Weather Updates

Sniffing out the costs, skills of canine cops

Gabriel Galv6 watches officer Marshall Kite with police dog Gage sniff yard pick up scent burglar Tuesday Elgin. 
December 18

Gabriel Galvin, 6, watches officer Marshall Kite with police dog Gage sniff the yard to pick up a scent of a burglar Tuesday in Elgin. December 18, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

storyidforme: 41971120
tmspicid: 15518168
fileheaderid: 7016296
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: January 31, 2013 6:16AM

It was just last week when the 16-year-old girl took off from her home in Kaneville Township. She was struggling emotionally, not in a stable place. She left home unprepared to be outside in an Illinois winter.

Police had no leads and her parents no idea where to look.

The Kane County Sheriff’s Department canine unit was called in to assist. Within minutes, Erin, the county’s bloodhound, had picked up the girl’s scent. Erin followed footprints and tiny bits of skin that we’re all shedding. Nose to the ground, Erin led officers two blocks away straight to the girl.

“We would have never known she was there. We wouldn’t have even thought to look there,” said Kane County Deputy Nick Wolf, who coordinates the county’s five-dog canine unit.

The girl was home safe the same day. It was another reminder of the specialized skills that four-legged officers bring to a police department. They can sniff out drugs, dead bodies, live bodies, explosives, guns, and even accelerants used to start a fire. They can chase down bad guys or protect officers.

But canine units are increasingly rare. Legal challenges and budget cuts — the cost for dogs is substantial — have made police dogs a rare sight. In the sections of Kane and Kendall counties covered by The Beacon-News, only two police agencies currently have canine units: the Kane and Kendall sheriff’s offices.

After five years with no canines, Aurora will restart its canine unit with four dogs in 2013 — at a cost of more than $250,000.

And for officers, the animal’s special skills make them worth the investment.

“To me, if you find one person, that dog has paid for itself many times over,” Wolf said. “If you stop someone from committing suicide or you bring them home, how can you put a price on that?”

The nose knows

The one irreplaceable skill that a police dog has is its nose. Experts estimate a dog’s sense of smell is about 1,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than a human’s. In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, made this analogy: people might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar in it. A dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized pools.

This super sense gives police officers access to clues that would otherwise be undetectable. While most dogs are multipurpose, there are speciality canines that focus on just explosives detection, for instance.

The dogs come to the police department fully trained and are assigned to one officer. Once the dog arrives, officers work with the animal, tweaking his training to the department’s specific needs.

“Being a canine officer is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week thing,” said Elgin officer Marshall Kite, who works with Gage, a 9-year-old German wire-haired. “When you’re on duty, he rides around with you in the squad. When you go off duty, he goes home with you and lives with your family.”

A succession of court rulings dictate how a dog’s “evidence” can and can’t be used. If a dog follows a suspect to a house, that can’t be used in court to show who lives in the home. But the dog’s tracking would give officers justification to knock on the door and ask questions. However, if a drug dog alerts that a car stopped for a traffic violations has drugs inside, the officer does have probable cause to search.

Dogs periodically are asked by school officials to search through all or part of a school’s lockers for the smell of drugs or guns. Anything that’s found can be used in court, because the locker belongs to the school, not to the student. But the search must have been requested by school officials and can’t be directed against a specific locker.

At what cost

Few officers argue the value of the dogs, but the costs are often too much for a department to carry.

Wolf says Kane County wouldn’t be able to afford the animals without donations from a veterinarian and donated food. The rest of the cost comes from the asset forfeiture fund. About three years ago, Yorkville cancelled its canine program. Even with food that was donated, the cost became too much. The department had to build kennels at the officer’s home and carry special insurance in case the dogs bit someone, even off-duty.

And according to Yorkville Police Chief Rich Hart, the real cost came in patrol hours. The officers got paid for time spent at home caring for the animals. Then, the officers would need time during their shift to give the dog a break. Finally, there was monthly training for the animals and the officers.

“Once you get into it and find these things, it keeps adding up and adding up,” Hart said.

Starting up a canine unit, as Aurora intends to do, can be even more costly. The city set aside $261,200 for four dogs. That will cover: buying the animals, kennels and food; training the officers; and purchasing four new squad cars equipped for the dogs. In subsequent years, Police Chief Greg Thomas expects the cost to be about $8,800.

The Aurora Police Department has been without a dog since 2007, when Gunner, a pure-bred German Shepherd, died of stomach complications. For years, Aurora police relied on surrounding departments — particularly Naperville and Kane County — to provide assistance on searches for drugs, guns or missing persons. Last year, Aurora, the state’s second largest department, called in outside canine units about 150 times. In each instance, they had to wait for the other agency to arrive, costing time and potential trails.

Despite the inconvenience, Thomas resisted bringing back canines. Initially the problem was case law that had made it difficult for officers to extend traffic stops so dogs could be brought in. Also, Thomas also wasn’t comfortable with how the canine officers operated. Multiple departments said the dogs can sometimes create friction with the other officers who feel the canine officers are not responding to as many calls. In the previous Aurora program, canine officers were not allowed to make traffic stops or respond to domestic calls. “We’re a big agency and have a use for canines,” Thomas said. “But we’re not a big agency that has a use for a full-time canine unit.”

Despite the costs, Yorkville’s Hart said if he had the funds available, he “wouldn’t even hesitate” to bring back the animals. And even with his own concerns, Thomas likely would have brought the dogs back earlier if the finances had allowed it. The city has had an extremely tight budget the last few years, even laying off sworn (human) officers at one point.

But Thomas felt there was room in the 2013 budget to put a new unit together and he’s tweaked the program so canine officers will make traffic stops. The hope is that the animals will increase Aurora’s efficiency and pay back some of the neighboring departments that have shouldered the mutual aid the last few years.

Thomas believes there will be plenty of interest once the budget is officially approved.

“I’m expecting a lot of applicants,” Thomas said. “I’m looking forward to getting (the dogs) here.”

Staff writers Dave Gathman and
Bill Bird contributed to this story.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.