Officer Ryan Meier has a new partner, one that only understands Dutch — but he fetches very well.
The Troy Police Department has launched its first K-9 program with the acquisition of Zak, a 17-month-old German shepherd trained as a drug interdiction dog. Beyond the boundaries of Troy, the program is intended to help out other departments that don’t have their own K-9 program, including Edwardsville, Highland, Glen Carbon and Maryville.
The $12,000 price tag on launching a K-9 program was covered with donations from private citizens, local businesses, the Troy Lions Club and a grant from federal drug forfeiture funds, presented last week by Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons.
“We’ve had a lot of community support, which made it much easier to finance,” said Troy Police Chief Brad Parsons. “The community has been great with support for the police department.”
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In fact, Parsons said, more than $8,500 of the $12,000 cost was raised through donations. Among them was a five-year-old child who donated $32.50 he had saved from his allowance to give to a good cause. Parsons said the little boy, whose family wished to remain anonymous, wrote that he really like getting to see a police squad car and wanted to help the K-9 program. “It was a really heartening letter,” Parsons said.
The cost for the dog and his training continues, with 16 hours a month required for continued training – not mention dog food. Troy Police Chief Brad Parsons said he felt it was worth the investment, calling the K-9 a “force multiplier.”
“We can use a dog to initiate a track that would take a lot of manpower for us to put together,” Parsons said.
The location of Troy — and Madison County in general — also made it a priority, Parsons said. “We are in the middle of the country... everything travels through Madison County,” he said. “In addition to more safety in our schools, there’s a lot of transient traffic coming through the truck stops... It makes it easier for us to combat drugs coming into our community.”
Zak lives with Meier and his family, and the integration is going forward — slowly.
“I’ve been a dog person my whole life; I’ve always had dogs,” Meier said. “K-9s can be dog-aggressive, so it’s a slow process to get them together… we take them on walks together, and there’s been no aggression shown yet, so that’s a good thing.”
German shepherds are well-suited to K-9 work, Meier said: they have as many as 250 million olfactory sensors, whereas the average human has about 5 million. German shepherds have a very high work drive, and more clarity than other breeds in seeking and finding drugs.
In fact, Zak had his first search just this week. Meier and Zak assisted Alton High School with a search of the lockers and cars, and found some cannabis pipes in a car.
But Zak’s training goes beyond his nose. He can actually apprehend a suspect — with his mouth. That can come in handy with a fleeing suspect, Meier said. “He can run about a hundred times faster than me,” he said. And if the suspect stops and gives up, he can give Zak the signal to stand down, so the suspect isn’t bitten.
Meier has been a police officer for 18 years, and was always fascinated by K-9 work, he said. “I’d seen them in the field working, and it captivated me at how incredible these dogs are and what they can do,” he said. Zak had a lot of training before he showed up, he said, and since Zak was originally from Holland, he responds to commands in Dutch. That is actually helpful, he said, so that he doesn’t confuse Zak when speaking to someone in English, and a savvy criminal can’t easily get Zak to stand down by barking commands at him.
“He gets more room in the squad car than I do,” Meier said, pulling at the chew toy firmly held in Zak’s mouth. “I got the short end of the stick on that one.”
K-9 work is “essential” to drug interdiction, Meier said: “They can detect things we would never find.” A well-trained K-9 can find drugs inside hidden compartments in a car’s empty space that have been not just hidden but welded shut. “It’s not stuff just sitting in the trunk,” he said.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said that money seized from local drug dealers funded his department’s $1,000 donation to help start the program because of the value of a K-9 program. “The Troy Police Department has been an important partner in our efforts to fight the epidemic of heroin and other dangerous drugs afflicting our region, and the addition of this K-9 officer will enhance those efforts tremendously,” he said.
As is the case with most service dogs, K-9s should not be approached like other dogs, Meier said. “You don’t just walk up and stick your hand out,” he said. “They’re not regular pets, they’re work dogs… If startled, they may be on the defensive.”
Still, Zak’s personality is fairly comfortable around people, and he’s got a lot of energy — there’s still a lot of puppy in him, Meier said. “Zak is a very social dog, and doesn’t have a lot of aggression,” Meier said. Zak loves playing around with a ball or tug-of-war with a stretch of radiator hose — in fact, he loves the latter so much that they use it in training as a reward for finding a stash.
As for the young boy who donated his allowance to fund Zak? Parsons said he will get to meet the dog he helped to buy, when they bring Zak to his house for a greeting.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.