When Zak, the 3-year-old German shepherd, was left in the hot car of his handler, Deputy Chad Fortkamp, early this month, Mercer County, Ohio, lost much more than man’s best friend, they lost a trained supercop.
Fortkamp said he left Zak in his vehicle while he did paperwork. Zak was found dead when he returned to the car. The dog suffered from a pre-existing heart condition that likely was aggravated by the temperature inside the car. However, the K-9 Unit’s veterinarian said even a healthy dog may have not survived the heat.
In researching material for this column, I am amazed at just what these four-legged friends go though to be the best of the best.
Why do we even bother with police dogs? First their sense of smell is — hold onto your hat when you hear this — 50 times more sensitive than that of us humans. They can sniff out criminals, drugs and weapons, and also they can track down missing people, situations where human officers would have to search every inch, which can be dangerous to say the least.
There is one case from Cheektowaga Police Department, which is a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., where their four-legged officer named Brestion, a Belgian Malinois who sniffed out a shipment of marijuana that was in heat-sealed mylar bags inside plastic-lined crates sealed with foam sealant inside a closed storage garage. With that super sniffer he was able to keep a whopping $3.4 million worth of drugs off our streets and out of the hands of our children.
The United States didn’t really use police dogs until the 1970s. They were in use by only a few. Today they are a vital part of our law enforcement, and in the last five years it has grown much more than any other time in our history.
In Europe the police force was using bloodhounds as early as the 18th century. But it wasn’t until our first world war that countries like Belgium and Germany formalized the training that would save lives in generations to come.
The very presence of a well-trained German shepherd with that growl can stop a criminal in their tracks.
The majority of police dogs in the world are German shepherds and Labrador retrievers and several other breeds like the Belgian Malinois. It depends on the task they’ll perform.
Police dogs must first become experts at basic obedience training; they must obey the command of their handler without hesitation. This is what keeps the inherent aggression of the dog in check, and this allows the officer to control how much force the dog is using against a suspect.
They also must make it through endurance and ability training. They must also jump over walls and climb stairs, and they also must be acclimated to city life, because a dog that’s nervous around people won’t make a good police dog.
Have you ever wondered if dogs sniff out drugs because they want them? The fact is they is they have no interest in the drugs or chemicals being searched for. They are looking for their toy; their training has led them to associate that toy with the smell of the drugs or whatever specific task they were trained for.
When a police dog finds the drugs, he lets his handler know by alerting him or her by what is called the dig-and-paw method. That would be considered the aggressive approach. They also have the passive approach for bombs and other situations, which is used by the Department of Agriculture at airports throughout the world at customs to detect items that should not be brought into the country or across the border. They use what is called the Beagle Brigade.
These animals are passive by nature, so when they detect an item that is illegal, instead of pawing at the luggage, they simply sit down, thereby alerting their handlers.
There have been famous police dogs. One in particular was Rin Tin Tin. He was a trained German shepherd that was left behind by retreating German forces in 1918. An American sergeant took him back to the United States where he went on to star in 122 films and TV series.
Another police dog became famous because she was unique. Mattie was a black Labrador retriever with the Connecticut State Police. She could sniff out evidence of arson; she could pick her way through the charred ruins of a fire despite all the strong smells around her; she could pick up the faint smell of accelerants used despite all the smells that are present at a fire. She’s been on the job since 1986. There were more to follow in her paw prints. She was the first Operations Accelerant Detection Dog.
In the tragic case of Zak, I think what these handlers have to remember is that these beautiful, smart creatures that are with us for a very short period of time are to be treated like your fellow human officers. We as a community need their service to continue the safety of not only our families, but our nation as a whole, to let us be more proactive.
The men and women who have this responsibility of being the partners to these supercops have a record that most officers would envy, which is the case of Officer Fortkamp. After 14 years on the department and an excellent arrest record, he made a mistake, a mistake that has resulted in this partner’s death and a 45-day suspension without pay.
Let us remember that Officer Fortkamp has kept Mercer County safe. He has put himself in harm’s way for you, the citizens of Mercer County. I believe it’s time to remember that sometimes good men do stupid things, but forgiveness is what Zak would have wanted us to do.