K, as in keeper

A dog conjures up images of a wet nose and wagging tail.

Man's best friend is dependable, loyal and able to be trained. And in law enforcement that's a good thing.

"A police dog is trained to work hard to serve and protect," said Scott Gurley, a deputy and K-9 handler with the Madison County Sheriff's Department. "It's an important crimefighting tool."

In police work a canine's ability goes beyond the traditional role of being asked to sit or stay. Although Gurley doesn't actually think of his K-9 partner, Rocky, as an apparatus, he does know the animal serves a purpose.

Rocky has that ability to sniff out drugs, search a building or car and track fugitives at a crime scenes, Gurley said. He said Rocky also has the ability to search for a lost or missing person.

For the past five out of the eight years Gurley's served with the Sheriff's Department, he's worked as a K-9 handler.

"I wanted to be a K-9 cop since I was a kid," Gurley said. "It was always part of my long-term plans when I entered law enforcement."

Lt. Scott Evers of the Edwardsville Police Department served as a canine handler more than 20 years ago and credits his former dog partner, Magnum, with saving his life. Magnum was shot in the line of duty during a foot pursuit of two burglars.

"I had turned him loose as we were chasing them and they saw us coming and fired a shot," Evers said. "Magnum was trained to attack anyone pointing a gun, and I didn't get there in time."

Evers said Magnum survived his injuries, and once he recuperated the two were back on the street. He said the two worked together for about seven years.

"There were numerous times we were out that he probably saved my life," he said.

Dogs are more than important tools to their handlers.

"They are as much a part of your family as your children," Evers said.

Gurley agreed. Even before his selection as a handler, he knew his responsibilities would be unique.

"It not only takes dedication on your part, but you also have to have a spouse that is understanding," he said.

Rocky, a 3-year-old German shepherd, lives with Gurley and his family at their rural Madison County home. Gurley is responsible for feeding, grooming and taking care of the dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I'm responsible for his care unless I go on vacation," Gurley said. "Then Rocky stays at the St. Louis Police Department's Canine Academy."

He said all four of the Sheriff's Department's K-9 officers stay at the institution when their handlers are away. Deputies train with their dogs at the facility and the sheriff's department pays annual dues, which allows the animals to be boarded whenever the handler is out of town.

Gurley's first canine partner, Rexo, an 8-year-old German shepherd, also lives with him.

"Rexo was retired because he developed juvenile cataracts," Gurley said. "He's going blind, but he still wants to work. When Rocky and I are getting ready to leave, he wants to go, too."

To work in law enforcement a K-9 must be certified, along with its handler, a minimum of once a year.

Dogs and law enforcement alike receive K-9 training in the detection of narcotics, explosives, electronic devices and cadavers.

The majority of local K-9 officers are cross-trained as dual-purpose dogs, for both criminal work and patrols. They are trained to find drugs, including marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Their patrol work includes tracking, searching for hidden suspects, apprehending fleeing suspects, crowd control and community relations.

Canine programs cost departments $10,000 to $15,000 to start and average $4,000 per year to operate, which includes compensating officers to take care of the animal, purchasing supplies and veterinary costs.

Federal law requires municipalities to compensate officers for taking care of animals when they're off duty.

Many of the area canine units are funded with drug seizure funds. Each year K-9 units across the state seize millions in illegal drugs and money and law enforcement agencies receive a portion of the amount.

This year, the East Alton Police Department purchased a Belgian malinois to serve as the force's newest member.

"I think it's a good thing for the community and the department," East Alton Police Chief Dwynn Isringhausen said.

Officer Erik Baileygaines of the East Alton Police Department serves as the canine handler.

"It was something he wanted to do," Isringhausen said. "I don't think you can have a program like this if you don't have an officer willing to do the job. It's a lot of responsibility for one person and not everyone has the temperament."

Canine units at police agencies in Madison County, Jersey County, East Alton and Alton are mostly dual purpose, German shepherds or Belgian malinois.

South Roxana Police Department uses a single-purpose dog, a Labrador retriever, for drug searches only.

Alton Police Chief David Hayes said two canine units operate in Alton, with each serving a different purpose. One is used to track drugs, while the other is used for explosives detection.

The city received funding through a U.S. Homeland Security grant for the purchase of its explosives detection dog, Ezop, a Belgian malinois. He said Pfc. Brent Bertschi has served as the dog's handler for the past three years.

"He's been valuable to the city's tactical response team," he said.

He said Ezop is certified in bomb detection but also alerts police to guns.

"He has detected guns in places that are not visible to us," he said.

Hayes said one of the stipulations in receiving the grant, which was made possible by the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, was that the canine be available to requesting agencies.

"He worked for a few days prior to the All-Star game," he said.

Hayes said Bertschi and Ezop worked with the U.S. Secret Service on the advanced security team prior to President Barack Obama's arrival.

Both of the city's canine units are trained in all basic patrol functions as well, Hayes said.

Sheriff's deputy Gurley said teaching a dog to track, no matter what it's chasing down, is all about being rewarded with a game of play.

"The reward is getting to play fetch," he said. "I play fetch with Rocky on my days off. I am constantly training with him."

The key is training.

"A dog is only as good as their handler," he said, adding that canines are a time-saving tool and narcotics detection is the most popular use in law enforcement.

"Imagine how many officers it takes to search a large building or vehicle," he said. "A dog can detect the scent and will scratch at the exact place where he smells something, so you know where to look. He knows that once he's done that he gets to play, and that's all it's about."

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