Police officer holds a police dog by the collar.
Grady Gardner holds the collar of his dog, Kane, for weekly K-9 training at the Grand Island Police Department on Thursday April 28, 2023. Gardner and Kane are a part of the Hastings Police Department and the duo are just one of many across the rural Nebraska. Photo by Blaney Dreifurst/NNS

Rural law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to police dogs to help them deter crime.  

While Nebraska law enforcement agencies are not required to report whether or not they have police dogs, the Nebraska State Patrol keeps an unofficial list based on word of mouth, said Sgt. Matt Workman. According to this list, Nebraska has 32 police dogs that are used in rural law enforcement. In addition, the Nebraska State Patrol has 11 dogs it uses across the state. 

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The Nebraska State Patrol’s unofficial list of rural law enforcement agencies with K-9 units includes 26 agencies. Graphic by Blaney Dreifurst/NNS

The purpose of a police dog is to deter crime. There are several skills dogs can be trained on, however, drug detection and apprehension are the most sought out by Nebraska law enforcement, according to Santiago Velasquez, the Columbus Police Department’s dog handler. Dogs can be trained in both drug detection and apprehension (known as dual purpose dogs) or simply just in drug detection (single purpose). 

Rural law enforcement has felt the need for the dogs due to an increase in violent offenses and drug investigations in these communities, Velasquez said.

“Every community has some sort of drug problem,” he said.

During his five years working with his dog, Eros, the duo has been assigned to 138 drug investigations. Drugs not only impact the user but also the community as a whole, he said.

“Addiction can lead people to do crazy things that they normally wouldn’t; this often results in wrong doings against innocent people of our community,” Velasquez said.

Statewide in 2015, the Nebraska State Patrol’s police service dog division has been used in the arrest of 245 criminals and seizure of 945 pounds of illegal narcotics. These drugs were estimated to have a street worth of $6.8 million.

Danial Parker, a new dog handler in the Merrick County Sheriff Office, said he wanted to work with the department’s single-purpose dog, Shadow, to help combat drug crimes.

“I was working a lot of drug evictions during traffic stops, so I thought it would be helpful to myself and the community to have a dog for detection,” Parker said. 

When there is a traffic stop, an officer needs probable cause in order to search the suspect’s vehicle if the officer suspects possession of illegal drugs. With Shadow, Parker said he is able to establish probable cause by having her sniff around the outside of the vehicle. 

Parker and Shadow are unique because Shadow is a veteran and Parker is a beginner dog handler. Shadow, a Dutch shepherd, joined Merrick County in February 2018. Parker has been a dog handler for only six months.

Dual-purpose dogs are used as a tool to arrest suspects that are not complying with law enforcement. Dual purpose dogs have direct contact with suspects. Some of these encounters might end with the suspect being bitten by the dog. A huge part of the dogs’ value to the law enforcement is the fact that they are a deterrence, according to Velasquez.

“The one thing that most humans have is that fear of animals that could probably hurt you,” he said.

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Columbus Police Department Officer Santiago Velasquez with his dog, on Thursday April 28, 2023, in Grand Island, Nebraska. Photo by Blaney Dreifurst/NNS

According to Velasquez, of the 80 times he has been asked to use Eros to apprehend a suspect, only 10% resulted in the dog actually being deployed. Most often people will comply when an officer starts giving verbal warning announcing the dog’s presence, he said.

Eros, however, has 38 successful apprehensions that were considered high risk, he said. Out of all of these apprehensions, six resulted in Eros biting the suspect. 

It is a part of protocol to provide medical care to a person who is bit by a police dog. Velasquez said there have been multiple instances where a suspect has been bitten. However, none of the bites resulted in serious injury.

Overall, police dog units increase officer safety and give law enforcement another option to come to a non-deadly resolution in dangerous situations, Velasquez said. 

Dual purpose dogs are tasked with more physical challenges compared to single purpose dogs. For this reason, law enforcement agencies are shying away from German shepherds and opting for smaller breeds, such as the Belgian malinois, which are just as intelligent. The Belgian malinois weigh 50 to 70 pounds compared to a German shepherd at 100 pounds.

The decrease in size also provides a speed advantage and better agility qualities for a Belgian malinois. Size also plays an aspect in wear and tear the job and training has on the dog. 

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Officers from rural law enforcement agencies meet weekly to train with department police dogs. At a recent training in Grand Island are, from left to right, Cody Hunt from Sherman County; Grady Gardner from Hastings Police Department; Bourke Bowen from Grand Island Police Department; ;Jon Alstrom from Kearney Police Department;Santiago Velasquez from Columbus Police Department; Danial Parker from Merrick County. , Photo by: Blaney Dreifurst/NNS

Bourke Bowen, the Grand Island Police Department’s K-9 handler for the last six years, said he has had more than 350 deployments with Cochise, in the last five years. The nine-year-old dog recently had a titanium tooth implant because its original tooth was damaged from the years of training, Bowen said. 

Police dogs aren’t cheap. According to Velasquez, a dual purpose dog costs around $10,000 — and that doesn’t include feeding, health maintenance and other equipment that is necessary. Most dogs wear vests and the handler’s vehicle usually requires special technology. For example, Velasquez’ F150 pickup is equipped with a full kennel, heat sensors and alarms, fan, automatic windows and doors. These additions can cost an additional $10,000.

When Columbus police were considering purchasing a dog, the city council wanted to first determine community support by seeing how many people would donate for the purchase. The police department reached its donation goal in just two months, Velasquez said. After seeing the community support, the city agreed to pick up the rest of the expenses for the police dog unit.

“It’s important to keep up with training because the most difficult part of the job is trying to communicate the expectations they are supposed to meet daily,” said Zach Schwarz, a dog handler from the Kearney Police Department

The dogs actually enjoy the training, Velasquez said. The dogs’ tails are constantly wagging during training because toys and treats are used to enforce their good work.

“It’s awesome to see how motivated they are, how willing they are to do the next task,” Velasquez said. 

Blaney Dreifurst is a Journalism student with minors in Sociology and Business and Law. She is on a pre-law track with hopes of attending law school in Fall 2024.