Donations help fund use of protective vests for K9s

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Most police dog handlers say their K-9 counterparts haven’t needed their protective vests. But they’re happy to have the equipment, and more K-9s in the area are being outfitted with vests.

Twenty police dogs nationwide were killed in the line of duty in 2014, including Pittsburgh K-9 officer Rocco. He died Jan. 30 of stab wounds sustained during an arrest two days earlier in Lawrenceville.

Awareness of police dog work and its dangers skyrocketed afterward. Mt. Lebanon police Chief Aaron Lauth said residents Mark and JoAnne Kosar offered to donate the cost of a vest for K-9 Snieper, for example.

Vests must be incorporated into a dog’s training, Lauth said, meaning the animal must learn to wear the vest and not be distracted by it.

“He’s quite comfortable with it now,” Lauth said of Snieper. “It’s a great benefit.”

Ross police dog Neeko received a vest in April after the German Shepherd Dog Club of Western Pennsylvania donated nearly $1,000 for it. Club officials said Rocco’s death prompted the donation.

“The bullet- and stab-resistant vest is utilized any time the K-9 handler believes that there is a possibility that a suspect may be potentially armed and dangerous,” Ross Sgt. Benjamin Dripps said. “If it is known that a suspect is armed, the handler would not deploy the K-9, even with his protective vest.”

The department’s second K-9, Cezar, also will receive a donated vest once he finishes growing. Because vests are custom made, handlers must be sure the dogs won’t outgrow them.

Dripps said the dogs improve the connection between police and the community.

Social media helped to bring Rocco’s story and those of other police K-9s to the wider community outside Pittsburgh, said Sandy Marcal, founder of the nonprofit Vested Interest in K9s Inc., which works to provide vests to law enforcement dogs.

Since 2009, the Massachusetts-based organization has provided vests and other protective armor to more than 1,346 K-9 officers in 49 states at a cost of more than $1 million. Earlier this year, the organization held an online fundraiser via the deal website Groupon that netted more than $335,000.

Nolte, a German shepherd K-9 officer with the Northern Regional Police Department – comprising Richland, Pine, Marshall and Bradford Woods – received a vest funded by the campaign.

“We look at them like one of our guys or girls,” Northern Regional Capt. John Sicilia said of the dogs. “Their safety is of the utmost importance.”

Sicilia said Nolte generally wears his vest when there is a threat of violence, such as if he’s searching a building or chasing a suspect who might be armed. Otherwise, he said, the vest can be hot and cumbersome.

In Robinson, Sarik, a 3-year-old German shepherd, received a vest in October. A student raised the $1,200 by organizing an aluminum can collection, said police Chief Dale Vietmeier.

The dog has been useful for locating missing people and in drug raids, Vietmeier said.

“We also use the dog in other communities. There are not that many police dogs in the county,” he said. Robinson police bought Sarik in 2013.

The Penn Hills department’s three dogs have vests but don’t always wear them, Chief Howard Burton said,

“Unless you train them, the dogs really act differently with a vest on. The vests weigh 5 or 6 pounds,” Burton said. Handlers decide whether and when dogs wear vests, he said.

Nearby Plum and Monroeville also have K-9s, and all three departments lend their services to other police forces, he said.

In February, the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation at The Giving Back Fund awarded six grants to Pittsburgh-area police K-9 programs totaling $55,000. Departments used the grants to start K-9 units, upgrade vehicles and replace dogs that are ready to retire, according to the foundation.

This was the foundation’s eighth year of K-9 grants. The group has distributed $132,000 in grants throughout the country, some of which were used to buy vests.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, pghtrib.com

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.