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Former Gainesville police dog trainer denies improper use of shock collar
Angel Vargas, then the Gainesville Police Department’s chief dog handler, talks about his new partner, Diego, on Nov. 10 at the Gainesville Public Safety Building.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating police dog training methods used by former Gainesville police officer and senior K-9 handler Angel Vargas to determine whether his alleged technique of using a shock collar on an aggressive dog’s genitals could be criminal.

Vargas has not been charged. The district attorney would decide whether to bring charges based on the outcome of the GBI investigation.

Vargas put in his two week notice to the Gainesville Police Department about three weeks ago, saying he intended to leave the department to start his own police dog training business, said Gainesville Deputy Chief of Police Jane Nichols.

Vargas’ attorney, Jeff Talley, said Monday that Vargas did not use the electrodes of the shock collar, which police videos show was placed around the dog’s waist, to deliver an electric shock to the dog’s genitals.

Nichols said Vargas left the department in good standing, but his training methods were questioned after he left the force.

After leaving the department, Vargas’ K-9 partner "Diego," a Belgian Malinois, was handed over to another Gainesville police dog handler. After Diego bit the handler, who required three stitches to his left hand, Nichols said the department consulted an independent police dog handler in Alpharetta on how best to respond to the dog.

"He immediately looked at the dog and said, ‘I think this dog’s got not only some training issues, but some congenital issues — his head is shaped oddly,’" Nichols said.

Gainesville police bought Diego from an Ohio kennel for $5,600, Nichols said, but the dog is from Holland where different training methods may be have been used on the animal. Because of the dog’s vicious nature, it was euthanized more than a week ago at the advice of a veterinarian, Nichols said.

She said police began reviewing standard video of Vargas training Diego. The videos appear to show Vargas using an electric shock collar to deliver shocks to the dog’s genitals to keep him from biting, which Vargas denied through his attorney.

"We didn’t know about that," Nichols said of Vargas’ training methods. "We don’t regularly watch all of the DVDs. ... To be quite honest, I don’t think Vargas was trying to abuse the dog."

Nichols said since the department received Diego last August, the dog had passed some North American Police Working Dog Association tests, and Vargas had passed all handler certification tests. She said Diego failed the apprehension test, where the dog was asked to bite and release, because he would not release on command.

Nichols said as a result, the dog was only used in narcotics recovery police work.

John Bankhead, GBI spokesman, said at the request of District Attorney Lee Darragh, the bureau is investigating Vargas’ training methods to assist Darragh in determining whether Vargas’ actions constitute a crime. Bankhead said the bureau is still in the very early stages of the investigation and could not provide a timeline.

Darragh could not be reached for comment.

Jim Watson is a nationally accredited master trainer with the North American Police Working Dog Association. He said GBI and Gainesville police have contacted him recently regarding the investigation.

Watson said using a shock collar, meant for a dog’s neck, on a dog’s genitals is "absolutely not" a training technique approved by the national police dog association.

Nichols said the department does not have a policy regarding use of shock collars in dog training. Nichols said it may be that the genital shock method is legitimate by other association’s standards and it’s up to the GBI and Darragh to determine if Vargas could face charges of animal abuse.

Watson said that he met Diego at a training session in Florida last year. In the short time he was with the dog, Watson said the dog was "not out of control," but agreed it was most humane to euthanize him due to recent events.

Vargas, who has been a dog handler with Gainesville police since it established its K-9 Unit in 2003, had the dog living with him in his East Hall home, as is customary, since August of last year.

Talley said his client was upset that Diego was euthanized.

"He was very, very saddened to hear that," Talley said. "He was like family to him."

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