In October 1969, the Newark Division of Police K9 Division was formed with three officers. Since its inception, the division has seen 28 K9s. Michaela Sumner, Reporter
NEWARK – In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, the TV show Sesame Street premiered, and Led Zeppelin released his debut album.
In that same year, the Newark Division of Police K9 Unit was established.
“We are the fourth oldest continuous running K9 Unit in Ohio,” Newark Police Chief Barry Connell said proudly during a recent interview. “We’ve seen the birth of a lot of K9 units since we’ve been in business. We helped get a lot of them started, and we’re proud of that heritage.”
According to Connell, the unit began after the Licking River Kennel Club approached some Newark police officers about starting a K9 unit at the department.
The unit started with three K9s – Shep, Thunder and Shane – and their respective handlers, Bernard “Bernie” Frey, Robert “Bob” Dassylva and Jack Dunlap. Although training for the dogs likely began earlier in the year, the first recorded use of the dogs was Oct. 10, 1969.
The addition of K9s Xudo and Hugo in June brought the department to a total of 28 recorded K9s since its inception.
‘The best job in the world’
Officers Dave Burris and Jon Purtee were interested in becoming K9 handlers years before they trained with their now retired K9s Ike and Bear.
“I’ve just always been an animal lover, a dog lover I guess,” Burris said during a ridealong with The Advocate. “When I got into law enforcement, that was just the job that really pulled me into law enforcement was becoming a K9 officer.”
For Purtee, who is now a 17-year veteran of the department, his interest in K9s piqued after he reached five years at Newark police. While opportunities to become a handler arose in the past, they never meshed with his home life until a couple years ago after his children had mostly grown.
Bi-weekly in 10-hour sessions, Burris, Purtee, and their dogs meet up with K9s and their handlers from other agencies around Licking County for training. But training doesn’t stop after those sessions. Burris and Purtee train K9s Hugo and Xudo in their down time at work and even at home.
“Basically, we train every day. We’re always doing something at home, at work…,” Burris said. “You have to give them something to do daily. If not, they will drive you crazy.”
At Burris’ home, he waits until both Ike and Hugo are looking at him before giving them a signal to eat their food, which trains them on obedience. Even something as simple as play is used to train the dogs, whether that’s on obedience or using a protective sleeve for bite work.
Education and training, Purtee explained, are more important than everything else the officers do because when it comes time to testify in a court case, the dogs can’t testify. Instead, the prosecution pairs the dogs’ education and training with their handlers’ testimony. Purtee added a computer software program tracks all the K9s’ training and education history.
According to Burris, working with a dog is an ongoing challenge. With every deployment of the dog, there’s always something to improve upon.
“The best part is seeing all your hard work, all the training and all the extra time you put into it actually working out,” Burris said.
One example of a call shared with K9 Ike that was a successful apprehension was during an officer-involved shooting in recent years. Burris said he released Ike to apprehend a suspect in the same moment officers began firing on the individual.
“Ike, during that incident, did what he had to do – even when it was chaotic, when there was gunfire going off,” Burris said. “He did his job. If he was hit by friendly fire or hit by the suspect, he basically would put his life on the line to protect us.”
A unique aspect of a K9 handler’s job is caring for their dog every moment, whether that’s at home or on duty. Like with any animal or child, Burris said the officers have to care for the K9s when they’re sick and give them attention. And while Hugo and Ike are dogs, they’re also working dogs, so Burris and Purtee have to find a balance.
“It’s been engraved in our head that even though these dogs are one of our biggest companions – a family member – they’re also a tool,” Burris said.
Because Hugo, Xudo, and the retired K9s are working dogs, Purtee said they can’t be treated like pets.
“I don’t know how you distinguish between the two of them, but (Bear) doesn’t get pizza, hamburgers. He doesn’t get fed from the table,” Purtee said. “I treat him like a working dog, and Xudo’s the same way.”
Although Purtee and Burris have struggled with the transition from trained dogs to new ones, they’re confident Xudo and Hugo will continue to improve with age.
Seeing training pay off
Purtee explained Connell tells Purtee his expectations are very high for where Xudo should be because when Purtee started as a K9 handler, Bear already had years of training. Now, Purtee is training Xudo from the beginning.
Like Burris, the most rewarding part of Purtee’s role as a K9 officer has been seeing the training pay off.
