Friday, July 08, 2016

TOP STORY >> Police work is ‘ruff’

Leader staff writer

Like most Jacksonville police officers, when not on duty, Maik hangs with the family and plays with the kid, and oh yes, he likes his couch potato time. And he works as hard as he plays but unlike most other members of the department, he’s a real dog.

Quite literally.

K-9 officer Maik (pronounced Ike) is a seven-year-old, highly-trained Belgian Malinois — the breed the Navy Seals depended on when making their now famous nighttime raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

The same year, Maik reported for duty in Jacksonville.

Like the Navy Seal dogs of European origins, 85-pound Maik can do more than sniff out a variety of illegal drugs, run down suspects and work in tandem with his partner and handler, says Jacksonville Police Department Officer Joshua “Josh” Wheeler. The two work 40 hours a week, and unlike most human partnerships, Maik rides in the back and goes home with Wheeler at the end of their shift.

Wheeler says the two are a great fit and like most other dogs, Maik enjoys a good treat and his favorite ball.


Belgian Malinois are now the preferred dog when it comes to law enforcement and a dog can cost upwards of $4,000, and training is also expensive.

A Plus Kennels north of Sherwood is in the business of training K-9s for law enforcement duty, and owner and certified instructor Criss Gardner says the cost is minimal compared to training and paying an officer.

Normally, he says a dog and training can cost as much as $9,500 but a canine is cheaper than an officer in the long run.

“These dogs are great law enforcement tools. They’re energetic and strong, with a great work drive,” he says.

The dogs are easily trained by using yellow tennis balls. When they successfully locate a drug stash or obey a command, they’re allowed a few minutes with their beloved ball.

Wheeler says, “It’s a game for them.”

Gardner, who strictly trains dogs for law enforcement, says training usually starts when the dog with the right temperament is between one and three years, and he prefers to work with “green,” or untrained dogs.

It takes about two months, and it’s as important for the officer as the dog to go through training. Usually, there’s about two weeks of officer training.

Generally, its takes about 16 hours a month of maintenance training to keep a dog in top form, Gardner says.

Wheeler and Maik did a short training course at A Plus Kennels, but Jacksonville Police Department’s dogs come from a breeder in Oklahoma.

According to experts, the dogs are expensive on the front end but are worth it. The dogs generally work for about a decade and are generally trained for a single or dual purpose. For instance, the dogs that patrol airports, might specialize in drugs or explosives, while the Jacksonville dogs’ have to be schooled in a variety of areas, says Officer Regina Boyd, who is in charge of the K-9 unit and has worked with dogs for about 19 years.

While Jacksonville’s three dogs aren’t trained in rescue, they’re able to assist in search and rescue, Boyd says.

Once the dog is ready to start training, handler and dog train for several weeks, learning to identify various illegal drugs like marijuana and heroin. In addition to learning to give commands, how to correctly instruct and reward the dog, the two learn by doing in a controlled setting, Gardner says.

When the handler has completed about a two-week program, the team is ready to hit the streets.

Boyd says the dogs and handlers must recertify at the state and national level each year.

Wheeler also had to learn a few words of Dutch because that’s the language Maik understands. The two trained together for two weeks in order for Wheeler to get the basics down but in reality, he says the two do some form of training everyday.

Wheeler joined the department in 2008, and is a member of the Special Response Team the Honor Guard and is also a field training officer.

Wheeler says, “I’m impressed with Maik’s abilities and his loyalty.”

Maik doesn’t do tricks, except hold a treat on the end of his nose and wait for Wheeler to give him the OK to eat it, but Wheeler says Maik’s a great ambassador and doesn’t mind letting little kids rub his belly.

Like the department’s other human-canine teams, the two have their own baseball-like card with their picture on the front and fun facts on the back, like “Maik likes to run and play…Maik likes to sleep on the couch with all four paws in the air.”


Wheeler says he’s confident in their partnership and that Maik is a valued member of his family.

It takes a special kind of officer to take on the responsibility of partnering with a dog and requires 24/7 of the officer. In some ways, it’s the equivalent to caring for a young child who needs constant care and supervision.

Wheeler had a family dog named Ringo prior to partnering with Maik so he fully understood the requirements and demands of a dog. Nonetheless, he applied for the position of handler, and says, “You have to be committed to the dog.”

The two have been a team for about two years, and Boyd says, “It takes a special kind of person to work with a dog.”

But more than the officer’s devotion to the canine, the officer’s family has to be on-board because at the end of the day, the dog goes home with its handler.

Wheeler says Maik is an “inside dog” and was a welcome addition to his family that includes his wife and their 5-year-old daughter who Maik adores.

“He’s very gentle with my daughter,” Wheeler says.

But the dogs are much more than that. Boyd says the dogs are loyal, they don’t talk back and are right by your side whether it’s raining, snowing or 100 degrees.

And, she says the department’s three dog are much-loved members of the department.

People still remember Trixie, who recently retired, and Roby, who retired after getting injured while on duty. Roby died last year, Boyd says.


Maik never complains about long hours spent in the back of the cruiser. Instead, he’s ready to go when he hears the rattle of Wheeler’s keys. The dog’s demeanor changes and he goes into work mode, Wheeler says.

The use of police K-9s was recognized as valuable in Europe as early as 1859, with the police in Ghent, Belgium, using dogs to do patrol with night-shift personnel.

“Every dog is different, but they’re added security,” Wheeler says. In Jacksonville, police officers ride alone.

He says that Maik is “always watching me,” and is ready to respond to any stressful situation.

The difference between these K-9s and any other law enforcement officer isn’t their speed, agility, intelligence, bravery or commitment, it’s that they have four legs.

Wheeler says dogs never hesitate to chase down bad guys and when they start barking orders, crooks listen.

Boyd says the relationship between an officer and a dog “is a bond that’s beyond words.

A dog will work day-in and day-out, ready to lay down its life for its partner, and Wheeler says the Jacksonville Police Department takes great pride in its K-9 program — still the dogs are listed as “equipment.”

However, Wheeler says, “They’re more than that” and at the end of workday, he doesn’t mind sharing the sofa with Maik, explaining, “They’re our partners at work and our family at home.”