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Fond du Lac K9 units key in drug busts, tracking suspects, finding missing persons

K9 units
Posted at 5:10 PM, Jan 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-25 18:10:26-05

FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — The K9s at the Fond du Lac Sheriff’s Department can do more than just 'sit' and 'stay'.

“These dogs are a tremendous tool for this office,” Sgt. Ryan Zitlow said. “Number one, the drug interdiction that all four of these dogs perform for this office is doing a very good job of curbing the drugs in our community.”

But their jobs go beyond just sniffing for narcotics. Deputies said the dogs can also track people—whether that’s a suspect on the run or a missing person.

“We had a recent deployment where an individual had wandered away from home, we had deployed two canines to that area,” said Deputy Blaine Evans, who works with a K9 named Iro.

The Sheriff's Department said it had two K9s in 2020, which completed 76 deployments and 51 arrests. By 2022, the number of K9s doubled, and so did their deployments. This past year saw 142 deployments and 186 arrests.

The K9s stay with their assigned deputies, but Deputy Nathan Birkholz, who works with a K9 named Rip, said they try to stay available if they are needed to assist another deputy.

“You need to have reasonable suspicion to call a canine out to the scene,” Birkholz said. “And then once the canine gets on scene, we run our dogs on the vehicle as a free air sniff. If the dog alerts, then it gives us probable cause to search the vehicle.”

Like all jobs, these K9s need to be trained. In this case, that entails a five-week course for both dogs and their deputy partners. Birkholz said that consists of doing article searches, tracking, criminal apprehension, and sniffing for narcotics.

At first, the dogs are taught to identify the narcotics using synthetic scents that mimic the chemical compounds in the drugs. Deputies said they occasionally will train with real narcotics hidden safely but mainly rely on the synthetics.

But there is another unique element to this training—it isn’t done in English. The dogs—which originally come from Bulgaria before being acquired by a canine service center in Iron Ridge—are often trained in other languages, like German or Dutch.

“It’s an officer safety issue,” Birkholz said. That makes it more difficult for a suspect to try to distract the dog or give it a command that would harm a deputy.

The upfront cost of acquiring one of these canines is $100,000.

“That's the cost of the dog along with the five weeks of training for these guys, the cost of a squad car, all the equipment in that squad car,” Zitlow said.

Deputy Michael Vis, who works with a K9 named Koda, said this all comes from community support.

“We rarely do fundraisers,” Vis said. “It's not like we don't ask for money, but a lot of people see like we do press releases, they love the K9s and they asked, you know, how can we donate.”

The Sheriff’s Department said it gets food for dogs from donations from a local business.

Zitlow said in the future, the department hopes to expand the program further and add another K9.

“If we can build the program, and provide the community with the tools of these dogs, it will only benefit our community,” Zitlow said.