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Canine units take to the water at Weeki Wachee Springs

WEEKI WACHEE

Deputy John Gore of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office still remembers Iso's best catch.

They were waist-deep in the scummy swamp behind Zip's Italian Restaurant in Brooksville when Iso lunged.

"As soon as I heard the scream, I knew we'd gotten somebody," Gore said.

A 6-foot-4 man soaked in blood and algae burst out of a clump of reeds, screaming "like some kind of swamp monster."

Iso, a German shepherd patrol dog, had bitten him on the top of the head.

The burglar got 18 stitches.

Iso's training had served him well. But his water lessons, taken in the early 1990s, were sporadic.

Now, dogs and deputies attend annual training sponsored by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to gain similar skills.

A dozen canine units from St. Petersburg, Largo, Pasco County, Bradenton and Hernando came to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Thursday night for seven hours of optional training, meant to familiarize new dogs with water procedures and refresh the memories of more experienced dogs.

Canine unit supervisor Billy Martinez of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said although water chases are rare, training — provided annually since 2005 — exposes dogs to everything, which in turn makes them better prepared.

"We need dogs to be confident in every situation, even when he's doing something completely new," Martinez said. "The dog will freeze up if he doesn't know what to do, and that can get very, very bad."

During the training, German shepherds and Malinois dogs swam about 20 feet to shore and bit an officer's heavily padded arm guard, called a jute sleeve.

Some dogs, new to the water, needed coaxing. Others leapt in with tails wagging.

During land exercises, Martinez put on a full-body "bite suit," resembling a red-and-black version of the Michelin man, and waited at the top of the Pirates Plunge stairs at the Buccaneer Bay water park.

The officers reared the dogs back on their hind legs, screamed commands at them — "Get him, get him, get him! Atta boy! Get him!" — and released them.

Dogs still in their 640 hours of training tend to go for the arms.

Veteran dogs like Iso know they can bite anywhere, said Frank Campbell, a civilian canine unit trainer in St. Petersburg who spent 24 years with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

A bite can carry 1,200 pounds of force — more than half a ton.

Even with the suit, that leaves a bruise the size of a grapefruit.

Some officers speak commands in German or Dutch so criminals can't speak to the dogs, Campbell said. The language depends on the dog's birthplace.

About 60 percent of police dog puppies, which cost $8,000 to $11,000 each, come from Europe, including Holland and Germany.

One puppy is chosen from a pool of 10 or more, Martinez said. They are put through a battery of tests, including "prey drive" — basically, thirst for the hunt — and to determine whether they are gun-shy. They can't be.

Martinez has watched his dog race into the closet of a duplex to bite an armed suspect who Martinez said was later shot to death.

Gore watched Iso discover 30 pounds of cellophane-wrapped marijuana bricks hidden in the gas tank of an 18-wheeler.

About 75 percent of canine unit duties are patrol calls, Martinez said, tracking down suspects deputies can't find.

"Many rapes and almost all robberies start with a prowler," Campbell said. "And we can't catch those guys before they do it."

The dogs can sniff out hidden suspects.

The dogs and the officers live and work together, but play together, too.

The training Thursday included games of fetch with slobbery tennis balls, a volleyball match and multiple trips down the water slide.

Deputy Jeanine Gagliano with the Largo Police Department even trusts her 50-pound dog, Jet, to play with her 4-year-old son.

Campbell called that deputy-dog bonding vital.

"You go to a 7-Eleven that's just been robbed, and the clerk says, 'Yeah, the guy ran into that dark alley,' " Campbell said. "You'd be crazy if you weren't scared. You've got to trust your dog and know he can get it done."

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at lnelson@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Canine units take to the water at Weeki Wachee Springs 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 11:20pm]
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