Haywood dogs go bulletproof: Group donates Kevlar vests for local police dogs
The four-legged officers of Haywood County are now bulletproof, thanks to a donation from the Western North Carolina Dog Fanciers Association. Of the seven K9s in the county, two had been missing the Kevlar protection they’d need to stay safe in case of a skirmish involving guns or knives. Now, their handlers can rest easier knowing that their furry partners share the same protection that they have.
“The main thing is just having the ability to provide as much protection and security to a working officer — ‘cause that’s what he is — as I have myself,” said Waynesville Officer Zachary Faulkenberry of his K9, Valor. “He’s a sworn officer just like I am, so he should have as much protection as any other officer.”
Faulkenberry has been working with Valor since January 2013, training him from a “green” dog to a United States Police Canine Association-certified officer. They’re together 24/7, on duty and off. For both dog and man, it’s a tight relationship.
“We’re very close,” agreed Haywood County Deputy Randy Jenkins, whose black German shepherd Lenny received the second vest.
It’s obvious at a glance. Jenkins gives Lenny the word — in German, the language the dog has been trained in — and the 80-pound dog gets to work sniffing the seams of a nearby car to demonstrate a drug search. Lenny doesn’t know it’s a demonstration, though. When Jenkins tells him to search, he goes at it whole-heartedly, fully believing that there’s something there to find.
“In a training environment, I try to set him up where he’s going to be successful,” Jenkins explained. As a result, “Everything that he does, he does to the best of his ability.”
That includes a lot more than just drug searches. Both Lenny and Valor are trained to alert to the scent of marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, which they can do with great accuracy. Even placing a bag of cocaine under the hood of a car and removing it after a few hours would result in an alert, Jenkins explained, because the dogs alert to scents rather than to the presence of the drug itself.
But K9s can also use their noses to locate missing children or Alzheimer’s patients. They can find missing objects, provided no rain has washed away the scent of the last person to touch them. And, they can sniff out people who flee a car when an officer pulls them over, rob a home or have another reason to evade authority. And it’s in these instances when a little extra protection is most valuable.
“They have shown they are likely a subject that could do violence not only to myself but also to my K9,” Faulkenberry said.
In some cases, that violence is fatal.
“These dogs go in, they put their lives on the line,” said Fiona Norton, board member with the Dog Fanciers’ Association.
Just this year, two service dogs have died while at work in North Carolina, one in Burke County and the other in Davy County. Seeing the risk, the Dog Fanciers started looking around locally to see which law enforcement organizations most needed the vests. At last fall’s Bark in the Park event in Sylva, they raised enough money to buy two $950 vests for dogs in Haywood County. The vests are bulletproof, stab proof and specifically fitted to the individual dog.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, for sure,” Jenkins said.
The vest will be just one more thing distinguishing Lenny and Valor from their fellow canines who aren’t actual K9s. Watching Jenkins and Lenny interact, there’s a tenderness there, a camaraderie, but Jenkins works hard to maintain the line between pet and partner. He’s got pet dogs — two of them, in fact — but Lenny isn’t one of that number.
“When we go home, he plays with them, he interacts with them, but he doesn’t stay with them,” Jenkins said. While Lenny probably has “one of the nicest kennels in the county,” he stays in it a good bit, saving his energy and enthusiasm for work.
“He’s my partner,” Faulkenberry said.
An expensive partner, too. The average police dog costs in the $12,000 to $13,000 neighborhood and requires several months of training to get up to snuff. In that context, the $950 price tag on the vest might not seem so extreme, but the extra cash is often difficult for law enforcement organizations to cough up.
“These police departments are working on very limited funds, so often they can’t afford to purchase vests for the dogs,” Norton said. “If there’s any measure of protection we can afford these animals as the local dog club, we felt it was necessary to do it.”
Next up, Norton said would likely be Macon County, which also has a shortage of vests for its K9s. But the canine apparel is expensive, so the organization will have to raise the funds and then re-evaluate where they might best be used.
In the meantime, though, Jenkins and Faulkenberry are excited to start training with vests in place.
“Risk comes with the job,” Jenkins said, “and when we’re tracking if someone is believed to have a weapon, it reduces the risk. It doesn’t erase the risk. To erase the risk, I’d keep him in the truck.”