2017-07-09 / Front Page

Sheriff’s Dept. adds K-9 unit

810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Deputy Frank Ruzicka and Axel. 
Photo by Andrew Dietderich Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Deputy Frank Ruzicka and Axel. Photo by Andrew Dietderich LAPEER — The newest officer of the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept.came to the area from about 3,900 miles away and has been training for the job since the day he was born — literally.

He’s Axel, an 18-month-old German shepherd from the Netherlands — and the department’s new K-9 officer.

Trained in tracking people and finding drugs, Axel represents the return of a K-9 officer to the force for the first time in at least a decade.

The $7,500 purchase price (plus another $7,500 in other related costs) was covered by a grant the department received from the state of Michigan through fees received via the state’s medical marijuana act.

On the job for just over two weeks, Axel already has been involved in finding illegal marijuana hidden in a vehicle during a traffic stop.

Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Deputy Frank Ruzicka leads Axel, the department’s new K-9 officer from a patrol car into Ruth Fox Elementary School in North Branch for a demonstration of how the dog works. 
Photo by Andrew Dietderich Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Deputy Frank Ruzicka leads Axel, the department’s new K-9 officer from a patrol car into Ruth Fox Elementary School in North Branch for a demonstration of how the dog works. Photo by Andrew Dietderich “This was part of (Lapeer County) Sheriff (Scott) McKenna’s vision while he was campaigning last year,” said Undersheriff Jeremy Howe. “He wanted to have a K-9 unit within the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. We hadn’t had one for at least 10 years.”

Howe said McKenna had been a handler for two K-9s prior to being elected sheriff. (McKenna served for 4.5 years as chief of police in Mt. Morris Township prior to running for sheriff.)

“He was really kind of shocked we didn’t have one,” Howe said.

Further, the move to establish a K-9 unit is consistent with what McKenna told deputies during swearing-in ceremonies in late 2016: “We will be the elite of Lapeer County law enforcement. Period.”

“He knows how useful they can be…they’re just invaluable,” Howe said. “It brings an incredible resource to the community, everything from tracking to narcotics to being in the schools and having that connection with the kids in the schools.”

Axel’s handler is Dep. Frank Ruzicka.

The title of “handler” might be a bit misleading, as if to suggest Ruzicka arrives for his shift and lets Axel out of a kennel of some sort, or only uses the dog as needed.

That could not be further from the truth.

Ruzicka and Axel are partners, who are now together just about 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Frank’s dedication is paramount for this program to work,” Howe said. “You have to have K-9 handlers who are willing to go above and beyond the normal, 9 to 5-type gig. This is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a huge commitment.”

Ruzicka, who has been with the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. for three years, had to apply to be Axel’s handler. The process included writing a letter of intent and being interviewed.

He said his interest sprang from having had some exposure to K-9 units in other jurisdictions, and that he enjoys challenging himself.

“I knew having a dog working with me would be a challenging task, but the fact you could be saving someone’s life…that’s huge for me,” Ruzicka said.

Axel arrived from the Netherlands a little over 10 weeks ago. (There’s no story behind the name – that’s just what he was called from birth). Ruzicka said the reason Axel came from so far away is that trainers in that part of the world are highly specialized in producing top-notch K-9 officers.

Ruzicka and Axel spent a little bit of time together before starting an intensive five-week training program at the Oakland Community College-Oakland Police K9 Academy.

During that initial period — and while in training — Ruzicka said he was the only one allowed to interact with Axel, the only one allowed to feed him, and let him in and out of his kennel.

Ruzicka said the first week of training was stressful, and a bit overwhelming.

“But once everything started coming together it was a lot easier,” he said. “Every week we would progress huge amounts.”

Axel is trained to track people and detect narcotics.

The term “track” in this context means finding a person using his/ her scent.

“Say an elderly person walked out of a house, has dementia, and never comes back,” Ruzicka said. “The dog is trained to smell the strongest odor of the person, which would be the footprints hitting the ground. He would stay at that strongest odor and track the person to wherever they’re at.”

Using that same sense of smell — more than 1,000 times greater than a human’s — Axel is also trained to find narcotics. Specifically, he can find marijuana, cocaine, crack, heroin, and methamphetamine (meth).

Ruzicka said dogs used to find drugs are trained somewhat differently than those who specialize in finding bombs, so Axel will not engage in situations where that type of work might be required.

While training in Oakland County, the duo spent a lot of time practicing both tracking and finding drugs (technically called “indicating”). The primary purpose, Ruzicka says, was to imprint those smells in Axel.

“We went everywhere,” Ruzicka said. “We went from city settings in Pontiac to more country settings. Every day we switched up, just to give the dog more settings to train in, and more exposure for him.”

Howe, Ruzicka and Axel demonstrated for The County Press how the K-9 unit works earlier this week at Ruth Fox Elementary in North Branch.

Ruzikca took Axel down a hall so that he was out of site from Howe, who randomly picked a locker and hid contraband used to train Axel.

With the locker closed, Ruzicka gave Axel a one-word command and the K-9 officer went to work. In just a few minutes, Axel was able to pinpoint the precise location of the drugs.

Axel “indicated” the spot by sitting (as opposed to barking or scratching). As a reward, he was given a few moments of affirmation and “play time” from Ruzicka.

To prove it wasn’t a fluke, the team demonstrated the same thing down another hall and, again, it took Axel just a few minutes to find the marijuana in a hall with many lockers.

Howe said that as Ruzicka and Axel continue bonding, training and working throughout Lapeer County, the dog will be treated as other officers. He will have a special badge, badge holder, and even a bulletproof vest.

“He’ll have all of the safety equipment that we can provide him,” Howe said. “He’s part of the team.”


To see Axel in action, check on the View Newspaper Group Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ ViewNewspaperGroup/

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