By Andrea Culletto —
Bill and Officer Ulrich
Bill could sense his partner’s nerves as they cruised toward the school in their patrol car. It made him antsy. He whined excitedly as they neared their destination. Behind the wheel, Officer Dan Ulrich tried to calm Bill’s nerves and simultaneously tame his own. This was the duo’s first deployment—and it was a big one.
When the team arrived at Eau Claire Memorial High School—the site of the bomb threat—Officer Ulrich opened the door and slid on Bill’s harness. It was time to go to work.
Bill, a black Labrador retriever, is a member of an elite group of dogs working in law enforcement. K-9 officers are active members of police departments and military units across the United States and around the world, including several right here in the Coulee Region. These dogs have special skills, from finding missing persons to uncovering illegal drugs and apprehending criminals.
Bill is a detection dog specializing in explosives. He and Officer Ulrich safely searched the school and declared it clear. Thanks to their good work, children and educators could return to the classroom worry-free.
This is serious work with a very real element of danger. “You realize, if I miss this and they go back to school tomorrow and something blows up …” Officer Ulrich said. “You don’t have the ability or leeway to miss a bomb. You have to be perfect.” Bill and Officer Ulrich, members of the La Crosse Police Department, rely on their training and Bill’s impressive nose.
This team has been together for almost a year, and they are really starting to hit their stride. It wasn’t love at first sight, however. When Officer Ulrich first met Bill, he was in his kennel “excitedly leaping into the air.”
Officer Ulrich was raised on a farm and always loved animals. “What people generally look for in pets isn’t the same as working dogs,” he explained. “When I saw him jumping 6 feet in the air and full of super energy, it made me a little nervous.” Officer Ulrich decided to give Bill a try anyway. He leashed him for a walk and Bill took off like a rocket. “He almost took my fingers off,” Officer Ulrich said with a laugh.
But by the end of the second day, Officer Ulrich knew Bill was the one. “Bill depended on me as much as I depended on him,” he said. “He really enjoyed the relationship.”
Bill is what industry professionals refer to as a “one-handler dog,” meaning that his relationship with Officer Ulrich is so strong, he won’t work for anyone else. “He’s tight with me,” Officer Ulrich said. “He looked to me and picked up on my mannerisms and my attitude.”
That’s not to say it was smooth sailing from there on. Officer Ulrich recalled one particularly hot training day when the head trainer suggested he take Bill to cool off in a nearby pond. “I said, ‘Are you sure about that? What if he doesn’t come back?’” Officer Ulrich recalled. “The instructor said, ‘Just take a tennis ball.’ That was his reward in training.” Officer Ulrich decided to give it a shot, trusting Bill’s training to keep him nearby.
“I let him off the leash, he jumped into the pond, swam straight to the other side and as soon as his front feet touched the opposite bank he shot out like a rocket, running through the Washington north woods toward the Canadian border,” Officer Ulrich said with a laugh. “I could’ve had a whole dump truck of tennis balls and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
After rounding up a search party and a fair amount of panic, Bill returned. “Just sauntering down the road,” Officer Ulrich recalled.
Bill and Officer Ulrich have come a long way since then. Today, they specialize in detecting explosives—an intense line of work. The team copes by trusting each other, keeping things in perspective and having a sense of humor. “If it’s warm out I’ll take my [bulletproof] vest off,” said Officer Ulrich. This usually shocks people who can’t imagine searching for a bomb without protection. Officer Ulrich tells them, “Well, I’m going to a bomb threat. If I blow up, I’m at least going to
Most often Bill and Officer Ulrich search for evidence like guns, bullet shells and casings. “That can be like searching for a needle in a haystack,” explained Officer Ulrich. “When you’re looking for a bomb, it hasn’t exploded yet; you have 5 pounds of something to throw off odor. When it’s the shell or casing, it’s just vapors—if the wind blows, it’s raining, or really cold, you’ll have to get the dog’s nose right over the top of it. If it’s hot, the scent will lift up and be easier to locate.”
Bill and Officer Ulrich find purpose in their work. “The good Lord, he pointed me in the right direction; I didn’t even know any other police officers,” said Officer Ulrich of selecting his line of work. “I wanted to be able to tell God, ‘This is what I did with the talents you gave me,’ to help other people and do something I thought was meaningful.” Together with Bill, he’s doing just that.
