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K-9 units are leaving a trail of success
Team helped apprehend 52 suspects in 2010
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Gainesville police officer Jeremy Edge gets his K-9 partner out of the vehicle they use for patrol. - photo by Tom Reed

Quenn and her partners assisted in 135 arrests, apprehended 52 suspects and seized more than $35,000 worth of drugs and property in 2010.

Not bad for an officer lacking opposable thumbs.

Quenn and her handler, officer Jeremy Edge, make up one of five K-9 teams that assist the Gainesville Police Department on a daily basis. She, like the others, is trained to patrol, track and search for property as well as narcotics.

Since the dogs joined the force, Sgt. Jim Von Essen, who oversees the unit, said their contributions have well outweighed the $6,000 to $12,000 pricetag placed on each puppy.

"Before we had the dogs, about eight years ago it was very common for a police officer to be in a foot pursuit somewhere in the city of Gainesville every night," he said. "Since we got the dogs, that number has dwindled down to probably a few per month. ... The word gets out quick: Don't run in Hall County. ... You can't put a dollar value on that."

But even suspects who choose to run don't usually get far.

In 2010, the unit was successful in each of its 26 attempted trackings, including some that stretched more than four miles.

However, the dogs can look for more than people.

Von Essen told a story of a local drug dealer whose car police had searched by hand several times with no success, but that was before they called in the dogs.

When a dog stood on the dashboard, indicating he smelled narcotics, police launched an all out search.

"We were able to find a magnetic box that was stuck up under the steering column that contained the narcotics," Von Essen said. "Had he not alerted to there, we would not have gone through the process of basically tearing that car apart. ... We would not have found (it) had it not been for the dogs."

So how do you teach a dog to look for drugs?

Simply put — you don't.

According to Von Essen, each K-9 has a special toy, usually a ball, it associates with searches. When the dog finds a target, handlers slip them the toy.

"In the dog's mind, he thinks that he's actually found his toy, not marijuana or black powder explosives," he said. "That's the whole principle of the training (program)."

Most dogs join the force after completing four to eight weeks of school when they're 1 1/2 years old. But once they have their badge, training is far from over.

"Once the handler teams up with the dog, they learn together," Von Essen said. "They begin a lifetime training program. As soon as they start training, it never stops."

In addition to daily maintenance to keep the dogs' skills sharp, all dogs and handlers are required to complete 20 to 30 hours of training each month.

In this kind of environment, it doesn't take long for handlers to develop a special bond with their four-legged partners. Von Essen, who still lives with the retired K-9 he used to handle, recalled how it felt to always be with the dog.

"The dog goes home with the handler and he goes to work, so basically the dog is with the handler 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "A real great bond develops between the dog and the handler. ... They see you walk out with a uniform, and they just get excited, knowing they're going to work."

But the job of the handler isn't all about throwing Frisbees and playing fetch. Von Essen said it's a difficult position that often puts officers in harm's way.

"I really have to give a lot or recognition to our handlers. They take on a large responsibility when they decide to do this job," he said describing the risks and time commitment they assume. "I just really have to give it to a person who would volunteer to be a handler and take on that responsibility."

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