OAKHURST — A few hours spent in the park last Saturday left many of us thinking “I want one of those!”
“Those” are the amazing dogs who partner with deputies to ensure their safety and help them do their jobs at a level that could never be achieved without the dedication, training and noses of those K9 partners.
Saturday’s event in Oakhurst Community Park was part of an effort to raise awareness and funds to expand the K9 Unit of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.
K9 Teams from Mariposa County Sheriff and Fresno P.D. Retired were on hand for demonstrations and to answer questions from the curious and awestruck.
Mariposa County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Lunquist and his K9 partner Arthur showed their stuff, along with Deputy Mike Charman and his partner Zeus. Both dogs are Belgian Shepherd Malinois and they and their handlers go through a 200-hour Initial Basic Handler course, including obedience, agility, search, tracking, revering, apprehension, muzzle work, protection and detection of specific explosives.
Teams must then successfully pass a Police Officers Standards and Training (POST) test, and be certified by a POST-certified evaluator.
On this day, the dogs demonstrated their intense focus on the job at hand, their immediate response to commands and total dedication to their partners. Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney — who brought his years of K9 experience along with his willingness to be one of the bite-ees — suited up for the game of chasing down the bad guy.
Though these dogs attack with a laser focus and deadly determination, a word from the handler — “Here!” — calls them back to his side in a lay-down position awaiting further instructions.
The dogs who were kenneled in the Fresno P.D. SUV and not a part of this exercise, put up a fierce chorus of barking — perhaps encouraging their comrades, perhaps voicing their displeasure at not being included in the chase.
Deputy Lunquist and K9 Arthur have been together for four years, and when they are off-duty, Arthur is not relegated to a kennel in the back yard, he is part of the family.
Deputy Mike Charman has been partnered with K9 Zeus for about 2 1/2 years after the dog’s previous partner retired. Deputy Charman had participated as the one being bitten during training exercises with Zeus’s previous handler, and when that handler decided to leave the Sheriff’s Department, he specifically requested that Charman be assigned to his beloved dog.
Charman also treats his dog as part of the family, taking him on vacations whenever possible.
“Sometimes it’s challenging, depending on where you’re going,” says Charman, “but if we’re going camping, you can bet he’s there.”
The lack of K9 Units in Madera County forces the Sheriff’s Office to call on other agencies when help is needed. These two Mariposa K9 teams most recently responded to a request for assistance with a domestic dispute run amok in Raymond on Mar. 9. The aggressor in this dispute had run off into the woods, and the sound of gunshots led responders to fear the worst. The man was located safe and sound by the K9s.
The teams are in high demand, and perform such services as searching hotels in Yosemite in advance of visits by dignitaries.
“Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy are both potential target zones,” says Lunquist, “and we have checked those areas on several occasions.” Their services have been requested by the FBI and the Secret Service, and they have been called out to the Ahwahnee Hotel before visits by both the Secretary of Defense and former First Lady Laura Bush.
These amazing dogs are trained to detect explosives, and have even found detonation cord buried in the ground, sealed inside an ammo can. Their sensitive noses can find lighter fluid and even Elmer’s Glue — both containing substances that can be used in making explosives. They are trained to do passive alerts on such compounds as taggants and dynamite. They can even smell bullets.
“You actually hope to go through your entire career and never find anything,” says Deputy Charman referring to the dangerous items for which they are searching, but if there’s something that needs finding, the teams are always gratified when they’re successful.
Deputy Lunquist explained a bit about these dogs and their noses — which are thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s.
“When a human smells a pizza, they smell the whole pizza,” says Lunquist. “When these dogs smell a pizza, they smell the individual ingredients — the pepperoni, the sausage, the onions.” So when they smell a container full of many different ingredients, and one is an explosive, they hit on that.
The K9 teams train two eight-hour days a month with an instructor from Vigilant Canine Services International, the company from which the dogs were purchased. They also put in a lot of hours training on their own, keeping their skills sharp.
These handlers are not carrying around a pocket full of doggie treats to reward a job well done. Each dog usually has a special toy that he loves to chew on.
“All he’s working for is a toy and praise,” says Deputy Charman, “though they do say that the bite itself is a reward for the dog.”
The Ford SUVs that serve as K9 Patrol Units are very specially equipped to ensure the safety and well-being of both dog and handler. Situations are often fluid, and call for everyone to be prepared in advance for any possibility.
The dogs are housed in the back, with grills over the rear windows. The handler carries something they call a “door pop,” that displays the temperature inside the vehicle.
If the temp gets too high, the back windows in the SUV roll down automatically, and a fan turns on to pull the hot air out of the vehicle. If that doesn’t do the trick and it gets even hotter, the back door automatically opens so the dog can get out.
Also, if the deputy finds himself in danger or in a fight with a suspect, he can press the button on the door pop, which opens the back door. The dog is then on a mission to find his partner, locate the primary threat, and destroy whatever is harming the deputy.
“This dog lives to protect me,” says Charman. “He would do anything to make sure that I’m safe.”
Deputies carry a lot of specialized equipment in the K9 patrol vehicle including a dog-sized bullet-proof vest, and a harness designed to allow the dog to be safely lowered from a helicopter, along with his partner, for missions in more remote locations.
After Arthur and Zeus completed their assigned tasks during Saturday’s demonstrations, they were happy to relax on the grass while the kids gathered around to pet and admire them. They even wear their own personal badges on their collars.
“The dogs are fun and beautiful but, trust me, you don’t want to see their business faces,” says Mariposa Sheriff Doug Binnewies. “They are extremely well trained and are good at what they do.”
The cost of acquiring and maintaining these dogs is significant. Instead of waiting for monies that may never be appropriated, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, along with Madera County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, have launched a fundraising campaign to bolster the number of K9 Units in the county with a GoFundMe campaign.
“We believe the addition of K9 officers will add to the safety of our community and our deputies,” says Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney, “and we are always excited by the amount of community support the Sheriff’s Office receives.”
On their GoFundMe page, the Sheriff’s Office shares this message:
“Although we have donation commitments of approximately $12,000 from community members, we are still $25,000 away from our total goal of $37,000. The Madera County Sheriff’s Office K9 Unit needs your support to place a cross-trained patrol K9 Unit in both the mountain and valley patrol areas. In cooperation and partnership with the Madera County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, we are asking businesses, community organizations, and individuals to donate funds to purchase dogs and equipment, provide the necessary training and medical care, and other needs to support and maintain this Unit. Your generous donation to this program will go directly to this effort and is tax deductible as well. We truly appreciate any monetary donations to this much needed program.”