Independence K-9s are trained partners, not pets

by Laura Bednar

Man’s best friend is now a partner in stopping crime. The K-9 unit of the Independence Police Department includes two German Shepherds trained to sniff out narcotics, track a fleeing suspect and employ crowd control tactics while maintaining their canine charm among community members.

Rambo is a 5-year-old dog imported from the Czech Republic. His handler, officer Evan Waidley, became his handler when the dog was 16 months old.

The excitement of K-9 units is what attracted Waidley to the position. “It’s a new skill,” he said. “I get to be the ‘dog guy’ and it’s a good feeling to have.”

Officer Bryan Vitron’s K-9, Argo, will be 8 years old in June and has been his partner since 2015.

After coming to the U.S., both dogs received training from Excel K-9 at Hiram in Portage County. Waidley said as handler, he trained for six weeks, 12 hours a day, seven days a week when he first partnered with Rambo.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Waidley. “I’m with that dog more than my own family.”

Both handlers participate in bimonthly 8-hour training sessions with K-9 units from other communities, including Parma, Brecksville, Broadview Heights, Bedford, Strongsville and Cleveland.

“It’s an ongoing learning experience,” said Waidley. “We share in each other’s successes. Every handler brings something to the table.’’

Vitron said training includes hiding drugs for the dogs to find, building searches and people tracking. “It’s like hide and go seek for [the dogs],” Vitron said.

Another part of training includes bite work. An officer will act as a decoy suspect and the dog will bite to bring the person down. Waidley said he once spent five hours as the decoy wearing the “bite suit,” a padded thick coverall suit that protects an officer from the dog’s teeth.

Rambo and Argo are trained to bite if need be, but they know when to hang up the collar for the day. Each dog stays with its handler at home when off duty.

Vitron said Argo is relaxed and mild mannered at home but is ready to go when he is needed, much like Vitron.

“What I see in Argo is how similar we are,” he said. “A good K-9 team is a reflection of each other. You need the personalities to match.”

The trainers at Excel K-9 determine an officer’s work style, personality and home makeup before pairing them with a dog.

Waidley said he doesn’t have to worry about aggressiveness from Rambo when the dog is around his two young children. “He’s a great dog,” Waidley said. “He knows when he sees me in uniform that it’s time to go to work.”

He also has separate work and home collars for Rambo to establish an association. Both dogs have spent time in the community meeting children from Independence Local Schools.

“Argo could be around 10 to 15 kids and it wouldn’t bother him,” said Vitron.

When meeting with kids, the handlers will let them play tug of war with the dog and see some demonstrations of their work. Vitron said he makes sure kids know that even when Argo is practicing his biting, his tail is still wagging.

“To him it’s a game,” he said. “The community sees a normal dog [who is] not violent.”

One common example of the dogs’ value is during a traffic stop. The dog will sniff underneath and inside a vehicle in search of illegal substances. Waidley said when Rambo finds something, he sits and puts a paw up, pointing to where it is.

Earlier this year, during a routine traffic stop for a red light violation, Rambo found a kilo of heroin and $55,000 in cash hidden in the trunk of the car. A find of that magnitude is rare, as most common seizures are for personal use.

Waidley made the stop near a Rockside Road hotel and found the driver’s and passengers’ stories to be inconsistent with the direction they were headed. He then asked everyone to exit the vehicle, and Rambo went to work.

Vitron said an unruly suspect at a traffic stop or other criminal scene becomes compliant when he or she sees the dog. “Dogs are the great equalizer,” he said. “They don’t care who you are, they have no predisposition other than doing their job.”

Said Waidley, “The dog is not a tool or a toy, he is a partner.” ∞