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An Army Ranger is ready to hit the streets of Terre Haute, sniffing for bombs and tracking down fugitives.
“Ben will be ready to hit the streets running,” said Sgt. Todd Haller, Terre Haute Police Department, as Patrolman Ryan Adamson kept their new 81-pound partner in check on a leash.
Ben is a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois the department just acquired through Vohne Liche Kennels in Miami County. A dual-purpose K-9 officer, he finds explosives in addition to tracking humans.
Ben served two, six-month tours of duty in Afghanistan with a U.S. Army Ranger unit between 2008 and 2009, Adamson explained, adding that Ben racked up several finds amid combat conditions.
Chief John Plasse said the department now has five dogs, but Ben is the only one with bomb-finding capacities.
This Cape Coral officer is trained to doggedly track down suspects in hiding and find the most cleverly concealed drugs with his keen detection skills.
And when he gets hold of his man, he won’t let go until he’s told to.
All this for a pat on the head and a chance to play tug of war with a tennis ball attached to a rope held by his best friend, Sgt. Dave McConnell, 47.
Officer Jogi is a black German shepherd and the most recent addition to the Cape Coral Police Department’s K-9 Unit headed by McConnell, who has been there for 19 years.
“It’s his reward,” said McConnell, the dog’s handler, pulling out the tennis ball and throwing it after putting Jogi through his paces of healing, sitting and chomping down on the well-protected arm of another handler pretending to be a suspect during the unit’s weekly practice drill.
Jogi, pronounced like the TV cartoon character Yogi Bear, quickly fetched the bright orange ball, bringing it back so that McConnell could grab the rope and swing Jogi, who held on with the vise-like grip of his jaws.
Jogi and his four other four-footed comrades are part of the K-9 unit originally formed in 1985.
Since then, the dogs with a sense of smell a million times more sensitive than humans and with hearing far more acute than that of their handlers, have tracked down hundreds of suspects running from burglaries, robberies and other crime scenes. They’ve also sniffed out caches of cocaine and marijuana hidden in cars and houses.
Last year, the unit’s five dogs and their handlers made 176 drug arrests and apprehended another 48 suspects for other crimes.
In October, Dux, with his handler, Officer Chris Clapp, caught Dominic Amoroso, of Cape Coral, a suspect who ended up being charged with 27 counts of burglary, grand theft and possession of burglary tools involving seven smash and grab break-ins at local businesses. Officers saw Amoroso running from a restaurant with a cash register and called on Dux, a one-year veteran of the unit, who caught him a short time later.
And just this week, Dux took a bite out of crime when he bit marijuana grow house suspect Yoel Lorenzo, 32, who refused to come out of hiding along a canal.
Dux was sent in after him. “Branches were heard breaking. One person was yelling” as Dux charged through the bushes, reports state. Lorenzo surrendered and was treated for bites to his left ankle and knee before being jailed.
Such encounters are rare, said McConnell, because “most people give up when they see the dog.” Which is smart because “the harder you fight, the harder he bites,” McConnell said.
Officer Bob Reese, wearing a special protective sleeve, still had marks on his skin after Jogi chomped down on his arm during a recent practice drill.
Still, “it’s easy to teach a dog to bite. It’s not so easy teaching a dog not to bite,” McConnell said.
But one word from McConnell and Jogi releases his grip. And that word, as all other commands, are in German.
“We use German because most people here don’t speak German and if they do, they don’t speak it with the accent of someone like me who was transplanted from Connecticut to Southwest Florida,” McConnell said.
That means that the bad guys aren’t able to shout other commands to confuse the K-9s and avoid arrest, McConnell said.
The dogs’ keen sense of smell is as valuable as their jaws. They are trained to sniff out a variety of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and methadone.
The unit has samples of these drugs, provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, on hand to train the K-9s. Officers conceal the drugs in towels and then hide the towels in cars, boats and buildings and let the dogs find them. Invariably, they do find the drugs and then alert their handlers.
“Jogi is passive. I know when he finds the drugs because he’ll sit and stare at the car,” McConnell said.
Jogi is doing well for a rookie, but is still learning the ropes. Jogi joined the unit in July and was nationally certified in November. It takes about a year for a police dog — which has a career of seven to 11 years — to become seasoned and to get used to the distractions of traffic and just the excitement of the job, McConnell said.
And it takes about a year for dog and handler to really gel as a team.
During that time, “the handler gets to know everything about his dog and he gets to know you,” said Officer Jason Matyas, the handler of Zuke, another member of the unit who tracked down a marijuana grow house suspect hiding by a canal in December.
All the dogs — Jogi, Dux, Daro, Ben and Zuke — are male German shepherds and cost between $3,500 and $9,000, McConnell said.
“Based on my experience, I’ve found that these dogs are easier to train and easier to maintain,” McConnell said.
The dogs are constantly with their handlers, who take them into their homes after their shifts.
“They become part of the family,” McConnell said. Jogi shares the McConnell household with Jey, McConnell’s former K-9 partner who is now retired.
The handlers choose the K-9 Unit because of their love of dogs and because “we go on all the good calls,” said Reese, who has been with the unit for six years.
“I’ve always been with the K-9 Unit. I never wanted to do anything else,” McConnell said.