Animal House: JSO Police Dogs – Working & Retired Protected By Senate Bills & Dedicated Nonprofits

Animal House: JSO Police Dogs – Working & Retired Protected By Senate Bills & Dedicated Nonprofits
From left, Debbie Johnson with First Coast Veterinary Specialists staff Madison Rummel, Leah Matthews, Raynn Wilson, Michelle Larson, Officer Cheth Plaugher, his wife Cheryl, and K9 Huk.

There was a collective sigh of relief among those who understand the costs of veterinary and continuing care for retired law enforcement canines when Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 226, Care for Retired Police Dogs. Bill 226 has allocated $300,000 to fund an annual Florida Department of Law Enforcement state contract.

“In Florida, we back the blue, and that includes the K9s that are often the first to go into a dangerous situation,” said DeSantis. “After dedicating their lives to protecting and serving our communities, it is important that we ensure that these K-9s are cared for.”

During debate on the bill, which passed by a 117-0 vote, Senator Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, spoke of the canines’ extraordinary physical and intellectual capabilities. He noted that the abilities of these dogs far exceed those of any human being or technology available to fight crime, including their extreme cost-effectiveness.

Bill 226 further extends the safety net for retired police canines following the passage of Senate Bill 388 in 2021. That bill permitted medical care by emergency technicians and transport by emergency ambulances or helicopters for critically injured canines.

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office K9 Huk, a member of the Swat Team, was saved by Bill 338’s emergency aid and transport provisions. Last July 22, 2022, K9 Huk and his handler, Officer Cheth Plaugher, were part of the JSO SWAT team involved in a high-speed chase and shootout outside the Jacksonville Zoo.

After three suspects wrecked their vehicle and ignored police commands, Plaugher released Huk, who raced to the car. Huk was shot in the neck, hindquarters, and wrist and the suspects then fired at police. Two suspects died in the ensuing gun battle; another was taken into custody.

Plaugher and Huk appeared at a Dec. 4th K9s United fundraising event. The event also honored JSO law enforcement officers, their canines, the helicopter pilot Officer Jeff Klebert, emergency technicians, and First Coast Veterinary Specialists who saved K9 Huk’s life. 

K9 United Founder Debbie Johnson with JSO Officer Cheth Plaugher, his wife Cheryl and K9 Huk.
K9 United Founder Debbie Johnson with JSO Officer Cheth Plaugher, his wife Cheryl and K9 Huk.

Plaugher said that it was only because of the lifesaving actions of JSO officers, emergency medical technicians and the police helicopter pilot that Huk survived. The critically wounded dog was airlifted to First Coast Veterinary Specialists, who saved his life. Plaugher praised the emergency veterinary and continuing care that First Coast Veterinary Specialists staff have provided to Huk. Clinic employees were introduced following a loud, enthusiastic greeting from Huk and were presented with a large, framed photo collage of their most famous patient.

Other speakers told attendees that these officers and canines have the most dangerous jobs on the street. When most people flee from danger, these dogs run straight at the threat without hesitation to save lives and protect citizens.

The all-volunteer K9s United was founded in 2015 by Debbie Johnson. She was distraught after a fleeing suspect killed JSO K9 Baron on Oct. 7, 2014. Johnson enrolled in a JSO Civilian Law Enforcement Class to learn more about the K9 unit. 

Inspired to action, along with her husband BJ and daughter Emma, she channeled her grief over K9 Baron’s death into building a nonprofit organization. K9s United fundraises to provide the best protective equipment and emergency veterinarian first aid training to JSO handlers and canines. The organization supports and promotes the needs of law enforcement officers, handlers and their canines during and after their service, including memorializing canines killed in the line of duty.

They provide canine safety equipment, including bulletproof vests that cost $3,000, tracking harnesses, car heat alarms and monitoring, canine first aid kits, and other equipment. Visit their website for tax-deductible ways to donate or to pre-order K9s United specialty Florida license plates to help reach their requirement of 3,000 orders. Sales of the license plates would contribute $25 per plate to K9s United mission.

