Pinellas sheriff's K9 unit welcomes first female deputy in 35 years, second in agency history(w/video)

Paige Byers, 14, of Dunedin, left, meets Deputy Kayla Juliet and her K9, Jace, at the graduation ceremony. Juliet is the second woman to graduate from the program in Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office history.
Paige Byers, 14, of Dunedin, left, meets Deputy Kayla Juliet and her K9, Jace, at the graduation ceremony. Juliet is the second woman to graduate from the program in Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office history.
Published June 7, 2017

Kayla Juliet didn't know much about the tryout, but she did know about the infamous 80-pound bag.

The duffle, stuffed with two bags of dog food taped together, was supposed to symbolize an injured dog to help prepare the K9 deputy hopefuls for a worst-case scenario. So Juliet added a bag of concrete of the same weight to her workouts in the month leading up to the tryout.

It was grueling — "it's hard to imagine something that rough," she said. But she made it through, graduating alongside her partner, Jace, on May 30. She's only the second female K9 deputy in Pinellas County Sheriff's Office history, and the first in more than 30 years. It's a milestone for an industry with a low percentage of women and an agency that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said has struggled to attract female deputies to specialized units.

"The greater diversity we have, the greater representation in unique positions, the better for the agency," Gualtieri said.

It's tough to pinpoint why few or no women are in units such as K9 or SWAT, he said. It could be the stringent physical requirements: K9 deputies must be ready to lead their dogs over 6-foot fences, through swamps and on chases after accused criminals. Although, Gualtieri pointed out, many men don't try out for the same reason.

Deputy Anthony LoRusso, the K9 unit trainer, said it could be a combination of the strenuous training and the low number of women on the force in general. The law enforcement side of the Sheriff's Office, excluding jail and civilian employees, is only 13 percent women.

Juliet, 25, had had her eye on the job for years. She grew up in a one-stoplight town in Michigan with two German shepherds, training them with her twin sister to jump over obstacles in the yard. Her first dream was to become a veterinarian, but with age came the realization that a vet's responsibilities could be of the more morbid variety.

She said she couldn't recall if she first saw the portrayal of a K9 officer online or in a TV show, but once she did, she was hooked.

"To have a dog as your partner? That'd be awesome," she remembered thinking.

Her law enforcement career started with AmeriCorps, which placed her at the Clearwater Police Department assisting officers. She was drawn to the Sheriff's Office because it could sponsor her through the police academy. In 2014, she joined as a patrol deputy.

Openings on the K9 unit come up about every 18 months, LoRusso said. In his 14 years in the unit, he could recall only one other woman who tried out, but she wasn't selected.

The last time a female deputy had made it onto the unit was Deputy Joan Haaf in 1983.

Like Juliet, Haaf had grown up around animals and knew she wanted to work with them. Back then, it was even more of a male-dominated industry, right down to the uniforms, which during Haaf's time at the agency went from a long-sleeve white shirt with a tie to a jumpsuit she had to take all the way off to go to the bathroom. She remembered telling the deputy who discussed the K9 unit during the academy that she was interested, and him discouraging her from trying.

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"He said, 'No, you don't want to do that,'" Haaf said this week from Missouri, where she still works as a K9 officer for the University of Missouri Police Department. "It just made me want to do it all the more at that point."

There were no tryouts back then, she said, so she submitted a memo of interest, then was handed her first dog, Bones. She went through about four months of training with four men, who she said were all supportive.

The job was tough and dirty. She recalled a 3 a.m. car chase that turned into a pursuit on foot with her second dog, Bear. The man took them over a 6-foot chain link fence into a mobile home park, then across a parking lot to a wall with an 8-foot drop bordering Interstate 275. She chucked Bear over, then clambered over herself in time to see her partner nab him in the median. A helicopter following overhead landed right there in the grass to take him away.

To prepare yourself and your dog for those types of situations takes intensive work, LoRusso said. Juliet, at 5-foot-4, struggled with some of the physical aspects, such as climbing high fences, he said. LoRusso told her during the first evaluation he had concerns for her safety at the rate she was going. So she trained on her off time, he said, a sign of where she shined during training: operating under stress with a no-quit attitude.

"She showed tremendous heart," LoRusso said.

Juliet herself was reluctant to own her accomplishments of making it onto the unit and of being the second woman in agency history to do so. She said she grew up playing basketball, softball, volleyball and track and field. It wasn't unusual for her to play with all boys, and prove them wrong when they questioned whether she could keep up.

"Being a female, it's constantly proving yourself," she said during a break in training. "You prove yourself to get here, now it's the next thing, then the next thing after that."

Even before last week's graduation ceremony, when she and fellow graduates deputies Justin Fineberg and Dominic Brissett were the stars of the evening, she brought up all she had left to learn.

She wants to stay in the unit long enough to get a second dog, she said. There is more work to do.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.