“All we do is train,” Purtee said. “The best part is when we have the opportunity to do what we trained for and it all goes well.”
Although being a K9 handler comes with a lot of work and requires patience, Burris and Purtee indicated the effort is worth it. Unlike other officers, Burris and Purtee have a constant companion in the backseat of their cruisers.
Every time Burris or Purtee exited their cruisers, Hugo and Xudo instantly became alert, their eyes constantly on their handlers. When the officers got back in their vehicles, they relaxed, flopping back down.
According to Deputy Chief Erik McKee, who was a K9 handler for Newark in the late 1990’s, the partnership with a K9 is the most rewarding part for a handler.
“You spend way more time with those dogs than you do your family, so you talk to them – it’s really weird,” he explained. “Even though we’re good about not humanizing them, like most people do with their pets, because the dogs are ultimately a tool… I’ll tell you, when I retired (K9 Draven), I would turn around and look for him a long time in the car – you’re just so used to it.”
Both Burris and Purtee openly talked to Hugo and Xudo regularly on duty, occasionally reverting to “baby talk.” Although they’ve only been with their K9s for several months, the officers’ partnerships with their K9s already seem to be growing.
“If you’re a dog lover, K9’s the best job in the world,” Purtee said simply.
Time has changed the K9 division
Newark police command staff largely attribute the K9 unit’s longevity to the community’s ongoing support and their handlers’ dedication.
“I think the biggest thing…we’ve had the K9 unit for 50 (years) shows just how much this community supports the police department in general, and then the K9s specifically,” Deputy Chief Craig Riley said.
Until the early 1990’s, Riley explained, K9 handlers in Newark had to not only commit physically, but financially as well. Riley said handlers had to buy their own dogs, dog food and other things. When he served as a K9 handler in the mid-1990’s, Riley said the only thing covered by the department was veterinarian bills.
According to Connell, that still rings true today. Between donations from area businesses, community members, and a recent fundraiser, Newark police hasn’t had to spend money to purchase its K9s. Training for the K9s is also done in-house, saving the department those costs.
A lot has changed in the world since the 1960’s, and according to Connell, much of the K9 world has changed as well – predominately relating to training and the cost.
In 2019, a dog’s starting date isn’t until after they’ve completed their training and become certified. But in 1969, Connell said certification wasn’t a thing for K9s. He explained departments just trained them and put them out on the road to do their jobs.
While everything increases in price over time due to inflation, Connell said a big factor in the increase in cost for K9s was Sept. 11, 2001.
“Prices of dogs skyrocketed after that,” Connell said. “Because of the demand for dogs, because a lot of dogs were put into service for bomb dogs.”
Training for the K9s has also evolved as the dogs evolve, Connell said.
“Some of the training methods early on used a lot of force, and that’s kind of evolved into more of behavioral conditioning,” he explained. “We use a lot of marker training, based off of operant conditioning. I would say the training is more in depth now than it’s ever been.”
According to Connell, the state put standards into place in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, so a dog has to be certified regularly. Before that, Newark police participated in voluntary standards through the U.S. Police K9 Association.
Five decades has also brought many awards to Newark’s K9 unit. K9 Angus, who was handled by Connell in the 1990’s, was named Ohio’s Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by the American Legion. And K9 Gerda was a national champion bomb dog in 1999.
When Connell, Riley and McKee were handlers, Connell said methamphetamine was introduced to their dogs as a drug to look for. But in the beginning, Connell said, Newark’s K9s weren’t training for drugs, but rather just apprehension. So that too, has changed over time.
Reflecting on the K9 unit’s anniversary, Connell acknowledged the unit is far from perfect, but has come a long way. He said their agency ranks its K9 unit up with the best.
By having a K9 unit, Riley explained there’s a liability the city, Newark police, Connell, Mayor Jeff Hall and others take on. With one small issue, Riley said some agencies have shut down their K9 units.
“The commitment’s there from top to bottom…we’re careful about who we pick to handle our dogs so things are done right and we don’t run into those issues,” Riley said. “I think that’s the biggest testament to surviving this game for 50 years is the people well before us – the Bernie’s and the Bob’s and the Dave Riley’s – they set a foundation that we’ve built on and everybody’s stuck to that commitment.”
Learn more about local K9 units:
Read or Share this story: https://www.newarkadvocate.com/story/news/local/2019/10/10/newark-k-9-police-dog-marks-50-year-anniversary/3867048002/