Neko and Officer Barrientos
In May 2015, two people were spotted getting into unlocked cars. When a local homeowner confronted the pair, they fled. Police were called in to search the area where they found a stolen car containing pilfered items, with a 0.22-caliber round on the ground. Still, they couldn’t locate the suspects, so they called in the experts—Neko and his handler Officer Brad Barrientos of the Winona Police Department.
Neko went straight to work, starting his track where the two subjects were last seen. He pulled to the edge of the perimeter and then made his way back to the center, leading Officer Barrientos to a garage where Neko alerted at an open utility door. The two subjects were hiding inside. The stolen car key was discovered in one’s pocket and both had warrants out for their arrest.
Neko can do a variety of police work including tracking, open area searches, building searches, handler protection, agility (like climbing ladders, jumping fences and crawling through tunnels), evidence location and obedience. He can identify the odor of narcotics like methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and heroin. He is also skilled at apprehension.
Only one month before helping capture the thieves, Neko and Officer Barrientos were called in to apprehend a man who had broken his restraining order. He originally received the order after holding a woman hostage for several days, pointing weapons at her and threatening to kill her. Now he had tried to make contact with her, and officers were called in to assist.
The man tried to flee but police surrounded the house, so he hid in the cellar. “The cellar had limited lighting and was cramped,” Officer Barrientos said. “Officers had called out to the male numerous times to try to get him to come out, but he would not respond. The male had time to collect weapons and showed violent tendencies. Officers requested Neko’s assistance in taking the male into custody.”
Neko arrived on the scene with Officer Barrientos, who geared him up with his bulletproof vest. Officers warned the man again, but he failed to respond. Neko was then lowered into the cellar on a 50-foot leash and given the order to find the man. He discovered him hiding in a dark corner under the stairs and bravely apprehended him by the arm. Officer Barrientos then pulled them both to the opening of the cellar where the man was taken into custody and safely jailed.
Like all police dogs, Neko (recently retired) did important work. He especially excelled at locating individuals who were trying to run or hide from the police. Sometimes those individuals weren’t criminals, but those in need of help. In October 2016, Winona law enforcement got a call. Someone had received frightening text messages from a suicidal friend, showing both a method (standing in front of a train) and means.
Officers recognized the person to be actively suicidal and sprang into action. “Police spoke to the friend and called the subject by phone,” said Officer Barrientos. “The subject would briefly speak to police and then hang up. Police were able to do a phone ping on the subject’s phone, which gave a general area of where the subject was. This happened to be right along railroad tracks.”
Numerous officers responded to the area, but they still couldn’t locate the individual. They realized the person was hiding. “Neko was deployed, and eight minutes later he located the subject laying down along the edge of a pond,” recalled Officer Barrientos. “The subject was transported by ambulance to a hospital to receive the care needed.”
Neko’s training and extraordinary skills enabled him to save this individual’s life.
Zaback and Officer Bowe
The suspect was hiding deep in the dark bowels of a garage, refusing police commands to emerge and surrender. Officers knew it was unsafe to enter and apprehend the man. Fortunately, they had a secret weapon.
Zaback was called to the scene with his handler, Officer Trenton Bowe. The pair approached the garage door and Officer Bowe told the man that he could come out or Zaback was going to come in. Zaback punctuated the statement with a deep bark.
The man gave up instantly. “The dog’s presence alone is a big deterrent,” said Officer Bowe.
This is true in a variety of circumstances. Suspects are less likely to run if Zaback is on their trail. Likewise, a search often becomes unnecessary if the suspect knows Zaback is on the way; often they’ll simply surrender their contraband. “That’s stuff we’d never recover without the dog,” said Officer Bowe.
Zaback, a bicolor German shepherd with a black body and brown paws, specializes in narcotics detection, apprehension, protection, searches and missing persons, among other things. He and Officer Bowe love working together. Officer Bowe most enjoys “going out there on a day-to-day basis and utilizing Zaback; showing up to traffic stops; helping officers locate illegal drugs; helping addicts find that light bulb or motivation to change; and finding that person that’s dealing and giving poison to other people.”
Zaback is a serious dog who likes to take charge. One of his favorite exercises is apprehension, when an officer wearing a bite sleeve or full protection suit hides and Zaback is sent to find and bite him. “It can be very intense just waiting and waiting, hiding from the dog, not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Officer Bowe of playing the target. “You just don’t know when the dog is going to latch on.” Zaback enjoys this so much, he gets mad if he doesn’t get to bite.
