June 13, 2012 - Goodrich- The police dogs in the Oakland County Sheriff's Office K-9 unit are highly trained animals that are carefully chosen for duty. While the animals may seem intimidating as they are taught to bite on command to protect their handler or corner a suspect, they are also taught to release on command and are very loyal to the police officer to whom they are given.
So it came as a shock last week when for the first time in the 12 years since Sheriff Michael Bouchard reinstated the OCSO K-9 unit, one of the dogs attacked his handler, resulting in the deputy having to fatally shoot the dog.
According to police reports, on June 7 the deputy, a 23-year veteran of the OCSO, took his K-9 dog Gunner, a 5-year-old purebred German Shepherd, to Pytel Veterinary Clinic for treatment options after the dog had begun to display some serious aggression.
The handler and veterinarian Dr. Brian Covert were attempting to leash the dog to get him out of the vehicle in the parking lot when the dog jumped up in a biting lunge at the handler's face. The handler blocked the bite with his forearm, but the dog refused handler's commands to release and continued to aggressively bite, down to the bones in the man's arm, moving up toward his face. The handler was forced to use his department issued weapon to protect himself and the dog suffered fatal wounds. The deputy was transported to an area hospital and was admitted for his injuries.
"These dogs are more than a police asset, they are beloved members of the department and the handler's family," said Bouchard. "This is an extremely sad situation on every front." OCSO Captain Doug Molinar said Gunner had been the handler's K-9 partner for five years and had only recently showed signs of aggression, and was at the vet for treatment options.
"This is an anomaly that we are hoping we can find some explanation for," he said, noting that a necropsy (autopsy) is being performed on the dog at Michigan State University. "This is a very rare case and we need to find out why (he turned on his handler). The dogs know when they are on duty and in police service mode, but they also know when they are off duty and they are part of the family. Gunner played with kids at home and was part of the family like any other dog."
The Oakland County Sheriff's Office has 16 police dogs in the K-9 unit— 13 tracking and drug dogs, one arson dog, and two bomber explosive dogs. The dogs are purchased through the Oakland Police Academy. Gary Godlewski, a retired Bloomfield Township police officer began the K-9 program at the academy in 1998. He now concentrates his efforts on importing the dogs for the academy, traveling to Europe to hand select each animal, matching to their future handler. Gunner was found in Slovakia and brought to Michigan when he was 13-months-old, slightly younger than when most of the academy dogs are brought over.
Godlewski explains that the dogs are imported from Europe because breeders there have higher quality dogs than in America, with fewer health issues and more mental stability. Dogs are selected for courage, hunt drive and work ethic. They cost about $7,500 to purchase and initial training is roughly $11,000.
"These dogs are not aggressive," Godlewski said. "These dogs are safer to be around because of the training that goes into them. We look for competent dogs, ones that will stand up in a fight, but they are trained to bite and hold to a specific spot until given the command to release. They are only allowed to bite to protect themselves, their handler and on command."
The dogs have received training in Europe in their first year of life, and when they arrive at Oakland Police Academy, they receive five weeks of training from instructors and then another five weeks of structured training with their handler. Once a week training days continue throughout the dog's working life. The academy has trained more than 100 dogs since its inception and never had a dog put down for aggression.
"I still firmly believe this dog had a medical issue going on that involved the brain or something like that," said Godlewski. "This is a very tragic situation. When these dogs go into fight drive, there is very little reaction time… I think the officer did what he had to do to save himself from great bodily harm."
Dr. Brian Covert, a veterinarian for 11 years, and on staff at Pytel Veterinary Clinic for five years, has been the primary caregiver for the OCSO K-9 unit for the past six years. He also cares for K-9s from several other Oakland County police agencies as well as some from the Genesee County Sheriff's Office. He noted there are definitely some differences in working dogs compared to the general pet population. In his experience, however, he would not classify the majority of working canines as aggressive.
"The vast majority (of police K-9s) are relatively easy to work with," he said. "I have a great challenge with pet owners with an aggressive dog who is not trained."
Covert noted that each dog has individual personalities and while some people try to ban certain breeds and others defend those breeds and say aggressive dogs are the fault of owners, it's a mix of both nature and nurture that makes a dog.
"It's not all owner or all dog," he said. "There is a complex interaction. The earlier training begins, the better off you are. That said, I've seen very good success with older dogs that start to have unwanted behavior issues."
One of the things that Covert said can very effectively curb aggression in dogs is sterilization. This was an option that was being sought for Gunner to decrease hormonal influences on his behavior.
Godlewski said the K-9 dogs from the Oakland Police Academy are not sterilized and he doesn't view it as effective in curbing aggression.
Covert said he loves the K-9 police dogs and hope this incident doesn't tarnish their reputation.
"The work they do is invaluable and the protection of the deputies and the general public is huge. I think every department should have at least one or two working canines."
Molinar said Gunner's handler is still dedicated to the program and when the budget allows, another K-9 partner will be obtained for him.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville