SOUDAN – Dodging between the scattered white ladders, ramps and barrels on a clearing of land visible from Hwy. 26, a slender, thick-haired German Shepherd makes his way back to his owner.
“Good boy,” says St. Louis County Sheriff Deputy Tim Officer, patting him on the head.
The young dog perks his ears and readies himself for more agility drills.
The two go at this for a few more drills and then drive home to their house in Soudan where Louie is rewarded with his Kong rubber-chew toy.
“You want them to enjoy doing it for you,” Officer said about making training fun for police dogs.
The St. Louis County Sheriff’s soon-to-be canine officer, Louie, who’s almost a year-and-a-half old, spent his first year in the Czech Republic. In mid-March, he and a pack of other police dogs – also known as K-9s – boarded a plane to the Twin Cities.
From there, he spent 12 weeks in the Twin Cities training with Officer and other policemen and dogs.
Officer, who will entrust Louie with his life while on the job, said Louie will be ready to begin his service as an official officer on July 4.
“He’s very attentive,” said Officer.
And he’s also a dynamo.
“He just has so much more energy than Rico does,” Officer’s wife, Karen said. Rico is Officer’s nine-year-old K-9 German Shepherd who retires from active duty on June 22.
While Rico lounges on the living room floor, Louie snoops around the house, ducking between table legs and underneath counters.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” Officer said about the dog’s hyperactivity. “You can take advantage of play-drive.”
The inert drive within canines to play and seek prey are what K-9 trainers utilize in training sessions.
“If we want them to find somebody in the woods, we agitate them, then run into the woods and have them run after us,” said Officer. “We turn it into a game.”
Before Louie came from the Czech Republic, he was partially trained in tracking and handler protection.
During his training in the Twin Cities, he and Officer developed upon these acquired skills and learned narcotics detection and agility training, as well as building and area search for lost persons and crime-scene evidence.
“If I ask him to find a person or drugs, he’ll find them,” said Officer.
The foreign dogs also had to adjust to moving in unfamiliar environments such as slippery linoleum floors and stairways during the training program. Most of the Czech Republic has neither feature, said Officer.
“They’re very tentative if they can’t get the feel of (the ground) – if they can’t grip it with their toe nails,” said Officer.
Along with the new environment, the K-9s have a new language to take on. To switch Louie over to English, Officer said he’d give the verbal command in Czech followed by the English command. Physical commands also helped with the transition, he said.
Throughout the year, Officer and Louie will continue to train together for at least 16 hours every month. They must keep up their working relationship in order to do police work and to pass annual Narcotics Detection and Police Dog One certification tests.
“It’s important to make sure my tool will work when I need it to,” said Officer.
Louie and Rico aren’t just tools, however, they’re also a part of the Officer family.
“They go to work with me,” said Officer. “They sleep the same time I do. They’re with me 24-7.”
The Officers take them for walks, play fetch with them in the backyard, and let them wander around their house at ease like any typical pet-owner would.
At the same time, the Officers uphold a strict hierarchy in their home, with the family on top and the dogs at the bottom.
“They know they aren’t the leaders of the pack,” said Officer.
But, when it comes to the dogs’ relationship, the Officers prohibit any social hierarchy. They each eat and play with their toys separately in order to eliminate competition and any motive for aggression towards one another.
If the K-9s do happen to fight, Officer said he couldn’t interfere. He has to let the brawl run its course; otherwise, the dogs may hesitate to protect themselves while on the job in the future.
It’s in their nature to protect both themselves and Officer in times of action.
Rico, who’s been serving Officer all of his life and is now too “heavy” and old to keep up with the physical demands of the job, is having a hard time transitioning into retirement and being away from Officer.
“When he can’t find Tim, he’s annoyed,” said Karen. “He doesn’t know how to be a house dog.”
During his time as an officer, Rico found a lost hunter in Angora, twice sniffed out hidden guns used in separate crimes, and found two people who hid from police after threatening suicide. Plus, he apprehended 10 suspects after tracking and biting them.
Rico also earned trophies in agility and drug narcotics at the regional competition level. It was an illustrious career for any member of the force.
“He’s earned his retirement,” said Officer.