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A Day in the Life of a K-9 Team

St. Croix County Patrol Sergeant Josh Stenseth runs Dex through a maze of obstacles as part of a detection training exercise. (Photos by Tom Lindfors)1 / 7
At 65 pounds, Dex gives Stenseth all he can handle during a tracking exercise. Dex is trained to keep his nose to the ground during tracking.2 / 7
Josh Stenseth documents all of the calls he responds to during the course of his shift in a daily activity log, as well as keeping a separate log of all of his K-9 deployments.3 / 7
St. Croix County Patrol Sergeant Josh Stenseth confers with Deputy Chuck Coleman on the scene of a two-vehicle accident.4 / 7
Josh Stenseth prepares to harness Dex before they begin a tracking exercise as part of their daily training regimen.5 / 7
Josh Stenseth performs a routine traffic stop for a blown stop sign north of River Falls.6 / 7
Dex is specifically trained to alert differently based on where he finds drugs. If the scent is low, he will go into a down position, nose or head-high, a sit position, and higher still, he will bark. 7 / 7

“I grew up in Rice Lake, Wis. next to my neighbor Mike Baribeau, a police officer who was shot in the line of duty Dec. 19, 1995 while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Growing up next to him got me interested in law enforcement,” said St. Croix County Patrol Sergeant Josh Stenseth.

As a high schooler, Stenseth took advantage of opportunities to ride along with officers from the Rice Lake Police Department, including Mike Nelson and his K-9 partner Reggie.

“I did hides with them and helped with different kinds of searches and whatnot,” Stenseth said.

Early on Stenseth was hooked; he knew he wanted to work with a dog, to become a K-9 handler.

Currently the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department employs two K-9 teams: Stenseth and K-9 Dex, and Patrol Deputy Justin Johnson and K-9 Cash.

It’s just before 1 p.m. and Stenseth is busy making room in the passenger seat of his black and gold Ford Explorer squad. Twenty-five feet away his K-9 partner Dex, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois police dog, is staring intently at the squad from his kennel eagerly anticipating what will happen next.

“Once he sees me with my uniform on, then he knows it’s work time,” Stenseth says.

The squad’s running with the AC on by the time Stenseth opens the kennel door, freeing Dex to sprint and leap into the open kennel compartment located directly behind the driver’s seat. With a wry smile, Stenseth apologizes for the dog hair in his mobile office.

Unlike in a large metropolitan area such as St. Paul where there is a large enough police force that K-9 teams respond only to K-9 calls, in St. Croix County, K-9 officers share in all regular patrol duties. Everyone on patrol from the sheriff’s office on this shift is responsible to Stenseth.

“Being the patrol sergeant out here is number one. Making sure everyone is safe, that they are where they are supposed to be and doing their job is my first responsibility. A lot of my day out here involves paperwork, going over the logs for all of these other officers before I hand them into my lieutenant. But I also take calls just like everyone else, plus add the whole other responsibility as a K-9 handler into the equation,” Stenseth says.

Stenseth alerts the dispatcher that he is on duty and begins to scan the screen for updates and emails from the last shift.

“Patrol Sergeant for the most part is always a roam car,” Stenseth said.

Although he travels regular routes, Stenseth changes them up every shift to avoid any predictability.

He determines his routes based on population, availability of law enforcement resources including K-9 teams and range, the time it would take for him to respond to a call. Stenseth tries to keep his routes somewhat centrally  located within the county to be able to respond to calls in a timely fashion.

Dispatch: Two vehicle accident, officers on the scene.

The computer alerts Stenseth to an accident near his location. A quick review of the details on the screen and Stenseth responds that he is en route to the accident scene.

“They had a crash just up here, so we’ll swing by,” Stenseth said On the scene, Stenseth pulls up behind the squad of Deputy Chuck Coleman.

“We’ll just hang out here and watch these guys do their thing. I go to a lot of the calls for these guys and gals just in case something is needed,” Stenseth said.

“I remember we had a crash up on Highway 63 and County Road S. It was a fatal, and initially it appeared that the gal had lost control and died. Well some things didn’t quite make sense. So I actually brought Ace, my first K-9 partner, out just to make sure someone didn’t set this up and flee. Sure enough, there was another driver who put the other person in the driver’s seat and took off. We found him and we were able to tie him to being behind the wheel,” recounted Stenseth.

Coleman fills Stenseth in on the details of this accident. No one was seriously injured as the result of one driver proceeding from a stop sign without seeing an oncoming vehicle, which she struck. One vehicle would be limped back home, the other required towing, while paramedics examined both parties for injuries.

