K-9 Officers: Taking a Bite Out of Crime
By Meredith Jean Morris
Like most hard workers, when Ares gets home from a long day on the job he likes to veg out.
“Right now, he’s lying in the hallway being lazy,” says Officer Jennifer Elliott, Ares’s partner at the Winter Haven Police Department.
Ares, an 8-year-old German shepherd dog, has been a K-9 officer for most of his life.
“I’ve worked with him over the last five years,” says Elliott, who has been a police officer for 11 years. “He had another handler before me.”
Elliott, who grew up with horses, says she loves working with animals, and working with a K-9 was a goal from the start of her police career.
“It’s more fun,” she says. “You get to go to more high priority calls and take an active part in the investigation.”
For example, at a call like a business burglary, Elliott would get Ares out and start trying to track the suspects.
“In my opinion, tracking is his strong suit,” Elliott says.
However, when Ares is not at work, Elliott says he knows it’s time to be a regular dog.
“It’s like he has a light switch,” she says. “He knows when he’s at work, and he’s excited to be at work, but the rest of the time, he’s just lazy. He’s good around my family.”
Elliott says she thinks one reason for Ares’s “light switch” personality is the stress he feels on the job.
“I know Ares gets more stressed in the car with the lights and sirens,” she says. “When he gets home, he’s just so tired. My other dog, a personal dog, is just happy all the time.”
Her other dog, a mutt named Tucker, is like a brother to Ares.
“They love each other,” Elliott says. “We also have cats, and Ares hates cats outside, but cuddles with the ones inside.”
The hatred of cats can prove challenging to Ares when he’s on the job, Elliott says.
“He’ll try to chase them, but he’s on a leash, so I’ll tell him to get back to work and try to get him to refocus,” she says.
Elliott says she most enjoys working with Ares and teaching him new things, but perhaps is most surprised when he learns new behaviors on his own.
“He learned to open car doors by himself,” she says.
The life of a K-9 officer is similar to that of a family pet, except that the city pays for the dog’s healthcare until they retire, Elliott says. The dog and his handler also go through constant training. In addition to the everyday training, there is countywide training with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office several times a month. All of this is after 400 hours of training in school with the K-9 before beginning active duty with the police department.
At 8 years old, Ares is at retirement age, Elliott says, but she hopes he has some time left on the job.
“Personally, I love working with him,” she says. “I won’t get a new dog when he retires, and he should be able to stay with me as my dog at that time.”
Officer Greg Oftedal is another K-9 handler with the Winter Haven Police Department, who has been working with K-9 officers for the past six years. When he first started working K-9, Oftedal worked with a now-retired dog named Ninja. Oftedal’s new partner, Onyx, is a 2-year-old all-black German shepherd dog from Germany, who understands commands in German.
“Even though he understands German, he really knows my emotions, he knows my movements, and he responds to that first,” he says.
Oftedal says the transition from working with Ninja to working with Onyx was an adjustment.
“One dog will be better in one thing, one better in others,” he says. “Ninja knew all of his commands, and Onyx just wanted to bite. His defense was really good. Now, he tracks really well, his obedience is really good when we’re working. When we’re not, he’ll bark at anything that moves. It’s like when we drive up to the house, he stands up and gets ready to be home for the day. He’s knows he’s off work, and he’s ready to eat.”
Oftedal says working with Onyx is rewarding, even on frustrating days.
“Even when everything is going wrong, I get to spend my day with my dog,” he says. “Then, when we find the bad guy or find dope in a car, everything is all better.”
Onyx’s reward on the job is an Orbee, a rubber ball dog toy.
“It’s flexible, chewable, he’ll do anything for that toy, he’ll jump at my pocket when he knows it’s in there,” Oftedal says. “He has a drive, an intensity. I can throw the toy in the yard, and he’s not going to quit.”
Onyx isn’t the only Polk County K-9 who understands another language. Auburndale Police Department K-9, Kondor, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, is from The Netherlands, and takes commands in Dutch.
“He has a high drive and a good personality,” says Kondor’s partner, Officer Derek Martin, who has worked with Kondor for three years. “He knows when to go, and likes to apprehend things. He really likes to catch the bad guy.”
When Kondor isn’t catching bad guys, Martin says they enjoy doing demonstrations at local schools. Kondor is the Auburndale Police Department’s only K-9.
“Everyone is always excited to see him,” Martin says. “Working with a K-9, it’s a learning process. The surprising thing is the dog’s willingness to do any task they are asked.”
The partnership between local police officers and their K-9 partners is a close one.
Oftedal says he spends more time with Onyx than anyone else in his life.
“You play with them, you feed them, and they love you no matter what,” he says.
Martin agrees that relationship is what makes his job so enjoyable.
“I personally think it’s the best job in law enforcement,” he says. “It’s so great to have my best friend come to work with me every day.”