Modesto fund-raiser equips police dogs with vests

jfarrow@modbee.comAugust 27, 2013 

— A fund-raiser at the Modesto Dog Park on Morris Avenue was meant to take a bite out of the high cost of equipping a police dog with a Kevlar vest. It did much more, raising enough to purchase three of the $950 bulletproof, stab-proof garments.

The event, which drew perhaps a couple hundred people throughout its several hours Saturday, was organized by the group Vested Interest in K-9s and the Modesto Police Canine Association. It included a silent auction of gift baskets and a demonstration by the day's beneficiary, K-9 Volk, and his handler, officer Dan Starr.

Spectators pressed against a chain-link fence as Starr and his partner, office Kalani Souza, put Volk through his paces in what was only the dog's second public demonstration. Souza wore a bite sleeve as Starr sicced Volk on him, then called him off. A few times, Volk was reluctant to let go, but the officers chalked that up to Volk still gaining experience and training, knowing he was going through a drill and, well, still being a pup. Only 22 months old, German shepherd Volk was born in Hungary and purchased by the Modesto Police Department in February.

Starr and Souza shared with Saturday's audience information on Volk, the department's K-9 unit and the vest the dog soon will be wearing.

The Modesto Police Department's K-9 unit was established in 1964 and at its peak had 14 dogs. It now has six, although one just retired and will be replaced. Even with the reduced number, MPD provides K-9 coverage 24-7, Souza said; there always is a dog on duty or on call. Volk is the only K-9 not equipped with a vest.

The department does not have a policy "specific to vests, but we do have a K-9 manual which outlines policies and procedures for K-9 safety," spokeswoman Heather Graves said. "This manual leaves the decision-making on when to take necessary safety precautions to the handler. Fund-raising for such equipment is done through the Modesto Police Canine Association."

Attacks on K-9s by armed suspects are very rare. A 2007 Bee report says the only time a Modesto police dog was attacked by an armed suspect was in 1993, when then-Cpl. Gene Balentine's dog, Duke, was stabbed twice and severely injured while helping to apprehend a Modesto man charged with assaulting his mother. The dog recovered, but had to be retired.

"K-9s and their handlers are put in situations every day where the outcome is unknown," Graves said.

Volk began patrol in April, after a couple of months of intensive bonding time with Starr and heavy initial training. Since then, he's found about 10 criminal suspects, including three armed robbery suspects, Starr said.

"The majority of what we use the dogs for is searching for hidden suspects," Souza said. Actually apprehending suspects — chasing them down, putting a bite on them — is a small part of the job. "For every 250 arrests, we average one bite," he said. "Bad guys are afraid of the dogs. They don't want to get bitten. and I don't blame them — it hurts." So most surrender.

In his few months on the job, Volk has not had to bite a suspect. "Everyone has given up or not been in a position where it was necessary," Starr said.

Searching for suspects is where the dogs really shine, Souza said. With their keen olfactory sense, they can clear a house or other area in a fraction of the time it would take several officers. As an example of a dog's sense of smell, he said that while a person can smell chocolate chip cookies baking, a dog can detect the individual ingredients — flour, butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate.

K-9s also are used, of course, to sniff out drugs, and Volk will be trained to have that skill, too. Speaking of training, Volk will have to go through some of his again once he's fitted with a vest.

"The vest is a whole other animal we throw on the dog," Souza said. The added weight — 10 to 15 pounds — and the way it changes how a dog moves take some getting used to. Also, the vests trap heat, so are placed on dogs only when necessary. Fortunately, young dogs like Volk adapt quickly, Souza said.

Starr has been a Modesto police officer for nine years. He joined K-9 unit in October after having been a motor officer and working before that in DUI enforcement. He named Volk in memory of the first Modesto police officer killed in the line of duty, Leo Volk, who died in a vehicle collision in May 1973 while trying to apprehend a criminal.

Off duty, Volk is a member of Starr's family, the officer said. The dog goes with him everywhere, and enjoys camping and vacation time with the family. Starr told Saturday's crowd, "I spend more time with him than with my wife."

Vested Interest in K-9s is a nationwide group headquartered in Boston, said local volunteer Lorna Cooper, who spearheaded Saturday's event. A generous donor, Brice Walk, presented a check to fully cover Volk's vest, Cooper said, and the event raised enough to buy a vest for a police dog in Orland and another to be determined.

Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at jfarrow@modbee.com or (209) 578-2327.

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