JSO Lieutenant Commanding Officer of Canine & Mounted Units Jason Bailey said that JSO is fortunate to have such support for their 22 canines. JSO canines are mostly German shepherds and Belgian Malinois selected and trained by JSO trainers. While all are trackers, JSO’s top three trackers are a bloodhound and two dual-trained tracking/narcotics detection dogs: a golden retriever and one Labrador retriever.

Nine JSO canines specialize in narcotics detection; 12 are explosive detection canines that sweep events, or anywhere large crowds gather. In 2023 JSO will add four more dogs because of Jacksonville’s size and numerous large venues and events.

Every year law enforcement canines must be re-certified for duty by outside certifying officials. Detection canines are certified by the National Police Canine Association (USPCA). Patrol canines are certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Sergeant Aaron Peterman with K9 Blizzard.
Sergeant Aaron Peterman with K9 Blizzard.

USPCA Region 1 President Sergeant Aaron Peterman said that most civilians have no idea of the constant dangers canine officer handlers and their canines confront. These highly intelligent, athletic dogs are continuously trained for specific jobs within law enforcement. Peterman said that their presence is a significant crime deterrent and can cause suspects to immediately surrender  without incident.

Peterman said that the cost of an untrained police canine averages $12,000. Add training or titles, and the price increases by approximately $5,000. JSO canines retire at eight years, but Peterman said that the national average ranges from five to 10 years of service. Peterman is a 22 year veteran and canine trainer at the Lakeland Police Department, where he serves with his partner, K9 Blizzard. He is a UNF adjunct professor of Canine Management for the Institute of Police Technology and Management.

While all law enforcement canines train to track and maintain perfect obedience, they specialize in tasks: patrol, apprehension, evidence recovery, search and rescue, narcotics, contraband, or bomb detection. Electronics-trained detection canines can search any building or car for jump drives, external hard drives, or secure digital cards.

The Florida-based, national nonprofit Retired Police Canine Foundation (RPCF) administers the new Senate Bill 226 funds to support retired canines. The program is now part of its efforts to raise awareness of retired law enforcement and military canines’ needs.

Most law enforcement officers adopt their retired canines to live out retirement as family members. However, this best-case scenario for retired canines can be difficult for adopters. Veterinary bills for a retired canine range from $2,000 to $3,000 annually, plus higher food costs for large dogs. They often face rental and housing restrictions or eviction. Only active duty law enforcement canines are legally permitted and cannot be restricted from most rental or other accommodations.

RPCF Executive Director Richard Geraci said that police canines apprehend thousands of criminals yearly and protect U.S. law enforcement officers and citizens against crime or terrorism in communities of every size. Each year approximately 10,000 of these highly trained canines retire from agencies that are not required to, and have no funds to provide continuing care for retired canines.

Geraci described tragic cases across the U.S., where, because of cost and adoption obstacles, some retired police dogs end up in shelters or are euthanized. These issues keep Geraci busy fielding calls from officers across the nation asking for help providing for their retired canines. He also reviews Florida officers’ applications and eligibility for financial assistance from Senate Bill 226 funds.

Geraci said that one JSO officer and retired canine have already received financial assistance from the new bill; two others have been accepted. Senate Bill 226 provides reimbursement of up to $1,500 of the annual veterinary costs for a retired police dog, including yearly wellness checks, vaccinations, parasite prevention treatments, medications and emergency care.

Retired Police Canine Foundation Executive Director Richard Geraci and his retired K9 Ace.
Retired Police Canine Foundation Executive Director Richard Geraci and his retired K9 Ace.

For eligibility, retired police canines must have five-plus years of law enforcement service with a Florida police department. A dog that served three-plus years, then suffered an injury in the line of duty and retired is also eligible. The dogs must have been tested and certified for duty by the State of Florida or the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA). The USPCA is the nation’s largest organization that promotes quality trained and certified canine law enforcement teams.

Retired police canines experience more severe physical issues and complications than typical senior pet dogs. They can be compared to military soldiers and NFL players whose rigorous physical activities and injuries take a heavy toll on their bodies.

Geraci retired to Florida after 20 years with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). He was a 9/11 First Responder so affected by the police canines he saw in action during that national tragedy, the street cop became a canine handler and trainer with 30,000 instructor hours. His constant companion is K9 Ace, his retired six-year NYC Transit Police canine who celebrated his 10th birthday in December.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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