OMAHA POLICE

Two men hiding at night in a large stand of trees near north Omaha's Adams Park were no match for Bruno, one of the Omaha Police Department's finest service dogs.

The men had run from officers during a traffic stop and were being tracked by an infrared camera on a police helicopter. They entered a large area of dense foliage. After finding a gun in the men's car, officers were concerned that they were armed and dangerous.

Into the thicket goes Bruno, a pointyeared Belgian Malinois.

The video from the helicopter hovering above 37th and Maple Streets shows Bruno weaving back and forth before picking up the scent of the men. In the blink of an eye, Bruno makes a 90-degree turn and is heading straight for the two men, who were lying side by side in the tall grass.

Bruno grabs hold of one man's arm with his powerful jaws. Immediately, the hands of the second man shoot up in the air to signal his surrender.

"It's the greatest tool an officer can have when it's midnight and so dark that you can't see 5 feet in front of you," said Sgt. Steve Worley of the OPD K-9 unit. "You can see on the video when the dog picks up the scent — he turns and goes right for the suspects. He loses the scent for a few seconds and then he's right on top of them."

The video shows Bruno retreating to his handler, Officer Randy Pignotti. A minute later, a line of officers take the two men into custody.

The arm that Bruno clamped down on was not seriously injured.

Bruno's video often is shown during the 16-week "dog camps" at the Gary and Mary West Regional Canine Training Center near 116th Street and Rainwood Road. Six dogs and their handlers, including three new OPD dogs, are at the camp Monday through Friday to prepare for certification.

One of Omaha's three new dogs will replace Kobus, a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois killed in the line of duty Jan. 23 near the end of a 25-hour standoff. Kobus was slated for retirement in March. His handler, Officer Matthew McKinney, already had been paired with another dog for training.

Kobus is the first Omaha police dog killed since the unit was re-established in 1996. Donors have contributed $8,270 to a the department's K-9 unit in memory of the 9-year-old Belgian Malinois.

Donations are still being accepted at www.firstrespondersomaha.org or by mailing a check to Kobus Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 540158, Omaha, NE 68154. T-shirts featuring a picture of Kobus can be purchased at the Nebraska Humane Society.

Police dogs are "the tip of the spear" in many dangerous situations, Worley said. The dogs and their handlers lead the way for uniform patrol officers, detectives and even the SWAT team in many situations.

"Kobus was attempting to do his job to the very end, " Worley said. "I had to watch Officer McKinney's kids say goodbye to Kobus. But I would rather do that than have them say goodbye to Officer McKinney."

The Omaha K-9 unit holds dog camp whenever it needs to train new animals, which works out to be about every two years. Worley has spent 17 of his 23 years with OPD as a handler and is licensed by the state to certify police service dog teams.

Officer Charlie Moffitt runs the dog camp under Worley's supervision. Five of this camp's six dogs are dual-purpose service animals that are trained to locate a suspect through smell, overcome obstacles, protect their handlers, locate evidence, know how to respond under gunfire and detect narcotics.

"The most difficult part of training is teaching a dog to bark and hold his prey by laying down in front of him," Moffitt said. "They have to resist their most basic instinct of capturing their prey by grabbing on to them."

It's unusual, but not unheard of, for a dog to fail to complete the training program, Moffitt said. He said he usually can tell about halfway through whether an animal will pass certification.

"Sometimes, I go back to the vendor we got the dog from and they will have some ideas about what to do," he said. "Then I try their suggestion and it's like, 'OK, that worked.' " The Nebraska State Patrol also operates a service dog training program at its academy in Grand Island. All of Nebraska's police service dogs are required to be recertified annually and typically train one day a week to stay sharp.

The Belgian Malinois (pronounced mal-in-WAH) has emerged as a popular service dog for many agencies, including Omaha. Adult dogs weigh between 60 and 90 pounds as opposed to German shepherds, which fill out to between 90 and 110 pounds.

"The Belgian Malinois has the highest working drive of any dog that I've been around," Worley said. "Because they're smaller, they have less problem with their back legs (than bigger dogs). They also fit more easily into tight places like attics and crawl spaces."

Commands are made in the language of the country where the dog was born, usually Czech or Dutch. There are only about 10 commands, and it's easier for trainers to adapt than the animals, Worley said.

Dual-purpose dogs cost between $9,000 and $11,000.

Animals used for a single purpose, such as drug or explosive locators, are about $7,000.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office recently was able to purchase two Belgian Malinois, Champ and Ace, with funds from an anonymous donation. Champ's handler, Deputy Justin Durrett, said he's excited to work with a K-9 partner for the first time.

"Champ's doing good," Durrett said. "There's a lot that goes into this, and you need a lot of patience."

Ace is the second K-9 partner for Washington County Sheriff's Sgt. Jake Hoffman. Forming a bond with the dog, he said, is his top priority.

"We have to be able to trust them as a partner," Hoffman said. "If we don't have that trust, it isn't going to work out."

Being able to train every day in Omaha is a significant advantage for Durrett and Hoffman because the handlers and their dogs can go home every night rather than just on weekends.

"That's a huge benefit," Hoffman said. "Omaha has been very kind to invite us here to train. It's an excellent facility."

The canine center was built in 2011 with a $400,000 grant from the Gary and Mary West Foundation on the 122-acre Omaha Public Safety Training Center campus. It includes offices, a classroom, interior and exterior canine training areas and kennels. The center is near a wooded area where contraband and "bad guys" can be hidden for the dogs to find. Worley said the cost of operating the center is covered in the Police Department's budget, but much of its equipment is acquired through donations.

"These dogs serve a higher purpose than being a pet," Worley said. "You have to make a commitment as an officer, and it's the same for the dog. It's a professional commitment to keep others safe."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1272, kevin.cole@owh.com

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