As a reporter, you get the chance to experience a lot of different things. For the next eight weeks, I’ll be stepping into the shoes of our very own Rhinelander Police Department. Their annual program, the Citizens’ Police Academy, began last week. I’ll be tagging along, learning about everything from patrol procedure to arrest tactics. The first week was an introduction to the Police Force and a look at the department’s K-9 unit.
My hand shook a little as I reached out toward the 90-pound German shepherd police dog.
It’s hard not to feel a little nervous petting a dog that you just saw viciously attack a human being, but when he’s not on the job or training, Drago Vom Heiliger Huegel, more commonly Drago, is as friendly as your neighbor’s Pomeranian. In fact, probably more so.
“He’s really just like a normal dog,” said K9 handler Sergeant Angela Mertz of Drago’s behavior at home. Drago lives with Mertz when he’s not on duty.
She proved that when she brought him out into the midst of the 12 Academy participants. Drago wagged his tail happily and everyone in the group played with him like they hadn’t just seen him dominate a fully grown man.
This police dog is what’s called a dual purpose K9. As part of our lesson on the K9 unit, we saw Drago sniff out drugs and perform ‘patrol work,’ including attack training. The officer who generously volunteers to be attacked by Drago is Officer Jim Robbins, who, as you will see, can walk up to pet the highly-trained, eight year-old German shepherd just moments after being attacked by it.
Despite wearing a rigid attack sleeve and padded jacket, Robbins said he’s had many bruises from working with Drago. The dog is trained to use its whole body in attack, in case his jaws are restricted. Drago can even head-butt, and according to Robbins, it hurts.
Being part of a K9 unit isn’t easy. As one of few units in the area, Drago and Mertz are basically on-call 24/7. She said even if they’ve just gotten off a long shift, when they get a call, they respond no matter what.
In addition, police dogs are required to maintain a certain level of training, starting with a four-week training alongside their new handler, continued by annual one-week recertification sessions and one day of training every month. And that’s after the rigorous initial training that these dogs go through.
Most German shepherds are bred and do their initial training in Germany, but Drago is special. He was actually bred here in Wisconsin, which is where he gets his name, Drago from Holy Hill.
They’re an ideal breed for police work, because they have the perfect balance of traits. They are lean and agile, but still have a great sense of smell. Not the strongest, not the fastest, and not the best trackers, but a prized combination of the lot. They aren’t the only breed of police dog, but they’re just about perfect for dual-purpose police work.
Responsible for numerous drug busts and seizures, since joining the Rhinelander PD Drago has assisted in around 40 criminal apprehensions. Though according to Mertz, he’s never actually had to bite anyone.
“Usually when they see us coming, they give up,” Mertz said.
At our next session the Academy will be going over firearm training, which I gotta say I’m pretty excited for. Keep checking back to see our continuing series on the Citizens’ Police Academy.