Story by MeLinda Schnyder - Photography by Javier Guete
Earlier this year, a dog named Rooster became the first Wichita Police Department dog killed in the line of duty. He was shot to death as he followed commands to stop an armed man who had been confronted by police.
About 250 people gathered for a memorial service for the Belgian Malinois, who had served five years, and coverage of the event revealed the bond formed between officer and canine partner.
Officer Daniel Gumm said he owed his life to his partner, Rooster. Police Chief Gordon Ramsay explained that dogs are not only a member of the department, they become a member of their handler’s family.
Gumm and Rooster trained together for more than 3,000 hours and seized 256 pounds of marijuana, 10 pounds of meth and $31,000 in cash. Rooster was responsible for at least 35 apprehensions and was involved in more than 25 SWAT deployments.
Dogs are used across the country at the federal, state, county and local level. According to Sgt. Nikki Woodrow, the first K-9 Unit started with the Wichita Police Department on July 8, 1960. Today, the WPD K-9 Unit has five teams, with one handler and one dog making up each team. The dogs’ primary duties are to sniff out drugs or to help apprehend alleged criminals, either by sniffing out a hiding suspect or tracking a fleeing suspect.
There are four Belgian Malinois and one German shepherd, all male and most from a kennel in Indiana that specializes in breeding work dogs.
“Those are the breeds that traditionally have been chosen for military and police units all over the world,” said Officer Daniel Weidner, a 12-year department veteran who has been partnered with Cassius, a 70-pound Belgian Malinois, for the past seven years. “We’re looking for a dog that has a lot of drive. We don’t want a dog that gets tired or bored. We want a dog that shows courage because sometimes they will encounter suspects who will resist and we don’t want them to back down.”
In an officer, the K-9 Unit is looking for someone who is self-motivated. While regular patrol officers cover a specific beat area, the K-9 teams answer calls from across the city and spend significant time patrolling high-crime areas on their own. The unit works closely with WPD’s Special Community Action Team, whose main focus is to address neighborhood complaints like violent crimes, gang activity and drug activity that regular patrol officers don’t have time to address because they are busy handling 911 calls.
Weidner said bonding between canine and officer starts as soon as the dog is brought to Wichita. Once paired, the dog begins going home with the officer and riding around in the car, allowing for a few days of socialization before training starts. The dogs usually have not had previous military or police training and are trained in-house by the officer and a unit trainer. Each team goes through a roughly 10-week training regimen that has academic and physical components.
“We’ve got to learn all of the laws and the case law, the way the courts have determined how we can use the dogs, inside and out,” Weidner said. “Then we have to physically train, starting each day of training running 2 miles with the dog. We want to be in good physical shape and the dogs need to be in good physical shape because some of the things they do are pretty demanding, maybe being on a criminal’s track for 2 miles in a rural area. We teach them exactly what we want them to do using a reward-based system. If you’ve ever taught a dog to sit, imagine teaching them to sniff out a drug. It’s a lot of repetition.”
While Cassius lives with Weidner and interacts with his family and pets, “Cassius doesn’t get free reign of the house like my pets do, and that’s just part of his obedience training,” he said. “When we are presenting to schools and youth groups, we always get asked if they can pet the dogs. Petting a dog is rewarding a dog, and the police dogs have to work for their rewards.”
Weidner said because of their breeding and training, police dogs love to work. If Weidner leaves the house in shorts and a T-shirt, the dog has no reaction. When he sees Weidner in uniform, “he knows it’s time to go to work and he gets so excited.”
Police dogs typically work six to nine years. Cassius is in his seventh year and will likely retire in the near future. Handlers have the first opportunity to adopt their partner.
“When my dog retires, he’ll for sure become one of our family dogs,” Weidner said. “I think Officer Gumm mentioned this in his eulogy for Rooster: We spend more time with these dogs than we do with our spouses. We work together even when we’re off duty and at home. Even though they are not our pet, we have the obligation to make sure they are fed, have water and are exercised. The bond does become pretty strong.”