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Athena brings new energy to Duluth K-9 program

Duluth's newest police dog is a half-sister of Luna, who was killed in the line of duty earlier this year. She will make her debut at an event this week that also includes a tribute to the fallen K-9.

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Duluth Police Officer Kaine Kaase plays with his K-9, Athena, outside the Duluth Public Safety Building on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Athena, a Dutch Shepherd and newest DPD K-9, is a half-sister to recently fallen K-9, Luna. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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Duluth police Officer Kaine Kaase's new partner is certain to be the center of attention — if you can keep up with her.

K-9 Athena is a 60-pound ball of energy, eager to do just about anything other than sit still. When visited outside the Public Safety Building recently, she showed little patience for an interview of her handler, squirming in her seat until Kaase agreed to toss around her favorite toy, a piece of firehose.

"She really does have a lot of drive; she always wants to be doing something," Kaase said. "I've been told I have that same problem a time or two, so I guess it's coming full circle for me. We both want to go everywhere 100 mph. We have to slow each other down every once in awhile."

The dynamic duo first paired up in early January, completing a rigorous 16-week training program in St. Paul before officially hitting the streets of Duluth at the beginning of June.

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They'll be among more than a dozen area law enforcement K-9 teams displaying their skills at the seventh annual Operation K-9 demonstration and fundraising event, which returns to the University of Wisconsin-Superior on Thursday.

"I'm very happy with the dog I ended up with," Kaase said. "She's probably my favorite I've seen and been around."

Athena, just shy of 2 years old, is a Dutch shepherd mixed with a bit of Belgian Malinois. She specializes in sniffing out narcotics and other evidence, as well as tracking and apprehension. As for the name, Kaase said she already had it when she was purchased by the department and he never bothered to change it because "it's a fitting name and I do like it a lot."

Incidentally, Athena is a half-sister of fallen K-9 Luna, who will receive a special tribute at this year's event after being killed in the line of duty in February. They both came from a breeder in Florida, where they had the same mother. And Athena is only the third female dog to join the Duluth Police Department, after Luna and Kallie.

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Duluth Police K-9 Athena runs back to her handler, officer Kaine Kaase, as she shows her obedience training Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, outside the Duluth Public Safety Building. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"There's so many agencies looking for dogs … so I don't think it's that common where you have relatives of prior K-9s that are in the same department," Kaase said. "I think that that's rare to have that happen, and we're fortunate that we did have a chance of getting Athena here."

Kaase has been with the Duluth Police Department since 2015, having worked as a patrol officer and, more recently, as a community officer assigned to the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority properties.

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Becoming a K-9 handler has been a longtime goal for Kaase, who grew up around dogs and police officers in southeastern Minnesota. His father, Tom Kaase, spent more than 30 years in the profession and eventually became Fillmore County sheriff.

K-9 teams are never truly "off duty," needing to regularly practice their skills to stay sharp. Kaase said he runs Athena through some training before every meal and at other points throughout the day, pulling some bites of kibble from his uniform pocket as a reward.

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Duluth Police K-9 Athena looks up at her handler, officer Kaine Kaase, during an interview Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"I try to stay on top of it, where it's a little bit always, instead of trying to do it in big chunks," he said. "Keep it fun for the dog. Ideally, you want their ears up and tail wagging, something where they enjoy it. If they don't think it's fun, they're not going to try as hard or want to do it as much."

Kaase said Athena has adjusted well to home life, joining the officer, his fiancee and two other dogs. He knows it's a big commitment, with police dogs typically serving as long as they are physically able before retiring at home with the handler.

"We are together all the time," Kaase said. "I've gone on a couple short, little road trips this summer and she's gone with me. I think there's only been like one day we've been apart since I got her, so it's been a lot of fun."

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Duluth Police K-9 Athena looks back as her handler, officer Kaine Kaase, walks away while working on obedience training Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, outside the Duluth Public Safety Building. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

New look as Operation K-9 returns

Athena is just one of 14 area police dogs scheduled to be on display at Thursday's Operation K-9. Wiped out last year due to COVID-19, the event hasn't been held since June 2019.

The event should offer plenty of fresh faces; eight of the teams are new and have never before taken part. Featuring demonstrations and opportunities to meet the dogs and their handlers, as well as a variety of law enforcement vehicles, family activities, souvenirs, food and a silent auction, the event is a major fundraiser for the nonprofit Northland K-9 Foundation.

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Duluth police officer Kaine Kaase talks about his new partner, K-9 Athena, outside the Duluth Public Safety Building on Friday afternoon, Aug. 6, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"K-9s are an amazing resource for law enforcement, and do so much to keep our communities safe — from apprehending dangerous suspects to sniffing out narcotics, firearms and even explosives," President Robbin Champaigne said. "But they're expensive to purchase and train, and as our agencies are constantly trying to trim costs, we appreciate all the help we can get from the public to support our K-9 programs."

Established in 2013 to give private and corporate donors a way to support the units and create a more consistent source of funding, the foundation now includes the Duluth, Superior and Hermantown police departments and St. Louis and Douglas County sheriff's offices.

If you go

What: Operation K-9

When: Thursday, 4-7:30 p.m.

Where: UWS Ole Haugsrud Field, 1515 Mortorelli Drive

Cost: Free; donations encouraged

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Duluth Police K-9 Athena looks up at her handler, officer Kaine Kaase, outside the Duluth Public Safety Building on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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Duluth police officer Kaine Kaase talks outside the Duluth Public Safety Building with his new partner, K-9 Athena, on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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