CHIPPEWA FALLS — Rip ran through a small room, sniffing at every box on a shelf, trying to locate a baggie of cocaine. The four-year-old German Shepherd is a Dunn County K9 unit, and in a matter of seconds, he located the hidden drugs.
Brennan Porter, a Dunn County deputy and Rip’s handler, rewarded the dog by flipping a toy at him to play with after the drugs were located.
K9 units from across the Chippewa Valley gathered Tuesday morning at the Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls for a training session. The dogs on hand initially searched through the building, looking for a missing person. The person was located, hiding under the stage. The K9 units then took turns looking through rooms in the basement, finding carefully concealed drugs.
“Our goal is to train 16 hours, minimum,” Porter said. “It’s so they stay sharp and maintain their certification.”
Porter watched for telltale signs that Rip has found something: his head will snap, or his breathing and body posture will change. Rip gets excited, and points his nose at a box where the drugs are hidden.
Chippewa Falls police officer Stephen McMahon has been the handler for the city’s K9, Leo, for the past three years. McMahon organized Tuesday’s training session. Sometimes they use real drugs, while other times they use fake materials that give off the odor of real drugs.
“We like to give the dogs different environments,” McMahon explained. “We’ve used the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds before, and the Renaissance grounds before. I call big buildings and see if they are willing to let our dogs in it.”
There are now 11 K9 units on duty in the Chippewa Valley: three in Eau Claire County (including one that is now considered part time), two in the Dunn County Sheriff’s Office, and five across different law enforcement agencies in Chippewa County. A Wisconsin State Trooper based in the Chippewa Valley also has a dog.
“It’s just good for the community to see them work together, so (the K9s) are at the top of their game when they are deployed,” McMahon said.
Lake Hallie police officer Dan Sokup was among the first dog handlers in the area; his K9, Kita, will turn 9 in April. Sokup hopes Kita will stay active one more year before retiring. Sokup said Kita will continue to live with him once she retires, and he is willing to be a dog handler for the next K9 his department obtains.
Sokup said it is great to see the growth in K9 units in the region.
“I’ve got a lot more free time,” Sokup said with a laugh. “I did a lot of off-duty call-outs. I was going out at 3 a.m. to help find somebody because there wasn’t a dog available.”
Sokup said he’s grateful the law enforcement agencies collaborate on training.
“We get to work with all the other handlers, see what works, and doesn’t work,” Sokup said. “And we learn new methods.”
Porter has been in law enforcement for eight years, including the past four with the Dunn County Sheriff’s Office. He was chosen to be a K9 handler after one year there.
“To me, it was a job in law enforcement that is highly sought after,” Porter said. “It is a specialty I wanted to stamp on my career.”
It is rather rare for more than one dog to wind up at any scene; the handlers agree that usually one dog can handle most situations.
McMahon has seen how adding Leo has paid off for Chippewa Falls.
“He’s definitely helped with the drug issues we’ve had,” McMahon said. “And we’ve had incidents of people barricading themselves in buildings. With having him, it has ended with suspects coming out and no one getting hurt. And it has been a benefit of going into schools. People like to see him.”
Sokup agreed that having a dog has defused a lot of situations.
“A lot of people aren’t afraid of equipment, like Tasers,” Sokup said. “But the presence of a K9 triggers something in their brain, with them saying, ‘I don’t want to get bit.’”