Broken ride

Lack of vehicle keeping sheriff's dog off the job

Courtesy photos / Mirror photo illustration by Nick Anna Cpl. Justin Bennett is shown with veteran police dog Rik.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A veteran police dog recently came back to work in the Blair County’s sheriff’s office after completing several weeks of training with his new handler, Cpl. Justin Bennett.

But now the dog is staying home because the vehicle he and Bennett use is broken down.

“Rik can’t ride in just any vehicle,” Sheriff James Ott said outside the courthouse, next to Allegheny Street, where a motorist drove by with a white furry dog holding its head outside the vehicle’s rear window.

Unlike a pet, Ott explained, Rik is a military-trained police dog ready to take action in an instant.

When he’s being transported, he’s usually inside a cage that takes up space where the rear seat would be. And inside that cage, the K-9 officer can sit or stand on a flat surface with grips that Ott said help a dog maintain stability and avoid injury.

The vehicle also needs to be equipped with a temperature monitoring system, so if Rik stays in the car after Bennett gets out, the system will keep Bennett aware of the car’s interior conditions.

“You need a proper monitoring system to keep these dogs safe,” Bennett said. “Without one, the car can heat up in the summer, and it can get too cold in the winter, putting the dog at risk.”

Since Wednesday, Bennett has been working on his own, and Rik has stayed home.

During a Tuesday work shift that included delivery of warrants, their vehicle began to overheat, and Bennett eased it back to the parking lot. The overheating has occurred before, he said, and it seems to persist despite repairs.

Car is not safe

“That car isn’t safe for the corporal,” Ott said. “And it’s not safe for the dog.”

Rather than spending more money on repairing the used vehicle acquired last year for $4,000, the sheriff said he thinks the better option is finding a replacement.

Another used vehicle, Ott said, might be acceptable if it’s a law-enforcement style vehicle in very good condition. But a properly equipped new vehicle, at $35,000, Ott said, will likely last for several years.

When the sheriff’s office added a police dog to its staff in 2013, it did so with the understanding that all dog-related expenses would be paid by donations and proceeds from fundraisers. No expenses were to be covered by the county general fund supported by real estate taxes.

Ott, who became sheriff in January, said that arrangement was understandable in the beginning, but maybe that should change in the future.

“Having a dog (as part of the sheriff office) has proven to be a needed and a wanted program,” Ott said.

After the office acquired Rik early last year, he was introduced as a successor to the aging Lily, the first dog to serve the office. In her time on the job, Lily and her handler, Cpl. R.J. Peo, responded to local and regional calls linked to bomb threats and suspicious packages. Peo and Lily also went to schools where they performed demonstrations for students.

Rik, a 4-year-old Belgium Malinois who spent a year in Afghanistan, is trained not only in bomb detection, but also in patrol operations and human tracking. He follows a trail very well, Bennett said, something he learned about during his training to become the dog’s handler.

“It’s unbelievable to watch him go, the way he smells things. … He’s very methodical,” Bennett said.

When Rik initially joined the sheriff’s office, his handler was Deputy Steve Nader. But after Nader took a job out of state earlier this year, Ott said he wanted to retain the dog and started looking within the department for another handler.

Bennett volunteered to take on the training that stretched over four months.

“I thought it was something I might like,” Bennett said. “I’d be learning something new, and I do like dogs.”

It’s easy to see that the pair bonded during their training, Ott said.

“It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” Bennett said. “He’s got my back, and I’ve got his.”

As for securing a replacement vehicle so Rik can return to work, Ott said he is pleased with donations submitted and pledged so far, but more is needed.

The Central Pennsyl­vania Community Foundation maintains an account that regularly accepts tax-deductible donations specifically to support the sheriff dog and related costs. Those interested in contributing can mail donations to the Blair County K9 Foundation, 1330 11th Ave., Altoona, PA 16601.

In addition, Bennett started an online gofundme account that is drawing donations toward the vehicle that is hoped to be acquired sooner rather than later.

If the fundraising falls short of $35,000, Ott said he will consider other options.

With Rik’s skills and training, the sheriff describes the dog as a community asset ready to provide service. But that’s kind of difficult right now without a safe vehicle to transport him, Ott said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

How to help

– The Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation accepts tax-deductible donations to support the Blair County sheriff canine officer and related expenses, including the desire to acquire a replacement vehicle equipped to transport the dog. Contributors can mail donations to the Blair County K9 Foundation, 1330 11th Ave., Altoona, PA 16601. For more information, call 944-6102.

– Donations for the same purposes also can be posted to a gofundme account set up by Cpl. Justin Bennett who manages Rik, the current canine assigned to the sheriff’s office. For more information, check online for that account or contact the sheriff’s office at 693-3100.


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