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Agencies welcome new K-9 teams

Hudson police officer Bob Larson and K-9 partner Badger graduated police dog school May 25 along with St. Croix County sheriff's deputies Dustin Geisness (dog, Roky) and John Shilts Jr. (Garza). Submitted photo1 / 3
Deputy Dustin Geisness runs with K-9 partner Roky during graduation exercises last month at the St. Paul Police K-9 Training Center. Submitted photo2 / 3
Deputy John Shilts Jr.'s dog Garza displays his agility last month during K-9 graduation ceremonies. Submitted photo3 / 3

HUDSON — Fresh off months of training, a trio of police dogs are ready for the streets of St. Croix County.

Hudson police officer Bob Larson's new dog, Badger, graduated May 25 from the St. Paul Police K-9 Training Center, along with St. Croix County Sheriff's Office deputies Dustin Geisness and John Shilts Jr. Geisness is teamed up with K-9 partner Roky, while Shilts' police dog is named Garza.

Geisness and Shilts are the newest to the job as K-9 officers. Both deputies said they have already grown a bond with their dogs after first receiving them last fall.

Being on a K-9 team has long been a goal for Geisness. He said he first developed an interest in the pursuit through his stepfather, who was a K-9 decoy for the Barron County Sheriff's Office. That interest deepened after he began his own law enforcement career in Hammond, where the department would get assistance from sheriff's office deputy Josh Stenseth — St. Croix County's third K-9 officer and reigning national champion.

"It kind of drew me to want to be like them," Geisness said.

Shilts has helped the K-9 team for years as a decoy and joining the team became "something I grew infatuated with," he said.

They will now work closely with Stenseth and are keenly aware how high he has set the bar. That is OK, Geisness said, saying he sets a high standard for himself.

Other former handlers who have earned high K-9 honors in the department include Lt. Jason Sykora and deputy Justin Johnson.

"We want to continue on that legacy and do well for the agency," he said.

Shilts now settles into life with Garza, a 1-year-old Dutch shepherd that shares his home with a black lab he also owns.

Same goes for Geisness, who opened his home to 3-year-old Roky — a German shepherd — that lives at home with his chocolate lab and a German shorthair.

"They get along great," he said.

The deputies said they both witnessed growth in their dogs after completing the arduous 12-week training program in St. Paul, where trainees and their dogs hit the ground running.

"They throw everything at you right away," Shilts said.

They will now take what they have learned in the disciplines of narcotics searches and tracking and apply it to real life on the streets. In fact, that is already underway.

"Now the hard work starts," Geisness said.

Shilts and Garza helped find a man lost in the woods near Woodville during their first week on the road. They, along with Geisness and Roky — a dog previously handled by a former K-9 deputy — were also along last week during a search warrant in New Richmond.

They will also be a regular presence at community events and schools for K-9 demonstrations, a facet to which Geisness said he is already taken a liking.

"When you see the glow on 100 third graders' faces ... it's rewarding," he said.

That aspect is familiar to Hudson's Larson.

A 10-year veteran of the force, he is known to many as the department's K-9 cop. Larson worked for years with partner Brisco, who retired last year and continues to live with him and his family.

Adding to the family is Badger, a 2-year-old German shepherd that shares the house with Bernie, a 9-year-old English bulldog.

Larson said he has nothing but good things to say about the latest addition.

"He's a phenomenal dog," he said of Badger, who arrived from Hungary.

Like Shilts and Geisness, Larson said helping other agencies on calls is among the most rewarding aspects of working as a K-9 officer. He has worked in that role for about seven years.

"It's just a very fun job," he said, adding that helping find people with a K-9 is "the biggest thing."

But breaking in a new dog was something of an eye-opener. Larson said the latest training program he went through in St. Paul presented a "completely different" philosophy than the one he experienced in 2010.

The training approach is all reward-based now, versus the "compulsion training" he first learned. And considering he thought the 2010 program produced great results, he is impressed to see how the training has developed.

"It's a lot better now," he said.

The Class of 2017 dogs are more focused and have higher standards than just a few years back, Larson said.

He and Badger take to the streets later this month while he recovers from a minor injury sustained during training that's keeping him on light duty for now.

Badger came to Hudson police with an $8,500 price tag and an added $4,500 training cost. All that was covered by private donations, Larson said, noting that Hudson taxpayers are not on the hook for his dog.

He said a "very supportive" community helped him during fundraising efforts. Angel's Pet World contributes 100 percent of Badger's dog food, Larson said, while Hillcrest Animal Hospital donates its services as well.

Sheriff John Shilts said the purchase of Garza, along with training and equipment, cost about $10,000. He said much of that cost was offset by fundraising events like the Ox Cart Days fun run, raffles and a golf event.

"When we couple that with individual donations ranging from a young child donating a couple of dollars all the way to people and companies donating $1,000 or more, it is a countywide effort that truly crosses all economic and social boundaries," the sheriff said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

(715) 426-1072
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