Last week, we introduced you to Joker and Nero, the K9 officers with the Grand Junction Police Department. People in Mesa County—nationwide, really—have a soft spot for dogs. There’s something that draws us to the loyalty and vulnerability of a dog. They’re our pets, our constant companions; for some, they’re four-legged children. So, it wasn’t entirely surprising that the first question we got after we published our introduction article was in regards to ballistic vests for Joker and Nero. So, let’s talk about the equipment needed for a K9 officer.
First and foremost, the answer to whether or not Joker and Nero have vests: yes and no. Yes, for Joker. Not yet, for Nero. But we’re working on it. According to Officer Earthman–our most senior K9 handler, and Joker’s human–we were fortunate enough to be awarded Joker’s vest through Vested Interest in K9s, Inc. VIK9s offers bullet and stab protective vests to dogs of law enforcement across the country. Through donations, VIK9s is able to provide vests at no cost to the departments. Another question we received was whether or not there was a fund to which one could donate, specifically for Nero’s vest. While we don’t solicit donations for equipment for our K9s, you can check out the website for VIK9s, and donate directly to them, should you choose to do so.
The protective vests are a wonderful tool for our K9 partners. But they don’t wear them all the time, like our police officers do. The vests are relatively heavy for the dogs, about 10 lbs. One of the most valuable tools K9 officers have is their speed; wearing the vests all the time would hinder that. The handlers always have the vests with them, though, as well as a lot of other gear they haul around. Geraldine’s rig, a 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe, has a custom built-in cabinetry unit in the back, complete with drawers and cupboards for her to store leashes, leads, collars, food, treats, toys…you name it, she’s got it. Whitewolf Cabinets donated that set up for her, and it’s proven to be invaluable. We’ve come a long way from the first K9 vehicle Geraldine drove 23 years ago, which was a Jeep Cherokee, equipped with nothing more than some window guards.
Of course, there is the cost of food and vet bills, which the agency pays for throughout the working dog’s career. Then there are the costs and equipment associated with K9 officers that many of us don’t know about, or don’t think about. The K9 cars have to be equipped with several special features. For example, rear seats are removed from the vehicle to accommodate the insert that Joker and Nero ride in. There’s plenty of room for them to lay down, stand up, and move around. Because a K9 is not required for every call to which their handlers respond, Joker and Nero spend quite a bit of time in the car. So it’s necessary that the cars be equipped with special temperature sensors. For example, if the interior of the car reaches a certain temperature, the windows will automatically drop, the fan will kick on, and an alarm will start to sound, letting the handler know that the conditions in the car are dangerous for the dog.
Part of being a K9 officer is knowing how to bite. Seems like that would be second nature to a dog, right? Well, there is training involved; the dogs need to know where they should bite, and they need to be familiar with the commands that signal when to bite, and when to release. K9s can’t bite their handlers, not even for training. Handlers have to be the alpha. So, some other lucky schmuck has to volunteer to put on the bite suit. You’ve seen them, I’m sure; thick, heavily padded suits, that resemble those inflatable Sumo wrestling outfits. Those suits are an imperative part of training, and they come with a cost. A full body bite suit can cost in excess of $1,500. The handlers even wear a slightly different uniform than other patrol officers. Their clothing is made of a different material, and they have lots of pockets to accommodate treats and toys used to motivate, direct, and reward their partners.
Overall, the Grand Junction Police Department currently budgets less than $8,000 per year for our K9 unit. That’s for everything; food, vet bills, maintenance, training and certifications, equipment. Funds certainly aren’t spent frivolously or carelessly. Our handlers would be the first to tell you: we don’t do or buy anything “fancy.” The value of this program lies in the investment of the handlers in their four legged partners, and vice versa. And you can’t put a price on that.
Again, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments you might have about the K9 unit, or even let us know if there’s another area of the Grand Junction Police Department you’d like to learn more about it. Be sure to visit us on our social media pages (WordPress, Facebook, Twitter) to read the first installment in this series.