Washoe County Sheriff’s Office hosts K9 meet-and-greet
On Saturday Nov. 16, visitors to the Scheels sporting goods store in Sparks were greeted outside with the sight of several police cars and inside with the presence of Washoe County Sheriff’s Office officers and their K9 unit partners. But the cops and their dogs weren’t at the store to take down any assailants or sniff out any drugs. It was, in fact, a meet-and-greet opportunity for the officers, their dogs and the public—offering people the chance to pet the dogs and officers an opportunity to dispel some misconceptions the public has about them.
“A lot of people think that the bite dogs are just these vicious, junkyard dogs that'll just eat anything that's around them,” said sergeant Brandon Zirkle. “And that's part of why we do programs like this. We bring those dogs out into the public and show the public that these guys are just like their dogs at home, but they have a job to do.”
A part of that job, as the name “bite dog” implies, is to assist officers in subduing criminals. Zirkle explained the sheriff's office has a total of seven dogs in its K9 unit, six of which are dual-purpose bite dogs and narcotics dogs. The seventh is used solely for sniffing out narcotics.
The narcotics sniffing dog is a Vizsla, a hunting breed. The six dual purpose dogs are Czech shepherds.
“So, all of our dogs come from Vohne Liche Kennels in Peru, Indiana,” Zirkle said. “And they've got kennels in Holland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.”
The kennel company keeps people on staff in those countries to visit kennels and look for dogs with the needed traits for work in the U.S. military and law enforcement.
“We look for different traits in the dogs to make sure that they'll do what we need them to do, on the one side, but we also strive to get strong, social police dogs,” Zirkle said. “And all of our dogs fit those categories. They'll go out and bite somebody or apprehend a criminal, but we can also bring them into a venue like this and let children pet them.”
Speed, one of the department's Czech shepherds, was among the dogs at the event—sitting contentedly and chewing on a large, red ball as children—and adults—clamored to pet him. His handler, WCSO Deputy John Schuette, explained that the ball is an important tool both when Speed is working and when he's not.
“Whatever he's going to do, there are rituals that go with it,” Schuette said. “When I got him out to take him in [Scheels], I gave him that red Kong toy. That's so he knows that's all I want him to do, ‘Here, have your ball.' … Otherwise, we'd go in there, and, sure, he'd still be social, but he's going to go crazy trying to figure out what it is I want of him. So he's going to start searching for narcotics or start tracking people, like, ‘Hey, what does dad want?'”
To Speed, the reason the ball signifies that he doesn't have a job to do is because it's given to him after he's completed one.
“They learn to go seek out the drugs or the bombs or whatever it is that we ask them to find, and they relate this odor and this odor and this odor—'If I smell that odor, and I do what he wants me to, which is to sit and stare, he'll give me the tennis ball,'” Zirkle explained. “So he's not looking for the tennis ball; he's looking for the odors that he knows he'll eventually get that tennis ball for.”
In order for Speed to know when it's work time versus play time, he and Schuette spend a lot of time training.
“For our unit, we train as a team … 10 hours a week,” Schuette said. “But that's not all of the training we get. We train daily. Today, this is socialization training—and then also we do obedience training, whether it's on lead [leash] or off lead. And depending on what the dogs are certified in, there's more training. … If they're tracking—and Speed is one of the tracking dogs—and article searching, those are other disciplines they can train in. I would say, at minimum, it's easy to hit 20 hours a week of training for each dog.”
But training is only a part of the equation for creating a good police dog. WCSO wants its dogs to also be social and friendly when they're not working. They achieve this by giving the dogs normal home lives.
“They go home with [their handlers] at night,” Zirkle said. “They integrate into the families at home. They're all strong, social police dogs. Dogs are pack animals, and that family becomes that dog's pack. And then, obviously, it gets ready and goes to work with the officer in the daytime. They're not kept separate from the families. They're not kept separate from other dogs, for the most part. They're just house dogs that go to work with an officer day in and day out.”
While the sheriff's office currently has seven police dogs, there are actually eight positions. But police dogs are expensive to acquire, train and buy protective equipment for. The department gets help with this through a local nonprofit, Washoe County K9 Partners. One of the group's founders is Patti Kelly, who worked for WCSO for three decades before co-founding the nonprofit three years ago.
“Each dog, with the equipment, is anywhere from 25 to $30,000,” Kelly said. “That's why we do what we do. Our whole goal is to make sure that they have what they need and the dogs have what they need so they can go out and protect our community.”
Recently, Washoe County K9 Partners helped the sheriff's office obtain three police dogs at a total cost of more than $75,000.