Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Trust between officer, new Tarpon Springs canine unit dog has grown

TARPON SPRINGS

The dog could smell the adrenaline in the darkness.

Dobies Junior and his officer, Steven Bergren, were called to search the fields near a house where a domestic disturbance was reported.

It was pitch black. They trekked the tall grass toward a fence. Moments later, the dog stopped. Bergren pointed his flashlight in front of the dog and saw what Dobies Junior smelled.

"Sure enough," Bergren said, "it was our bad guy."

The man got away by jumping the fence and diving into the Anclote River. But for the officer, the pursuit was still a victory.

It was the first time Bergren worked a call with Dobies Junior, the Tarpon Springs Police Department's newest and only dog.

"At least I know he can do it," Bergren said, smiling.

Bergren, 30, graduated from Tarpon Springs High in 2000. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and was part of the first units deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11.

After four years in the Marines, Bergren returned to Tarpon Springs and enrolled at the University of South Florida, where he graduated in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in criminology. He joined Tarpon Springs police the same year.

Last year, Dobies, the agency's previous dog, retired after about five years of service. His officer moved up the ranks to corporal, but kept Dobies as a family pet.

Dobies and Dobies Junior are both named after funeral director Thomas Dobies, a dog lover who donated the first Dobies to Tarpon Springs and has also funded canine unit partners for the New Port Richey and Port Richey police departments.

Born in September 2010, Dobies Junior is a Belgian Malinois. His fur is black with traces of honey brown, the same color as his eyes. He was born in Belgium, where he was trained in Belgian ring sports, and purchased from there. At 62 pounds, he can leap over 6-foot fences.

Dobies Junior arrived in Tarpon Springs right before canine-unit training in January. Officers and their dogs must go through a 16-week, 640-hour course before they are certified as a canine unit. At the school, units learn how to search buildings and look for and catch suspects. The training involves thousands of repetitions, or reps, between officer and dog.

"They tell you that it's a difficult process of training him," Bergren said. "There's no real preparation for it … you just have to go through it yourself."

Among the challenges: Dobies Junior didn't trust Bergren.

Bergren is a first-time canine officer. The dog could sense his insecurities. During the first several weeks of training, Dobies Junior refused to obey him. Bergren was forced to have him on a leash at all times. The dog would not go to Bergren if he called his name.

"He's looking at me, like, well, why would I respect you?" Bergren said. "I felt like a 12-year-old driving a Ferrari. The car felt in control the whole time."

But one day in April, Bergren called his name and Dobies Junior came to him. He's obeyed him ever since.

Dobies Junior and his training were funded by federal forfeiture funds. The price tag: about $21,000, with almost half spent to buy and transport the dog.

The pair began their duties as a canine unit on May 5. They work from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. To keep up with their training, they practice their skills every day. Bergren keeps a crate full of items, from a wrench to an old wallet, that Dobies Junior must fetch everyday.

At Bergren's home, Dobies Junior sleeps outside in a kennel so he's always accustomed to the heat. When he's at work, he rides in the back of Bergren's SUV. While on duty, the canine wears a training collar. With the push of a button, the collar can be activated, sending a small, harmless shock around his neck.

Because of Dobies Junior's short attention span — the search for a suspect can quickly become a search for a rabbit or duck — Bergren has used the collar a few times.

Tarpon Springs police may consider adding another canine to the department, but talks are still very tentative, said Capt. Barb Templeton. "The chief wanted to make sure this position was a success before we moved forward," she said.

Until then, Bergren and his dog will continue training and wait for their next assignment.

Laura Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713 or [email protected]

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