When it comes to police work, Ryn is a breed apart

June 26, 1995|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,Sun Staff Writer

Sgt. Steve Shatzer stops the police van in the parking lot of a local fuel oil dealership one April night.

His Westminster police partner is ready for some fun.

Drug searches, building alarms, crowd control -- all are games to Ryn, the 80-pound German shepherd who is one of Sergeant Shatzer's two canine partners. But Ryn is walking into a situation that may take the fun out of his job and put his four-year career as a police dog at risk.

Police officers had discovered a broken pane of glass in a door at the Eagle Oil Co. office on East Green Street moments earlier. They suspect someone is still inside.

Ryn leads the way through the door into a storage area. Sergeant Shatzer holds onto the dog's leash, preparing to announce their presence to anyone inside, as required by law, before turning the dog loose.

The dog starts through an inner door that leads to the office.

"I'm getting ready to belt that [warning] out, and by then he's on us," Sergeant Shatzer recalled about a month after the incident.

A tire iron crashes down on Ryn's head, then hits Sergeant Shatzer on the arm. The door slams shut.

Sergeant Shatzer reopens the door, and the team starts in. The tire iron comes swinging at both once more, this time missing Ryn but again smashing into Sergeant Shatzer's arm. Again, the door slams shut.

Hearing footsteps, Sergeant Shatzer opens the door once more and releases Ryn, ordering the dog to search. Ryn corners a man at the end of the building.

Sergeant Shatzer yells for the suspect to drop the tire iron. The man does and is quickly arrested.

But while the two have successfully arrested a suspect for the break-in, Sergeant Shatzer worries if the incident has scarred his partner physically or psychologically.

About 24 hours after the incident, Sergeant Shatzer took Ryn to Bond Street Veterinary Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. The dog remained off duty for three days, with his condition monitored.

A concussion in a dog is basically the same as in a human, said Dr. Kevin C. Doherty, who treated Ryn. It's an injury to the brain that causes swelling and can lead to disorientation.

Sergeant Shatzer had been treated for minor injuries to his arm at the emergency room of Carroll County General Hospital after the accident. Like Ryn, he was ordered off duty for three days.

Physically, Ryn recovered. The next question was possible psychological damage. Fun, the urge to play, is what motivates police dogs. Being hit "took all the fun out of it for him," Sergeant Shatzer said.

"If you'd ever get these dogs to the point that they figure out it's not a big game, they'd stop doing it," he said.

"Some of them [police dogs] do have lasting effects and become afraid of every building," said Officer Richard E. Johnston, an instructor for the Baltimore County Police Department's canine unit. "It's probably a rarity that they do survive" to continue police work.

Officer Johnston's unit trains dogs for 23 outside agencies. He has worked with police dogs who have been hit or shot. One dog was thrown through a plate glass window, but Ryn is the first in Officer Johnston's memory to have been hit with a tire iron.

Ryn would have to prove himself to remain on the team.

One week after the incident at Eagle Oil, Officer Johnston tested Ryn with an easy building search. The dog passed.

Officer Johnston then tested Ryn for courage to see whether the dog would cringe if attacked. Ryn was, if anything, more aggressive than before, Officer Johnston said.

Ryn's training emphasized "total control," Sergeant Shatzer said. The dog is aggressive with an attacker, but takes no action until he gets orders from his officer. After an arrest, the officer said, the dog is so calm that the attacker can play with him.

The big test came last month. Ryn entered a building where he was confronted by a "suspect" -- a canine instructor wielding a tire iron.

"He pulled the bad guy right down to the ground," Officer Johnston said. "He's still an excellent working canine."

Sergeant Shatzer was delighted. He and Ryn can continue to work together.

If Ryn had become frightened entering a building after the attack, he would have had to take early retirement, at a substantial cost to the department. Police dogs usually retire at age 9. Ryn is 5.

Officer Johnston estimated Ryn's value at $20,000, including about $6,000 for basic police dog training and $10,000 for narcotics detection training. Ryn has more than returned the expenses of his training, food and veterinary bills. Sergeant Shatzer said the dog has found drugs with a total street value of $150,000.

Working with police dogs isn't for everyone, Sergeant Shatzer said.

"You literally take your work home with you at night. I have three full-grown shepherds running around my house."

Sergeant Shatzer grew up in Carroll County and got his first job, working on a dairy farm, at 13. He went into construction after graduating from high school, but in 1982 business slowed and he was laid off. An after-church conversation with Westminster police Lt. Dean Brewer led him to apply for the force.

Ryn is one of four dogs Sergeant Shatzer has worked with since the City Council approved a canine unit in 1987. The sergeant had been lobbying Police Chief Sam R. Leppo for a dog, because bomb threat calls to police were increasing, and officers had to wait up to an hour for a state police canine unit.

Sergeant Shatzer and Ryn were invited to the May 8 City Council meeting, where Chief Leppo presented the department's medal of valor to the sergeant. The council gave him a standing ovation.

Then Chief Leppo gingerly placed a similar medal on a ribbon around Ryn's neck.

The council gave him a standing ovation, too.

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