Putting partners through paces

November 02, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Cpl. John Seilback ran Sabre, his German shepherd, through an outdoor agility course.

As Seilback called out commands in German, Sabre effortlessly leaped over hurdles, climbed walls and sped through a tunnel.

"I give Sabre commands in German so he will only listen to me and no one else when we are on the street," Seilback said. "He can do this course with ease. He already knows what to do."

Seilback was talking about Sabre's familiarity with a course that is part of the Harford County Sheriff's Office's new police dog training facility. It opened recently in Whiteford.

Costing about $40,000, the facility was built with $20,000 from the sheriff department budget and $20,000 from the Task Force Fund, which is money found by the dogs during drug seizures.

The facility includes perimeter fencing, kennels, a storage shed and agility obstacles.

The police dog unit is one of about 1,500 in the country. The Harford unit was started in 1965, with Deputy Roy Clark and his dog, Deacon.

Today, the county sheriff's office's unit is composed of five patrol officers, two officers assigned to the detention center, six German shepherds, and one black Labrador. Later this year, the unit will add its first bloodhound.

The dogs are purchased from European importers. The cost of purchasing and training each dog is about $4,000, and about $1,200 a year for care and upkeep, Seilback said. But the dogs pay for their upkeep with money found during drug seizures, he said. Sabre has been responsible for seizing as much as $80,000 in one search, he said.

Before the opening of the training center, members of the Harford unit traveled to Newcastle County, Del., for training, Seilback said.

The local center was opened in part as a cost-saving measure to cut down on travel expenses and because the officers believed it was time to have their own self-contained training center, he said.

On a recent afternoon, the officers and their dogs trained at the facility.

Seilback, who is in charge of the unit, began working with the county sheriff's office about 10 years ago after spending five years in Howard County. He has been working with the Harford police dog force for five years. He got involved because he loves dogs and it's action-filled, he said.

The dogs are used to assist other officers, perform building searches, chase suspects, help control crowds and perform narcotics searches, Seilback said.

The dogs must complete 14 weeks of basic training. During their initial training, which will continue to take place in Delaware, the officer and canine team must work eight to 10 hours a day, he said.

In addition to basic training, the dogs must retrain every two to three weeks, Seilback said. The retraining will occur at the Harford County facility.

The canines are vital tools for locating suspects, missing persons and narcotics, he said. The dogs also cut down on risk to the officers.

"When officers have a building to clear, they send in the dogs first," he said. "Suspects won't surrender to us, but they will surrender to the dogs. They tell us they would rather be shot than bit by a dog."

Marty Hoppa, a deputy first class, has been a member of the unit for two years.

When he was growing up, his mom was a cat person, but occasionally he took care of his Boy Scout leader's dog. Being a member of a police dog unit was a longtime dream, he said. His dog is Bruno, a German shepherd.

"I love working with the K9 unit," Hoppa said.

The new facility allows the officers to exercise the dogs more frequently and hone their skills, he said.

Deputy First Class Darryle Taylor and his dog, Chase, assigned to the county detention center, also took advantage of the training day. Taylor started working with the unit in 2002, he said. He lives nearby and plans to use the facility often.

"This new facility is great," Taylor said. "I can bring Chase out here and exercise him for 20 minutes, and not have to travel too much to do it."

Cpl. Mark Tobin traveled from Newcastle County to participate in the training day.

Tobin works with 32 police dog teams from four states, training dogs at a facility about 40 minutes from Harford County, he said. Although Tobin will continue to train dogs in Delaware, the new center gives the Harford unit a nice place to maintain their dogs, he said.

"This is a beautiful facility," said Tobin, who is the director of the National Police Canine Association. "It's exactly what you wish all the K9 teams had. The only way the dogs can get better at what they do is to practice. This facility gives them a place to do that."

Tobin also plans to travel to the Harford facility periodically to work with dogs, he said.

"We want to get a partnership going," he said.

Working with the dogs is extremely rewarding, Seilback said. To date, no dogs have been killed in the line of duty, though in 2003, Seilback's dog, Ranger died while serving with the unit because of a medical condition.

"That was not a good year for me," he said. "We become very attached to our dogs. We trust them with our lives. They live with us, and we spend a lot of time working with them. They are companions, but they are also a part of our family."

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