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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

K-9 Dress Code: Kevlar and a Badge

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Blue" the bloodhound shows off a Kevlar vest and her "partner" Williamstown police Officer Michael Ziemba.
Williamstown- “Blue” the bloodhound may now dress for success and safety.

The 11-month-old police canine has received a Kevlar vest designed to offer protection from handgun, shotgun, and knife wounds courtesy of the Massachusetts Vest-A-Dog program. The vest was delivered to the town police department about two weeks ago and was funded through a Vest-A-Dog grant award.

15 Pounds of Protection

The vest weighs about 4 pounds and fits across the dog’s chest and covers the length of her body. Protective vests designed for dogs are made to cover the animal’s vital organs.

“Blue” has spent some time wearing the vest so that she can grow accustomed to its’ weight and learn to maneuver when wearing the gear, said her partner and handler police Officer Michael Ziemba.

“The vest is pretty heavy and hot,” Ziemba said. “[Blue] would wear it if we were tracking a wanted person or a violent person, or someone that we believed was armed.”

“Blue” has developed a tolerance for the vest but her initial reaction to the new attire wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, Ziemba said.

“The first time we put it on her, she didn’t want to move,” Ziemba said. “She just sat down. I think she was protesting.”

“Nitro,” a dog working with Officer James Rathbun of the Lanesboro police department, has a protective vest, said Lanesboro police Chief Mark Bashara. The Great Barrington Kennel Club provided "Nitro's" vest, said Rathbun.

"They came to us and offered to do this," Rathbun said. "They stepped right up."

“Sheba,” a Massachusetts Environmental Police dog working with Sgt. Terry Davis in the Western Massachusetts region as well as other parts of the state, was provided a vest from Vest-a-Dog, said Kathy Hinds, an administrator for the non-profit organization.

Vest-A-Dog Program

The organization has provided vests to 180 dogs working with law enforcement agencies throughout the state, she said. Vest-A-Dog relies on donations and is presently in need of contributions so that vests can be acquired for more dogs. Vest costs have increased significantly, she said, and noted that vests that once cost between $600 and $700 now cost about $850. K-9 law enforcement teams undergo a training and certification process, and teams that are “in training” may apply for vest acquisition, Hinds said. Vest availability is dependant on funding resources.

“We provide a vest that is bullet and stab protective,” she said. “This gives the dog protection and gives the officer a little peace of mind. They can concentrate on what they have to do knowing that their dog has some protection.”

Tracking Dogs Can Be Targets


"Blue" has been given a police badge engraved with her name.
Ziemba said that knowing Blue has some protection is helpful. K-9 search teams can encounter unexpected situations while tracking, he said.

“Blue” serves as a non-aggression dog, meaning that her job is to track missing or wanted persons. She is not trained as a drug-detecting dog nor is she trained to demonstrate aggression on command. While “Blue” may not be in dangerous situations as frequently as canines serving in other law enforcement capacities, the dog is not exempt from jeopardy.

Earlier this year, “Blue” and Ziemba were tracking a missing person who was reported to be feeling extremely out of sorts and was also believed to be in possession of a knife. Violence did not erupt, but the potential for harm to the dog and police officers did exist, Ziemba said.

Hinds said that at least six bloodhounds working within the state have been provided with the vests.

“The bad guys don’t necessarily know that the dog is gentle,” she said of the bloodhounds. “When people are in flight mode, they are not making the best decisions. They may be unstable and not thinking. They may be willing to do anything they can to get away. I do know of a case where an unstable person attacked a bloodhound with a fireplace poker. The handler did happen to be right there and he pulled the dog away. But sometimes, the dogs can be out ahead of the handler, and the dogs need protection.”

“We decided to make the vests available to the bloodhounds because we don't have any crystal balls to let us know how things will turn out, and until we do, we want to offer protection to these dogs,” she said.

Ideally, police agencies with more than one dog could acquire a vest for each dog but because the vests are adjustable and can accommodate weights between 60-135 pounds, one vest may be shared among several dogs, Hinds said.

A Badge For "Blue"

“Blue” has also been given a police officer badge, which is attached to her collar. The badge has no number, but is emblazoned with her name.

“She is an officer of the department and under K-9 law, it is a felony for someone to kick her, hit her, or do something like that,” Ziemba said. “Nothing like that has happened so far with Blue.”

How to Help

Numerous groups and individuals have organized fundraisers to benefit the state-based Vest-A-Dog program, Hinds said. Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, DARE students, animal welfare organizations, veterinarians and civic groups have raised money for the protective vests.

“People of all ages have been involved,” she said. “These dogs do so much for us, and we are so appreciative of their work.”

Those interested in making a donation to the state Vest-A-Dog program should make checks payable to the MA Vest-A-Dog. Donations should be sent to MA Vest-A-Dog, c/o Barnstable Police Association, 1200 Phinneys LN, Hyannis, MA, 02601.

People may designate a specific police agency for their donation or may make a general donation, Hinds said. The group acknowledges each donation.

General donations help K-9 dogs throughout the state.

“Blue was able to get her vest because people gave without designation,” Hinds said.

Additional information about the program can be acquired by contacting Hinds at 508-668-7149, or by visiting the www.mousemagic.net/ma_vest_a_dog/ Internet web site.

The Massachusetts Vest-A-Dog initiative launched following the shooting death of Cero, a European German Shepherd dog killed in the line of duty on March 25, 2000. Cero was the partner of Deputy Sheriff William R. Niemi, of the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office in Jefferson, Ohio. Cero was reportedly shot at point-blank range by a person wanted by police and armed with a gun.

Vest-A-Dog groups have been launched in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island, and a national Vest-A-Dog program is also active.

Information about police canine teams is available at the http://uspcak9.com , www.napwda.com , and www.gsrne.org/WDP.htm Internet web sites.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush123@adelphia.net or at 802-823-9367.

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