A K9 partner is an officer's best friend

Gwen Chamberlain
Yates County Deputies Brian Winslow and Brandon Jenson with their partners Orry and Argo are introduced to the audience as Instructor, and retired Yates County officer Lee Rider looks on.

Bombs in airplanes, drugs in schools, dangerous perpetrators and people in harm's way. Those are the realities that challenge law enforcement officers around the country everyday.

Another reality, especially in rural areas, is that there are times when an officer is in a remote location with no immediate back-up.

That's when Ontario County Deputy Patrick Fitzgerald is thankful for his K9 partner, Frenkie, a 4-year-old German shepherd.

"There's an incredible bond between a handler and the K9," said Fitzgerald, who was in Penn Yan this week for the annual four-day training session for K9 teams.

A variety of locations were used for the expansive training. Teams were found Thursday in the Yates County Airport hangar, searching through private jets for narcotics, bombs and ordnance, in the large shop at Moravec's Welldrilling business on Lake Street,  also searching for narcotics and at a local conservation club practicing other skills and earning certification in a variety of areas.

Fitzgerald says this annual training experience is an exceptional opportunity because of the instructors who are on hand. "Here, these people teach from real life experience. They've been there, done that and made the headlines," he said Wednesday evening following a public demonstration of a variety of skills.

One of the instructors is retiring Yates County Sheriff Deputy Lee Rider, who was spending his last day on the job working with teams at Moravec's.

He was already looking forward to the week's wrap-up event, the "hard dog" competition, planned for Thursday night. That competition, which he said is run as a fun way to end the training, pits the dogs in a test of their speed and ability to hit hard on a person (protected by a special padded suit).

Rider says this year's training has included more tactical work than previous years.

One of the certifying officers at the training is Titusville, Fla. Detective Jan Scofield,  the former Yates County Sheriff who introduced K9 Units to the Yates County Sheriff's Department, and started the training sessions 25 years ago.

In that time, Schofield, who has been working with K9s since 1973, has seen significant changes in the use of K9 teams and in their skill levels.

When the first Yates County team was established, Scofield says the dogs were trained to subdue a perpetrator with a bite. "But they weren't trained on release," he said.

His intent then, as sheriff, was to get a patrol dog unit as another tool for officers.  At the time, neighboring Schuyler County had a K9 unit, and the teams had been used in response to riots about 10 years earlier. He thought the K9 teams could help establish a method to control people using minimal force.

"When I think back about what we had, there was no state certification and there was no performance level that was set,"  he said.

Now, K9 teams must complete a more complicated training and certification process on a state and national level, he says. This training in Yates County is probably the biggest training in New York state.

While advances in technology are changing many jobs in general and in particular, investigation, Schofield said the type of work done by many of these dogs can't be replicated.

"I don't think they'll ever make a machine that will replace a dog for drug  or bomb sweeps. I don't foresee them ever being completely replaced," he said, explaining there are tight spots that only the dogs can work their way into in such sweeps.

However, he does see the possibility for dogs to work in partnership with machines, and he says trainers are still discovering skills that canines use to help humans, such as detecting cancer cells. That, he said, isn't surprising to him, since K9 units are so useful in search and recovery becasue in both situations, the dogs are trained to find dead or dying cells.

In the years since Schofield launched the Yates County program, the breeds of dogs used for K9 teams have grown as well. One of Yates County's K9s, Argo, who works with Deputy Brandon Jensen, is a Belgian Malinois. Schofield says this breed works better in warmer temperatures.

While many of the teams in Yates County this week work in all areas — tracking, narcotics, explosives and searches — some specialize in search and rescue or search and recovery. Schofield said there is a trend toward those teams branching off into their own specialty training and certification.

But many of the teams will continue coming to Yates County for weekly and annual training sessions.

And officers like Fitzgerald, who said his 2 1/2 years of work with Frenkie have been a dream come true, will keep finding narcotics and locating lost people in the Ontario County woods.

"There have been multiple situations when her presence made a difference," he said, adding, "They (K9s) are an amazing tool. Some people would rather fight 10 people than one dog. In a rural area, they can be the first line of defense."

The officers and their partners come in all shapes and sizes, and from departments from all over New York and neighboring states.