If you’re a motorcycle officer, you put your bike in the garage when you get home.
If you’re on the SWAT team, you lock up your gun in the safe, and leave it there until you’re called out.
If you’re a K9 officer, your dog is with you all the time.
There is no question that any collateral duty of an officer is of vital importance, and has its own unique demands. Being a dog handler, though, requires 24 hour commitment. That dog is yours; to feed, to house, to train, to love.
The Grand Junction Police Department is excited to now have two K9 officers; Officer Earthman has been with our agency since 1987, and has spent the last 23 years of her career as a K9 handler. She is currently on her sixth partner, Joker, a six year old German Shepherd, with whom she’s been working since April of 2011.
We recently acquired another dog, Nero. Nero comes to us from Tel Aviv, Israel, is two years old, also a German Shepherd. His human is Officer Hawkins. This is Trevor’s first working dog, so they’re learning together.
K9s start young, as early as one year old, some sooner. They’re trained for a variety of different jobs; they sniff for drugs, they perform building searches, they track criminals or missing people, they bite bad guys, when they need to. They protect their humans, too. Some of that is training, some of it is instinctive loyalty. There is no better example of that than Officer Earthman’s third dog, Gero. Geraldine says she is alive today, because Gero is not. He was shot and killed by a wanted suspect in 2004. These dogs are partners, just like a human officer, that will give their lives for the community. They want to please their handlers, they want to be with their humans. The average career for a working K9 is five to seven years. After that, they retire, often with job-related physical ailments, to one extent or another. Mostly, then, they’re dogs. Pets, like you and I have.
Our community is so supportive of our K9 unit. There are various businesses around town that quietly offer their buildings for search practice, or provide land for the dogs to train and run—“hunden aus laufen,” or dogs out running, a favorite part of the training protocol. When Gero was killed, the community rallied for their police department, and raised over $16,000 in a week, to fund a new police dog, all unsolicited. Pretty incredible. Geraldine says she gets inquiries from citizens all the time, asking if they can pet the dog (yes), or if he has a ballistic vest (yes). We’re pretty sure that our four legged employees are the most popular in the community.
Just as with people and pets, some working dogs are more social than others. Geraldine’s favorite story is about Omni, her very first dog. She took him to visit a local retirement home, to do a demonstration of his training. While Geraldine was talking to the group, one of the blind residents kept reaching for Omni, trying to pet him. Omni was sitting just outside of the resident’s reach. Geraldine told Omni to visit her, and he jumped up on the couch, and put his head in her lap. Omni let her pet his soft coat for as long as she liked. #K9sDoMoreThanBite. On the other side of that was Oldo, Geraldine’s most recent dog before Joker. Oldo would just as soon bite you as look at you. He wanted to work, not socialize. Geraldine first met Oldo in 2004, when he was with another handler. When that handler retired, Oldo still wanted to work, and Geraldine knew she wanted him as a partner. She got him on May 6, 2007, three years to the day after Gero was killed. Oldo growled her when she first got him. He wanted to work, not be a pet. So, Geraldine picked him up in her patrol car, and showed him a bite suit—the thick foam rubber suit worn by the “catchers,” or people who volunteer to be apprehension subjects, for bite training. That was all Oldo needed to see. He knew that Geraldine was going to put him to him work, which he was very good at, and he was unquestioningly loyal to Geraldine from that day, until his death last year.
Over the next few weeks, we plan to do a short series on our K9 unit. We’ll talk about their training, their equipment, the commitment of being a handler, and some stories about the dogs and their successful careers. We’ll share pictures and videos. As always, our social media is intended to engage a conversation; if you have any questions, comments, or topics you’re particularly interested in, please don’t hesitate to post them or message us, and we’ll do our best to answer. We hope to highlight some other specialized units as the year unfolds. Until next time, Happy New Year!