EAST LANSING — The East Lansing police K-9 unit is no longer able to bring on another dog as planned to fill the department’s traditional fourth role due to budget cuts.
Budget cuts also included the elimination of as many as six police positions, five through attrition. It also included a proposal to borrow from the city reserve to balance the budget.
“We always have to weigh the importance of an item versus whether we can afford it in our budget,” said East Lansing Police Chief Jeff Murphy. “We have things almost daily that we can’t pay for with our budget, but they’re still important, so it always becomes a balancing act. When you’re talking about cuts that are this serious, a police dog is less of a priority.”
Lt. Chad Connelly, head of the city’s K-9 unit, hoped to have enough money to buy another dog this upcoming fall. The department currently has three dual-purpose police dogs on staff and recently retired three former K-9s — Max, Diesel and Tia, who worked with Connelly — this past December.
Strength in numbers
The East Lansing police have worked with K-9 officers for the past 30 years. During the department’s first 10 years with the dogs, it staffed only two. The department increased the number to four for the next 20 years, and has only recently been lacking one dog because of its retirement.
With four dogs, the police department can have two K-9s and their handler available on each shift, something Connelly said he’s seen a growing need for in the last few years.
“Our call volume in the last five or six years has increased for the use of the canines, both in our jurisdictions and others. We’re getting more and more use out of the canines and they are a valuable service,” said Connelly. “They’re just something we need to have.”
Connelly explained that the fourth dog would help balance out the team’s skills.The unit currently has two dogs specialized in explosives detection and one dog specialized in narcotics detection.
Even with the need, Murphy said the biggest reason the department can’t buy another dog is because of how much they cost. The average price per dog is between $12,000-16,000.
Behind the breeding and buying of police K-9s
Almost all of the police K-9s in the United States were originally brought over from Europe, with the price depending on the dog’s country of origin.
Brian Gregory, owner and trainer at Northern Michigan K-9, a purchasing and training center, has been buying and training dogs from overseas for almost two decades. With a long history in the industry, he has a good understanding of which countries produce the healthiest dogs and just how much an agency should plan to spend to purchase one.
“It’s a very cutthroat business and you need to find someone you trust to sell you their dogs because the majority of the time the money has to get to them before they send you a dog.”
Poland is one of the newer countries to enter the dog-selling industry, meaning its prices are cheaper than others, usually ranging from $2,500 to $-3,500. Breeders in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany all charge between $6,000-$7,500, and in Holland, which is considered the best country to buy from, prices range from $9,000-12,000, Gregory said.
In addition to the one-time price of buying the dogs, several other costs come into play when purchasing a police K-9. Buyers, like Gregory, have to pay for shipping, a broker’s fee and maintenance fees while they train the dogs before they’re introduced to their handlers.
The expense of K-9 dogs doesn’t stop at the front door of Northern Michigan K-9, or any other K-9 training program’s doors, either. The cost to equip, upkeep and care for police dogs spans the entire time the dog is on duty with the department.
“When we have four dogs on staff, our annual K-9 budget for equipment, medical costs, food, training implements and anything else would equate to about $10,000 per year,” said Connelly. “So about $2,500 a year per dog.”
Inside police K-9 training
The month-long police K-9 training course is required for all dog handlers, and there are a handful of training centers across Michigan where police can get certified.
These programs are only the beginning of a career’s worth of training for both the K-9s and the handlers, but they still provide a basic level of scent detection and tracking needed for dual-purpose dogs.
Gregory said, “they’re taught to search for people, (as well as) narcotics or explosives in homes, buildings, cars and schools. Basically wherever they’re going to search when they get back, we try to recreate that as much as possible.”
In the weeks before the dogs meet their handlers, they’re also taught minor obedience skills and handler protection, which is the another name for bite work training. Once the handlers comes in, the duo trains for eight to 12 hours Monday through Friday for a month before they’re street ready.
Officer Matt Swab and his partner Atos, joined the East Lansing K-9 force last September. Swab agrees that training doesn’t stop with the initial program.
Swab said he is routinely doing training exercises with Atos while call volume is slow or in his backyard at home.
“Training never stops,” he said. “With more practice you can only get better.”
Being a K-9 officer isn’t only focused on physical training, however. Often, because the dogs are bred in Europe, the handlers have to learn another language for the dog’s calls. The other two East Lansing police handlers, Officer Travis Bove and Officer Justan Horst, are trained in Hungarian, but Swab, because of how young his dog was when he got him, can teach his calls in English.
Tracking down suspects
When it finally comes time for handlers and their K-9s to work, one of the key aspects to their success is having a strong bond and being able to match each other’s working styles. A strong bond will help both the handler and K-9 feel what each other wants to go do or where each other wants to go next.
“You can’t have a super high-energy dog with a handler who’s a little bit calmer and more passive,” said Connelly. “You want to put hard workers with hard workers.”
A strong prey drive is also an incredibly important and helpful aspect for a police K-9. Gregory said a dog with strong prey drive has something that drives them to complete a specific task. During training, when they’re not working, they’re largely focused on their ball. But when they’re out on patrol their prey drive still needs to be there for the dog to be motivated enough to continually search or track during a crime.
“The prey drive is the number one thing you have to have and everything else needs to be build up around it.”
Swab says that although Atos is young — he just turned 2 in March — he has a lot of motivation and a strong prey drive.
“I love to just go-go-go, and (Atos) has that same mentality,” said Swab. “But I’m also kind of silly and goofy. I like to have fun and I feel like in this profession you have to have something to release the stress, and he’s a social, silly, goofball dog with me.”
The search continues
Moving forward, the East Lansing Police Department plans to continue looking for additional funding to buy a fourth K-9 officer through grants offered by state and federal organizations, such as Homeland Security, Murphy said.
If they aren’t able to secure a grant and purchase a dog they will have to look into the feasibility of purchasing one when planning for fiscal year 2018. As for when they they do secure a fourth K-9 officer, Connelly said a specific officer has yet to be picked.
“There have been a few who have expressed interest and there are some good qualities that each of them present. When the time comes we’ll have them submit a letter of intent and go from there.”