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'Part of the family': Understanding the life of a police dog

A procession to honor the fallen police dog Haas traveled through West Duluth late Monday -- on its way to transport the dog's body for cremation. Haas was shot and killed during a domestic violence call on Sunday. The dog's handler, Duluth polic...

Well-wishers turned out to show their respect for Duluth K-9, Haas, during the processional along Grand Avenue in Duluth on Monday evening. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Well-wishers turned out to show their respect for Duluth K-9, Haas, during the processional along Grand Avenue in Duluth on Monday evening. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
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A procession to honor the fallen police dog Haas traveled through West Duluth late Monday - on its way to transport the dog's body for cremation.

Haas was shot and killed during a domestic violence call on Sunday.

The dog's handler, Duluth police officer Aaron Haller, was also shot and was recovering at his home on Monday, according to a social media post by Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken.

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A pair of longtime handlers talked to the News Tribune on Monday, describing the uncommon bond between police dogs and their human counterparts.

"In general, the K-9s are like the tip of the spear of crime fighting," said Sgt. Wayne Toewe of the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office. Toewe was a handler for 14 years and now coordinates the office's K-9 program and ongoing training.

"They're up front, in the lead, point man in a lot of things - tracking bad guys hidden in houses or buildings," Toewe said. "That's the dog's role - to use that nose to locate suspects in the danger zone."

Police dogs both live and go to work with their handlers, spending more time with their humans than officers' spouses or children.

Both Toewe and Duluth police Sgt. Kelly Greenwalt described the dogs as "tools," but they also said a deep emotional connection between a handler and their dog is undeniable and impossible to avoid.

"You try to regulate that emotional attachment, but it's very difficult," said Greenwalt, the unit coordinator for the Duluth Police Department K-9 units. "With each success you have in training and in the street, that dog moves closer. We socialize our dogs a lot, bringing them into schools and events, into our homes. It becomes part of the family."

There are almost two dozen K-9 officers working throughout the Northland - multiple units in Duluth, Superior, St. Louis and Douglas counties, as well as working police dogs in Babbitt, Cloquet, Cook County, Eveleth, Hermantown and Virginia.

Dogs such as Haas are generally bred overseas, and by the time they're fully trained following a lengthy immersion period with their handlers, the costs that have gone into the dogs can exceed $45,000 - not including their dedicated police vehicles, Toewe said.

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To even reach the inside of a squad car, the dogs have to show expert abilities to find people, drugs, even bombs. They also need to show steely nerves - the ability to pursue prey and stand their ground defensively, Toewe said. Signs of timidity or other knocks on their ability are cause for a dog to wash out of the program.

Even when judged against the highest standard, Haas was uncommonly good at his job, Greenwalt said.

"He was a happy dog, always wagging his tail, always having fun no matter what aspect of police work we were asking of him," Greenwalt said. "Officer Haller did a great job training him with great attention to detail. You could see it in the crispness of Haas' obedience."

Authorities have not released details about what unfolded in the home along West Skyline Parkway where Haas met his end. But Greenwalt said police take care to not put their dogs into "no-win situations."

"We try to be careful with our decisions," Greenwalt said. "We try to be justified with our decisions and we try to be tactically minded when we use our dogs. All of those things come into play. If it's tactically appropriate to use the dog to protect the handler or other officers or members of the public, we will put the dog into dangerous situations to accomplish that. We will do that."

Related Topics: POLICE
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