They serve in some of Miami’s most dangerous missions, but only two of the city’s 18 K-9 officers wear protective vests.
That soon will change when most of the police dogs in the city’s K-9 unit will get bulletproof vests, donated by PetArmor and the nonprofit organization Vested Interest in K-9s. Each vest costs approximately $1,000.
So far this year, seven police dogs have died in action around the country — none from Florida. In 2013, three Florida dogs were among the 18 nationwide that died. They were from Miami Gardens, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Leon County.
“To a police officer, the dog is his partner,” said Sgt. Freddie Cruz, Miami police spokesman. “He trains him and takes him home every day.”
Losing a dog “is like losing a family member,” Cruz said. The most common causes of death are overheating, shootings or stabbings. The last dog to die in action in Miami was Atlas, partner to officer Wayne Cooper, in 2000.
This year, the company PetArmor has donated money to departments around the country to buy bulletproof vests for police dogs.
Miami uses trained police dogs to detect narcotics, explosives and currency.
“They are used in airports to fight drug trafficking and money laundering,” said Sgt. Garret Wing, a K-9 supervisor. “We have recently developed a ‘dog weapon,’ whose specialty is to find hidden firearms and cartridge shells at shooting and murder scenes.”
A patrol dog specializes in “dissuading crime simply by his presence,” Cruz said. The animals can locate and detain suspects.
“They are good in armed robbery or assaults; when a suspect enters a house; and when there is suspicion that there are drugs in a house, the dogs walks around it,” Cruz said. “We don’t use a dog for a misdemeanor or when there is a minor involved.”
Most of the police dogs are German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. They come from Germany, the Netherlands and Mexico.
“They come already trained in a special academy,” Cruz said
They begin patrol when they finish a six-month training in a canine patrol, Wing added.
They can patrol for six to eight years. Some dogs need vests; others don’t. Temperature and the nature of the emergency call determine whether a dog should wear a bulletproof vest.
“The heat and the search in more dangerous places or when it is known that the criminals are armed make it more likely to use the bulletproof vest,” Wing said. Until now, the unit only had two vests.
K-9s work the same number of hours as a police officer. “We work 10 hours a day,” Cruz said. The dogs have two hours of daily training and are ready to patrol with officers the rest of the day.
Twelve four-legged K-9 officers — Tango, Onyx, Rambo, Bolt, Boss, Dash, Dino, Falco, Flash, Kane, Red and Rocket — will soon receive bulletproof vests. They will receive special training to get used to the new equipment.
“Part of their formation is to make them comfortable and familiar with different types of equipment,” Wing said.