Ten minutes later Stenseth enters a brief account of the incident into his log and proceeds on his route. Stenseth places a premium on the professional performance he expects from Dex under pressure. They have to be able to insert themselves into a sticky situation seamlessly even when working with other teams like Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or narcotics who might not be K-9 educated. No one can afford to be distracted from doing their job. For that to happen, Dex must be completely under Stenseth’s control. They have to be both dependable and predictable.

For every K-9 incident he responds to, Stenseth must log at least the date, time, location, and how the K-9 was utilized, whether it was drug detection, article search, SWAT call, apprehension or regular patrol.

Dispatch: Update - basement motion alarm.

“I respond to a lot of alarms. Usually when you are checking the exterior of a residence and there is no physical evidence of a break-in like a broken window, that doesn’t mean somebody didn’t try. So I will always take Dex on these alarms to see what his reaction is, to see if he picks up a scent around the exterior of the house. Sometimes we’ll find tracks and we’ll find someone within a hundred yards of the house. Often you can tie that person at minimum to a trespassing complaint. If they made entry, then you have a burglary charge,” said Stenseth.

Stenseth confers with the deputy already on the scene before they both disappear into the residence. Dex’s eyes remain fixed on the house until Stenseth emerges several minutes later only to report that they had cleared the house and did not find any signs of foul play. Unfortunately for Dex, the owner has a dog so Stenseth declines to involve him in any further search.

Although he hasn’t encountered any situations that required Dex’s assistance yet on this shift, Stenseth explained when Dex’s particular skills are most useful.

“The dog has two primary reasons for being on the scene. Number one is to enhance officer safety out on the streets and number two, to act as a locating tool. Simple as that. Yesterday I used Dex in a search for a young boy who wandered off in Star Prairie. I had him on 2-3 feet of leash because we were working in stuff so thick you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you,” said Stenseth.

The boy was found, though Dex did not play a role in his recovery. Stenseth explained that 90 percent of all searches are conducted on lead. Even though K-9s like Dex are highly intelligent and diligently trained, they are also prized for their protective instincts which are finely honed, but which in the heat of a search would not distinguish between a hidden criminal and a boy lost in the woods.

The timing of a call can impact a dog’s effectiveness on the scene.

“There are certain time limitations that we have to meet in order for us to be able to work effectively with the dogs. A 45-minute-old track is very different from a ten-minuteold track. It’s part of the reason for keeping my route centrally located within the county,” said Stenseth. “Tracking is our bread and butter along with narcotics out here.”

Stenseth explains that Dex is specifically trained to alert differently based on where he finds narcotics.

“If the scent is low, he will go into a down position, nose or head-high, a sit position, and higher still, he will bark,” said Stenseth.

That kind of sophisticated behavior is the result of countess hours of precise training and patience on behalf of the handler.

As the duo leaves River Falls and heads back toward New Richmond, Stenseth sums up his role.

“Out here you are a police officer, you are a social worker, a baby sitter, you are everything. A lot of my job is listening, letting people blow off steam. In those cases my job is to document the situation and generate a report if needed down the road for any legal proceedings,” said Stenseth.

A brief stop to pull a tree branch off the highway and Stenseth’s headed home.

The chatter of the radio fades into the background.

After losing his first K-9 partner Ace to an infection and now three years into his partnership with Dex, Stenseth has a deep appreciation for both the responsibilities and rewards that come with the unique relationship a handler builds with his service dog.

“You can’t really avoid becoming close. You put in more time with these dogs than you do with your family a lot of times. You are with them at work and at home. I don’t think I kept that perspective as much as I should have with Ace. We grew very close. Putting him down, that was very tough.

“The biggest thing with handling a dog is, I have to be able to make some very quick and sound judgement calls, and I have to make those decisions for both us. As a K-9 team, we are the first into the worst of the worst situations. Dex is the first in. If I have trained him well, he’s not ever going to question my decision. I have to base our deployment on the facts I have. I can’t assume anything.

“We’ve done training search work where he has had to cross the Apple River to apprehend someone. He’s had to engage somebody in the water, where the danger is someone could dunk him and drown him.

“On the other hand, there’s no better feeling in the world than bringing a kid back to his parents.

“In my eyes, that’s better than finding a suspect of a crime, because now you know you might have honestly saved a person’s life.

“We have to train for as many possibilities as we can and realize there will always be circumstances out there we haven’t trained for. We are put into those situations because we are expected to come through. At the end of the day, everyone deserves to go home to family and friends.”