But even though his focus is razor sharp, Zaback also loves to play. “We always have fun,” said Officer Bowe. “There’s always something he does that’s kind of silly—he’s a goofball.”
Officer Bowe said Zaback also tends to pass gas in the patrol car. “It’s not good,” he said with chagrin. “There have been times where I’ve had to tell people I’ve arrested, ‘That’s not me, that’s the dog.’ So that makes it an awkward car ride—as if it’s not awkward enough.”
ZEUS and officer hughes
Officer Stephen Hughes found the house in shambles. The gate was dislodged from its hinges, a window was open with its screen broken out, every light was turned on, there were papers scattered everywhere, and, strangely, the common entry door was locked—which it never was. There had clearly been a break-in. What had begun as a fun night out had quickly turned into a nightmare. His first thought was of his K-9 partner, Zeus, whom he’d left locked in his kennel in the basement. Was he OK?
As it turned out, Zeus was not only OK, he was the culprit. “Zeus missed me so much that he bit the kennel enough for the front to collapse and he escaped,” said Officer Hughes. “Trying to get out of the house, he jumped at all the doors, turning on the lights and locking the one door. There were also dents in the door knobs from his biting. He eventually located a small window which was partially open. He took a bite out of the window frame, opened the window further and jumped through the screen into the backyard. Instead of jumping the four-foot fence, which he can easily do, he decided to pounce against the gate until it fell off the hinges. He was then free.”
With his (remarkably expensive) partner gone, Officer Hughes thought his career was over. “I called and called and called for him,” he recalled. “[Then] I noticed the silhouette of something running toward me. It was Zeus! He jumped into my arms almost saying he will never leave me. Now we are the best of friends.”
Originally from Ridgeway, Iowa, Officer Hughes worked in law enforcement in Waukon, Iowa, for four years before coming to La Crosse. His wife, Whitney, also works for the La Crosse PD and is a former K-9 handler. “I owe a lot of where I am at as a handler and as an officer to her,” Officer Hughes said.
Zeus is a multipurpose patrol K-9 who can detect four drug odors (methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and heroin), track, locate evidence and apprehend suspects. He and Officer Hughes graduated from training at McDonough K9 in Minnesota during November 2017. “Our dogs are highly trained and the training never stops,” Officer Hughes said. “It is something that all handlers devote so much more time to than anyone can imagine.”
This is one reason it’s important to respect K-9 officers and give them space. Officer Hughes recalled one instance in which a man came up behind Zeus, got down on his knees and hugged him “like it was his own cuddly pet. Zeus did not do anything bad, but I could tell he was uncomfortable. It puts the K-9 and handler in a poor position if something bad were to happen.”
Zeus has proven extremely capable, both in utilizing his training and as a deterrent. In one instance, four potentially dangerous suspects surrendered at the mere threat of Zeus’ release. “Zeus didn’t get to ‘apprehend’ anyone, but he played a major role in protecting officers from having to go into harm’s way,” Officer Hughes said.
Zeus was also responsible for tracking down a driver who fled the scene. Along the way, they encountered an eight-foot fence the suspect had crossed. “My cover officer was told to climb the fence first and then I would hand Zeus over to him,” Officer Hughes recalled. “Never having done this before, I did not tell him he may get bit if Zeus didn’t like that happening.”
Fortunately, Zeus handled it like a professional and went on to locate the driver, making Officer Hughes proud. “To be completely honest, any time we get to use Zeus and I watch what his true abilities are, it is always a success,” Officer Hughes said.
Putt’n 4 Pooches
Support furry K-9 cops and their human companions by attending the 9th Annual La Crosse Police Department Putt’n 4 Pooches Golf Outing and Fundraiser. This event will take place on Monday, September 10, 2018, at Forest Hills Golf Course. Enjoy 18 holes of golf and a reception at Brothers Bar & Grill. There will be delicious food, door prizes, raffles and a silent auction. The best part? All proceeds benefit the La Crosse Police Department K-9 program, ensuring this important team has the best training and most up-to-date equipment to do their jobs right. If you can’t attend the event, consider making a donation. For more information or to make a donation, contact Sergeant Steve Pataska at firstname.lastname@example.org.