Article and photos by Savanah Mandeville

Known for their trainability, obedience and superior sense of smell, dogs have been used by law enforcement stretching back to the Middle Ages.

By 1910, we saw the first wide use of canines by law enforcement in Germany with over 600 German cities employing dogs. K-9 units, as we know them today, took hold in the United States in the 1970s.

The Joplin Police Department got its first dog in 1967.

Today, the unit has five dogs. Each dog is assigned to one officer who essentially becomes its owner around the clock.

The JPD K-9 Unit is made up of Officer Black with Fighter; Officer Brannin with Ben; Officer Brown with Pax; Officer Davis with Bolt; and Officer Rich with Ax.

“Your life kind of revolves around it,” said Brannin. “We’re with our dogs more than we’re with our families because they’re with us at home and they come to work with us.”

The dogs are highly trained in obedience, narcotics detection, explosives detection, aggression control, tracking and apprehension of the suspect, indoor building searches for a suspect, outdoor area searches for a suspect and object searches.

JPD’s dogs are born and bred in Europe and come to the department at approximately 1.5 years of age. They are usually German Shepherd but can also be Dutch Shepherd or Malinois (sometimes classified as a variety of Belgian Shepherd).

The work these dogs do is vital to the success of the department.

Just recently, Rich’s dog saved the life of a woman who was missing for two days.

“She was in the thick woods, and we would not have been able to find her,” he said. “The other officer was totally in shock. He said, ‘There’s no way we would’ve found her without your dog.’”

Black’s dog, Fighter, is one of the only bomb dogs in Missouri and has been placed on some high-profile assignments. Black and Fighter have worked alongside Secret Service and Department of Defense officials to clear airports, motorcades, hotel rooms and more for presidents Donald Trump, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter as well as former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan when they were in the state.

All the dogs on the unit are dual-trained but do have specialties, like Fighter and his specialty in explosives detection.

For example, Davis’ dog, Bolt, is a narcotics dog trained specifically in passive alert, or staring at the point of interest (for example, staring where the drugs are hidden); whereas Brown’s dog, Pax, is also a narcotics dog but is trained in aggressive alert, or scratching at the source.

Any officer can apply to be on the K-9 unit so long as they have been part of JPD for 18 months and pass a stringent application and interviewing process. Once accepted, there is an extensive training program for the officers involving dog-training techniques, care and handling, and more.

For many of the officers, being on the K-9 unit is fulfilling a lifelong dream. Brown even left a 10-year career at another department so he could join JPD and get on the K-9 unit.

K-9 unit dogs retire when they begin to show the first signs of age, usually at about 10 years old. The officers they worked alongside typically become their lifelong owners.

“When they retire, we take over responsibilities, and they stay with us at the house,” Davis said. “We’re fortunate enough that there’s a retired K-9 fund that pays for medicine and medical bills for our dogs, and that’s all based on donations.”

All the officers agreed that at the end of the day, being on the K-9 unit comes down to two key ingredients: passion for the work they do and a love for dogs.

Want to make a donation to the Retired K-9 Fund? Contact Officer Davis through the local Fraternal Order of Police. Facebook: @Fraternal Order of Police Southwest Missouri Regional Lodge #27