By Jean Redstone
In the 50s and 60s, before television fully transitioned to color, families arranged their schedules to watch Rin Tin Tin and Lassie shows, and hero dogs were all the entertainment rage.
You can still see episodes of these classics, sometimes on retro TV channels and also on DVD or VHS or even YouTube.
But today’s hero dogs are a different breed of impressive. Just check in with East Greenwich Police and see what feats the force’s K9s are up to.
Want to stop a violent suspect? Kilo’s your guy. Need to find out if narcotics are hidden in a truck? Ask Deuce. And was there murder afoot? Sherlock Holmes would have been wise to trust Kliff to find clues.
East Greenwich had been one of the few departments in the area to staff a K9 deployment. The corps began with Kliff, the very first, and his handler, Det. Sergeant Matthew Brenner, who started the unit around 2003. Kliff’s badge number, 17K1, reflects the status of first dog.
The K9 partners proved so useful the department added another dog and police handler, Deuce, a Dutch shepherd, and Patrolman Philip Owens, in 2009.
When Kliff retired from the force in 2011, Deuce, badge number 17K2, became the sole K9 and the police began looking for a second dog. But, instead, the township started belt tightening.
Skip ahead to January when the township committee hired Patrolman Michael Robostello to the police department. It was a homecoming for the officer, who had left the force some three years earlier, when layoffs were imminent. He took a job offered by Gibbstown Police and became a K9 officer there.
Robostello’s homecoming became a “welcome to your new home” for his partner, the three-year-old German shepherd, Kilo. At the same meeting, the committee hired its newest member to the force, having purchased Kilo from Gibbstown and thereby enriching its K9 corps with a seasoned, trained, dog and handler.
The K9 Corps at East Greenwich Police operates under the experienced eye of Brenner, who helped both dogs and handlers become successful teams. Brenner’s partner Kliff (“He was a super dog.”) died last year at age 14.
Kliff, Deuce, and now Kilo are what’s known in the K9 community as “narcotics and patrol” dogs, explained Brenner. These are dogs trained to sniff contraband and to react upon command to the various uncertainties of police patrol work, such as crowd control, seeking suspects in hiding, chasing them if need be.
The department’s K9 unit is on call to several other departments who have asked for help in controlling riots, and tracking suspects. “People will leave the scene when a police dog shows up”, Brenner said. They have been called on building searches where a suspect usually surrenders rather than be attacked by the dog, Brenner said, murder investigations, and aiding in volatile situations.
“A suspect hardly ever runs when there’s a police dog barking at them. They don’t want to be caught by the dog,” Brenner explained. The dogs have sniffed narcotics hidden in vehicles and other spots, and even can tell if the money in a wallet smells of narcotics.
In K9 work, “team” is the operative word, Brenner emphasized. “Your lives are really intermingled with your dog.” He said dog handlers are chosen by the police force according to a long list of basics. “They have to like dogs, be able to handle animals, be willing to learn how to care for them, groom and exercise and so on.” It is time intensive, building a team.
“They have to have the right living conditions. If they live in an apartment, they have to be able to bring the dog home. Their family has to be OK with having a police dog. The dog will be living with them,” Brenner added.
He said that a would-be handler needs to be a pro-active type of person, self-motivated, interested in learning and applying their specialty. “We want a person who will get in the fight with the dog because they care about that dog.”
That caring, or bonding, is a recognized feature of effective K9 teams. “These handlers care about what they’re doing. They go out and bring the dogs to community groups, to show their skills and personalities. The dogs bond deeply with their handlers and they have to be able to care about the dog in return,” Brenner said.
Owens, reflecting on his partnership with Deuce, recalled how he had never had a dog in his life, yet he wanted to become a K9 officer. “I saw how it made for better police work when I saw what Kliff and (Brenner) could do.”
He uncovered an affinity for dogs, especially his dog and passed along the lesson. “To be effective, you have to listen to your dog, and he to you.”
Indeed, the bond begins with communication. Deuce rarely takes his eyes off his handler, and Owens knows precisely what mood his partner is in. When Deuce sidled a little bit with pent up energy, Owens threw a ball and the dog read the movement so well, he was off and ahead of the drop when it happened.
Their partnership has saved at least one life so far. A few years back the call went out for help in finding a young autistic child who was lost near Mantua Creek. Owens and K9 Deuce began tracking.
Deuce caught and followed the scent to the water’s edge and rescuers were able to spot and bring out the child from the middle of the waters before the tide fully rose.
Police work like that, Robostello said, is why he wanted to become a dog handler, “I knew after watching Phil (Owens) and Matt (Brenner) work their dogs, it was something I wanted to get into. I looked up to the dog handlers.”
Robostello’s bond with the handsome, dark-haired shepherd worried him when he knew he might leave Gibbstown, he said. “I wasn’t sure what I would do. Could I leave Kilo, take him away from my family?” Robostello has four children, the youngest not yet 4.
The K9 dogs live with their handlers and are part of the family, like any ordinary pet. Brenner explained that there’s a lot of commonality between your dog at home and a police dog. And a lot of differences. “People think, ‘Oh, they’re too dangerous to be at home’, but it’s like the dogs have a switch. I used to put my uniform on and just like that, Kliff would run to the back door, ready to jump into the car. Police dogs love their work. They are different dogs at work. Their reward is the bond with their partner,” he said.
The bond is so sacrosanct that in many departments, when a police officer or K9 dog retires, the animal is given to its partner. For both their sakes.
East Greenwich police purchase “green” dogs, Brenner said. Fully-trained, they can cost up to $25,000, but a dog with only basic training is about $5,000 to $7,000. The handlers complete the training (and their own) in classes at the Atlantic County Police Canine Training Academy.
Most of the cost of the dogs, training, equipment (including bullet-proof vests for the dogs) and medical expenses are funded through donations and fund-raisers. The police participate, with their dogs, in community events to educate and let the public see the skill and devotion of the dogs, and to help encourage fundraising. Basic costs, not including one-time expenses like vests, are about $3,500 per dog a year, Brenner said.
You might have a chance to see and greet the patrolmen and their K9 partners as they work through a police call or community event. If so, admire from a distance. That’s the advice of the three officers who have teamed with canines.
Unless you get permission, don’t attempt to pet, hug or try to give food to a police dog. “Allow the officer to proceed with what he’s doing,” Brenner advised. “Keep a distance and don’t run up, unless otherwise invited.”
The dog is under the control of the handler, Brenner said, “But at the end of the day, it is considered a tool of the police department.” The message being: You wouldn’t run up to handle an officer’s weapon without permission, would you?
That said, it is clear upon meeting Deuce and Kilo that the handlers have clearly socialized their dogs and brought them up as pleasant company when off duty. Indeed, they are playful, handsome to a fault, healthy, athletic and delightfully happy dogs.
With just the slightest touch of doom in the look they gave a stranger before their handlers called them to heel.