WARRENSBURG – Normally it's not recommended to pet a police dog, since the animals are working dogs and their work is protecting a human partner from bad guys.
However, when a police dog is semi-retired and the current job is public relations, he demands his fair share of affection. On Wednesday, Dino soaked up as much petting as he could get his paws on at Warrensburg-Latham Elementary School.
“He's a lover,” said Stephanie Wheeler, wife of Warrensburg police Chief Greg Wheeler, also the K9 officer and a paramedic.
Dino is 11 and his semi-retirement means that Brutus, just over 1 year old, has joined the Wheeler household and the department as the new K9 officer. Brutus is a Belgian malinois/German shepherd mix and Dino is a Belgian malinois, a breed that is often the first choice of the military and police for working dogs due to their protective instincts. They're active and intelligent, and need lots of activity to keep them busy.
Both dogs visited Warrensburg-Latham Elementary School to thank the students for raising the cash to buy Brutus a bullet-proof vest, which he modeled for them.
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Second grade teacher Carla Hynes wanted to teach her students about giving back to their community, and since Chief Wheeler and Dino – and now Brutus – make a lot of visits to the school, she and the students decided that buying a vest for Brutus and helping to keep him safe was the perfect project.
A bullet-proof vest costs about $1,000, Hynes said, and that was the original fundraising goal. In two days, the class had raised $500. At the end of the week, it was $900. Hynes recruited her twin sister, Christine Preston, who teaches fourth grade at the same school, and with the addition of that class and its efforts, the total was $1,729 at the end of the second week. That allowed Wheeler to also buy a first-aid kit and various sizes of oxygen masks that can be used for Brutus and for other animals.
“I'm not a vet,” Wheeler said. “But I am a licensed paramedic.”
He works with the fire department in his capacity as a paramedic and the oxygen masks could save the life of a furry family member, he said. With the first aid kit, he can patch up Brutus in an emergency and buy time to get to a veterinarian.
Both dogs live with the Wheelers and are part of the family. They're trained in narcotics detection, tracking and article search, and with Dino's semi-retirement, Brutus will take over most of those duties.
“Brutus is still young,” Wheeler said. “He likes to run, he likes to jump, so it will be a while until he settles down a little bit from the jumping and barking and all that kind of stuff. The thing that we've done for over six years now is, we have the pre-K, they come up to the (police department) and I tell them what a police officer does, and they try on some of the equipment and go into the squad car and turn the lights on and look at the equipment in there. And they get to play with Dino, throw the ball to him. Dino's been the type of dog I've been able to do that with. For me, starting them out young and having a positive experience with the police department, getting to know the kids, I can walk through and they wave at me. It's been a great experience for Dino, myself and the kids.”
Wheeler will mainly take Dino along for meet-and-greet events, which allow children and the community to meet and get to know the police.
“(The students) get so excited when the dogs come out,” Hynes said.
Warrensburg-Latham is a generous district, said Principal Mary Anderson, and at the same time the school was generating money for Brutus' vest, they also were fundraising to help the family of student Lydia Waterhouse, a kindergartner who had brain surgery. When Lydia returns to school, she'll find her fellow students wearing white ball caps with her name emblazoned on them in rainbow colors as a show of solidarity, because she'll have to wear a cap for a while.
“The community really helped out,” Hynes said. “We made about $200 at one basketball game.”