Guns for Puppies: YCSO makes unusual trade

When a pair of very well bred Belgian Malinois Navajo County police dogs had an unauthorized tryst and produced 10 puppies, a little savvy bartering on the part of Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher brought three potential new drug-sniffing dogs into his department's K9 program.

Mascher negotiated for the pups after Navajo County Sheriff Casey Clark, knowing that Yavapai County had a top K9 program, called and asked if Mascher would be interested in acquiring any of them. When Mascher asked about the cost, Clark said his department needed shotguns. Since Yavapai County has switched to rifles, they had shotguns available, and the deal was sealed - 12 shotguns - four for each pup.

Mascher took the proposal to the Yavapai County supervisors for approval and... enter Gemma, Cyrus and Zoey, now four-month-old wiggly, snuggly pups with a world of curiosity. On the other end of their leashes are, respectively, K9 handlers Jarrod Winfrey, Eric Lopez and Randy Evers, all clearly enamored of their new charges.

The three officers have integrated the pups into their households, all of which include a seasoned, certified police K9. Two of those dogs are aging and soon will retire. Lopez's current dog, Miley, is just 2-1/2, and he will train Cyrus (he waits with a grin to see who will catch on to the names) until another handler is ready to take over.

"What we determined is that two of our present dogs are within a year of retirement, give or take a year, so it would be perfect. It will take about a year for these pups to be ready so it fits in perfectly with our replacement schedule," said Yavapai County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy John Russell.

Russell said the department first talked at length with the officers to assess their ability and methods to train the dogs. Then, two of the K9 handlers went to Navajo County to evaluate the dogs. They looked for the pups with the highest drive, which makes them perfect for police work but not so great as a relaxed family pet.

Winfrey said he and Evers evaluated the dogs in Navajo County before deciding which ones to bring home.

"We looked at the dogs on scene and picked out five to choose from. One of the first things was we allowed them to eat, and picked the fastest and most aggressive, the pups that were pushing other pups away. We challenged them a little in their yard, and we looked for the ones with no fear," Winfrey said.

The handlers also evaluated the pups off-site, throwing toys, making loud noises and rolling them over to see which ones would fight to get back up.

"It's easier to reel a pup in than to motivate them," said Lopez. "We want the dogs that are fearless and want to take on the world."

With the cost of a trained police dog ranging from $10,000 to $14,000, Yavapai County stands to save thousands of dollars by trading for and having its own experienced handlers train the K9s.

"We looked at it as a great opportunity to have our handlers take our program a little farther by training their own dogs and getting them certified," Russell said.

Initially, the handlers will introduce the pups to drug smells by putting scented cotton balls in PVC pipe or inside their toys. They learn the scents and realize that when they show interest, they'll get that toy for a reward. Evers said his 9-1/2-year-old dog still is excited to get his toy when he alerts on a scent.

Within a year, the men expect their pups will know all the narcotics odors, reliably alert to them, and have mastered off leash obedience. During the first year the deputies also will take the pups everywhere with them to expose them to as many new experiences as possible.

"We want them to be as social as possible," Evers said. He cited a recent stop for coffee at a local convenience mart where a child asked if he had a dog. He got Zoey out of the truck for the fascinated little boy to see, and soon had a crowd of 15 interested people around his vehicle.

After their initial training and certification, the handlers and their dogs will attend a nine-week academy in Tucson for more advanced training.

YCSO K9 Director Victor Dartt, who handles Bo, the department's lone Labrador retriever, said the Prescott Valley Home Depot, the CEMEX plant, and the Yavapai County Community Association, among other businesses and organizations, have been especially supportive of the K9 program.

Area residents will no doubt see Gemma, Cyrus and Zoey around town as they grow into their new duties with the Sheriff's Office.

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