When a pup becomes a Manitowoc police officer
Manitowoc Police Department officer Jason Koenig demonstrates the importance of a K-9 Unit. The unit's newest addition, "Neko," arrived in May. Josh Clark/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
MANITOWOC - Neko is a young dog who likes to do normal puppy things such as chase toys, run in circles and earn the occasional treat for good behavior.
But unlike most pups in Manitowoc, this guy is also learning to recognize bad guys and sniff out cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.
The 1-year-old German shepherd is the newest K-9 officer for the Manitowoc Police Department. The department has two K-9 officers, Neko and a four-year-old Belgian Malinois named Major.
Begun in 2010, the program runs largely through donations and grants. A USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter and photographer spent a few hours with Neko and his partner, Officer Jason Koenig, to get a feel for their life on the job.
Like most of us who surround ourselves with furry friends, Koenig’s adjusted to stray dog hair on his clothes, his vehicle and pretty much all over.
“Before I got the dog, I was the prim and proper officer,” said Koenig, who has been with the Manitowoc department since 2000. “The perfect uniform, everything had to be straight. Not a single hair. Now, I’ve got so much hair on me, and drool. It’s amazing how much hair a German shepherd produces.”
Police dogs, like many other pets, thrive on consistency. That means Koenig uses a specific routine and special toy when notifying Neko he’s approaching his police SUV to take the dog out. K-9 trainers have specific vehicles to accommodate the dogs, and Koenig is the only officer to use this vehicle. Neko lives with Koenig, his family and the family pets. He serves as Koenig’s partner.
“My wife talks about that a lot, ‘When you’re out there, it’s just you, Neko, and the bad guy,'” he said. “I guess you have to be a little crazy to do this, but I love it.”
The pair work the graveyard shift — about 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — when the dogs are most likely to be needed. Koenig spends some of his downtime training Neko, starting with using special “fake” drugs to work on the pup’s sniffing skills.
On this night, Koenig places the imitation drugs around some cars in the police station’s parking lot and not others. When Neko finds the “drugs,” he is rewarded with a favorite toy.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Koenig said police dogs are necessary to help stop the growth of drug-related crimes in Manitowoc. K-9 officers routinely conduct vehicle sniffs during traffic stops and assist local schools and businesses with drug sniffs upon request.
Koenig accepts that a young dog requires lots of training. Neko came from a Pennsylvania kennel, and Koenig said he chose a young dog, in part, so he could train him the way that works best for him.
“They have a basic understanding when we get them,” he said. “Because I went with such a young dog, he had very little training. So we have to teach them obedience. We also work on barking, not biting. We go through lots and lots of reps to teach them not to bite. We want their bark to scare the bad guys into surrendering. I had a dog that knew how to do everything by instinct because he had been doing it for so long. Now, I think, 'Wow, it’s a puppy.' I have to work through all the puppy stuff and a lot of things he hasn’t seen before. It’s baby steps, it takes time.”
Manitowoc’s dogs are considered “dual purpose,” meaning they can be used to locate people and evidence in addition to narcotics. This gives the department more flexibility in how it uses the K-9s. The dogs are trained to track suspects, conduct building searches, sniff for evidence at crime scenes and search areas for suspects or lost people.
To maintain the K-9 Unit, the department has raised more than $100,000 since 2014, according to Police Chief Nick Reimer. In 2015, police partnered with The Lakeshore Community Foundation to create a “K-9 Preservation Fund,” which required $100,000 in principal money before launch. The fund, similar to an endowment, helps ensure the long-term stability of the K-9 program. The department uses interest from the fund when needed, and also seeks to raise $6,000 a year to cover the rough annual costs of maintaining two K-9 units.
Police dogs retire after about five or seven years, and Reimer said a new unit raises costs by about $12,500 for the canine purchase and initial training. The department uses a combination of budget money and donations to purchase and outfit new K-9 squads, which costs about $30,000 to $35,000 in complete changeover costs.
Having two K-9 officers is worth the cost, the chief said.
“They are proficient in drug detection and tracking,” he said. “A police K-9’s keen sense of vision, smell and agility provides a service to our community unmatched by any human police officer.”
Fundraising efforts give Police Department staff a chance to interact with the public, he said, and officers appreciate community support.
As Koenig trains Neko, he explains they use fake drugs in part because methamphetamines and cocaine can be extremely toxic.
“Meth will go through their systems and kill them in a minute,” Koenig said. “So we use these fake drugs, the odor is strong enough that they can get to them, but we don’t have to worry about harming them, or us, during the process. We do also have to train with live drugs. Meth is a great example. Each area’s meth has a specific makeup and a specific odor, so you have to train the dogs to know that odor.”
Manitowoc mirrors other communities with an increasing drug problem, he said.
“I don’t think we will ever completely get rid of it,” Koenig said. “What we can try to do is keep up with it, and limit it. The dogs are a big part of that.”