Tango and Niko are Top Dogs

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Agile, smart, with drive and focus, and slighter built than the German Shepherd.  The Belgian Malinois seems to be a popular choice for law enforcement when it comes to a lot of K-9 units.  Currently, the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office has two such dogs on their active roster; Tango is seven years old and Niko is four years old.  Their handlers are Deputy Brian Lunquist and Deputy Will Atkinson.

According to Lunquist, who has been with the department since 2005, the K-9 unit for Mariposa originally started back in the 1980’s and was discontinued. Then around the mid 1990’s a Labrador drug dog was used, and not much was done with the K-9 unit after that until it enjoyed a resurgence in 2011.  Since then, there has been about five dogs that have been certified and in service.

Deputy William Atkinson rewarding his K9 partner Niko with his ‘Kong’ ball in the rain. (Submitted photo by Deputy Atkinson)

“These dogs are great PR for the department,” said Lunquist, who has been a K-9 handler for the last 11 years. “Our dogs love visiting at special events and schools, even on patrol they can break down barriers, they are great to have to track and find evidence while providing a safety element for the deputy.”  Tango is Lunquist’s second dog that he has had in service. The benefits of having Tango as a partner is his utility.  From “finding lost people, deescalating a situation, searching for evidence or searching for the bad guy, he is intense and focused on his job,” explained Lunquist. 

Having a K-9 unit can be expensive, therefore most departments try to utilize grants to help offset costs.  According to the National Police Dog Foundation the average cost for a dog trained in patrol, detection and tracking can be between $12,000 to $15,000, and that is just for the dog and initial handler training.  Patrol vehicles need to be adapted to accommodate the dogs, and of course there are vet, feed, care and continued training costs.

Lunquist explained that the, “training is a perishable skill, and that having a good bond with your dog, knowing how to read the dog, and to make every search a success is important for the handler and the dog.”  Handlers are responsible for daily training and more intensive monthly drills to keep their dog on the ready.  

Deputy Atkinson with K-9 partner Niko along with one of Atkinson’s sons taking part in a local parade through town. (Submitted photo by Deputy Atkinson)

A vender provides monthly training so that the teams can meet certification standards every year.  That training includes updated case law, deployment techniques, meeting certification requirements, training locations, and courtroom assistance (if needed).  All areas are covered including detection, apprehension, evidence, location and tracking. Annual certification takes place with an outside vender to ensure that the skills are intact for handler and dog. 

Atkinson has been with the department for over 15 years and a few years ago he was able to go into training and obtained his first dog, Niko.  “My first assigned dog while I was going through my basic handler training was a female, but she didn’t work out, I had been around Niko and ended up finishing my training with him and that was it, he became my dog,” said Atkinson.

The assistance that Niko provides in tracking and area search is a big asset as Atkinson recalled a situation last year when a special needs resident had wandered away from their home.  Atkinson was able to send Niko on a ‘track and search’ and the person was found. 

When asked if the dogs know when they are on and off duty, both responded that when the dogs see the uniform and the patrol car, they know it’s “go” time and that down time is just hanging with the family until duty calls again.  Lunquist noted that Tango definitely looks forward to his Puppuccino when they go through the drive through at Starbucks, and being around children.         

Deputy Lunquist and his K9 partner Tango participating in a local parade through town. (Submitted photo by Deputy Lunquist)

As some deputy’s move on to higher ranks within their department (depending on the personality of the dog and the situation) the dog may end up getting assigned to another handler, or the department may opt to retire the dog.  Depending on the breed and health factors most dogs retire out at age 10 and are adopted by their handlers, to then live their golden years in comfort as the family pet. 

There is no pension for retired law enforcement dogs, and sometimes their healthcare can be costly.  The Retired Police Canine Foundation and the National Police Dog Foundation are sources that can help provide veterinary care for these retired dogs, if the need arises. If you see one of the K-9 units on duty, stop by and say “hi.”   If you would like Tango or Niko to come visit your school or event, just contact the sheriff’s department, and see if they are available.  If there is whipped cream in a cup, Tango will surely be there. 

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