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Training, trust, communication and respect translate to K-9 success

Sgt. Joshua Stenseth of the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office and his K-9 partner Dex tackle an obstacle as part of the agility evaluation at the K-9 certification program held in New Richmond on Sunday, June 8. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 1 / 3
Stillwater police officer David Wulfing and K-9 Buzz clear an obstacle as part of the agility evaluation during the K-9 certification program held in New Richmond on Sunday, June 8. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)2 / 3
Polk County K-9 Kaiser apprehends a suspect during the the apprehension challenge at the K-9 certification program held in New Richmond on Sunday, June 8. (Photo by Micheal Foley)3 / 3

They have names like Rebel and Dex and Buzz. They are rigorously trained and respected members of local police and Sheriffs’ departments throughout the region. They are the four-legged team members of K-9 patrol units, many of which are graduates of the highly respected 12-week K-9 training program sponsored by the St. Paul Police Department at the Tim Jones Memorial K-9 Kennels in Maplewood, Minn.

Seventeen officers and their K-9 partners from local law enforcement jurisdictions ranging from Rice Lake to Maplewood, including two teams from St. Croix County, gathered on Sunday, June 8, at New Richmond High School to take part in mandatory certification exercises.

K-9’s can be trained for general patrol purposes or for specific skills such as explosives detection or narcotics. Teams can also be cross-trained. Each team was evaluated by a panel of eight judges as it performed a variety of tests designed to simulate challenges it might encounter in the field. The scenarios test the skills and communication required of both handlers and their K-9 partners. Criteria for the testing is established by the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA).

“Officers are tested just as much as their dogs. A handler’s nerves travel right down that leash to their dog,” said Sgt. Joshua Stenseth, a K-9 officer with the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office.

The 17 teams were divided into two groups that rotated through five testing stations at the high school, a local industrial park and a prairie not far from the high school. The five challenges included obedience, agility, article search, area search and apprehension. Each K-9 team was scored on a variety of criteria at each station. The judges were looking for a core proficiency from each team. Beyond that, points were awarded for more polished performances. A total of 700 points are possible while 490 points are needed to secure certification for one year. All teams must acquire at least 70 percent of available points to pass the obedience and apprehension portions of the evaluation before they can move onto other testing.

From the onset of teaming an officer with a K-9, a unique and specific relationship is forged that reflects the personalities of both partners. A successful partnership nurtures a fine balance between professionalism and a deep bond born of the very real life and death demands of the job. Loyalty, trust and respect are at the heart of a successful partnership and all are on display for the judges to evaluate during the certification process.

The years of experience and endless hours of training, or lack thereof, between partners became evident during testing. Well-tuned partnerships are defined by little nuances like crisp consistent spacing during a heel, razor sharp attention and intuitive anticipation of commands given only once, and an undeniable desire to perform.

A typical score sheet indicates there is a great deal expected of each team. The hours of training that go on behind the scenes both on and off the job are taken for granted by casual spectators. To even be on the field that day was a testament to the hard work put in equally by all of the officers and their K-9 counterparts.

Obedience testing requires handlers and their dogs to demonstrate that they understand fundamental commands such as come and stay as well as recall and heeling both on and off leash. These commands and techniques form the foundation required to perform the more complex skills tested in the other test scenarios.

During the article search, dogs were tasked with finding two articles — such as a credit card, wallet or handgun — in a 30-foot-by-30-foot area of natural prairie grass. Articles were held by one of the judges to scent the article and then randomly hidden in the prairie. Teams had no more than 10 minutes to find both items. Dogs indicated they have located an item either by passive behavior such as sitting or lying next to the item or aggressive behavior such as retrieving the item.

Agility testing requires dogs to complete an obstacle course under the direction of their handlers. Not all dogs are required to complete all of the obstacles depending on whether they have physical limitations as a result of their age or possible injury.

During the area search, handlers guided their dogs using commands from a distance to systematically search a collection of six plywood boxes one of which contained a suspect. The suspect randomly chose a different box to test each team. Dogs had to determine in which box the suspect was hiding, where his scent was the strongest and indicated by barking at the correct box until commanded back to a heel position.

The final test of the day, suspect apprehension, involved four separate tests: false start, recall, bite and bite under fire. Dogs were commanded off leash in a series of exercises to chase down a fleeing suspect. Dogs were alternately commanded to chase a suspect and then recalled from a distance to stop the chase before reaching the suspect. They were also commanded to stay in a heel or down position while being tempted by a fleeing suspect. In the first of two longer tests, dogs chased down a fleeing suspect and apprehended him by biting his arm until commanded to release by their handler. In the second scenario, dogs were commanded to do the same thing, only this time the suspect fired a gun twice, once before the dog began the chase and then once after the dog was in pursuit.

By the end of the afternoon a small crowd had gathered on the outskirts of the field where the testing was taking place, curious about the proceedings.

“People don’t always like the police, but they do like dogs. It’s a positive role our dogs play on behalf of the department,” Stenseth said.

Along the sidelines, friends, family members and fellow officers rooted for their teams. It wasn’t like fans loudly cheering at a football game; it was a respectful, quiet encouragement tempered by an understanding that loud noises can be a distraction to the teams while they work. It seemed that this was a close-knit fraternity that lived and died just a little bit with each team’s successes and failures while fully appreciating the hard work and dedication it took just to have the honor of competing that day.

The St. Croix County K-9 unit receives donations through the Hudson Community Foundation, an affiliate of St. Croix Valley Foundation. To learn more or donate, visit the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office website at