking of persons, wildlife detection, evidence recovery, officer protection, and criminal apprehension. The Iron Range is safer thanks to these dedicated K-9 teams. Drive and discipline pair up with law and order in such a way that it benefits our citizens, and draws our communities together for their well-being. Man’s best friend, indeed.
Jennifer Osufsen lives in Aurora, MN. She is on her ninth winter in Minnesota, and has a weird Texasotan accent. She loves hearing from readers. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh, and she writes fiction, too. Look her up online at jenniferosufsen.com.