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Chase and Vader help law enforcement

The Wright County Sheriff's two K-9 teams assist in searching for suspects, evidence and drugs

Story and photos by Doug Voerding

It's hard to imagine that your closest working partner is a dog. Not just any dog, but a well-trained dog that is with you 24/7.

That's the work of two Wright County Sheriff's deputies.

"This is the best job ever," said Dan Cotten. "It is a lot of extra hours, but it is rewarding to see my dog Chase doing what he is trained to do."

"It is rewarding and exciting," said Josh Tester, "for Vader to find evidence or apprehend a suspect."

Cotten with Chase and Tester with Vader are the K-9 Unit of the sheriff's department.

The deputy/dog teams are used for drug searches, evidence searches, and suspect searches.


The dogs

Both Chase and Vader came from a kennel in Slovakia, where dogs are bred specifically for police work. Chase, who is two-years-old, is a cross between a German shepherd and a Belgian Malinois, while Vader, who is six-years-old, is a pure German shepherd. Both are about 70 pounds.

The dogs, picked out personally by Steve Pearson of Performance Kennels, came to the United States with no training when they were about a year old.


The training

Chase and Vader were and continue to be trained locally by Pearson, whose Performance Kennels is in Buffalo Township, but the training process is much more than training the dog.

The training actually began in the homes of Cotten and Tester. The dogs first got to know and bond with their handlers. That basic training in the home was guided by Pearson.

After about six weeks, the formal training began. That training was eight hours a day for four weeks for narcotics and twelve weeks for patrol.

The dogs are trained for obedience, agility, tracking, and searching.

In the obedience training, the dogs learn to sit and stand, walk controlled, respond to verbal commands and hand signals, heel, and be controlled from a distance.

The agility training includes the broad jump, climbing, jumping hurdles, and jumping at least six feet over an A-frame obstacle.

For tracking and suspect search, the dogs learn human odor and how to find it. The dogs may be used to find a burglary suspect in a building where there may have been forced entry. When subduing a suspect, the dog will go for the right arm, but if the right arm of a suspect is hidden in some way, the dog will grab any body part.

In searching for evidence or drugs like methamphetamine and heroin, the dogs are trained to sit and wait near the evidence until the officer gets to the evidence. If the dog tries to pick up the evidence, it may destroy valuable evidence needed for the court.

The training is reward-based. Deputy Cotten called it, "Happy, happy, happy."

"The rewards are fun," said Cotten. "If it is fun, they will do what we want them to do to get that reward."

"They are eager to please," said Tester.

Surprisingly, food and treats are not used with the dogs. The main reward is a tug, a dog toy with handles at each end. The dogs love to tussle with their handlers. Hard rubber balls and Kong toys are also favorites.

When the training and final testing is complete, both the officer/handler and the dog are certified together.

That certification lasts only for a year. The team will then be tested for recertification. To keep the certification, Tester and Cotten are constantly training their dogs to make sure they maintain their skills. The dogs might be involved in an evidence search, for example, once a month, but those search skills need to be practiced daily. Occasionally, both Tester and Cotten will return with their dogs to Pearson for any needed reinforcement training.

The continuous training is often done at home when the officer and the dog are off-duty.


The work on the job

The two teams work the night shift in the Northeast Quadrant of Wright County, but are on-call for all parts of the county and at all times.

The dogs live with their handlers and the handlers' families.

Each dog has its own kennel in half of the back seat of the police vehicle. They will respond when they hear the radio go off and hear their handler responding to a call, but they will not leave their car kennel, even if the door is open, until commanded to do so.

So far this year, the dogs have been deployed for specific tasks 75 times.

In the past, Tester told about Vader finding a loaded gun that had been hidden by a suspect. Vader was able to find the gun hidden under a flowerpot a couple of blocks away from the suspect's home.

Another time, Chase found a screwdriver that had been used for a burglary.

The dogs are rarely used for searching for lost children or adults.

Cotten said, "We have to evaluate that situation carefully because if I use Chase who is trained to subdue, that lost person might get injured."


The work in the community

Tester and Vader and Cotten and Chase are frequently seen at community events, giving demonstrations of the work of their dogs. They also attend many DARE graduations at schools across Wright County.

The dogs are trained to know when they are working and when they are not. They can be friendly at community events, but when commanded become working dogs.

In spite of the extra work and in spite of the extra hours with their dogs, both Tester and Cotten love their dogs and their work.  And, Wright County residents are benefiting from that commitment. When you see Vader and Tester or Chase and Cotten, thank them all for their service to law enforcement in Wright County.


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