There’s been a changing of the guard for Gainesville’s police dogs.
Four of the five dogs in the Gainesville Police Department’s K-9 Unit are new to the agency, having started on the beat within the last two months. Most of their handlers are new, too, committing to long-term partnerships with the dogs that extend beyond regular working hours.
The three Belgian Malinois and one German shepherd hail from Germany, Belgium and the U.S. They cost about $6,000 and get, on average, close to 400 hours of training. They replace three dogs who were retired from the force for health reasons after putting in an average of six years of service, considered a normal length of time for a police dog.
Since the police department’s K-9 Unit was started in 2002, three dogs were purchased with federal Justice Department grants, and another was bought with seized funds.
The dogs are used by police to sniff out marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in traffic stops, to track and apprehend fugitives on the run, and to locate articles like weapons, wallets and cell phones discarded by suspects. They win the hearts of elementary school kids but can just as easily end a standoff quickly with a growl and a flash of their fangs.
"They’re just a great tool for us," Police Chief Frank Hooper said.
In the past two weeks, the new recruits have already made their mark.
Quenn the German shepherd discovered methamphetamine and $6,000 cash following a traffic stop on Interstate 985, police said.
Vigo the Malinois tracked a suspected car thief from an abandoned car on Tower Heights Road to a nearby home, police said.
Gainesville police have assigned four dogs and four handlers to the uniform patrol division since 2003. That level of staffing allows the department to have a dog available on all shifts and eliminates the need to call a handler out from home in the middle of the night.
"If you have an hour delay, it really doesn’t do you all that much good," Hooper said.
Another dog is assigned to the Gainesville-Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad and Gang Task Force.
On Tuesday, the dogs and their handlers gathered at the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center for their twice-a-month training session.
Quenn, a 90-pound German shepherd recently brought to Gainesville from Pennsylvania, clung with his teeth to the upper arm of an officer outfitted in a protective "bite suit," only releasing his tenacious grip after his handler shouted a command in Dutch.
Vigo, a slender Belgian Malinois, showed off his vaunted speed by covering a distance of 50 feet between his handler and a target in a few seconds. Police have clocked Vigo’s four-legged sprints at 23 mph.
The new handlers, Chris Letson, Jeremy Edge, Jonathan Williams and Josh Adams, were selected by a supervisory panel who evaluated their record of service as well as their ability to work with trained animals. Each handler must own his own home and have an area of at least a half-acre for the dog and a kennel.
Hooper notes that the handlers are committed to the job "for the service life of a canine," typically five to seven years.
"One thing I like about this group is they all work and train very closely together," said Maj. Chad White.
Veteran handler Anthony Giaqunita’s dog, Miso, is nearing retirement age at 6. Miso, a German shepherd from the Czech Republic, has been known to pose in a Santa hat for Giaqunita family Christmas cards and doesn’t mind being mobbed by eager school kids.
And while his handler said Miso doesn’t have a mean bone in his body and could "lick you to death," he still knows when it is time to go to work.
The bark usually works without the bite, though.
In more than 400 encounters, Miso has only bitten five people, and those were suspects who were considered by police a danger to the public, Giaqunita said.
"If you put off negative energy to a dog, they know it," he said. "He knows when anyone shows aggression. The suspect chooses how they can go to jail."