May 4—Law enforcement officials often describe the special bond they have with their K-9 partners and the special training both go through for their professional and personal relationships.
Tahlequah Police Department has two K-9 officers, and the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office has one. All three animals are Belgian Malinois, and they came from Little Rock K-9 Academy.
The Belgian Malinois have become the dog of choice for police and military work due to their intense drive and focus. The breed is used as a working dog for many tasks, including detection of odors such as explosives, accelerants and narcotics. They can track humans for suspect apprehension in police work, as well as search-and-rescue missions.
Training between the handlers and their K-9 officers is demanding. The state requires handlers to go through a minimum of 16 hours a month, and the three teams meet up once every other week in different places to train on narcotic searches, bite work and tracking.
Police Chief Nate King said TPD opened the K-9 position to the entire department when interviews were conducted, and two officers were selected.
Tahlequah Police Detective Josh Girdner, who has been with his K-9, Burro, for four years, said his experience with trained animals when he was younger played a role in his becoming a handler.
"I always had hunting dogs and loved the work that went into training them," said Girdner. "So when the opportunity came along for me to become a police canine handler, it king of brought back that old feeling of when I was younger and the passion I had working with and training dogs."
Girdner got his Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Drug Enforcement Agency license and was able to obtain 28 grams of each drug on which the dogs are certified.
The dogs must go through an annual certification required by CLEET for narcotics detection. During narcotics search training, handlers plant drugs in and around vehicles or buildings for the dogs to sniff out. Methamphetamine, marijuana, heroine and cocaine are all used.
"As far as training goes, Burro has to complete the Oklahoma CLEET certification test every year, so we try to train pretty regularly," said Girdner. "If he doesn't pass the certification test, then he doesn't get to work, and my handler's license would be suspended."
Tahlequah Police Sgt. Bryan Qualls and his K-9 officer, Ivo, have been partners since 2017.
"Ivo was originally trained before I got him by Little Rock K-9 Academy. After I was paired with Ivo and completed the original two-week handler course, I got to bring him home with me," said Qualls.
The dog has a background in French Ring competitions, and Qualls had to learn the French commands to build that bond with Ivo.
King said Ivo and Burro were chosen by their handlers, and the two K-9 officers meet the needs of the TPD.
"Once one or both get to a point to consider retirement, we will reassess. I look for us to always have a canine program within the department," said King.
The balance helps TPD, which uses the scheduling to throw off those who know officers' routine.
Cherokee County Sheriff's Deputy Pete Broderick volunteered to be the county's K-9 deputy in 2020. Sheriff Jason Chennault said Broderick personally chose his K-9 partner, Crush, and the two spent two weeks together during handler training.
"It's more of a training for the handler than it was for the dog, since the dog had already been trained," said Chennault. "The dog was leaning how to work with the handler who was learning, at that time, how and what all Crush could do and what he was capable of."
Crush is with Broderick 24/7 and is a typical "house dog," but he knows exactly when it's time to get to work.
"Crush has a laid-back attitude, and at home, he becomes a lap dog," said Broderick. "I think we work well together due to the fact we love to work, and on our time-off, we train and play."
As handlers, all three men agree it's rewarding to not only have a companion always by their sides at work and at home, but it's also a bonding experience for each of them.
"Crush isn't your typical patrol dog; he loves other dogs and loves to be the center of attention," said Broderick.
Handlers and their partners train with a group of other handlers and K-9 officers from surrounding cities and counties.
There are a number of reasons why a K-9 officer would be retired, but once it does, the handler gets first pick as to where the animal goes.
"It's more or less [when] they can't do the job well. A lot of these dogs, once they get older, they'll start to get some hip dysplasia, and then it causes them pain and there's no cure for it," said Qualls. "They're just like anybody else; they get too old to do it."
Chennault is planning to get two more K-9 deputies for the sheriff's office.
"Our plan is to get at least two more dogs, and [Deputy James] Carver and [Deputy] Ryan Patton have volunteered," Chennault said.