By Jody Kerzman | Submitted Photos
Dogs are great pets, but they’re also great workers. Just ask the officers at the Bismarck Police Department, where there are currently three patrol dogs working. The dogs—Luna, Bala, and Oscar—are specially-trained to search for drugs and people. Their handlers have put in thousands of hours training and bonding with their dogs and they proudly call them their partners and their best friends.
Luna and Lt. Chad Fetzer
“I’ve always been a dog guy,” says Bismarck Police Lt. Chad Fetzer.
So when he had the opportunity to become a K9 handler with the department, Lt. Fetzer jumped at the chance.
“It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around that often. There are only three dogs in our department, so it’s a pretty big honor to be one of the handlers,” he says.
Lt. Fetzer started working with Luna, a Dutch shepherd from Holland, in December 2012. They hit it off immediately, and the two have been recognized for their work. In 2014, Luna was the North Dakota Professional Animal of the Year, was inducted into the North Dakota Animal Hall of Fame, and was also named Top Dog Overall at a regional K9 competition in Minnesota. Luna is now six years old and still working hard everyday. She is trained and certified in narcotics detection, tracking, evidence recovery, and criminal apprehension. She is also Lt. Fetzer’s best friend.
“Being a K9 handler is much different than getting a dog as a pet,” he explains. “As handlers with the department, our dogs are with us 24 hours a day—they come to work with us for 12 hours and then go home with us. The bond is pretty close, and having that bond with them helps us do the job and helps them want to work for us. We have cameras in the front and the back of our patrol cars and if you watch our in-car videos, you can see when I am outside my patrol car and Luna is in the back, she is staring at me the whole time. If someone gets animated or starts talking loud, she goes crazy. She totally has my back.”
Lt. Fetzer says Luna and the other police dogs are the most popular officers at the department.
“We get a lot of requests to bring the dogs to events, schools, and job fairs and show people how they work,” he says. “Every year when we do our citizen survey, citizens say they wish we had more dogs. People know there is a drug problem in Bismarck and that dogs are the best way to deal with that problem. If there are drugs like meth or heroin concealed in a car there’s no way for a human to know what’s in there without using a dog to find it. There’s not an odor that an officer can smell, but a dog can tell us if it’s in there.”
Luna and Lt. Fetzer have over 400 career patrol deployments as a K9 team, including narcotics and building searches, tracks, and cash seizures.
At age six, Luna’s working days are nearly over. Most police dogs work an average of five years, depending on the dog’s health. Lt. Fetzer says jumping in and out of a police car all day has been hard on Luna’s hips. Still, he says there is nothing Luna loves more than going to work.
“Police dogs have the best life of any dog. They get to come to work all day and do what they love to do and then go home and be inside and get lots of attention. It’s a great life.”
Bala and Officer Dan Salander
You can’t miss the sense of pride in Officer Dan Salander’s voice as he recalls his dog Bala’s first criminal apprehension.
“There was a felon who had a weapon and was holding a woman hostage. She managed to get away and call police, but the suspect fled. Detectives saw him go into a building so officers surrounded the building. The suspect said he had a knife and he said he wasn’t coming out alive. He called his family and told them this was it. He had been shot by law enforcement before and he wasn’t listening to the officers’ commands. They called in Bala and I and she went to the front of the line and started barking. He heard her and he surrendered. He was willing to get shot by the police, but he didn’t want to get bit by a dog,” says Officers Salander. “That was a really rewarding call because no officers got hurt and the suspect didn’t get hurt either. That was our first real apprehension and Bala did everything she was supposed to do, just like we trained. Those situations are really rare and even though we train for them, you never know how your dog is going to perform. As a handler, you have to trust your dog and Bala was ready. I trust her completely.”
Bala is a three-year-old Belgian malinois. She was born in Europe and came to Bismarck in February 2015. She and Officer Salander were trained in Bismarck and she started working patrol in 2015. Bala was named the Top Rookie Dog in 2015.
“All she wants to do is work. Bala is so loyal and obedient. I have to have enough energy to match hers. She is motivated 24 hours a day to work, and that motivates me to be better at my job,” says Officer Salander. “All of our police dogs here are amazing animals. They are so excited to please their handler. They can do so much and are happy to do it all.”
Bala does drug searches, tracks, building searches, and apprehensions.
Oscar and Sgt. Tim Sass
Sergeant Tim Sass knows his days of having his partner, Oscar, on patrol with him are about to end. Oscar is an eight-year-old Belgian malinois. Oscar and Sergeant Sass have been working together at the Bismarck Police Department since 2013. Oscar was selected as the 2013 Professional Animal of the Year by the North Dakota Veterinary Medical Association. If you ask Sergeant Sass, it’s an award Oscar has deserved every year.
“I have spent every day with this dog for the past four years. I see this dog more than I see my son,” says Sergeant Sass. “Oscar has helped protect me on numerous occasions and the thought of him not being there is very disheartening. It will be a very sad day when he is no longer riding with me.”
But at age eight, Oscar is starting to slow down, which has forced Sergeant Sass to think about Oscar’s retirement.
“He will still tear off like a puppy but after a long work day it takes a few days for him to get energy back,” he says. “When he’s in the back of my patrol car, he always used to be pacing around but now he is a little more relaxed until it is time to go to work. He’s such a good dog, he’s been a good partner, and I know sometime this year he will retire. I hope once he retires he can have some time to just be a dog, to be lazy and enjoy life.”
But until then, Oscar and Sergeant Sass will continue patrolling the streets together.
“The K9s we have are invaluable to the department. They do cost a lot of money and maintenance but we are able to get so many more drugs off the street because of these dogs,” explains Sergeant Sass. “It’s hard to explain the bond between Oscar and me. I find myself driving around on a quiet night talking to Oscar. I trust my fellow officers with my life but I also trust Oscar with my life. I can look at how his ears twitch, how his body moves and know he’s found a suspect. I can see the way he looks around a room and know that someone is in there. I’ve got hand commands to control him to sit, come, and stay. We have that connection. The bond is just amazing. It’s truly an honor to be a part of the K9 team here.”
Each year the Bismarck Police K9 Unit puts together a calendar, sponsored by Terry Richter Insurance. Calendars are available for purchase at KT Animal Supply in Bismarck. All proceeds from calendar sales go back to the Bismarck Police Department’s K9 Unit. In past years, the money raised has been used to make trading cards, a heat alarm bail out for one of the cars, as well as other miscellaneous equipment and trainings that were not in the budget.
The Bismarck Police Department is always looking for additional buildings to conduct trainings for narcotics and people searches. If you have a business or a building and can help, contact Sergeant Lyle Sinclair at the Bismarck Police Department, email@example.com.