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K-9 Gunny gets his vest

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IN HONOR OF: Mitchell shows where K9 Gunny’s vest is embroidered with the sentiment “In honor of Gracie and Sydney," which were two K9s killed in the line of duty.
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K9 TEAM: Clinton County Sergeant Joey Mitchell stands beside his Dutch Shepherd, Gunny, who recently received his protective vest through a grant from Vested Interest in K9s, Inc.

By AARON KENNEDY - akennedy@ftimes.com

Thanks to a charitable donation from the nonprofit organization Vested Interest in K9s Inc., Clinton County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Gunny recently received a bullet and stab protective vest.

Gunny's handler is Clinton County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Joey Mitchell. He says the protective vest is a necessary investment in one of the county's assets.

“We are very appreciative of it,” Mitchell said. “These vests are not cheap, but you have an animal that you spend all of this time and effort into training. Just to buy the dog is $13,000. Then you go and have to pay to equip the car, which is usually an extra $2,000 because you are putting a bailout system in the car so that you can pop your dog out of the car if you have to without having to be by the door. Then you put a heat alarm system in there in case your cooling fan or something like that goes out.

“You spend the money to protect these investments because, while they are living animals that you love and they become part of our families because they live with us, they are still a work dog, and they are an asset to the county and the community,” he added. “They spend money, whether it be grant money or tax dollars, and you want to protect that (investment).”

Vested Interest in K9s Inc. is a 501c(3) charity located in East Taunton, Massachusetts. whose mission is to provide bullet and stab protective vests and other assistance to dogs of law enforcement and related agencies throughout the United States. The nonprofit was established in 2009 to assist law enforcement agencies with this potentially lifesaving body armor for their four-legged K-9 officers. Since its inception, Vested Interest in K9s has provided over 3,300 protective vests in 50 states through private and corporate donations at a value of $5.7 million dollars.

Gunny was obtained through a grant from the Clinton County Drug and Alcohol Coalition.

“They gave us the money to purchase him, and then we got another grant to buy the bulletproof and stab-resistant vest. So, if we do encounter an armed subject, and we have to release the dog on him, (the dog) is protected,” Mitchell said. “He has as much protection as I have. I don't come to work without my vest. So, we want to have the ability to put vests on our dogs, as well.”

K-9 Gunny’s vest is embroidered with the sentiment, “In honor of Gracie and Sydney.”

“Those are two service dogs that were killed in the line of duty,” Mitchell said. “I think this (vest) program is a really good thing for smaller agencies like us because running a K-9 program is expensive. When you have the ability to go out and get grants like this, that is huge.”

Gunny came from Master Trainer Michael McHenry at F.M. K-9 in Berrien Center, Michigan.

Along with Mitchell and Gunny, the CCSO also has Lt. Ryan Ashlock and K-9 Chase, a German Shepherd.

“It is fantastic having the two K-9 officers,” Clinton County Sheriff Rich Kelly said. “We are trying to take a look at the rest of the program and see whether we need to grow a little bit – maybe add another dog and put some more emphasis on some criminal interdiction and using our K-9s to head the way with that.

“It is nice to be able to get that type of equipment, like the vests for our K-9s,” Kelly said. “They are considered an officer of our department. They have the same protections as far as additional charges if somebody hurts one of those K-9s. They are a part of our law enforcement family. So, it is nice to have two K-9s and maybe more in the future.”

The Frankfort Police Department also has a K-9 program. Sgt. Evan Hall has K-9 Otto, another German Shepherd, and FPD Officer Beau Smith has K-9 Bane, a Dutch Shepherd like Gunny.

“There are four in the county, and we will assist each other,” Mitchell said.

“We have been fortunate enough to receive that grant twice now,” said FPD Deputy Chief Scott Shoemaker. “Vested Interest does a really good job of helping the K-9s out. That is something that I think, in the future, departments need to figure out how to budget for on their own. The grant is good but in the future, if the grant is not available, it is such an important piece that we will eventually need to fund this on our own.”

Gunny is Mitchell’s third dog, and the pair is still getting used to each other.

“It takes a few months for the dog to really start trusting you,” Mitchell said. “The dogs always want to work. So, as long as they have somebody who is ready to work them, they are happy about that. But as you develop a bond with the dog and a trust, then you start to be able to reach new levels with your ability to operate on the road.

“I haven't even had Gunny a year yet, so we are still learning each other, still figuring each other out,” he added. “The bond is there, but we are still trying to figure each other out. Each one of my dogs has had a different personality. They react differently to different situations. They have different mannerisms when they are sniffing a car for narcotics or when you are running a track for a suspect. I have to figure out in training when I know he is in the odor of narcotics or when he is in the odor of a bad guy because I know where they are (during training). I watch how he behaves, and I learn from that. So, when we are out there on the street, and I don't know where the bad guy is or where the narcotics are, I see those behaviors, and that throws up a red flag.”

Mitchell says that, in his experience, a K-9 team is at its prime from years two to six.

“That four-year span,” Mitchell said. “After you have been a team for about six years, most of those dogs are between seven and eight years old, and they are starting to decline health-wise. They are getting older and slowing down. Before that two-year mark, you are still figuring each other out.

“Years two to six, he knows you, and you know him,” he continued. “You can read him like a book. If there is dope out there, you will find it. If there is a bad guy out there, you will find him. That is the kind of confidence levels you have. When you start seeing those things decline to a certain point you know as a handler that it is time to think about retiring him.”

And it is never easy when that time comes.

“Nobody wants to retire their dog, especially after you have been clicking on all cylinders,” Mitchell said. “But, you also have to think about what is best for the dog.”

Vested Interest’s program is open to dogs actively employed in the U.S. with law enforcement or related agencies who are certified and at least 20 months of age. New K-9 graduates, as well as K-9s with expired vests, are eligible to participate.

The donation to provide one protective vest for a law enforcement K-9 is $950. Each vest has a value between $1,744 to $2,283 and a five-year warranty, and an average weight of 4 to 5 pounds. There is an estimated 30,000 law enforcement K-9s throughout the United States. For more information or to learn about volunteer opportunities, please call (508) 824-6978. Vested Interest in K9s Inc. provides information, lists events and accepts tax-deductible donations of any denomination at www.vik9s.org or mailed to P.O. Box 9 East Taunton, MA 02718.