Body armor for K-9s is not in the budget for many police departments around the country, as Kendra Cook, a stay-at-home mom, learned earlier this year in a news article.
So Cook reached out to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office to see if there was anything she could do to get their police dogs — Hyde, age 2 ½; JAG, 4; and Elliot, 4 — protection to “reduce the chances of obvious circumstances.”
Thanks to a fundraising campaign, two of the dogs, and a third at Bellingham Police Department, will now be outfitted with custom-made Kevlar vests manufactured by K-9 Storm.
At more than $2,400 per vest, they aren’t cheap, but some things you can’t put a price on. Back in 2003, for example, Cook said, a police dog named Blitz took two bullets from a suspect’s .45-caliber gun in Auburn, Wash., and survived because the bullets were deflected by body armor made by the Manitoba-based company.
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At a ceremony Wednesday evening, Sept. 30, in the Boundary Bay Brewery beer garden, a new vest was presented to Hyde, who whined and pranced around starstruck from all the attention, or from the carne asada grilling nearby, or both.
“Sometimes he thinks he’s just a puppy. He’s really fun to have in the back of the car, telling me where to go,” said Deputy Jason Nyhus, Hyde’s handler and a co-founder of Keeping K-9s in Kevlar. “We’ve replaced a couple seat backs, a couple times, because if I don’t play with him, or if we don’t find someone to chase, he decides to take it out on my car.”
All three of the county sheriff’s German shepherds are cross-trained, meaning they can track the scent of a fleeing suspect, sniff out danger in a locked-down school, or tip off a deputy about drugs hidden in a car. Police dogs and their handlers go through a rigorous 10- to 12-week course with a trainer, Nyhus said. Once on duty, they take a refresher class once a week. So the cost to train a single dog is easily in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Nyhus said the dogs are called out twice a day on average, but some days are busier than others. Canine handlers always wear bulletproof vests. Any call can turn into a high-risk call, when a vest — on a human or a dog — could be the last line of defense, said Mike Taddonio, a deputy and K-9 Elliot’s handler.
“There’s no such thing as a routine call,” he said.
Handlers live with their dogs, and when a K-9 retires, after eight years or so of duty, they’re usually adopted into the handler’s family. Although the dogs are considered officers, there’s no pension or medical plan for them once they retire, when medical bills are typically highest. Cook hopes her group can fund that, too, but that’s a long-term goal.
Right now, the target is to get more K-9s in the region into bullet- and stab-proof vests. Lately, they’ve been doing well, Cook said. Last month the group had enough money for one vest. By Wednesday they had enough for three, and at the event earlier this week, another $3,000 was raised.
Those first vests will be worn by Hyde and JAG, who are on the sheriff’s SWAT team, while the third goes to Destro, a 1-year-old German shepherd handled by Bellingham Police Officer Kevin Bean. Destro, in Latin, means right — as in the opposite of left — or dexterous.
“So it’s like he’s my right hand,” Bean said.
All of the vests will carry the name of a fallen officer. Hyde’s has a patch for Matt Herzog, a Whatcom County deputy killed in a car chase in September 2001.
All of the funds raised go to the vests, Cook said, and the group announced this week that it had officially obtained nonprofit status, as a wing of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Support Foundation.
To donate, checks can be sent to Keeping K-9s in Kevlar, 3901 Airport Way, Bellingham, WA 98226, or dropped off at donation boxes in dozens of businesses, such as animal hospitals, around the county.