Dakota Hailed as Fantastic Police Dog
BY JUSTIN CARINCI, Columbian staff writer
Clark County sheriff's Deputy Ed Bylsma knew that Dakota would make a fantastic police dog when he picked him out at the kennel. Sure enough, the German shepherd aced master trainer Bylsma's 10-week training class and served the Vancouver Police Department with distinction.
"Dakota was an exceptional dog," Bylsma said. "He loved what he did, and he was very good at what he did."
Dakota died Tuesday, shot in the head as he tracked an armed suspect who allegedly threatened to "kill a cop."
Those who knew Dakota described the situation as bittersweet. Although saddened by the dog's death, they pointed out that Dakota had done exactly what he was trained to do, possibly saving lives in the process.
"That dog took a bullet for everyone out there, including the suspect," said sheriff's Sgt. Tim Bieber, who had served with Dakota and his handler, Vancouver police Officer Roger Evans, on the regional SWAT team. If not for the dog, an officer could have shot—or been shot by—the armed suspect.
"We are in a profession where these things unfortunately happen and we know the dogs are a tool we can use," Bieber said. "We know we'd rather this happen to one of the dogs than a deputy."
Born in Slovakia in July 2002, Dakota took his 400-hour basic training with Evans in 2005. Dakota and Evans joined the SWAT team in July 2006.
Vancouver's four-dog class of 2005 had restarted a police dog program inactive since 2004, when the department's only police dog died. The outpouring of community support that followed K-9 Captain's death helped Vancouver buy and train the four dogs.
The police department then reached out to local elementary schools, letting students name two of the dogs. A fifth-grade class at Marshall Elementary School chose the name Dakota.
"It was so much fun for the kids to come up with the name," said David Gifaldi, the class's teacher at the time. "When 'Dakota' was chosen, the kids were obviously delighted."
Officers took Dakota to visit the fifth-graders, answering questions and demonstrating commands.
"They were amazed that the dog would do what Dakota did," Gifaldi said: "Be on the front line and take a bullet to protect its master."
When Gifaldi learned of Dakota's death, sadness and joy hit him at the same time. "Hearing that, the faces of the kids flashed before my eyes," he said. "I thought how wonderful a day that was."
Despite Dakota's talent as law enforcement ambassador, plenty of people would have preferred never to have met him. That's because the dog tracked down suspects in more than 100 cases and sniffed out drugs 150 times, according to Vancouver police data.
The police department has set up a fund to replace Dakota, said spokeswoman Kim Kapp. It's too soon to say whether Evans would partner with a new dog, she said.
"He's at home with his family," Kapp said. "It's definitely had a huge impact with him and his family."
Dakota lived with Evans, his wife and three other dogs—a pit bull, a malinois that retired from the Secret Service and a papillon.
Before a dog begins training, it spends a week or two just bonding with its new partner, said master trainer Bylsma. Once on the job, dog and handler can spend 14 or 15 hours per day together.
"We get a really tight bond formed," said, Bylsma, handler of Hans, a malinois. "We have to treat them like working dogs, but we love them just like a family member.
"When you lose one, it's really hard."
The Vancouver Police Department has established a memorial fund to buy another tracking dog. Donations of cash or checks payable to "Dakota Memorial Fund" can be dropped off at the Bank of Clark County branch at 1400 Washington St. in Vancouver or mailed to Bank of Clark County, attention Dakota Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 61725, Vancouver, WA 98666-1725. Donation envelopes can be obtained at any Vancouver Police precinct between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The police department cannot accept donations directly.
©2007 Columbian.com. All Rights Reserved.
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