Lexington police K-9 unit is full of love for its animal officers

jmadden@herald-leader.comMarch 23, 2014 

There's a lot of barking going on at South Forbes Road and Old Frankfort Pike. That's where Lexington police's canine unit has its home. It's a kennel — with a hefty amount of love.

The unit has 10 dogs who range in age from 2 to 8. Reno, Gerik, Lux, Brixi, Exo, Elvis, Ory and Daro are all German shepherds. Dutch is a Belgian Malinois, and Bo is a black Labrador. Brixi is the lone female.

"Its more like a partnership," Elvis' handler, officer Courtney Whittlesey, said of her relationship with her dog. "He's happy to see me everyday. We get along well. It's very rewarding to work with the dogs."

Whittlesey, who has been in the unit for seven years and is the second female officer to work with the dogs, said her job is a dream come true.

"It's amazing working with these dogs," she said. "It's the best job."

Most of the dogs in the K-9 unit come from a special breeder in Indiana, who gets them from Germany, because "they treat their dog there like how we treat horses here," said Sgt. Eric Bowling. Each dog costs about $9,000, he said.

Bowling, who handles Reno, said that everything is done at the kennel. The dogs are housed there daily, with occasional visits home with their handlers. Some have chew toys, and others have bones.

In the kennel's office, there are paintings of past and present dogs hanging on the walls. (There's also a dog cemetery not far from the training area.) Each desk in the kennel's office has action figures of a police officer and dog. In the back is a huge tub for baths, treats are on the table and the names of the dogs and their handlers are on the lockers.

The dogs' names are even on police cruisers.

These are not typical household pets lounging by the fireplace or playing in the yard with the kids, though.

They are police officers.

The dogs know German commands and part of the officers' training is learning those non-English cues.

Bowling said the division has worked with German shepherds, because they are known to be police dogs and because of their athleticism.

The dogs weigh 65 to 95 pounds. They eat traditional dog food.

"We don't want them too big, because we have to pick them up and put them over fences and through windows," said Bowling, who oversees the unit. "We don't want them too light, because we count on the intimidation factor. Most of the time when we get out and do something, just the presence of the dog makes people give up or prevents them from doing something."

The dogs complete about 16 weeks of basic training before they begin patrols. It will be two or three years before they no longer are considered rookies.

Kentucky doesn't require police canine units to certify dogs, but the Lexington police department gets certification from the U.S. Police Canine Association. That helps back up the dogs' work when criminal cases that the dogs have worked on go to court, Bowling said.

The dogs are trained in tracking, patrol and sniffing out drugs, cadavers and explosives. They also apprehend criminals and can apply hundreds of pounds of pressure once they initiate a bite.

"As soon as they start working, it's like an on and off switch," Bowling said. "It's all business."

Elvis has sniffed out packages at post offices. Reno has found 80 pounds of marijuana and 3 kilos of cocaine.

When sniffing out narcotics, the dog sit and stare at where they think the drugs are. A reward ball is used to break their attention so police can get to work.

The canine unit was started in 1962 and is the oldest of its kind in Kentucky. Back then the dogs weren't specifically trained and the unit was full of "dogs who could bite," Bowling said.

That's not the case now. The canines spend most of their time in a car. Most dogs retire when they're 8 and typically go home with the officers.

"That's our partner," Bowling said. "Basically it's your best friend sitting right beside you. ... You really get attached to him, because you turn around he's there no matter what."

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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