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Eight police canine teams now ready for duty in Pinellas

At the start of November, Todd Hancock lived alone, but since then he has picked up a constant companion — a brown and black German shepherd named Doc.

"I take him everywhere I go," Hancock said of his new police dog. Whether they're on the couch at home or on the streets at work, Hancock says the team is inseparable. "We picked up a pretty quick bond," he said.

After a rigorous 16-week program that trains the officers and dogs, eight teams graduated from the St. Petersburg Police Department's Police Canine Academy on Thursday evening. Five teams will serve the St. Petersburg Police Department, two will be in Largo and one in Clearwater.

Hancock said he decided to become a canine officer while he was in the military in Iraq. "I saw overseas how the dogs worked," he said. He was impressed by the bond between the dogs and their handlers and the proof of what good training could accomplish.

It's not easy to become a canine officer. The St. Petersburg Police Department had 15 applicants for three vacancies (two of St. Petersburg's five recent graduates were already canine officers, but were training with a new dog).

Officers who apply must have at least one year of experience with the police force. However, as St. Petersburg police canine trainer Frank Campbell said, being a canine officer is "a young man's sport," as the work is physically demanding.

To get into the program, Hancock had to complete "the hardest tryout I've ever been through." It was 10 hours long and involved physical tests like carrying weights, running through dense forest terrain and swimming a lake, as well as some work with dogs to see how the applicants interacted with animals.

Those chosen from the tryouts were matched with dogs based on their personalities. The graduating dogs are German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, mostly under 15 months old.

The dogs are purchased from Europe, where "it's a little bit more of a quality dog," said Joe Lehmann, a St. Petersburg canine officer. Lehmann said a European canine is more of a working dog, whereas the American dogs tend to be more like show dogs, bred for looks instead of skills.

The dogs cost the Police Department between $6,500 and $10,000. Hancock says they're a good deal for the taxpayer, though, requiring only $3,000 annually to maintain once they're trained.

At graduation, the dogs and their handlers showed off their skills for a crowd of several hundred people. The dogs start the program with little or no training, and there were still a few hitches, but the display offered plenty to give any would-be criminals a reason to reconsider.

Andrea Gordon-Day, hospital administrator at Northeast Animal Hospital, was in the audience to support the dogs, which she and her co-workers have cared for. She said she was ecstatic to see this newest batch of crime-fighting canines.

"They're very good dogs," she said. "It's amazing to witness and observe how they behave and how they respond to their handlers." She said she's impressed by how the dogs can switch between working mode and being a regular, friendly dog.

The officers seemed relieved and delighted to see their months of work paying off. "Anything tough is usually good," said Clearwater Officer Mike Spitaleri, who works his first shift with his dog Major this weekend. "I can't explain the excitement."

Eight police canine teams now ready for duty in Pinellas 03/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 3:31am]
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