Want a Good Police K9? Try the Animal Shelter.

Leonard, a rescued pit bull, "doesn't have an off-switch," which makes him ideally suited for drug detection work.

Leonard, a rescued pit bull, "doesn't have an off-switch," which makes him ideally suited for drug detection work. Clay Township Police Department

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Rescue dogs, including pit bulls, are finding work as police K9s across the country.

After being pulled over by police in Clay Township, Ohio, a man poked his head out of the car window and locked eyes on the police dog circling his vehicle.

“Hey, that’s Leonard!” he exclaimed. 

Clay Township Police Chief Terry Mitchell chuckled. “Yes it is, sir,” he said. “And he just found narcotics in your car.”

Police dogs often command attention, but even among his peers, Leonard stands out: he came from a shelter, not a breeder, and he’s a pit bull, not a German Shepherd. Because of this, Leonard's gotten a fair amount of media attention.

“He’s the first and only pit bull police dog in Ohio,” Mitchell said. “But as people are becoming more used to the fact that any dog can do police work, I’m sure there’s going to be more.”

Leonard the police dog at the office. (Courtesy Clay Township Police Department)

Across the country, there already are. There’s a working pit bull police dog in Kansas and another in Virginia. Washington state has one, and so does Arkansas. The dogs, all rescued from animal shelters, are trained in the art of drug detection and perform the job just as well as a police dog from a breeder, at a fraction of the cost. That makes them particularly attractive to smaller police departments, which operate under the constraints of municipal budgets that often don’t have $10,000 or $20,000 to spare for a German Shepherd or a Belgian Malinois, the breeds traditionally favored by law enforcement agencies.

“I had been used to the traditional German Shepherds, where you have a trainer and you spend a ton of money and by the time you’re done you’re thousands of dollars into it,” said Joe Chitwood, police chief of the Calvin Police Department in Calvin, Oklahoma, who works with Wildflower, a rescued pit bull. “Not every department can afford that. Getting a rescue was kind of the only way I was going to be able to get a dog.”

Wildflower, a police dog in Calvin, Oklahoma. (Courtesy of Joe Chitwood)

Police dogs, in addition to being valuable law enforcement tools, can also be a public relations boon for law enforcement agencies, said Wes Keeling, owner of Sector K9, a Texas-based company that trains shelter dogs and then donates them to police departments around the country. Because of that, he said, cost shouldn’t be a barrier for police who want a K9.

“Every police department should be able to have a dog,” he said. “I think it’s the no. 1 public relations tool within the police department. It connects the police to the community so strongly and effectively that I think it’s a bad idea not to have a dog on staff.”

Rescue pups can do the job just as well as dogs from breeders, as the key to detection work lies mostly in temperament, according to Carol Skaziak, owner and co-founder of the Throw Away Dogs Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that pulls dogs from shelters, trains them, and donates them to law enforcement agencies.

“When we start training a dog, the characteristics we’re looking for is a dog that has extreme prey drive and hunt drive,” she said. “These are dogs that are very high energy, which means they can be pains in the butt because they constantly need to be exercised. We find them and we utilize that by having them do something positive that drains that energy. Scent detection work—narcotic detection, explosive detection, arson detection—is very, very, very mentally and physically draining, so it’s a great activity for those dogs to do.”

Wildflower (Courtesy of Joe Chitwood)

Dogs that fit that criteria typically are too high-energy to be house pets, Skaziak said, which makes them difficult to adopt but perfect for rigorous and demanding police work. Wildflower, who trained with Skaziak, fit that profile. So does Leonard (“He doesn’t have an off switch,” said Mitchell), as well as Shaka, a pit bull who worked for four years as a narcotics K9 in Milwaukie, Oregon, alongside Officer Billy Wells.

“She was fantastic at her job. She had a reputation as kind of the go-to dog for search warrants and traffic stops,” Wells said. “She would work herself to death if I let her.”

Shaka and Officer Billy Wells, who worked together in Milwaukie, Oregon.
 (courtesy Milwaukie Police Department)

Despite their proclivity for drug detection, pit bulls (and rescue dogs in general) are still somewhat rare in the law enforcement community. Some of that may be the stigma attached to the breed—because of their muscular build and their powerful jaws, pit bulls are often seen as dangerous, aggressive dogs. It’s an enduring stereotype, ubiquitous enough that Skaziak was wary of working with pit bulls before she met Wildflower—not out of fear of the dog, but uncertainty of how to market her to law enforcement.

“I was so afraid to take the plunge because I didn’t know how to promote her,” Staziak said. “I did not know how to explain to a chief of police that I had this amazing pit bull that I wanted to donate.”

Chitwood also had concerns about Wildflower, mostly about how the community would react to the sight of a working pit bull (it was fine, he said. “People love her.”) Mitchell had similar worries about Leonard, but in Clay Township, after some initial resistance, the dog has proven an invaluable bridge between the police department and the community it serves.

“I’m just going to go right on the record and say that the response from the community with this dog, being a rescue, and taking him into the schools, it outweighs anything we could have actually paid to bridge that gap between the community and the police department,” Mitchell said. “It’s a heartwarming story.”

Leonard (Courtesy Clay Township Police Department)

The trend seems likely to continue in smaller police departments, which may initially be more open to the idea of a rescue K9 due to the prohibitive cost of a purebred. But once they’ve worked with a shelter dog, Wells said, most agencies quickly understand that the benefits go beyond just cost savings.

“I see it becoming more and more common,” he said. “Cost is a part of that, but the other piece is that I think agencies are realizing that there are a lot of great dogs in shelters that would be capable of doing the job.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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